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September 2014
Issue: January 1, 2010

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: JAMES CAMERON - 'AVATAR'

By: Iain Blair
HOLLYWOOD — It’s been 12 long years since James Cameron’s last feature film, a little production called Titanic, lived up to its name and all the hype, conquering the world and every box office record in history. Now the visionary director is back with Avatar, a four-years-in-the-making 3D sci-fi epic featuring the world of Pandora populated by blue-skinned locals and human-engineered avatars.
Here, in an exclusive interview, Cameron talks about making the film, which stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver, and the groundbreaking technology that went into the ambitious project.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
JAMES CAMERON: “Pretty much the one we made, which was a film that’s like the stuff that played on the projection screen of my mind when I was a teenager, informed by science fiction. I used to read it voraciously, since there wasn’t so much of it in theatres back then. Except for 2001, there wasn’t anything really vivid — maybe Planet of the Apes. So every time I’d read a science-fiction novel, I wanted to see that stuff in the movies, and the only film I’ve really made so far that was a space subject was working in Ridley Scott’s house, doing the Alien sequel. And I wanted to do original stuff, all those creatures and landscapes and plants and animals that I’d been drawing and noodling with over some 20 years.
“So I looked for a wrap-up project that could do all that — start with a clean slate, a brand-new world, make it up from scratch and make up my own rules, so I could pick the color of the sky basically. Then I realized that historically there are some pretty successful examples of this, such as Star Wars and Star Trek — even The Lord of the Rings. And fans really love this kind of depth and detail, so when I began Avatar I really put a lot of energy and focus into a sense of completeness in detail of the world, for that very reason. So if we fail it all ends there, but if we are successful — and I think all your decisions should be made as if you’re going to be successful, as nothing else makes sense — don’t bet against yourself, right? — then we’ll make more films and that world will continue to flesh itself out and be a place that fans can go to.”

POST: What were the main challenges of bringing all that to life?
CAMERON: “The design was a huge challenge. It took two years to design all the nuances and so on, but to me that’s less of a challenge and more just fun. I love doing all that. I’d say that in terms of just butting our heads against the wall, it was breaking through the barrier of emotional reality in the CG characters. And we did it in the end, because we knew it’d be the biggest and toughest challenge of the whole film — that the film would succeed or fail not on its beautiful wide vistas but in its tightest close-ups. And once we cracked the code — and it wasn’t one code for all characters, it was eight different codes and each one had to fall into place perfectly before we could really relax — and we’d gotten all the main characters with their CG characters operating properly and being truthful to the actors’ performances, then we knew all we had to do was work for another year to get the other 2,000 shots done. Which was the other big challenge.”

POST: You love technology. How much fun was it developing the new 3D Fusion camera system for this?
CAMERON: “I like imagining something that doesn’t exist yet, that’s just around the corner in terms of what’s possible, then building it and firing that sucker up and watching it run. There’s nothing more satisfying to me in the world — and that applies to robotics, the underwater systems we used on the expeditions, the little box we used to explore inside deep ocean ship wrecks, lights, subs and all the technology we developed and used on this. It’s just a whole separate part of my brain. It gets its own ya-yas out from doing this sort of film and has almost nothing to do with the director side of me that loves to work with actors, create characters and make an audience laugh or cry. That’s a whole other lobe.”

POST: Didn’t you also develop another camera system?
CAMERON: “Yes, the Simulcamera. It happened like this: I was working on the virtual stage, playing with this virtual camera, which isn’t a camera at all — it’s just this object the computer says is a camera, and it renders what the object would be seeing if it were a camera, and shows it to you on a screen mounted on the object.
“So it becomes essentially a camera in a virtual world, but it’s not an optical device. So I said, ‘What if it was a camera, and it could actually photograph what was is front of it? Could we not put up a greenscreen with actors in front, run it through a switcher, key it back to me at the eyepiece, and me be able to move the camera around and see both the CG world and the live-action actors at the same time? Wouldn’t that be possible?’ And everyone stood there and went, ‘Oh fuck! We think you’re right —we just don’t want to have to build it.’
“It took them years to make it. Glenn Derry built it, the guy who set up the original head rigs and our whole process of capture. The Simulcam is a live-action tracking system that allows you to look at the live world and virtual world simultaneously in the same eyepiece. So it merges the two worlds, and we had the stereoscopic Fusion cameras I’d developed with Vince Pace, and the whole virtual camera system, and then we used the Simulcam system to combine the two.”

POST: The Simulcam sounds completely revolutionary.
CAMERON: “It is! It’s amazing. I think the performance capture stuff isn’t revolutionary, only in the sense that not everyone’s going to run out and make a film that way. It’s going to remain a niche area. But a lot of people are making movies with more and more greenscreen, instead of building big sets and going on location, and audiences accept it.
“So to the extent that Robert Rodriguez and Zack Snyder are making these deconstructed films that are just foregrounds, where everything else is added in behind them, and they’re the ones really setting the trend for where film is going, then the Simulcam is probably the most important thing to come out of this whole project. Absolutely. Because anyone can use it, whether you’re shooting in 3D or not. And you don’t have to use performance capture.”

POST: Walk us through the whole post process. Where did you do the post? How long was it?
CAMERON: “We did most of our post at the studio we built in Playa Vista, where we did all the motion capture. And if we needed something, we’d just run down to the stage and capture it. We were in the studio four years to the day from the time we began testing and building up the whole pipeline of how we did the capture, how we took that motion and edited and then put it back down into the volume for me to do my cameras.
“All the cameras — or what we call ‘cameras,’ which are the shots in the film — were done separately from the capture. So we did capture with the actors, but I didn’t take time to do all my coverage while I was doing the capture. We uncoupled that into two separate processes.”

POST: So where post began and ended on this film must have been hard to pinpoint?
CAMERON: “Exactly. It began before the movie. And then the editing was done twice. First, you edit the performances and take, say, Sam [Worthington, lead actor] from Take 4, Zoe Saldana (lead actress) from Take 2, and maybe the master of all the characters from Take 3. Then you go do all the camera work. And once you’ve done all that, you have virtual shots that you can actually cut with, for the first time several months into the process. Everything before that I called ‘Zen editing,’ as you’re editing without shots. It’s like Zen archery, shooting without an arrow.”

POST: It must have been hard for you and your editors, Steve Rivkin (Pirates of the Caribbean) and John Refoua (Ghosts of the Abyss and Dark Angel). Tell us about the editing process.
CAMERON: (Laughs) “They were going mad! At the start, they had no idea how to deal with this! And they’re very, very experienced editors. They’re used to all the big, complicated visual effects, but were clueless about how to tackle this film. We all just stared at each other and said, ‘How the fuck do we do this?’ Then we gradually figured it out and built a methodology. And it was very challenging to tease the film out of the footage, as we ended up with a film that was too long, and we had to figure out exactly what was important to the story.”

POST: Where did you edit?
CAMERON: “We cut on Avid [Media Composer] and we had a cutting room in Malibu and one at Playa Vista, and we had all the media — something like 40TB [Avid Unity shared storage] — in both places, which proved to be very valuable. We had a big crash at Playa and lost three blades of the system and had to reconstitute it all from Malibu. But we could cut at either place.”

POST: How many visual effects shots are there and how did it break down? Isn’t the whole film a visual effect?
CAMERON: “Yes, there’s probably less than two minutes out of the entire two and a half hours that’s not a visual effect. But a good portion of that two and a half hours is conventional 2D composite stuff where you’ve got a greenscreen foreground and you’re putting in the stuff that’s out the windows, or it’s a vehicle shot with backgrounds. And then Weta did all the CG characters, and anything that wasn’t a CG character — one of the Na’vi or avatars — we farmed out to ILM, Hydraulx and Framestore, to take the pressure off Weta, as it was such a big job. Weta did around 2,300 shots in the end, which is enormous. Titanic was just 420! That puts it in perspective.”

POST: Are visual effects more expensive when you do them in stereo?
CAMERON: “Yes, but it depends. If it’s all CG, it’s just a little more expensive to do the final renders. But most of the labor over the life of the shot is animation and color and lighting and so on, and that’s all very easy to render from a second eye. So maybe it’s five percent more expensive. But if it’s a hybrid shot that’s got live action and compositing of live action and CG elements, it gets relatively more expensive. And then if it’s an all-live-action shot, then it’s cheap again. So there’s this Bell curve of expense.”

POST: What was that the most difficult visual effects shot to pull off?
CAMERON: “It was a class of shots, rather than any individual one. It was anything with Zoe’s character or Sam’s character in his avatar form, and making them real. Once we’d cracked that, it all went pretty smoothly. But toward the end, we began to find these shots that sort of defied our ability to make them look real, and they were generally in the most fanciful environment of the film, which is this place called The Tree of Souls. It’s lit green from below, purple from above, by bioluminescence, and nothing looked right. It took a lot of experimentation to get it to look visually plausible.”

POST: Tell us about audio and the mix.
CAMERON: “It’s so key to any movie, and we spent a lot of time on the mix, which we did on the Fox lot, on the Howard Hawkes stage. I had three great mixers — Chris Boyes was the sound designer and chief mixer, and Gary Summers and Andy Nelson also did the sound mix. We got fried from the sheer wall of sound.
“Reel 7 was so loud in the missile attack scene we had to stop mixing and come back a day later when our ears had rested enough. And that was only two-thirds of the way through the movie. We were dreading having to mix the final battle. We’d been building up all the sounds for literally a year, but it all went quite smoothly since it wasn’t a sustained barrage of sound like Reel 7.”

POST: This has to be the most technically difficult film you’ve ever made and mixed.
CAMERON: “Totally. The sound was as tough on Terminator 2, True Lies and Titanic, and not to minimize that, but I always go crazy on the sound. We went as crazy on the picture as we normally do with the sound, and it really was almost like a picture mix. We actually took over the Robert Wise stage in Building 29 and turned it into the image mix. We brought in a da Vinci Resolve, and did all our color and stereo space adjustments there. We had two Avid [Media Composers] and our Polycom to Weta in Wellington [New Zealand]. We did all of our visual effects reviews in there, for eight hours a day, and our stereoscopic reviews too, so it was our image central. We had a team of 10 sitting at workstations all day long.”

POST: I guess you do a digital intermediate, except it’s not really a digital intermediate?
CAMERON: “Yes, calling it ‘the DI’ is a little inaccurate as you’re never in film, but the idea of a DI where you do all the final color correction and power windowing is the same. So we still call it the DI [laughs]. We did it adjacent to doing all the VFX reviews, so we’d feed a shot in from one of the VFX vendors, and sometimes we wouldn’t even get it done with the vendor. We’d ask them to send us an alpha on the foreground and we’d just stick it into the Resolve and then we’d work in the Resolve and actually finish the composite there — maybe lighten up the background. I found it to be almost a fantasy of what I’d always imagined this’d be, when it all converged properly.”

POST: There seems to be a big hybrid trend now, with films mixing visual effects, animation and live action.
CAMERON: “There is, but I also feel the audience doesn’t care how it’s done as long as it feels like a cohesive whole to them, and when we decided to go to Pandora and spend four years there, we just felt, we’ll do it with whatever it takes to make it real. If we can shoot it, we’ll shoot it. If we have to use CG, we’ll do CG. And if we need a hybrid of the two, we’ll do that too.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
CAMERON: “Yes and no. When you’re cutting, you wake up one day and realize, I don’t need that scene. So a scene I might have felt  — for two years — was really critical to the film, is suddenly out. So you can’t say, I always saw it exactly how it was going to be, but that’s part of the fun and the journey. The story takes on its own life, and you wrestle it like a boa constrictor, and eventually you have to wrestle it into submission — or die!”