James Cameron: Grilled on ‘Avatar’

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“3D will keep expanding — that toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube now”

“Avatar” is James Cameron’s first film since “Titanic,” though he claims it didn’t actually take him 12 years to make it. More like four and a half, he insists – especially if you count the 3D Titanic exploration documentary “Aliens of the Deep.” Still, he thinks the timing worked out for him, with improved 3D technology and more screens available on which to show it. “Since 2000,” he told TheWrap, “I said ‘I’ve got to do my next feature in 3D,’ but I didn’t know how to do it as the theaters didn’t exist.” So he pulled back and began doing more with the 3D camera development, waiting for the theaters to get there.

This weekend, we see the fruits of that labor.

So, these rumors of intense rivalry between you and Zemeckis …
It’s total bulls—! That’s just fabricated by other people. It’s like “Celebrity Death Match” (laughs) — me and Spielberg duking it out in the ring when we’re actually friends.
Look, Bob pioneered this arena almost single-handedly. He’s the one that first stood up and did an all-performance capture film with “Polar Express.” It had its detractors, but I thought it was a beautiful film and state-of-the-art of its time. And he’s progressed the art and made aesthetic decisions — in “Beowulf” he went for this mythic, hyper-reality that fit that story.
You use the same body-capture for “Avatar.”
Now, we knew that this was a different kettle of fish and that we had to do things differently — and with a different standard of photo-reality and life in the face. So the body-capture part of it was exactly the same as Bob’s method, but the facial stuff was all different. That was our new process.
You guys have been really pushing 3D. Is there a business model for it in the coming years?
I think 3D will keep expanding — that toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube now. It’s more, what level of acceptance will it reach? In the next few years, will most movies be in 3D, or just the big tentpoles? And does it follow sound, where the transition was very fast, or color, where it took 30 years for all movies to be in color?
That happened because of color TV. I think it’ll be the same here. Consumer electronics companies are already saying 3D’s the next big killer app. It’ll drive Blu-ray DVD sales, as only a Blue-ray can play 3D content, and large flat-panel screens. And people will be watching sports in 3D at homes before this industry wakes up and realizes that it’s got to go 3D.
So I’m forming a company to supply cameras and production services to sports — and I don’t care about sports — because I believe in 3D as the new way to see it.
The next big thing that movies need to consider is that sports broadcasts have already decided that 24fps or 30fps is stupid — and they’ve gone to 60fps. We need to go to 60! We can’t have better displays at home than in movie theaters, or why would people ever go to movies? We need to switch to 60 frames. And it’s not even an aesthetic choice now — we need to do it to stay competitive!
The expectations are so high for “Avatar.” Does that freak you out?
No, it’s good, as we had to sell a movie that wasn’t sequel or remake or part of a franchise or based on a best-seller. I was more worried about people not even knowing about the film than of them having high expectations and having those dashed.
If I can just get ‘em in the damn theater, the film will act on them in the way it’s supposed to, in terms of taking them on an amazing journey and giving them this rich emotional experience. And it’s not really like any other film, and I think that’s its greatest asset — and its greatest deficit. You can’t compare it to something else.
Is this the biggest movie you’ve done so far?
I do like the big train sets, but funnily enough, in terms of the physical production, this was fairly modest — more on the scale of “Aliens,” my second film. We shot for four months, all interiors, all relatively small sets — no water and sinking ships, so it was modest.
But the virtual production was off the scale.
Did you ever think you’d finish it?
Well, (laughs) I played this joke on everyone just this week. I called Sam Worthington and said, “Listen, I’ve got this great idea for a totally new scene! We can shoot it quickly and I’ll just cut it into the movie” — and he was up for it. He doesn’t want to let go of it.
Speaking of Worthington, what did he bring to the project?
He brought a groundedness, because of who he is as a person, and that informs his acting which is very honest and very clear. And I think he felt because it’s a fantastic story in a fantastic land, he had to always have this sense of authenticity in every moment. He’d search for it and do it in whatever way he could, and I sensed that about him as an actor when I cast him. And he’s got this great power in his eyes.
There are a lot of young guys who’re easy on the eyes and women might be interested in, but I also needed someone that men could not only relate to but believe in when he rises to this leadership status in the story. That’s where all the other guys fell out. Sam’s the only one that pulled it off.
What about Zoe?
It took me a while to convince the studio on Sam, but everyone wanted Zoe right away. Maybe it’s because she grew up on the streets of Queens (laughs) — she’s very poised, very elegant, very well-spoken, but you push her and she’ll go street like that! She’s a cat. She’s fiery and that’s exactly what I was looking for. She showed me that in her audition and I went, that’s it. That coupled with the fact that she was trained as a classical ballet dancer, so she had this amazing physical grace and poise, and I saw these Na’vi characters as very beautiful, very athletic. I wasn’t going for the alien — I was going for something that’s an expression of beautiful human movement.
We’d like to be like them, and feel that we could be like them. We’re these schlubby creatures that live in this technical environment and we’ve lost touch with nature and what’s real and what’s important in terms of a value system, and these creatures are not that. What they really are is a heightened sense of ourselves and what we could and should be.
It’s not true science fiction in the sense of saying, this is what contact with an alien species would be like. It’s about how we’ve lost contact with ourselves in a natural state.