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Thinking About Avatar and Lord of the Rings

TNT did one of their innumerable airings of all three movies in the Lord of the Rings trilogy this weekend (sadly not all three in a row so I could have an excuse to hole up with hot chocolate and avoid braving the exceedingly-cold-for-DC weather), and the movies got me thinking about how that series set the standards for special effects in a way Avatar, I think, is still grappling with. Discussing them in context, I think, makes sense. Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s special effects firm, handled a great deal of the effects work on James Cameron’s latest movie. And even though Avatar in some ways is a clear step forward from Lord of the Rings, especially in the power of the 3D technology, and in the design of an entirely new world, I think Lord of the Rings still sets some standards in terms of imaginativeness that Avatar failed to match.A couple of examples. First, the Na’Vi incorporate a lot of human features and feline ones. But other than differences in hairstyle and body paint, there isn’t an enormous amount of variation or detail in their features. Looking at the Uruk-hai and Orcs in Lord of the Rings, their features are more complex and detailed. Ugliness can be harder to do well than beauty, and for the most part, Cameron didn’t really attempt ugliness in Avatar. Second, there are clearly gravity issues on Pandora that don’t particularly get explained at any point in the movie, but I thought the land animals in Avatar didn’t always operate particularly smoothly or consistently. Jackson had the advantage of being able to tweak, for example, elephants, in Lord of the Rings. But the fell beasts that the Nazgul ride, for example, seem simultaneously sinuous and logical and totally alien. Weirdly, I suppose what I’m saying, is that even though James Cameron was creating an entirely new universe and Peter Jackson was adapting an extremely well-established one, there are a number of cases where I think Jackson’s adaptation shows a further-ranging visual imagination. When the technology Cameron developed to make Avatar is put to use actualizing a world as beautiful, and as ugly, as the one Jackson brought to life in Lord of the Rings, it’ll be a real triumph, and a huge step forward.

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