Avatar - An Entirely Brave New World

Posted on 12. Dec, 2009 by in Film/TV

With two of his last three narrative movies setting records for production costs, Director James Cameron has, professionally speaking, danced around the edges of volcanoes for most of his career. It’s just where he seems most at home. Apart from a pair of deep-sea documentaries, though, Cameron, now 55, hasn’t seen release of a theatrical film since 1997’s Titanic. The highly anticipated Avatar represents his play at return to king-of-the-world status, and it already looks to bear all the trademarks of a Cameron production — a reported price tag of around $230 million, and a brawny storyline that will again push the boundaries of special effects and myriad other big screen technologies.

Like Cameron, Avatar is a rare breed. “With this film we have simultaneously a blessing and a curse, which is the uniqueness of it,” says producer Jon Landau, just back from a quick jaunt to Hong Kong. “We don’t have a sequel to Batman or something based on another underlying intellectual property. So the challenge is how to tell people in 30-second sound or video bites what this movie is about.” In order to help get the word out, distributor 20th Century Fox held a special social-marketing experiment on August 21, dubbed Avatar Day, and screened 16 minutes of the film for free in 3-D theaters around the globe.

Landau has somewhat of a unique perspective on Cameron, having worked with him on Titanic, and having a relationship that dates back even farther than that. To him, Cameron’s relative absence from the big screen doesn’t represent any trepidation at following up Titanic’s unparalleled success. “Jim has never been the most prolific of directors,” says Landau. “What it takes for Jim to jump into a movie is a burning passion, because when he does jump in it’s 110 percent of himself, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Jim had that passion for the exploration that he did with both Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss, and no movie sparked that in him in that term. There was stuff we put into development, but it never fully ignited that flame.”

Avatar, however, was the flickering flame that finally leapt to life, having been kicking around in Cameron’s mind for around 15 years. “I read it back in 1995,” says Landau, “and my first reaction was, ‘I want to see that movie.’ My second reaction was, ‘I don’t how the heck you’re going to make that.’ The technology just didn’t exist in a way that allowed for the story to be told the way it needed to be told. There was some exploration early on to see what it would take, [but] it’s a function of the close-up, it’s not about scale and scope. We could have conquered [the latter] in some fashion, but creating the emotive performance quality of what the actors give you we could not have done. Ten years later, we looked at the landscape again and said maybe if we pushed things to a point, we could finally tell this story. And I think the remarkable thing is that Jim wrote this long ago, but none of it was dated. A few characters got combined, but all these themes he wrote about then are still so relevant today.”

Avatar unfolds 150 years in the future, when a paraplegic ex-marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), travels to Pandora, a distant planet being exploited for resources by a human colony. With his consciousness projected into a physical representation of the native people — who are nine feet tall and blue, and called the Na’vi — Jake is charged with collecting information that might be of use to his military bosses. He falls in love with Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), however, and, in avatar form, eventually leads the natives in an insurrection against the colonists.

That sort of “biting the hand that feeds”’ seems second nature to Cameron. Informed equally by a blue-collar work ethic, legendary attention to detail, and an apparent sense of aggrieved besiegement, Cameron approaches filmmaking like an act of war, and his battle plan isn’t terribly complicated. For him, frontal assault is the name of the game — a tack that rubs some folks the wrong way. “I do think that there are misconceptions about Jim,” says Landau. “In the moment, it’s always about the passion of filmmaking, and he doesn’t ask anything of others that he doesn’t expect of himself. Jim’s invested in unique stories; he’s invested in telling relatable stories against extraordinary backdrops.”

To do that, of course, involves component parts of filmmaking that many directors can go an entire career not worrying about, let alone engaging in. With Avatar, two big envelopes get pushed to new edges, in special effects capture work and 3-D cinematography. “We spent a year before [either] we or the studio committed to the movie seeing if, technology-wise, we could make it — not make a shot, but a whole movie,” says Landau.

James Cameron

On set, Cameron didn’t use the same motion-capture process that filmmakers had used in the past. “Instead of putting markers on people’s faces we photographed them and used every frame and almost every pore as a data point to drive a higher-fidelity performance,” says Landau. “And we were able to put a virtual camera in Jim’s hands, so when he looked at these characters he’d see them, not the actors, and when he moved the camera around our stage, he wouldn’t see the stage but rather the world we were in.”

The film’s other advancement is in 3-D. Over a decade ago, with cinematographer and camera specialist Vince Pace, Cameron started to develop a new camera that could better meet the fluid demands of action filmmaking. The Fusion 3-D camera system in Avatar represents the realization of his dream. “You now have a camera that weighs less than a Panavision camera,” says Landau, “and you can shoot a 3-D movie with the same flexibility that you would a regular movie: hand-held, crane shots, Steadicam, you can do all of those things. It’s about creating a window into a world, [and] a more immersive experience.”

If he succeeds, and these technologies catch on with other filmmakers, Cameron may find himself king again — of an entirely brave new world.

-Brent Simon

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