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Cameron comes back with CG extravaganza

By Sheigh Crabtree

After nine years, during which time he has not launched a new feature film, James Cameron finally is targeting a summer 2008 release for his next project, 20th Century Fox's "Avatar," and he hopes to start shooting a cast of unknown actors on a stage in Los Angeles by February.

Cameron is plotting a high-concept comeback film for his return to mainstream features, well in the wake of his king-making helming of 1997's "Titanic." His new project, which also has gone under the cover title "Project 880," follows a paraplegic war veteran from Earth who is brought to another planet inhabited by a humanoid race at odds with Earth's citizens.

"Believe it or not, the shooting is a very small part of it," Cameron says. "It's a very, very big project where the shooting is like a month and a half -- not really very much. There's just so much CG, and the visual effects are a huge component. A lot of it is performance capture. We use different techniques (from, for example, Sony Pictures' upcoming 'Monster House'), but it's the same general idea."

Cameron takes pains to make a distinction between his use of performance capture versus the more popular motion capture techniques that often heavily modify recorded gestures in postproduction.

"With performance capture, you're capturing exactly what the actor does and translating it to the CG character without the interpretation of animators," he says. "So it's not performance by committee, it's performance by the actor. I'm an absolute stickler about this, and I wanted to make a director-centric performance capture process. We've spent literally since August of last year creating this and now we're ready to go."

Now that his next-generation production technologies have been hammered out, Cameron is focussing his attention on auditioning actors.

"We're very active right now in terms of casting," Cameron says. "We're not looking at anyone, we're looking at everyone. There are a number of characters that we can cast from that up-and-coming talent pool. They're not going to be well-known names -- until after the movie, hopefully."

Cameron says he much prefers discovering new talent than relying on the known quantities of established stars.

"It's more of a thrill to find people who are just about ready to break and recognizing what they have and then moving them to the next level," the director says. "That's more exciting, I think, than just hitching my wagon to Tom Cruise or John Travolta or whatever. They're great guys, I know them, but it's not as interesting to me."

That said, Cameron doesn't entirely shun celebrities, either.

"There are what, 10 to 15 bankable stars?" he says. "There are a lot more movies than that and there have to be other ways to make movies. We may end up with stars in 'Avatar' but it's not a requirement."

Cameron openly jokes about the digital HD 3-D digital camera rig he has been developing for six years with the help of Vince Pace.

"Vince and I have worked since 2000 developing this camera system," Cameron says. "And the irony is it was developed for me to use. And I've been going off and doing all these expeditions and doing expedition films in 3-D. We've really flogged the camera, made sure it works, upgraded it, re-engineered it, but now other people are using it, which is good, which I also like."

Four Cameron/Pace 3-D HD camera rigs are being used in production. Three are out on Eric Brevig's "Journey 3-D" for New Line Cinema in Vancouver and Giant Screen Films' is using a rig in South Africa on the Imax feature "Ocean Frenzy." But next, it will be Cameron's turn to put his own technology to use.

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