Avatar Comes Home: 3D and the Death of DVD

Curator's Note

 When James Cameron's 3D space epic, Avatar, was first being promoted, the movie was promoted as something that audiences had to experience on the big screen in order to fully appreciate the technological spectacle that Cameron had created. At the same time, however, publicity for the film was also careful to emphasize that audiences would become so immersed in both the visuals and the narrative that they would "forget" about the technologies that produced the breathtaking images of Pandora. As Cameron himself put it, "Ideally, the technology is advanced enough to make itself go away. That's how it should work. All of the technology should wave its own wand and make itself disappear."

Despite these promises of unmediated visual pleasure, viewers of Avatar were constantly treated to "behind-the-scenes" images of Cameron shooting with cameras he had helped to invent, images that are seemingly meant to reassure us that Avatar would "revolutionize" cinema. Such promises about revolutionizing the movie indutsry were complicated several months afterwards when the DVD version. Because studios hoped that Avatar would revive flagging DVD sales, observers were especially attentive to how audiences would respond to the challenge of marketing a movie that was meant to be seen on the big screen.

Because of these conflicting issues, I find this advertisement for Panasonic's Viera high-definition TV fascinating. Grounding the technology of their image in Cameron's reputation as a technological auteur, the advertisement promises us that a viewer can "immerse yourself" in the world of the film, adding that families can "bring the director's vision home." Like other advertisements for new technologies, Panasonic positions us as experts--on both new media technlogies and on movie culture. We see Cameron shooting with the camera he invented and then a family gathered around a Panasonic TV screen, completely caught up in the world he created. 

Panasonic's advertisement is part of a larger genre of advertisements that seem to be navigating the dilemmas associated with digital delivery: How do we protect declining DVD sales? What happens to theatrical exhibition when home theaters offer an "immersive" experience? Where do movies go when we can bring Avatar home?


Panasonic has exclusive rights to Avatar 3D through the middle of next year, so they stood alone re: bringing the director's vision 'home'. Avatar 3D bundles were (and are) only available with select Panasonic TVs and Blu-ray players so the market for this 'immersion' (outside of the three 2D versions of the film that have already been released widely) was never that large. But they irony is that copies of the 3D edition go for $100+ on eBay, since the only other way to watch the film is on HBO 3D On Demand, and that's at a less-than-optimal <720P per eye (the 3D Blu-ray can only do around 1080p/24 frames/sec. compared to the theatrical 2K resolution, which in itself may be supplanted by a 4K projector). So there is a market for this kind of content, it's just limited by both distribution and technology.

This is all a way of saying that, as you allude to, what's being sold is conflicting ideas of (theatrical) immersion, rather than an actual duplication of the technology that makes it seemingly possible at home.

The constraints imposed by rights are certainly affecting demand (or at least access). I do think that debates over the longevity of the DVD/Blu-Ray format are introducing other complications. There is some evidence that the CD format may be abandoned by the end of 2012, which certainly raises questions about the viability of the DVD format.

But this still points to the bigger question of what ideas of immersion (or of a tehatrical experience in the home) are getting sold via the promotion of Cameron's reputation as a technological auteur.

There are a lot of really useful and valid points in Chuck's piece but I think there is something particulalry interesting about the way immersion is 'sold'. I'm reminded of John Belton's analysis of the way Cinerama, VistaVision and Cinescope were often marketed as producing three dimensional effect even though they were not stereoscopic technologies. In a similar way, the RED camera has recently been heralded for being "completely grainless and there’s almost a three-dimensional quality where you feel as if you can reach into the screen because there’s an incredible depth to it". Often the same language is used for stereoscopic and non-stereoscopic technologies in a way that (I think) intentionally blurs the boundaries between the two in order to suggest enhanced effect. Promotion material will then emphasise the uniqueness of stereoscopic technology when it suits them and downplay it when they need to market products across platforms and windows. This can, of course, backfire when audiences ask for 'authentic' 3D which was seen by the general panning of Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans' post-production coversions. 


Thanks for the reminder of this history, Miriam. Belton's discussion of the marketing of Cinerama, etc. is certainly pertinent, especially given the desire to entice audiences back into theaters. And the comparison to the marketing discourse for the RED camera is really useful and something I should think about in some of my current work on the marketing of 3D. I also think that the perception of "authentic" (i.e., shot in 3D) and "inauthentic" (post-production conversions) is a useful one.

Chuck, great post, and I like the way a deeper history of the marketing of cinematic immersion has come out through the comments. For what it's worth, I think a large part of Cameron's cleverness in managing his own auteurist brand has to do with the way he leverages visual-effects concepts as meta-frameworks for engaging with his narratives; that is, he embeds reflexive statements about special effects and movie "magic" within his stories of cyborgs, aliens, grand (if failed) engineering achievements like Titanic, and interspecies body-swapping like that in Avatar, all as a way of framing -- and to some extent, managing -- our experience of his movies. More here, from my blog.

I like your reading of Cameron's practices. the reflexivity isn't just in the paratextual material. It's also in the narrative itself. In my case, I'm especially interested in the Ikran, the flying banshees on Pandora.

The shots taken from the Ikran aren't just pretty to look at; they are telling us something about what Cameron can do with the 3D technology. There are so many instances where the flights of the Ikran are used--quite literally--the idea of the image popping off the screen: Note for example this promotional image.

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