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Quint chats AVATAR one on one with James Cameron!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with one of the biggie interviews I was lucky enough to snag at this year’s Comic-Con. I had gotten the chance to interview James Cameron back in 2006 right before he announced what his Project 880 was and I tried to keep my geek in check as best I could. Read that here if you missed it. I don’t know how well I succeeded then, but this time I didn’t have time to freak out. The interview below is really short, but considering very few people got 1:1s with Cameron at the Con this year (and also given Fox’s track record of (not) working with AICN) I’m still very grateful for the opportunity. Before the recorder was turned on there was some small talk about how awesome Weta is. Cameron mentioned that he’d seen some of their design work on THE HOBBIT (his exact words were that it was “the shit”) and that it really is the original trilogy world created by Weta and Peter Jackson, but with a slight influence of Guillermo del Toro’s style. Cameron said the two styles mix perfectly together. That began our talk about the design phase on AVATAR in which Cameron mentioned joining in with the Weta guys to design a few specific creatures in the movie (keep in mind he got his start doing design work with Roger Corman). That’s where we begin. Hope you enjoy the chat!

Quint: Which creatures were you more hands on in terms of designing or can you say?

James Cameron: Sure, well the Thanator is my baby. I told everybody “Just step the hell back. That’s mine!” The Viper Wolf I did some early drawings for and that ended up being about ninety percent what I had sketched out. The other ones evolved from the group, like the Sternbeast, the Banshees, the Leonopteryx. Wayne Barlowe even got a little of his scent on the Leonopteryx. He was one of our first designers, but he didn’t stay with the project very long, but the big kind of double crest that it has on her… We haven’t released any art on the Leonopteryx yet, but it’s a major player story-wise. [Quint note: They may have not released any official art, but the toy was on display on the Con floor and Kraken snagged a photo of it:]

You know, everything that they saw in there today is all first half of the film. I want thh3 to have a good foundation, but their imaginations are going to have to build on that for the next few months, because there is a story in this film as well, besides just the complexity and completeness of the world.

Quint: Yeah, so then this presentation was more of introducing the fans to the world and to the tech…

James Cameron: It’s a learning curve.

Quint: The 3-D is pretty incredible. What I loved about your footage was that it’s not just a window into your film. The way you frame your shots, you also frame the distance between the audience and the screen as well. I see a lot of 3-D now is just kind of that just looking through a window in 3-D…

Click here to read along with the next bit in Amazing Sound-O-Text!

James Cameron: You have to know you are making a 3-D film, but the style that I’ve always used has gone foreground/background compositions, there’s always something kind of intruding in the frame in the foreground or sort of framing the action compositionally and I tend towards the shorter focal length lenses which work well in 3-D, because I’ve always been interested in the characters in an environment, not the characters against an out of focus bunch of lights that you know is a city, but you can’t actually see it, which is how let’s say Michael Mann would shoot MIAMI VICE. That style would not translate into 3-D at all. It just wouldn’t work, but the style that I used on TITANIC let’s say, or even ALIENS translates perfectly; I don’t even have to rethink how I do things. Here’s a question for you. You’ve seen the material presented in 3-D. Is the story 3-D or is the story the world and the characters? Let’s say we hadn’t made the movie in 3D at all, who would care? Would it still be cool?

Quint: Honestly, once we’re on Pandora I wasn’t paying much attention to the 3-D.

James Cameron: Exactly! If you are doing your job right in terms of lighting and composition and just kind of the way you set a shot, it should cue the eye. Depth should be cued in terms of the image elh3ents that are not actually stereoscopic. I’ve been doing that my whole career, so adding the stereo is adding a layer, but it’s not some whole new thing.

Quint: Yeah, it’s just another piece for storytelling, another tool in the toolbox.

James Cameron: It’s like better sound. It’s not going to hurt your film, but you don’t rely on it.

Quint: Exactly and you didn’t have a lot of “Poke ‘em in the eye” stuff, but like I said I liked that you placed 3-D between the audience and the screen, because that I think that kind of 3-D work is being automatically dismissed by most filmmakers, especially with animated films in 3-D.

James Cameron: It’s gone from every shot having to be a “Poke you in the eye” gag or the “paddle ball”…

Quint: Yeah, the SCTV bit…

James Cameron: Yes, exactly. “That’s so last century” and a bit “classe” and now “let’s just be an aquarium” where everything is happening beyond the frame and really the answer is if the stereo camera is three feet from you, you are going to feel as an audience, like we are three feet from you. That’s how it works!

Quint: That’s how it should be! Let the story dictate what is in 3-D and what is not.

James Cameron: The space is the space, so it’s whatever space you want the people to experience. Do you want them to feel very close to the characters? Do you want them to feel immersed in the moment? When you are tracking down a corridor, do you want to feel like you are in a corridor? Or are you interested in a more stacked composition that’s very long lensy? I’ve done both in this film and sometimes what you are saying artistically at a given moment maybe is not best served by 3-D, in which case I just sort of forget about it. Who cares? Every shot doesn’t have to be the best 3-D shot in history.

Quint: Story-wise, I think what’s really interesting about AVATAR is you originally envisioned this quite a while back and then you revisited it, came back to the story. Did that help you shape it to what it eventually became or was it more of a challenge to merge your present day self with your ideas a decade or more ago?

Click here to read along with the next bit in Amazing Sound-O-Text!

James Cameron: No, no. I had sort of forgotten about it, to tell you the truth. I wrote it back in the mid nineties in order to be a sort of catapult to fling Digital Domain ahead of ILM and some of the other houses in terms of 3-D character development, because that’s where we were weak. At the time we were ruling on 2-D composite. We had the best color space around and the best composite system around, but we were way behind on creature development, because we were cutting our teeth on films like TRUE LIES and APOLLO 13 and TITANIC that didn’t have any of that. So I thought “Alright, fuck it. I’m going to go way out in front,” so I created something that was like way, way out in front and when I took it to the Digital Domain guys to break down, they said “Dude, you are out of your mind.” They really did. They said “We can’t do this. It’s going to either cost an insane amount of money, like building the pyramids, or it just simply won’t be possible,” so I said “Alright fine,” so I shoved it in a drawer and forgot about it.

Quint: And the technology caught up.

James Cameron: It did. And then I was watching I think the second LORD OF THE RINGS film where Gollum has the soliloquy with himself and I thought “Oh, we can do it now. If they can do that, then we can do AVATAR.” Now we’ve got to look at economies of scale, because that’s one short scene and can we do a whole film that way? But at least it was now officially possible.

Quint: Because you can see Andy Serkis in that performance.

James Cameron: Absolutely. Now it turns out that a lot of that was keyframe and it was inspired by Andy, but it was actually a lot of keyframe work. We have eliminated a lot of the keyframe steps, or at least we have enslaved keyframe to the actors in a way that is 100% what the actors are doing. I mean really 100%, not 95%. We thought we would be lucky if we got 90% when we started down this road, but it’s a hundred percent actor driven what you’re seeing there, which is why the characters are quite humanoid, maybe to the disappointment of some hard science fiction people that would say “We are tired of all of these Klingons and everything that look like people because they are makeup on an actor and now you are doing CG and making it look like a person.” But if you really look at it carefully, Neytiri’s eyes by volume are four times the size of a human eye. Sam Worthington’s Avatar character, his eyes are twice as far apart as his real eyes. It’s not a look that you could actually accomplish with makeup and other physical features like ear replacement and nose and length of face... All of those things just are not possible with make up and because makeup is additive and they are these ecto-morphic continuated figures… It wouldn’t look like that.

Quint: Alright, well I think they are wrapping us up, but thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Like I said, way too short, even if we’re only really discussing 24 minutes of footage. I have no idea if we’ll be invited for further Avatar coverage, but speaking for myself I’d love another shot at picking Jim’s brain about this film and the technology he’s using, but more importantly, the story he’s telling. Obviously that’s a conversation for closer to release (or maybe even after release), but if we have another shot at discussing this film with Cameron you better believe we’re on it. -Quint

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