The latest installment in the Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is hardly plundering critical booty. “I’ve never seen a film in which what was actually onscreen seemed so irrelevant,” opined New York. “[T]his shipwreck isn’t worth a wooden doubloon,” said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “This is nonsense–and it’s as boring as nonsense,” weighed in the San Francisco Chronicle. But never mind these naysayers. Technology Review thinks you should by all means go see the series’ fourth outing, subtitled On Stranger Tides—because interesting technology was involved in its production.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was the first film to use a new, modular “x frame” system of the Fusion 3-D camera, co-created by James Cameron and Vincent Pace. And the development in the technology is significant enough that Pace himself thinks it will be a part of “almost every” project employing the Cameron-Pace 3-D tech, in the years ahead, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The Cameron-Pace 3-D camera in itself is not new; it was used to make Avatar, after all, which was released in late 2009. The first R&D steps began about a decade ago, in fact, not long after the making of Titanic.
But it was in 2007 that the real buzz began. In that year, sci-fi geeks started marveling over the camera rig, which helped Cameron view the virtual characters he was building as he filmed the live actors who “animated” them. (A video of the rig can be seen here.) “These are supposed to be real people, real characters,” Cameron said at the time. “If we can pull it off, Avatar will be the coolest film ever made. If not, we’ll have egg on our face.” If box office returns are any indication, Cameron emerged from the affair decidedly egg-free; Avatar, therefore, must be the coolest film of all time.
And countless other directors wanted in on the coolness. Cameron-Pace’s website has breathless testimony from what seems like the entire A-list of directors: Martin Scorcese, Michael Bay, and Ang Lee all weigh in on the wonders worked by the technology. “CPG’s [Cameron-Pace Group’s] projects have resulted in more than $4.7 billion of box office receipts,” the site announces.
Still, while the technology has been breathtaking from its debut, it has previously suffered from a major problem: bulk. CPG’s website has a photograph of Cameron filming with the rig; he looks not unlike one of the soldiers in Avatar encumbered by a giant exoskeleton. If 3-D technology is truly to take off, it has to be able to go to all the places that filmmakers want to go—not just the green-screen equipped studio. The technology, in other words, has to get smaller and more portable.
And that, in essence, is what the “x frame” system is about—size and mobility. As Pace told The Hollywood Reporter, of the Pirates production: “They had to be able to go from studio rigs, to handheld, to Steadicam–and had to do it in the jungle in Hawaii.” To get to some locations, he said, the crew had to drive along places where the road narrowed to just a few feet wide, places where it would have been impossible to bring in heavy equipment on trucks. He summed up: “We concentrated on reducing the size as much as possible and increasing the mobility and making the rig robust enough to handle that kind of environment.”
It’s a simple, oft-told story—the technology that gets smaller and smaller—but it’s a hugely significant one. As the group perfects the miniaturization (or normalization) of the size of its tech, new production opportunities become possible. Nature documentarians begin to take note. As do TV producers. Which means that as the 3-D rig gets smaller, it could change the way entire categories of visual stories are told.