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How James Cameron's Innovative New 3D Tech Created Avatar

Director James Cameron is known for his innovations in movie technology and ambitions to make CG look and feel real. His next film, Avatar, will put his reputation to the test. Can Cameron make blue, alien creature look real on the big screen? With all the attention focused on the film, anything short of perfection may not be good enough. Here is how Cameron plans to make movie history with a host of new technologies and years of development.

Published in the January 2010 issue.



For the movie Avatar, Actor Sam Worthington was transformed into a human–alien hybrid through Performance-capture technology. (Photograph courtesy of Fox)

Why is the computer-generated face of a blue, cat-eyed human–alien hybrid so important? Well, for one thing, lots of money is riding on it. But so, to an extent, is James Cameron’s stature as an unstoppable force in Hollywood. Cameron has built up enormous fame and power based on his reputation as a technical innovator—pushing the science and technology of modelmaking, digital animation and camera engineering. But Cameron is perhaps even more famous as the industry’s biggest risk-taker, which might have made him a lot of enemies if his risks hadn’t been so spectacularly rewarded in the past. In 1997, the film Titanic taught Hollywood a powerful lesson in Cameronomics: The director’s unquenchable thirst for authenticity and technological perfection required deep-sea exploratory filming, expensive scale models and pioneering computer graphics that ballooned the film’s budget to $200 million. This upped the ante for everyone involved and frightened the heck out of the studio bean counters, but the bet paid off—Titanic went on to make $1.8 billion and win 11 Academy Awards.

A unique hybrid of scientist, explorer, inventor and artist, Cameron has made testing the limits of what is possible part of his standard operating procedure. He dreams almost impossibly big, and then invents ways to bring those dreams into reality. The technology of moviemaking is a personal mission to him, inextricably linked with the art. Each new film is an opportunity to advance the science of cinema, and if Avatar succeeds, it will change the way movies are captured, edited and even acted.

Filmmakers, especially those with a technical bent, admire Cameron for “his willingness to incorporate new technologies in his films without waiting for them to be perfected,” says Bruce Davis, the executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It adds to the risky nature of Cameron’s projects, but his storytelling has reaped enormous benefits. There’s a term in Hollywood for Cameron’s style of directing, Davis says: “They call this ‘building the parachute on the way down.’”

But repeatedly pulling off these feats of derring-do requires both the drive of an ambitious egomaniac and an engineer’s plodding patience. “You have to eat pressure for breakfast if you are going to do this job,” Cameron says. “On the one hand, pressure is a good thing. It makes you think about what you’re doing, your audience. You’re not making a personal statement, like a novel. But you can’t make a movie for everybody—that’s the kiss of death. You have to make it for yourself.”

Gonzo Effects

Cameron’s dual-sided personality has roots in his upbringing—the brainy sci-fi geek from Chippewa, Ontario, was raised by a painter mother and an engineer father. “It was always a parallel push between art and technology,” he says. “My approach to filmmaking was always very technical. I started off imagining not that I would be a director, but a special-effects practitioner.”

Unable to afford to go to film school in Los Angeles, Cameron supported himself as a truck driver and studied visual effects on weekends at the University of Southern California library, photocopying dissertations on optical printing and the sensitometry of film stocks. “This is not bull,” he says. “I gave myself a great course on film FX for the cost of the copying.”

Cameron eventually landed a job on the effects crew of Roger Corman’s low-budget 1980 film Battle Beyond the Stars, but he didn’t tell anyone that he was an autodidact with no practical experience. When he was exposed to the reality of film production, it was very different from what he had imagined, he recalls: “It was totally gonzo problem solving. What do you do when Plans A, B and C have all crashed and burned by 9 am? That was my start. It wasn’t as a creative filmmaker—it was as a tech dude.”

Over the years, Cameron’s budgets have increased to become the biggest in the business, and digital technology has changed the realm of the possible in Hollywood, but Cameron is still very much the gonzo engineer. He helped found the special-effects company Digital Domain in the early 1990s, and he surrounds himself with Hollywood inventors such as Vince Pace, who developed special underwater lighting for Cameron’s 1989 undersea sci-fi thriller, The Abyss. Pace also worked with Cameron on Ghosts of the Abyss, a 2003 undersea 3D documentary that explored the wreck of the Titanic. For that movie, Pace and Cameron designed a unique hi-def 3D camera system that fused two Sony HDC-F950 HD cameras 2½ inches apart to mimic the stereoscopic separation of human eyes. The Fusion Camera System has since been used for 3D movies such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and the upcoming Tron Legacy, and at sporting events such as the 2007 NBA finals.

The 3D experience is at the heart of Avatar. (In fact, some suspect that Cameron cannily delayed the movie’s release to wait for more theaters to install 3D screens—there will be more than 3000 for the launch.) Stereoscopic moviemaking has historically been the novelty act of cinema. But Cameron sees 3D as a subtler experience. To film the live-action sequences of Avatar, he used a modified version of the Fusion camera. The new 3D camera creates an augmented-reality view for Cameron as he shoots, sensing its position on a motion-capture stage, then integrating the live actors into CG environments on the viewfinder. “It’s a unique way of shooting stereo movies,” says visual-effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum. “Cameron uses it to look into the environment; it’s not about beating people over the head with visual spectacle.” This immersive 3D brings a heightened believability to Avatar’s live-action sequences—gradually bringing viewers deeper into the exotic world of Pandora. In an early scene, Sully looks out the window as he flies over the giant trees and waterfalls of the jungle moon, and the depth afforded by the 3D perspective gives the planet mass and scale, making it as dizzyingly real for viewers as it is for him.

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