Saturday, February 27, 2010

Avatar Issues

After complaining about the latest revival in 3D movies, I finally went to see Avatar in glorious IMAX 3D. The movie is a stunning spectacle, well worth the price of admission and even hanging around for half an hour to ensure that we got a good seat in a full cinema a couple of months after the films release. However there are issues.

The first issue is that we had to sit through several trailers for 3D movies that are going to be released in the next few months. Hollywood seems to be more determined to make 3D movies work this time around by building a pipeline of 3D movies for us to go and see. On the other hand, all of the forthcoming 3D movies are animated, meaning that serious people do not need to watch them. To do digital animation properly, the film makers build 3D model of everything in the foreground of a scene, so it is not a huge amount of extra work to throw off a 3D version of an animated movie. Come to think of it, Avatar is mostly an animated movie with slightly different visual aesthetic and much more detail in the models and textures.

The other issues relate to movie making. 3D is a different medium that requires different film making techniques. For example, limited depth of field is beloved technique for "art house" movies. In 3D all parts of the image need to be in focus all the time because you cannot resolve a 3D image that is out of focus, moreover it is likely to give the viewer a headache. The rule for 3D movies is f/64 all the way.

Another issue is the foreground. 3D movies need to be very careful about composing the picture so the foreground does not protrude. There were only a couple of instances in Avatar where the foreground was a problem. The one noticeable incident had foreground leaves in the forest sticking well into the field of view combined with a camera movement that caused the fronds to move rapidly past the eye in a most distracting way.

Depth of field and foreground are only a couple of issued with the language of 3D movies, there are many more need to be considered. One example is the aspect ratio that the movie is made in. It seems that Avatar was made so that it could be viewed in several aspects ratios. All in all I question whether it is possible to make a movie that succeeds in both 2D and 3D.

James Cameron has said that he did not want the 3D effects to distract the viewer from the movie. I still remember the scene in "Flesh for Frankenstein" where the children go into the belfry, bats fly around and one flies out of the screen and into your face. Fortunately, there were no such scenes in Avatar.

Finally there is the political angle. Some people have complained that Avatar is anti-American. For anyone who thinks that the sub-Blackwater corporation mining Pandora, and walking over the natives without so much as a "by your leave", represents the American ideal, I feel very sorry for them.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Predatory Lending

While the practice of Predatory Lending is difficult to define, it is easy to see the results, people stuck with high priced loans that they cannot get out of. Today I saw a couple of references to an article in the Washington Post that reports more than half of of the mortgages in the US have an interest rate that is greater than 6% while for the last year the mortgage interest rate has been hovering around 5%. This means that over half the homeowners in the US are unable to refinance their mortgages to take advantage of a lower interest rate.

Many people think of predatory lending as something like payday lending to the poor. In practice it happens at all levels of the economy. At the highest level there are the exploits of the "economic hit man" whose job was to enable the selling of economic development loans to poor countries that could ill afford them. Recently, the economic woes of Greece may have been exacerbated by clever derivative swaps from Goldman Sachs, designed to hide the true nature of the debt that it owed.

Predatory housing loans inflamed the housing bubble, sticking the middle classes with high priced loans cleverly disguised with low initial teaser rates. Now the middle classes are stuck with loans that they cannot refinance because their houses are underwater or because they do not have a job, a good enough job or the credit rating for the refinance to go ahead. This is a yet further drag on the economy, already in recession. As the Washington Post article says:
"More refinancing activity would have helped household budgets, but also the national economy because homeowners might have spent some of the extra cash they pocketed, giving the recovery an added lift."
Homeowners do have an option. As Roger Lowenstein writes in the New York Times "Walk Away From Your Mortgage". Part of his argument is that banks are walking away from their mortgage obligations, and the American people should not feel obliged to behave better than the corporations who sold them their home loans in the first place. I would add to that argument that much of the vitality of the US economy comes from labor mobility. Having people stuck in a home that they cannot sell because their loan is underwater and unable to get a job nearby is yet another drag on the economy.