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'Avatar': A pandora's box of brain confusion, headaches?

January 8, 2010 |  5:05 pm


"Avatar" may be dazzling people with its immersive technology, but if you’re one of those people who gets  a headache after seeing it or any other 3-D film, there’s hope —  or, at least, an explanation.

According to Steven Nusinowitz, associate professor at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute, roughly 20% of the population can get eye strain or headaches from watching movies in 3-D. That's because the new 3-D technology can't completely simulate the complex visual system in our brains.

Here’s the basic breakdown: The new 3-D technology works by presenting a different image to each eye  and rapidly switching between the two, as frequently as 140 times per second. "The two eyes are getting separate images,which are then integrated in the brain into three-dimensions," Nusinowitz says.

The problem with that is that in real life, he says, "you're also getting information about depth from the way your eyes converge on a point, how your eyes are pointed at the target. In the movie theater, while they're simulating 3-D, they're not compensating for that by modifying the convergence of the eye. If you don't have that information, your brain gets confused on what it's looking at, and in some cases, that can produce discomfort."

Director James Cameron did try to mitigate the eyestrain factor when making "Avatar"  by working with the new Fusion Camera System, which controls for convergence. "If you're looking at Neyteri [the blue alien inhabited by Zoe Saldana], our convergence will be set on Neyteri. If our focus is on the tree behind Neyteri, our convergence will be on the tree behind Neyteri," says producer Jon Landau, adding that their approach to 3-D was different than the traditional approach. "We didn't want gags coming off the screen. We wanted to create a window into the world for the audience." 

But it only goes so far, as the unfortunate few who wander out of Pandora's visually stunning world with fatigue or headache soon learn. So while Cameron might be king of the world, he's not an ophthalmological pioneer — at least not yet.

"It's not perfect," acknowledges Landau, noting that there are also "limitations in exhibition. And not everybody sees 3-D. It's above 5% of the population that does not. It's a little bit like when people go to a concert. One person wants it louder, and one thinks it's too loud. It's a little subjective."

— Rachel Abramowitz


Beyond Pandora? Jim Cameron talks about an 'Avatar' sequel

James Cameron on 'Avatar': Like 'Matrix,' it opens doorways

LAT REVIEW: 'Avatar' restores a sense of wonder to moviegoing

Photo of Jake Sully's avatar in "Avatar" from WETA/20th Century Fox.

Comments () | Archives (16)

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Interesting. As a data point, I had a headache after watching it in 3d.

Avatar will make 2-3 times+ what Titanic made. Then the class action suits may start and take a bite out of the Avatar financial pie. Avatar's a great film, but I ended up with a splitting headache after watching it in 3D IMAX. There went the rest of that day. Would have been useful for me to know about this potential viewer hazard as I probably would not have seen the movie the day I chose to see it.

tell me about it! my eyes were so bloodshot and itchy I thought it was me, but since it very rarely happens it makes sense that watching the 3D for 3 hours strained them.
today, a day later they are still red.

>The new 3-D technology works by presenting a different image to each eye and rapidly switching between the two, as frequently as 140 times per second.

This isn't actually true. The majority of 3D projectors (including most IMAX screens) now work by projecting two images simultaneously at the screen using polarized light. Polarized lenses in the 3D glasses then selectively filter out the left/right images. It removes the need to cycle lens opacity in sync with the projector.

If everyone was still using the old technology I'd be surprised that only 20% of viewers were experiencing headaches.

This is a pretty big error for an LA Times article.

A lawsuit because there is no warning to audience about headaches?
Does everything have to be solved by a lawsuit?
Any common sense left in the world?
If you don't feel comfortable watching, leave theater immediately and ask manager for refund. Geez.

I had no problems whatsoever, and neither did my friend, who is notoriously prone to episodes like this. Other 3D instances have been problematic for me. The 3D in Superman Returns and the last two Harry Potter movies, for example, got unpleasant after a while, so I had my concerns.

My experience was nausea. I was wearing my prescription glasses under the 3D glasses for the first 45 minutes and had to leave for about 10 minutes because I was afraid I was going to yack. For the rest of the movie I just wore the 3D glasses, forgoing my prescriptions and the nausea went away, but I still left with a headache.

They had a trailer for Alice in Wonderland in 3D before Avatar - as cool as that would be visually, I think 3D is a no go for me in the future.

anyone have any idea how i would fare watching Avatar in 3-D IMAX. i've got my own eye-convergence problem in everyday life; there is no cohesion between my two eyes. each one operates independently of the other, automatically switching between near and distant vision, and i never use both eyes simultaneously. (goody for me!) so... will i go bonkers watching this movie, or will it actually help me?

I got seasick watching the movie and had to get up and leave for a bit. Decided to watch the movie standing on the side of the theater instead.

@Bob Lee -- I was seemingly comfortable while watching it, so why leave or ask for a refund then? Of course Avatar's novel, unusual visuals, intense action, high quality audio, plus the ungainly glasses on my nose/ears and dark environment I was in may have somehow been enough to distract me from the pain.

It's when I got out of the theater that I realized how much my head was "splitting." Sorry, but in all likelihood evidence will show that those associated with Avatar's production were aware of the film's hazards to some percentage of audience members before the film was ever released.

Watching the movie on a regular non-3D screen was just fine.

Yes, 3D does not always work as well as it is hyped to work. However, it should be noted that if 3D movies like Avatar give you headaches or eyestrain, this may suggest a more serious underlying visual problem, especially if you also get headaches or eyestrain at work or while reading. A visit to your eye doctor would be a good idea. You can read more about this in blog post: http://bit.ly/7x2w2s

You can search for a doctor who specializes in 3D vision at http://covd.org.

I had no problem visually with the movie but the friend who went with me had to leave the theater 3 times to throw up in the men's room. He watched the remainder the movie from the side aisle. Good news is that he loved it in spite of the nausea.

I went with six other people and I was the only one who had a headache and nausea after the movie. I was fine within a couple of hours. I am not planning on suing anyone, I can't believe that was even mentioned. I do not plan on seeing any more movies in 3D though.

Unfortunately, many will be miss out because they can't see 3-D. But there is hope. Thanks to optometric vision therapy, thousands of people who previously could not see 3-D are enjoying every special effect Avatar has to offer.

I had some eye-watering when I watched it (possibly nearly 3 hours is too long), but no other problems. The movie last year that gave me a migraine was the Star Trek reboot with its unsteady-cam and swooping CGI interiors. I hate to think what would have happened to my head if ST had been 3D.

Mm, just had a thought: does it matter how close to the screen you sit? I wonder if sitting further away would ameliorate 3D viewing problems. The girl at the ticket desk recommended I sit close to the screen to get the full effect, but I generally prefer the middle of the theatre.


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