James Cameron Mixes It Up With Avatar


Most moviemakers will tell you that story trumps technology on the best movie sets. It is nonetheless fair to say that advances in technology often pave the way for certain kinds of stories to be told.

The arrival of the Caméflex (a shoulder-held, portable 35mm camera with instant-change magazines) in 1947 for example, made the groundbreaking films of the French New Wave possible, by allowing for a freer style of shooting.

For moviemaker James Cameron, himself a blend of artist and technologist, advances in technology have marched hand in hand with the forward movement of his own seemingly unassailable career. Originally from Ontario, Canada, Cameron studied physics at Cal State Fullerton, paying tuition and rent with various blue-collar jobs.

Focused on a career in movies, Cameron was able to raise enough money from a consortium of local dentists to produce a 35mm short, Xenogenesis, in 1978. He parlayed the experience into his first professional gig, as art director on Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), which led to his feature debut, Piranha II: The Spawning (1981).

Cameron’s second feature, The Terminator (1984), was a huge success and was followed by a string of box-office hits: Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), True Lies (1994) and the colossal Titanic (1997), which won 11 Oscars (three of them Cameron’s). All these movies blend heavy doses of effects-driven film craft into stories consciously tooled to connect with the larger audience. With occasional forays into underwater documentary moviemaking (Ghosts of the Abyss) and television drama (“Dark Angel”), Cameron has positioned himself as a unique, if sometimes controversial, presence in world cinema.

Now, with his new science-fiction juggernaut Avatar, a project 13 years in the making, Cameron has once again stepped onto the leading edge of film technology. While Avatar does not reinvent the art of storytelling itself, it does pull together the latest tools in digital illusion-making.

Avatar is the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine now confined to a wheelchair, who is recruited to travel to far-off planet Pandora by an Earth-based corporation looking to exploit the planet’s natural resources. Once on site, Jake is transported into a surrogate body, called an avatar; a nine-foot tall, blue-skinned hybrid composed of both human and indigenous—or, Na’vi—DNA. Housed in his new avatar, Jake enters the rainforest world of the Na’vi, first as a human agent, but ultimately as an ally in the fight to protect their world from exploitation.

The picture’s most striking achievement is the creation of Pandora’s (completely digital) Na’vi people via a motion capture system that allowed the actors’ emotions and performances to be infused into their corresponding digital incarnations as never before.

“Previous motion capture systems could not create all of the nuances of performance that we were looking for,” explains producer Jon Landau. “We turned to this image-based process where the actors wore—on of a boom mount attached to their heads—a camera which photographed and interpreted their performances frame by frame.”

Working on a bare soundstage known as “The Volume,” the performances were captured as data files for digital artists to translate into CG characters; numerous reference cameras were also employed, giving the digital artist multiple angles of each performance. But, Landau adds, “This is not a pure transfer of data, just as cinematography is not an unfiltered recording process; you have the cinematographer interpreting and shaping the image.”

“What we learned from The Lord of the Rings and King Kong is that when you give the animator enough data, you get less empathy and more sympathy,” adds animation director Richie Baneham. “When your only source is a voice track, your biggest tool [as an animator] is empathy; you basically listen to a line, then you act out the line and then you start to make key decisions about where you think the division is between text, subtext and inner monologue. With the data set that we were able to provide on Avatar, the animator’s approach tends to be more sympathetic.”

“Since Gollum and King Kong, we have been developing this [intent] of creating digital characters that can carry a scene with and without dialogue,” adds VFX supervisor Joe Letteri. “We are trying to transfer emotion rather than strictly transfer movement, because that’s how you get performance.”

Added to these innovations was the creation of a virtual camera system that essentially enabled Cameron to direct both live action and digital elements simultaneously, in real time and space.

“We wanted Jim to be able to work directly with the actors and at the same time see the world his characters exist in,” says Landau. Normally on a visual effects film, live-action plates are shot with gaps where the digital characters are to be placed; the digital characters are plugged in later. On Avatar, the characters were already on the virtual set. Post-production became pre-production.

“It’s one of the film’s breakthroughs,” explains Letteri. “James could take the camera and walk onto the virtual set and point it at Sam and see Jake’s avatar instead of Sam; he could spin that camera around and see all the other actors as their virtual entities. C-stands with tennis balls on them become trees—he sees everything in the virtual world through this camera.”

Here, Cameron himself talks about the origins and evolution of Avatar, the role money and technology play in his films and his personal formula for success.

Phillip Williams (MM): Could you talk a bit about your process? How do you conceive and develop your films?

James Cameron (JC): For me it starts with the written word. It also starts with images. On Aliens, before I wrote the script, I drew a picture of Ripley fighting with Alien—an image I wanted to see… Then I reverse-engineered the story to get to that image.

It’s funny, but when I worked with Chic Eglee developing “Dark Angel,” I found that he was very oriented to the word and to the narrative, and it blew his mind that I would actually work that way. I said, ‘Chic, sometimes there is just shit you want to see.’ I’m a director first and a writer second. I think of the things I want to see and those become wickets of that story that I weave through. Then I write the outline or treatment, which brings about the flood of words. You start to riff, and you riff very fast… at least I do.

MM: When you are at the computer writing the treatment?

JC: It’s more novelistic; it’s prose form. I haven’t typically been comfortable with script form, but I have become more so now. I work in a kind of hybrid form, where I’ll break out into script form and write a scene and then go back into prose. I call it a “scriptment.”

I feel that if the ideas are there, don’t worry about the form, just fucking write it down, because you might not think of that idea again. I put down everything I’ve been thinking of and then start taking out things that don’t fit and strengthening the narrative that way. Writing this film was a very reductive process; I wound up with way too much stuff. The script was 220 pages, I then chopped it down to 150 pages. We ended up with a three-hour movie and then had to take out half an hour of it.

MM: Do you have a sense of why you have been able to reach such large audiences so consistently throughout your career?

JC: I think you have to be aware of the audience. You have to follow the impulses that are going to be more embraceable for audiences if you are going to pay for a film like this. It’s an intellectually mediated process, based on the experience of what people like. But ultimately, I just write stuff I want to see: I want to see this happen; I want to see this kind of conflict between two characters; this is a story I haven’t done before.

I’ve done boy meets girl; I’ve done relationships that have a history, with The Abyss, where they’re divorced and fall back in love. True Lies was a marriage in jeopardy due to perceived infidelity. Avatar is boy meets girl, but this time it’s cross-cultural. It’s about a guy looking for his place in the world. What’s his place, his purpose, his duty? The relationship between the two main characters is kind of symbolic of that, and as he’s earning his way into this world, he meets Neytiri, the Na’vi woman…

MM: …who does not initially warm to him.

JC: (laughs) Quite the opposite. She is a warrior! Interestingly enough, because I grew up in the Vietnam era and observed the veterans’ aftermath and saw the sense of anger, my initial approach to Jake was to write him as a soldier along those lines. But then I realized that’s not how this guy is—he’s a young guy and has the spirit of a warrior; his body is broken but his spirit is not. He sees life as a challenge and this is just another challenge.

I have a number of friends who are former Marines—my brother Dave is a former Marine—and with Marines, the bigger the adversity, the more they feel defined by that adversity. When Jake has the opportunity to go to another planet, it doesn’t occur to him that that might not be the smartest thing to do: To go to the most dangerous spot in the universe in a wheelchair. He has a warrior ethic, but when he enters his avatar… he’s a fish out of water. But when he’s put into a survival situation, he shows Neytiri something in his character. She has contempt for him as a human, but as an individual there is a respect.

MM: It’s interesting how much technology impacts moviemaking and storytelling. We did a story on the French New Wave a few years ago and Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Bear, Enemy at the Gates) pointed out that the New Wave was in one sense made possible by the creation of Tri-X film…

JC: …and the handheld Caméflex, which enabled them to run around and get their shots.

MM: For you, what have been the most pivotal advances in technology that made what you do possible and have in a sense blended with who you are as an artist?

JC: The first, obviously, was CG animation; I was an early adopter. I really didn’t know if it was going to work, but [T2 VFX supervisor] Dennis Muren convinced me it could be done. That was a defining moment for me as a moviemaker, because my natural curiosity and technical bent had found a new toolset… Things I wanted to see in movies were now possible. It made the liquid metal man in T2 possible. If that technology didn’t exist, there would have been no other way to do it and that story could not have happened. It enabled me to go to new places. They say all the stories have been done, but I don’t believe that.

Then, from that point, having tried and tested CG, I had a sort of marketing advantage because I had tried it. So, from a purely business standpoint, it makes sense for me to follow that path to some extent. But I really approached it from the perspective of a geek fan of fantasy movies. I felt like I was Ray Harryhausen and had just figured out a new process. I could show people stuff that would blow their minds in the way my mind was blown away as a kid when I saw Mysterious Island. I had no idea how that film was done, but it was really cool. Now you can see the flaws, but when you are a kid, your mind fills in the blanks. Isn’t that magic? Isn’t that what we are here to do? Aren’t we here, as moviemakers, to try and kindle in other people that same feeling of awe we felt when we fell in love with movies?

TO READ THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH JAMES CAMERON, PICK UP A COPY OF MOVIEMAKER’S WINTER 2010 EDITION—ON NEWSSTANDS NOW. OR SIGN UP FOR A YEAR AT THE SUPER-LOW RATE OF JUST $9.95 BY LOGGING ON TO: https://www.moviemaker.com/subscribe/winter_2010

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