James Cameron Avatar Interview
James Cameron and John Landau discuss the creation of Avatar.
Read what James Cameron has to say about "Avatar" during our interview today, and a potential trilogy! At Comic Con we got to sit down with James Cameron and Jon Landau during the press events to discuss their upcoming epic "AVATAR." "Avatar" is the story of an ex-Marine who finds himself thrust into hostilities on an alien planet filled with exotic life forms. As an Avatar, a human mind in an alien body, he finds himself torn between two worlds, in a desperate fight for his own survival and that of the indigenous people. More than ten years in the making, Avatar marks Cameron's return to feature directing since helming 1997's Titanic, the highest grossing film of all time and winner of eleven Oscars® including Best Picture.
WETA Digital, renowned for its work in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "King Kong," will incorporate new intuitive CGI technologies to transform the environments and characters into photo-realistic 3D imagery that will transport the audience into the alien world rich with imaginative vistas, creatures, and characters. Here is what James had to say;
Question: Did you show the same stuff at Cinema Expo that you did downstairs?
Jon Landau: We showed probably the same stuff. Well, we showed Jake flying and we didn't show them that. That is something that we didn't show at Cinema Expo but we want to continue to reveal things and roll it out.
Question: On 'Avatar' Day, the screening at Imax that you're going to do for that one day, will there be even more then?
Jon Landau We'll let people go discover on 'Avatar' Day what we're screening. I think that's part of the fun of it. Also, that day we're going to be releasing out teaser trailer which will give hints to the breadth and the scope of the rest of the movie and I think that's an important element of introducing people to it's world.
Question: I got to see some footage last week and was shocked at the design of the lead characters. How do you think audiences will react to a really different feeling?
James Cameron: Good shocked or bad shocked?
Question: Well, my jaw hit the floor several times. Very good shocked. Do you think the American people will buy into these people as protagonists? Will that work?
James Cameron: They better. They better be ready to go blue, I guess. I mean, we spent a lot of time on the character design and we based them closely on the actors. We found out in our very early testing, going back almost four years with this, that the closer the architecture of the face was to the actor playing the character the better the performance translated. In other words it didn't have to be interpreted by Key Frame Animation. So we actually cast this film looking at and making sure it was a face that we wanted. In other words, we originally had this conceit of, like, 'Well, it's going to be a CG character. It doesn't have to look like the actor.' But that turned out not to be the case. So we cast actors that, in the case of lets say Zoe [Saldana] for example; in theory she doesn't appear photographically in the film but we wanted to the character to be based on her, the way her mouth and face and eyes look and then we just kind of stretched and dilated it. Her eyes are four times the size of a human eyeball by volume. They're huge. We knew that being driven by the performance that she gave that it'd still have heart and soul which was the critical thing. I think that after the first few minutes you forget that they're blue.
I mean, really, it was a fine line to walk between making them too alien. I think in some earlier images, when they started to leak and even with the banners some of the fans were saying, 'Gee, I thought they'd look more alien, if you're going to go to all this trouble with CG and everything.' But if it wasn't a love story, if it was more of a film about first contact with an alien race I think it would be. But this is really a story about assimilation and Jake becoming one of them and starting to see through the eyes of people who are culturally different.
It's a love story, too. So the physiological differences, the more alien we made them in the early design phase we just kept asking ourselves, basically the crude version is, 'Would you want to do her?' And our all male crew of artists were basically like, 'No, take the gills out.' Do you know what I mean? It was pretty simple but then taken to a very sophisticated degree. The Stan Winston Studio guys that I've worked with since 'Terminator' were brought in at that point to take the rough designs and to really fine tune them, do the busts, do the casts because we did casts from the actors faces; Sam's [Worthington] face, Zoe, CCH Pounder who plays Zoe's character's mom. You didn't see that in the clips here. There's a whole family.
Jon Landau Wes Studi.
James Cameron: Wes Studi. Yeah, he's a Native American actor you'd recognize right away, if you don't know him by name. We wanted to capture them in their characters but make their characters, still emphasize the animal and the alien in them. The idea was that when we sort of go to meet the future mother and father in law we want them to be scary and freaky. So the older Na'vi are a little stranger than the younger Na'vi, like Neytiri. So we had a lot of fun with the design but we never asked ourselves a question of whether people would accept it or not and I think that's the huge advantage of actually being a geek fan yourself. You don't ask yourself questions like that. I mean, the studio guys, God love them, they signed up to write a big check for this movie and they've backed our play a hundred percent, all the way down the line, thick or thin. But at the beginning, they would ask questions like, 'Do they need to be blue? Do they need to have a tail?' Things like that. I thought, 'Well, yeah, of course they do.'
Jon Landau Also, what Jim did is that he wrote it so that we go on Jake's journey. Jake is our entry into the world and so he introduces this to the Avatars. He introduces us to the world and to the Na'vi's and we accept it as we go on that journey.
Question: What was the spark, the first thing that made you decide that this is the film you wanted to make?
James Cameron: Well, look, this thing has been generating in fragments for a long time, even since the sort of mid '70's when I first started my hand at screenwriting. I was creating stories with spacecrafts and other worlds and some of these creatures actually are distance descendants through a long Darwinian process of the creatures that I was creating then. The Bio-Luminescent world, I wrote a script called 'Xeno Genesis' in '76 or '77. It never got made, but it had a bio-luminescent force in it. I don't even remember the transition point from being a fan, a reader of science fiction and as an artist drawing things, drawing spacecraft, drawing aliens to actually putting them into scenes. When I sat down, honestly, as the CEO of Digital Domain in '95 to package a story that would push us ahead in 3-D character development I took all these floating fragments. I did the same thing on 'Aliens'. I had already written story fragments prior and when I got the gig to write 'Alien II' I just grabbed all the stuff that I'd already been thinking about and slammed it together. It felt very kind of mercenary at the time. I was just throwing crap at it. What happens is that over time you rewrite it, you massage it and you improve the storyline and all those sorts of things. So I don't know if there was a single spark.
Jon Landau But Jim, when you did write it, you completed the (SP?) descriptment in '95, even though time passed your passion for telling, not the technologies of it, but the dramatic and character –
James Cameron: You love your characters. I think any writer falls in love with their characters, sometimes to their detriment as a filmmaker. They get a little precious with it or whatever, but I fall in love with my characters. And I fall in love with them all over again when they're cast. Now I have my cast in, all that tough process of whether this is the right person and what they bring versus this other person, you're always just absolutely dreading that you're going to screw it up because you learn over time that you might be the best director in the world but you cast a picture wrong you're screwed because people have to go on a journey with those characters. Those characters have to be played by someone that affects you, affects your emotionally. I think that Sam does that, Zoe does that. So I fall in love with my characters on the page and then I fall in love with them again later, and then at that point I give them up. I turn them over to the actors and they become theirs.
Question: When you've been living with a characters and a story for so long do you anticipate turning it over to the public and is it scary, the thought of not living with it anymore?
James Cameron: I think you want to be done with it at certain point and you want it out there and you want to start getting some feedback. Hopefully it flows, if people like, if they like the world…we want them to like it enough so that it becomes a persistent world that lives in other media whether that's games, books, graphic novels, all of that stuff so that it takes on a life of it's own. At a certain point you do kind of give it over to the world and then you know that other designers and other creators are going to come in, whether it's the design team at Ubi Soft where we're designing other creatures, environments and vehicles and stuff. Then you're just sort of making sure that it's got a consistency to it.See More Avatar: The Game Screenshot at IGN.com
Jon Landau We've been fortunate to date though with people like UbiSoft where we've worked and with Jim who've been very collaborative in their efforts to make sure that his vision of the world of 'Avatar' is in the game. Although they're telling very different stories they came back to us and said, 'We need a vehicle.' And we had our design teams be a part of that.See More Avatar: The Game Screenshot at IGN.com
James Cameron: Yeah, we designed vehicles that exist only in the game but it was our designers so there was a consistency to the look to the technology. I think that kind of close association is a good way to do it. I mean, I think that if you just think of it as a derivative, ancillary product the game's not going to be very good. If you think of it as something that's sort of coauthored and parallel there's a lot of cross talk and a lot of cooperation. So that's just one example, but we'll do other media as well. So ultimately it does sort of take on it's own life, yeah.See More Avatar: The Game Screenshot at IGN.com
Question: Getting into this story and the presentation of it, where does Hall H fit? Do you take any of the response from the crowd there, the questions into consideration?
James Cameron: Well, Hall H fits in the sense that it's a great launch. I'm going to go through all the Twitter-sphere later and see what people are saying. We'll get some direct feedback and we'll get some direct feedback from knowledgeable fans that don't have to be educated all the way up to understanding the movie. They can sort of look at it and be like, 'Pow. I get it.' They'll get the references and things like that, too. So I think that feedback can be really valuable. I mean, we're still cutting the picture. These scenes won't change probably but there are other scenes that we're still finalizing the FX on that'll still be massaged into place. I'm not talking about big cuts but we still have a chance to shape it a little bit, shape the response.
The other thing is that when you live with something over a total creative arc of, in this case, fourteen years you start to take certain things for granted that you understand so fundamentally. But you have to remember people are coming in cold and starting from zero. So I want to make sure that I haven't left anything out in terms of making sure that the story is fully accessible to everybody, not just a fan audience but a wider audience. By fan audience I mean someone that knows all the references, knows all the other films, are steeped in the lore, that sort of thing. But a construction worker, somebody's mom, if they go see the movie we have to make a movie for everybody. It has to operate on a very visceral level of kind of universal human archetype, if you will. The story is really designed for that because it's really a classic story. It's not a timely story in the sense that 'Matrix' was a very timely story. It needed to evolve out of the sort of cyber punk era and what was happening just with the way that the internet was changing human consciousness globally. 'The Matrix' comes out of that. This story could've been written in the '30's. It could been an Edgar Rice Burroughs type story or a Rudyard Kipling story or a western, absolutely. But it's an adventure story of a guy from one culture dropped into another culture.
Jon Landau It's universal in it's themes. It's not just North America. It's worldwide.
Question: Being one of the most innovative filmmakers today do you feel the pressure of having to top yourself every time out?
James Cameron: You've got to eat pressure for breakfast if you're going to do this job. I mean, when I was making 'Terminator' and I had zero street cred, nobody knew who I was, I couldn't get a callback from the lowest agent in Hollywood I was under tremendous pressure to perform because I had to break in. I had to be a diamond sharp drill going through the door into Hollywood. So when does the pressure ever stop? I don't think that it ever does. I think the stakes go up. You start playing with more money, you're bringing more money to the table. I think that pressure makes you good. You keep it always in the back of your mind. So on the one hand I think the pressure is a good thing because I think it makes you really think about what you're doing, it makes you really think about your audience. You're not making a very personal statement like you might in a novel. You're making a movie and you're making it at a budget level that has to appeal to a very broad audience.
I think you have to ask yourself a lot of hard questions while you're making it. At the same time you can't make a movie for everybody because that's the kiss of death. You have to make a movie for yourself. I think what I've found over the years is that I'm enough of a fan that I share a certain base response with people that like science fiction and fantasy films the same way I liked them when I was a kid, when it was The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad' and '2001 Space Odyssey'. I want somebody in a theater seat someplace to feel what I felt when I saw that stuff for the first time and it blew my mind. If I can do that then that's the biggest thrill it is.
Question: In an era when technology dominates film what's your philosophy in using that technology to serve a story?
James Cameron: The ideal movie technology is so advanced that it waves a magic wand and makes itself disappear. I think that's what we tried to do on 'Avatar'. I think it's what we tried to do on 'Titanic'. We were using state of the art stuff on 'Titanic' to tell a story that took place in 1912 and I don't think people came out of the theater buzzing about the neat CG composite shots or the motion capture that was used for all the big crowd scenes. They were talking about the love story and about the emotions. I think that maybe a little earlier in my career I was a little less even or maybe didn't have it quite as much in balance. I think we got in balance on 'Titanic'. I think we got in balance on 'Avatar'. 'Avatar' is really cutting edge in how it was made, but every question that's just been asked prior to yours was not about the technology which I consider to be a good thing because there are a lot of technology stories here, the 3-D, the facial performance capture, the CG – all that stuff. But that's not what people want to hear about. They want to hear about the story. So I think it finds it's own level and if you do it right it's transparent.
Jon Landau 'Titanic' made people feel a part of history. Hopefully 'Avatar' transports people to another world.
Question: Are you thinking franchise for this movie?
James Cameron: Absolutely. Are you kidding? How else are we going to pay for all of this.
Question: Do you have another project lined up after this?
James Cameron: We've got a few projects that we've been developing quietly over the years like 'Battle Angel' and 'The Dive' and a couple of others and I'll just decide which one makes sense in which order when I'm done with this.
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