The Return Of James Cameron
by Paul Fischer
Film Monthly Home
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
It’s been an astounding 12 years since Oscar winning director Jim Cameron brought the world a feature film, the gigantic box office hit, Titanic. Now Cameron is back with his highly anticipated sci-fi fantasy film, Avatar, the highly secretive project that was unveiled at Comic Con. This is a movie in which Cameron literally created the technology and the cameras to bring this to life, making it one of the most technologically advanced films to come out of Hollywood in decades. Cameron was relaxed and open about the process, yet giving very little away, as we chatted prior to his Hall H presentation.
JAMES CAMERON: And it was done on purpose. Because I was – you know, I had founded a visual effects company with the idea of – I didn’t really want to be, necessarily, a service company for other filmmakers, although of course that’s how you pay for all the infrastructure – I wanted us to push out in front, and do really cool stuff, and create – use the new technology to create CG characters. And I partnered with Stan Winston, because he wanted to do the same thing. He was even putting in CG work stations at his Creature Shop – that’s how prescient he was about where this was all going. So, this was in ’91, ’92. So we formed a company. But then we got side-tracked into all this kind of 2D composite stuff. And I’m using 2D, 3D in the computer sense, not in the stereo presentation sense. And – you know, we did True Lies, and Apollo 13, Titanic, stuff that was not pushing creature development, character development at all. So I said, “All right. I’m going towrite something so that right after Titanic, we go into really pushing the envelope.” So, the idea was to create something that couldn’t be done at the moment it was written, by design. But I screwed up. Cuz I didn’t go one level out. I went, like, four levels out, you know? And my guys shouted me down. Whereas on The Abyss, with the water weenie character – you know, we’d gone kind of one level beyond, or maybe a level and a half. And the same thing with Terminator 2. You know, the liquid metal dude, we could just barely do that. Or we could imagine doing it. So, it’s all a question of timing. A really good metaphor for this is surfing. I don’t surf, but I get the principle. And the principle is, you don’t make the wave. It’s too much energy. You can’t do it. But what you can do is, you can serve the wave. You can harness energy that’s happening anyway. And so the timing on Avatar was critical.
But I kind of dread having an idea we can’t do right now. No, the nice thing is that the infrastructure that we’ve created, and that other stuff created to support this big project, now makes it possible for us to do anything. So, next time out I don’t see focusing so much on the technology, as focusing on process and pipeline, making it kind of more manageable. I mean, I’d like to shrink four years into two years. And that’d be a huge challenge.
QUESTION: Twelve years after Titanic, I guess there’s this huge amount of pressure for this movie. There’s a lot of buzz about it. Do you feel that pressure, or do you sort of ignore it?
JAMES CAMERON: Well, you can’t ignore it. I think you’ve got to acknowledge it. You’ve got to know that there’s a big expectation. I think – you know, first of all, Titanic and Avatar are chalk and cheese. They’re just two totally different movies. So right there, you can’t really compare them to each other. I suppose you can compare their box office performance, I guess. But, I mean, Titanic was, I think, an anomaly, in the sense that it somehow keyed into global emotion is such a way that made a ridiculous amount of money. You can’t even try to compete – I don’t think I try to compete with myself on that. But with Avatar, I was looking for something that was challenging enough to be interesting. To – because I knew it would be a big, complex project – to hold my interest, as opposed to doing the deep ocean expeditions, which I loved. I mean, you know. You guys who cover the movie beat, let’s say, or the pop culture beat – to you, I disappeared. To me, I didn’t disappear. I was just doing the shit that I really wanted to do. You know? And I could afford to do it, after Titanic. And I did six deep ocean expeditions in that time. And it turns out in retrospect to look kind of like a master plan. Because learning how to build the 3D technology, learning how to work with 3D—over that time, we did a tremendous amount of 3D shooting, some of it in very rough conditions. So in a funny way, when I started the live-action shoot on Avatar, I knew exactly what to do. In fact, it was almost easy by comparison. I had six days of prep in New Zealand before we started shooting this movie. Six days. Normally, you’d prep for 60 or 90 days, in situ. I had six days. And the reason was, because first of all, all the sets were already designed virtually in advance, and built from plans. And I was working on a virtue volume here in LA, in virtual sets that were being built for real in New Zealand. So I walked in six days before, and I said, “Okay. I’ve already, in a sense, done all these shots. I know the camera goes there, camera goes there, lights go out there.”
QUESTION: You scouted the sets and rehearsed on the sets virtually.
JAMES CAMERON: Scattered and rehearsed on the sets virtually, before we got there. So I was – in a way, the documentary films, in 3D, had prepped me for the live action shoots so well, that we just started. It was just very smooth. And I had a good, proven team as a result of that. So in a way, I was building muscle to do this film. And, you know, Stan Winston said something very interesting when I first showed him the 3D footage. Not from Avatar, but right before that, from the documentaries. I said, “Yeah, and I’m thinking about doing a 3D film. I’ll do something small to start out with, and build up.” He said, “No, no, no. You do your biggest and your best idea.” He said, “You do your Star Wars in this.” And Stan could be like that. He just was so crazily intuitive. You know, he just—boom, right to the idea. I thought, “He’s right.”
QUESTION: Those experiences, and just your exploration of this world, has really informed how you’ve designed Pandora. I mean, your diving experiences.
JAMES CAMERON: I saw a lot of stuff at the bottom of the ocean that influenced the designs. You know?
QUESTION: Like what?
JAMES CAMERON: Well, you know, bio-luminescence. Not only in the deep ocean dives, but just diving around in a coral reef. The colors, the patterns. You know, sometimes something’ll exist this big, that we made much larger. And there’s a lot of stuff, obviously, in the film, beyond what you saw in 24 minutes. We didn’t pick these scenes because they were necessarily the most beautiful, or the best action in the film. We picked them because they were the ones that, when strung together, told enough of the story that you got a good sort of footing in the world, but didn’t do any big spoilers for the end.
QUESTION: With the preparation that you made, and with all the design that you did beforehand, is it the kind of movie that you actually had a sequence that was most challenging for you to achieve, or did you kind of cut that out, because you had pre-planned so much?
JAMES CAMERON: No, we didn’t cut anything out because we couldn’t do it, but there was one scene that did take us two years to figure out how to shoot. That’s the action finale, so I can’t tell you what it is, but it involved characters in four different scales all interacting with each other, all played by live performers. It was crazy, how hard it was. But – you know, at least we knew it was the finale of the film, so it was worth our effort. And it’s a corker.
QUESTION: You started [UNINTEL] 14 years. And then you have all these bells and whistles working at the same time. Are you ever afraid [UNINTEL]?
JAMES CAMERON: Yeah, there’s a danger of that. But I think the hardest part of this job, no matter who it is sitting here, is to maintain a fresh eye. And this is true on any film. Because every film – you know, you plan it, you write it, you storyboard it, you shoot it, you cut it, mix it, do the music – you’ve seen at 1000 times by the time you’re making your final editorial decisions. If you take anything for granted, that the audience understands something that they can’t possibly, because you’ve taken out the information they need – you’re doomed. And, by the way, you can become inured to the beauty of a moment, and cut it too short. So, I think that this is just something you learn. You know, it’s like anything. You just learn it as you go along. You learn how to be objective about your own stuff, to see it with fresh eyes. There’s a big thing about seeing in the movie. The Na’Vi use a term, “gamay,” which means, I see you. But they’re not saying “I see you,” they’re saying, “I see into you. I understand you.” So, they equate seeing with understanding. And the movie is very much about seeing, through the eyes of others. As a filmmaker, you’ve got to be very, very in control of your own perceptual lens, and not lose sight of that. Because the audience doesn’t have the benefit of all this. You know, especially if it’s a brand new thing like this, and not something from a franchise like Star Wars or anything. Where there, you’re kind of riffing against past moves. Here, you’re building it up from scratch. It’s a hard thing. But I think your question was also about, “Oh, you’ve got all this technology, and green screen and CG and all that. Do you lose touch with the humanity?”
But everything that – a lot of what we spent our time developing was a technology that was transparent to me, as a filmmaker – was filmmaker-centric, so I could actually have tools that made it more intuitive. In the way that on the documentaries, I just had that camera there, and I’d just run over and shoot it. You know? Or, if I felt something was happening over there, I’d turn. Like that. Our virtual tools allowed me to do that, in the CG world. With that kind of real-time, instinctive quality. And for the actors, also, to make it transparent to them, so it was just about performance. They weren’t—the irony is, the technology made the technology go away. You know? And so what you get – I mean, did you feel that the characters had an emotional authenticity, in the clips that you saw? That’s what we went for.
QUESTION: Did this reinvigorate your love of filmmaking?
JAMES CAMERON: Yeah, I think so, because I think that there are so many possibilities now. You know—I mean, I’ve always had fun pushing the envelope, kind of by design. “Let’s get out there. Let’s get in front.” Maybe it’s my insecurity as a filmmaker, that I want to have all this stuff to show people and dazzle them, and all that. But it’s good. It’s a win-win deal, you know? Because I get turned on by the challenge of that, and the audiences get turned on by the results.
QUESTION: And we won’t be waiting another ten years for the next Jim Cameron movie?
JAMES CAMERON: No. I thought about that, you know? I was kind of assuming that that question would come up. And the answer is, I really, really loved doing the expedition stuff. But it took me seven or eight years to build real street cred in that world. You know? Because I’m dealing with people that are completely outside the Hollywood community, in space exploration, in ocean exploration, at an institutional level. These are science guys. You know, I’m out on expeditions, I’m helping them pull tube worms out of a sampling basket. You know, it takes a while for them to respect that not only do you understand what they do, but you can actually contribute to their world, in terms of the technology, and so on. So, it took time to build that up, but I don’t have to do it now. I know already those people. And I can go on an expedition – not tomorrow, but in January I can. And so, I don’t have to be away as long. So I’m thinking it’s kind of movie, expedition, movie, expedition, instead of movie, expedition, expedition, expedition, expedition, expedition, movie.
QUESTION: Your [UNINTEL] has a little darkness to it.
JAMES CAMERON: Thank you.
QUESTION: Has the joy and the happiness in Avatar and your expedition stuff, as you [filtered into this world? Does it have that same darkness of your other films, or do you think it’ll be in some way more hopeful?
JAMES CAMERON: Nah, I’m still the same twisted fucker I was back when I wrote Terminator and there’s a lot of dark stuff in this film. I mean, you get pummeled. When you get into it deeper – I mean, it’s a real emotional rollercoaster. And, you know, you’ve got to earn the happiness in this movie. And I think that’s what makes a movie really work. Makes it really fire on all eight cylinders. So far, everybody’s talking about the world and the critters and the design and all that stuff, which is cool. But there’s a story. And it’s – you know, it’ll wring you out. I mean, Sigourney just saw the movie for the first time a couple days ago. She was crying for 15 minutes at the end of the film.
QUESTION: In 2D, she saw it.
JAMES CAMERON: In 2D, yeah. I don’t think the 2D, 3D, really affects the narrative power of the story. That has to exist as its own thing. And I think every film has to have a certain amount of darkness to appreciate the light. But I think the curious thing about this film especially, and one of the reasons that I was attracted to it, is it has real beauty in the film, by design. I mean, we wanted to balance the intensity and the terror, and kind of the – you know, the darkness, with the moments of just transporting beauty. And I think a lot of films – most films, I would say, especially in the science fiction genre, don’t try to do that. They should, and occasionally they succeed. But to me, it was about doing both.
QUESTION: Your action sequences still hold up, even going back to the original Terminator. What do you think it is about your style that makes that evergreen, and maybe some of the stuff you see now could be bigger, but – you know, who cares?
JAMES CAMERON: Well, you don’t care. It’s stakes. You have to understand the stakes for the people in the situation. That’s why a down and dirty car chase in Terminator still carries weight. Because you care about the people.
QUESTION: And you [UNINTEL] what happens to them?
JAMES CAMERON: Well, I don’t know about that. I mean, you know, I think if you’ve already seen it, then you kind of know how —
QUESTION: That’s right.
QUESTION: But I think – exactly what Jim said. His action sequences are character-driven. There’s a point to every one of them. You don’t just go to action for the sake of action.
JAMES CAMERON: And there’s also a freneticism in action that sort of crept it about the time the Avid and non-linear editing became the major tool of choice, and people could change the cut and keep refining it, and chopping shorter and shorter and shorter, and getting really familiar with the cut. And I think something happens to filmmakers, which is that they watch their own action sequences so many times that they actually learn where the next image – where the subject coming in in the next image is. So they’re already looking there. But the audience doesn’t do that. So, I actually watch all my action sequences bilaterally transposed. Flopped. When I get it all cut the way I think it’s supposed to work, I’ll watch it backwards. I don’t mean backwards in temporal order, I mean in a mirror, right? I’ll watch a movie in a mirror. So my instinct to look where the next thing’s happening gets short-circuited. It’s actually – you realize how dependent you’ve become on your own watching process. But it goes back to that thing I was talking about before, which is – you’ve got to be able to watch your own stuff with fresh eyes, to anticipate the audience’s reaction. I think it’s an art, and I think it’s a discipline.
QUESTION: You touched on something – exactly what I wanted to know. As you’ve been going through this percolating process, did you ever get any surprises that you didn’t anticipate?
JAMES CAMERON: Yeah. Well, here’s a big surprise. We screened for our friends and family, 20, 30 people that were kind of unfamiliar with the specifics, although they knew we were making the film. And none of them noticed that the avatars have four fingers, and the Na’Vi have three fingers. Or five and four, if you want to include a thumb as a finger. And they got through the whole movie and never noticed it. I don’t even think it’s really that important, but it’s one of those little things that you sort of take for granted that people are going tonotice, that they didn’t even notice. So, yeah, you do have to pay attention to what an audience says. And I’ll be curious to see what the feedback is coming out of today’s screening, because we’ve got 6000 virgin pairs of eyes, that are – you know, a lot of people are going to go on-line, they’re going totally about it. And we’ll monitor that traffic. And I think there’s something that can be learned.
QUESTION: Just on Twitter alone.
JAMES CAMERON: Yeah, I haven’t gotten any of the direct feedback yet. But, you know, we’ll definitely check that out. And I think that that can be valuable to the film. Because we want the film to be the best possible version it can be, obviously.
QUESTION: Will you produce the game?
JAMES CAMERON: I think so. You know, I mean, I think we have to get the time it takes to make one of these movies down. But that can be the next technical challenge, right? I mean, I think we know how to do it. Now, we’ve got to learn how to do it as a faster, easier pipeline. But you’ve got to remember, we had to create every damn thing you saw. Next time around, Jake exists, the interior exists, the forest exists. Things that we can now take for granted, and then build on that and go beyond it. And there’ll be other worlds in the subsequent films. If we make money on this, there’ll be another one. It’s pretty much that simple.
QUESTION: Almost as famous as the James Cameron film is the James Cameron special edition. Is what we see in theaters going to be the final say?
JAMES CAMERON: Probably, in the sense that the scenes that get taken out will never get finished up to a photo real level. So, we can stick ‘em in a DVD. They’ll be interesting. But they’ll exist at what we call a template level, which looks more like an ‘80s video game version of the scene. Very, very accurate. It’s the performances, and so on. But the finished look isn’t there. And there won’t be the money to finish them. So, it’s not like taking out footage that you thought, you know?
QUESTION: Could you have done all this in the performance capture? And why did you choose to do part of it in live action?
JAMES CAMERON: Well, it never occurred to me to not do the stuff that we could do live action as live action. I think people misuse the CG stuff. If I can have an actor walk in the room and say a line, I’m going todo that. I think you can appreciate, from what you saw, that that stuff couldn’t have been done that way. And could I have put somebody in blue makeup and added a CG character to them? Maybe, but they wouldn’t look like that.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
Got a problem? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org