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Interview with James Cameron on 'Avatar' re-release, BP oil spill -- and much more

Published: Thursday, August 26, 2010, 12:21 PM     Updated: Friday, August 27, 2010, 11:47 PM
avatarimage.JPGView full sizeWhile making "Avatar," castmembers (from left) Sigourney Weaver, Joel David Moore and Sam Worthington listen to director James Cameron.
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James Cameron is enjoying a bit of a victory lap at the moment.

The director of "Titanic," "Avatar," "Aliens" and the first two "Terminator" films is making the rounds to promote the limited re-release of "Avatar" -- with 8 1/2 minutes of additional footage -- in digital 3-D and IMAX  theaters. The expanded cut of Cameron's saga about noble blue aliens fighting off resource-plundering humans opened Friday, and any additional box-office revenues will presumably be added to the film's record-smashing $2.7 billion worldwide gross.

(A special-edition home-video box set this November will be even longer, with a reported 16 minutes of additional footage. Cameron half-jokingly promised: "If you just want to wallow in 'Avatar' for three hours, I can get that for you.")

Cameron spoke with The Oregonian for a little over 20 minutes last week -- about the technical challenges of transposing real facial expressions onto 12-foot-tall blue aliens; changing technology; whether his underrated 1989 film "The Abyss"  influenced "Avatar";  deleted scenes; the enduring legacy of "Aliens" hardware; and much more.

Questions and answers have been edited.

Q: To my thinking, the biggest technical achievement of "Avatar" wasn't the 3-D or the spectacle -- it was the fact that you more or less pole-vaulted across the uncanny valley

A:
I agree with that absolutely, and that's a good way to put it. You'll have to explain to your readers what the uncanny valley means. It's a little bit obscure to the average person.

(In this conversation, the uncanny valley refers to that weird zone in computer animation where a computer-generated character is trying to pass for photo-real, but falls just short enough of photo-real that it profoundly creeps you out. See: the dead-eyed zombie conductor in that horrible "Polar Express" movie. This creep-out factor is usually due to the special-effects team's inability to capture the micro-twitches of eye and muscle movement and other subtleties that register subconsciously with the viewer as a living face. Cameron and his team were probably the first filmmakers since -- arguably -- Peter Jackson in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" to successfully get past the uncanny valley with a computer-generated character -- and for "Avatar," Cameron and his team developed a system that captured a human performance and mapped it onto a computer-generated character with a subtlety Jackson couldn't achieve with Gollum nearly a decade ago.)

Q: Well, in a computer-generated character, it's that creepy effect caused by the lack of subtle little facial expressions, micro-movements, eye-flicks--

A:
And what a lot of people have called the "dead-eye syndrome" -- that sort of lack of emotional affect in CG characters -- we had to punch past that. We had to get to a system that had zero loss of the original emotion of the actor's performance in the final CG version of the character.

I remember drawing out the uncanny valley, just on a white-board, and saying, "If we don't land here -- if we don't stick to the opposite face of this canyon with our fingernails at least over the edge -- we're screwed. We're wasting a lot of 20th Century Fox's money." We knew that was our basic challenge.

To me, the 3-D was kind of a no-brainer. I'd already made four 3-D films. We'd worked for seven years on the camera development. We'd shot with those cameras at sea and in all kinds of hard conditions. That was the easy part. The hard part was getting across the uncanny valley.

Q: Was there a moment in the production where you knew you finally had it nailed?

avatar-neytiri.jpgView full sizeJames Cameron realized he'd crossed the uncanny valley with "Avatar" while looking at Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana)
A: Yeah. Well, first of all, there was a moment where we'd been working on it for about 2 1/2 years with every possible best technique we could imagine -- including a lot of stuff that we had to create -- and I saw the first CG stuff and I wanted to put a pistol in my mouth. I thought, "This is what it's gonna look like? We're ****ed" -- excuse me -- "We just wasted an awful lot of money."

Then, with about 10 weeks from that point of hard work and refinement, we got the first scene finished, and I signed off on it. And I remember sitting in the cutting room by myself -- everybody else had left -- and I was staring at the screen. It was a shot of Neytiri, a closeup of Zoe (Saldana)'s character. And I thought, "She's alive. This is a real person." And then I knew we could do it.

The challenge, of course, was that we still had to do about 2,200 shots. (Laughs.)

Q: Has the technology for that advanced since you wrapped on the film? I mean, it was advancing while you were filming, right?

A:
Yeah, it was changing while we were filming, and we got better at it toward the end.

Finishing the nine minutes for the (Friday) re-release was great. A lot of the things we had fought against, this headwind, in terms of getting the detail, the texture -- little things like the glint on the meniscus of the edge of an eyelid, on the surface of the eye, that suddenly made the eye look real -- we had worked for months on that stuff. And it was all now just automatic, kind of built into the code of how it was being done.

So while we were doing these nine additional minutes, I was kind of on vacation in Tahiti, and I set up an editing room at the hotel, and I'd come back from Jet Ski-ing with the kids, and I'd go in and they'd show me some of the shots. And boom, it's done. Because the technique now is robust.

I don't think we've advanced much beyond what we were doing. We've just got it down to where it's mass-producible at this point. We were taking scenes for the new material that had been "shot" -- meaning performance-captured during my virtual camera sessions –and we had edited it into a frame-accurate cut of the final scene, but it was still at this proxy (low-grade) resolution. And then (Peter Jackson's special-effects company) Weta Digital had to take it -- and I had to get Fox to spend several millions of dollars -- to finish that footage up to a photo-real level.

But it was a very automatic process at that point, which I think bodes well for future CG movies -- future "Avatar" films and future non-"Avatar" films.

Q: Do you bring specific lessons into your current high-tech filmmaking from your early days working for Roger Corman? (Cameron worked on "Battle Beyond the Stars" and "Piranha II: The Spawning"  -- among other low-budget flicks -- for Corman.)

A:
You know, interestingly, no -- other than maybe some things having to do with how you deal with people and how you manage the design process and so on. Because the technical process of filmmaking is so different now than it was back then, or even on my post-Roger films, "Terminator," "Aliens" and "The Abyss."

We don't shoot on film any more. We don't do any in-camera effects. We don't use opticals. The entire process has been fundamentally rewritten.

But of course, the essence of filmmaking hasn't changed at all. It still boils down to, "What's your story? Who's your cast? And how well does that cast create a sense of emotional reality for an audience?" That hasn't changed at all. I can imagine all kinds of ways filmmaking technology will continue to evolve, but those fundamentals will never change.

Q: Are you still in touch with Mr. Corman?

A:
Yeah, I see Roger from time to time. He was honored this year with a lifetime-achievement award from the Academy, and I saw him at some of the functions and so on.

Q: OK, so I'm a huge nerd for "The Abyss." Do you consider "Avatar" a refinement of (or second try at) the ideas in "The Abyss"?

A:
Some of the ideas, yeah.

Q: The films share a lot of similarities: hostile environments, remote corporations, twisted military men, aliens, a strong eco-message...

A:
Yeah -- especially if you're familiar with the extended cut of "The Abyss," which is a real indictment of human nature as seen from an alien perspective.

I was watching "The Abyss" recently on cable -- I kind of popped into the middle of it one night -- and the color spectrum of the alien ships and creatures and so on, a lot of those design ideas were carried on in "Avatar."



Q: You've talked about getting into underwater environments on Pandora  in the "Avatar" sequels...

A:
Yep.

Q: Are there any ideas you'll be plundering for the sequels from "The Abyss" or "Aliens of the Deep"? 

A:
(Laughs.) Well, I don't know about "plunder"...

Q: "Plunder" is the wrong word, but you know what I mean.

A:
Well, I love design. I have a lot of visual archetypes in my mind that haven't made it onto film yet, and they're strongly influenced by the natural world -- especially the underwater world. So the direction I want to take it on the second "Avatar" film is to see the underwater world of Pandora, and to fill it not only with amazing creatures, but amazing adaptations of the Na'vi  to living at and under the water.

Q: Oh, sure. Because in the film there were sort of these different neighborhoods of the Na'vi.

A:
Sure. There were a number of different biomes on the planet, and just as we humans adapt to desert, forest, and mountain environments here on Earth, the Na'vi do the same.

Q: I love how I used the word "neighborhood" and you used the word "biome."

A:
Well.

Q: Fans have been calling for Guillermo del Toro to direct the H.P. Lovecraft  adaptation "At the Mountains of Madness" for years at this point, and you're finally making it happen. Do you see your power as a means to realize fan-dream projects like that?

A:
Well, that's more of a personal thing. Guillermo and I have been friends, and we've looked for opportunities to work together. And when he fell out of "The Hobbit" project, we were talking, just kind of commiserating -- and he had spent a lot of time on that, and he wanted to go work on something that would sort of feed his soul as a filmmaker.

I said, "What's your favorite project? What do you want to do?" He said, " 'At the Mountains of Madness.' " And I was a huge Lovecraft fan, always have been -- just read him voraciously in college. And I said, "Let's do it!" Who doesn't want to see Cthulhu? (Laughs.)

Q: You wrote a blue-sky, 60-page scriptment for "Avatar" in the mid-'90s, but had to set it aside because of special-effects limitations at the time. Did you expect to never pick it up again, or were you just calmly waiting for processing power to catch up with you?

A:
I always figured if I lived long enough, I'd make "Avatar." I always liked the story. But I had sort of forgotten about it. And I was struggling with the script on (his as-yet-unproduced manga adaptation) "Battle Angel,"  and I had sent my co-writer Laeta Kalogridis off to write a completely new version of the script -- we had thrown out everything on "Battle Angel" and started over. And she went off to do that, and I thought, "This draft isn't gonna work, either."

So I pulled out "Avatar" and re-read it, thinking, "Well, I don't know, what about this old saw?" And I read it kind of in one sitting and thought, "Wow ... you know, this isn't that bad." (Laughs.) "I kind of want to see this. And I'll bet you we can do it." It was the first time I actually thought there was an alignment between what I imagined and what was possible.

Little did I know that a lot of it was still impossible and we had to create the means to do it.

So we merrily set off down the path of developing "Avatar." And Laeta came back with a script for "Battle Angel" that was great. So I was in this weird position of having to decide between two really cool projects.

It was almost a coin toss -- that's the funny thing. And it went like this:

We decided to do a proof-of-concept test of our virtual captures (the technology used to make "Avatar"'s Na'vi come to life), and we were developing it for both "Avatar" and "Battle Angel" -- meaning whichever one we did first didn't really matter. And the night before the test, we needed something to shoot. So I wrote a scene. I went through "Battle Angel" and I couldn't find a scene between two virtual characters that had enough dialogue in it, because there's more emphasis on live-action in "Battle Angel." So I wrote an "Avatar" scene. And then once we started doing that scene, we never looked back -- we kept working on "Avatar." So it was almost arbitrary.

Q: Do you think "Battle Angel" will be your next gig?

A:
Uh.... I don't know. I'm still weighing that.

Q: I know you're probably getting asked that question in every interview. Sorry.

A:
No, not at all. A lot of people have sort of forgotten about it. But people who are fans of this stuff haven't. I wish I had a better answer -- I just really haven't made a decision yet about how to deal with "Battle Angel" now that "Avatar" has got so much momentum and has the opportunity to become a kind of persistent world for fans.

Q: Well, one of the stories of your career is you coming up with ideas -- "Avatar," the T-1000 -- that couldn't be filmed immediately because of tech limitations.

A:
Right.

Q: Do you have any blue-sky filmmaking ideas now that are out of your reach due to our current technological limitations? Is anything rattling around in your head that tops the technological achievement of "Avatar," in other words?

A:
Oh, I'm sure that everybody will scream and cry when I turn in the script for the next one. Well, for example, just doing a lot of water work in CG is already daunting -- although Weta made such strong strides with water just from the first "Avatar" film, even though they're only a couple of scenes. You know, that scene where all the banshees with the sea people are flying out from the cliffs and the waves are crashing against the rocks and water's flying up into the sunset sky –that's all CG. There's not a lick of photography in any of that stuff. So I'm sort of of a mind right now that pretty much anything I come up with, we'll be able to do.

Q: It strikes me that there's this essential dichotomy in your work, which is that you make action-packed movies about peace and harmony. For example: Your deeply anti-nuclear-war movie "T2"  has one of the most lovingly photographed nuclear-blast shots in movie history.

A:
Yeah, I know, I know. It's definitely a love/hate relationship with technology, a love/hate relationship with combat... You know, I've always described "Terminator 2" as "a violent film about peace."

Q: Right. I was actually going to quote that back to you. Are you comfortable with the ambiguity? Can you do that F. Scott Fitzgerald thing where you're holding contradictory ideas in your head?

A:
Yeah, I'm comfortable with duality of thought. But I also see it as being consistent. I don't believe that peace is achieved by people sitting in a field holding hands and singing. I believe that peace is achieved through superior firepower on the side of moral right. (Laughs.)

Q: You convened a summit that gathered scientists and officials to brainstorm ideas on how to stop the BP oil spill. BP ignored your resulting report -- but ultimately, two months later, did exactly what you'd recommended, right?

A:
Yeah, that's absolutely accurate. I think our report was ignored for political reasons -- and I think BP ultimately did exactly what we recommended only by the coincidence of the fact that it was the right answer. Because I don't think the BP engineering team ever really even knew that we were working or saw what we had written. I think it went the way the Lost Ark went at the end of "Raiders" -- just kind of into the bureaucratic maze.

But we were right -- our solution was the right answer. And we also recommended the "top kill" be tried again immediately. I mean, we studied the problem for a week, we had the best engineers we could round up, we got the best technical expertise from the oil industry -- non-BP people who could speak plainly.

My fantasy was we'd build something, we'd go in and clamp it on the damn thing and shut it off. That fantasy died when we got into the logistics of it, and it had to be done by BP, and it required big ships and dynamic positioning and the things they knew how to do. But we still continued with our process and submitted our report, which said, "What they should do is take off the riser at the top flange of the blowout preventer; using that flange, attach a surface-control valve system to increase the back pressure; and repeat 'top kill' using the three-inch lines." And that's exactly what they did.

It probably took BP a month to figure out how to market the idea, and then somebody came up with the idea of calling it "static kill" instead of "top kill" so it didn't look like they were just flailing around, doing the same thing again. But they did exactly what we said they should do. And it worked.

Q: Always a great idea to worry about branding your "kills." How did your friends in the deep-submergence community react to all this? Did you get a bunch of e-mails at once with the subject header "Told ya so"?

A:
Yeah. They were all pretty frustrated by the whole process. You know, it's one thing to be wrong because we didn't have access to some piece of information that the 500 engineers working for BP had that we didn't. But we weren't wrong. And during that delay, a million gallons of oil a day, for two months, went into the Gulf.  Untold damage.

Q: Sixty million gallons.

A:
Yeah, exactly. Well, look -- doing it from the time we recommended it would still have taken two or three weeks. But I think you could still safely say 30 to 35 million gallons.

It all relates, by the way. I mean, "Avatar" is a movie about the environment and how we're screwing it up and how the endless so-called "progress" of civilization is just slowly wiping out our planet. So to me, I don't distinguish between the real-world activities in defense of the ocean and the environment and spending five years making a movie about that subject.

Q: That ties beautifully into my next "Avatar" question: I've read the "Avatar" screenplay that Fox posted online around Oscar  season, and I'll admit the thing I want to see re-inserted into the film are the opening scenes set on the polluted, dystopian Earth -- the shots of lead character Jake in a sports bar -- the polluted, crowded cityscapes. You shot this sequence, correct? Any chance we'll be seeing that?

A:
Well, if you buy the box set in November, you can sit down, and in a continuous screening of the film, watch it with the Earth opening.

Q: Oh, really.

A:
Yeah. It works very well. It just takes a long time to get the movie started. You have to be sort of predisposed to like the movie like a fan, you know what I mean? And then you can sit and you can have a great ride -- a different telling of "Avatar." Not inconsistent -- it's just the stuff that happened off-camera.

We call it "the Earth opening." It's about 4 1/2 minutes of stuff. And it was in for the longest time. It was very late in the day that we took it out. I walked in one day and said to my two editors, "Guys, I want each of you to cut a new version of the start of the film, Reel 1, that doesn't have any Earth in it at all." And they looked at me like I was out of my mind. And I said, "No -- it's gonna work." They had to figure out the details. I said, "Just grab a couple of things to use as flashbacks, and start it in space when Jake opens his eyes."

Q: So wait – does the re-release start on Earth?

A:
No. The re-release opening Friday starts the same way. But in November, you can buy a box set with all the bells and whistles. It's got like 45 minutes of unfinished deleted scenes that exist in a supplement where you can just play the scenes individually.

But it's all a big negotiation with the studios; how much money do they want to spend on these sort of revisionist versions of the movie? Because on the whole Earth opening, the visual effects weren't done, and we had to go back and spend a million bucks or whatever to get those shots done. So there's a price-tag dangling from anything that gets re-inserted. It's not like "Apocalypse Now,"  where they blow up a Vietnamese  village and the footage is done – there are no visual effects after the fact. We've got to go back, and it's our time and our energy and the studio's money to re-create this stuff.

But (in November) you'll be able to watch a 16-minute-longer version of the film that's a nice, flowing, cohesive version of the movie. If you just want to wallow in "Avatar" for three hours, I can get that for you.

Q: A friend points out to me that one of your most enduring legacies as a filmmaker is the culture's crazy, omnipotent embrace of "Aliens"-style military tech in movies and videogames...

A:
I know, I know. It's crazy. It's like "Halo" should be paying me residuals. (Laughs.)

Q: Is that flattering, or does it ever get kind of annoying?

A:
It's flattering. I think it's fine. I think it's absolutely fine. I mean, everybody draws from what goes before them. For me, it was reading Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers," you know? I didn't come up with my ideas out of nowhere. Heinlein was reacting to his experiences in the military in World War II,  and extrapolating that into the future.

But these ideas connect. You can always go back and find the sources for them. It isn't plagiarism -- it's evolution. So "The Matrix"  owes some of its ideas to "The Terminator" and "Aliens," but also to manga and Sergio Leone movies and all kinds of other sources, as well.

So you can see the references. And I think that's true in literature, as well. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. So I look at "Halo" and think, "Well, yeah, sure, I know where they got that." But that doesn't mean it's not its own work, or that it's not highly creative.

The weird thing is when you start referencing yourself. I have Quaritch  running around in an AMP suit, which basically is kind of the grandchild of Sigourney Weaver  in the power-loader from "Aliens." Which is pretty funny, considering Sigourney's in both movies. (Laughs.)

-- Mike Russell

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eileenonme August 27, 2010 at 3:10AM

No, a simple plot wasn't better. The oversimplified characters and the utter predictability of the plot killed it for me. With that much money going into production, you'd think you could have afforded some decent script writers. Clearly this movie was about the special effects and making money. It was a great example of special effects but NOT a great movie.

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H5N1 August 26, 2010 at 5:05PM

Avatar is an amazing technical achievement and beautiful to watch, but I hope Cameron is a little more original with the plots of the sequels. "Defenseless natives fight the evil corporation/military" as a plot was beat to death 20 years ago. Even Steven Segal has done a couple movies with that plot. Cameron can do better.

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jdmd8910 August 27, 2010 at 5:21AM

Ok, Cameron is one brilliant and talented guy... so he rambles a bit... but this interviewer thinks that he too should ramble and make his peer to peer shop talk blather. The resulting article is random noise... Come on Oregonian, at least pretend you have editors on your staff.

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hanoiduck August 27, 2010 at 6:35AM

I disagree jdmd I think the interviewer came across sounding like a serious movie buff. He asked very knowledgeable questions that taught the reader both some about James Cameron as well as movie making. It was refreshing not to read an interview all about gossip and surface questions. I think I need to go buy the Abyss now.

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DeAnn Welker, The Oregonian August 27, 2010 at 11:51PM

jdmd8910, we don't have to pretend. Check Sunday's paper for the edited-for-print version. This is the full transcript of the conversation, which I (as the editor) chose to run in full because I think there's value for readers and movie fans. Glad to see hanoiduck agrees, and hopefully others do too.

I certainly don't agree the interview is "random noise." The questions were intelligent and thoughtful and on-point -- exactly the opposite of what I would consider random noise.

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