Jonathan Crocker

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James Cameron: Avatar

Posted by Jonathan On December - 21 - 2009

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Just after he finished making True Lies, James Cameron picked up the phone and called Stanley Kubrick. They spend a day together watching Cameron’s film in the basement of the house in the English countryside where Kubrick was now a virtual hermit. Kubrick was fascinated by Cameron’s effects shots, wanted to know exactly how he’d hung a man on the missile of a harrier jump-jet and fired him through a skyscraper. Cameron must have been thrilled. He’d finally returned the favour.

Exactly 26 years earlier, James Cameron had his mind blown by 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The film made me dizzy,” he remembers. “I was fascinated by the effects, because I had no idea how they were done. I just couldn’t believe my eyes. It was dazzling.”

Something clicked in the 14-year-old Canadian’s head. Little Jim was already a hardcore sci-fi addict. He would ride the school bus for an hour each way, each day, head buried in a science-fiction novel for the entire journey. “I averaged a book every other day,” he recalls. “But if I got really interested in something, it was propped up behind my math book or my science book all during the day in class.” He read everything from old masters like Arthur C Clarke and AE Van Vogt to modern fantastics like Harlan Ellison and Larry Niven. Cameron didn’t know it, but the seeds of Avatar were being sewn.

Soon after his day with Kubrick, the 40-year-old Cameron sat down to write his next movie. “Avatar is an ancient word from India,” he explains. “It means ‘the fleshly incarnation of a divine being.’ The concept of a cyberspace avatar hadn’t really taken hold yet. Fortunately I had already registered the title…” This 80-page “scriptment” was about a paralysed man who can control an alien body with his mind. It flowed out of Cameron, wrote itself in just two weeks. The inspiration? “Every single science-fiction book I read as a kid,” he says, but particularly Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series (“A space man goes to Mars”). “I wanted to create something that I would have loved when I was a kid, a young teen fan of sci-fi, something that takes place on another planet, something that’s visually completely imaginative and original. Fragments of it had pre-existed, like the bioluminescent forest, and vehicles, and things like that, so it came together very quickly.”

That planet is Pandora, an incredible alien world five light years from Earth. With humanity’s home planet now down to the dregs of its own natural resources, military contractors are intent on stripping Pandora of its natural powerful energy. But the Na’vi will fight them to the last man. Into this epic battle comes paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully, who undergoes an experiment to exist in the alien world as an avatar– a 9ft blue genetically engineered biological body, controlled by his human mind – and finds himself torn in fight for his own survival and that of Pandora’s indigenous people.

He figured it would cost roughly $100 million. But just talking about the special-effects – something about “synthespians”, whatever the hell they were – bounced the budget up to $400 million. No one understood what Cameron was planning. The technology just didn’t exist. Nor did the money. “The idea was to create something that couldn’t be done at the moment it was written,” explains Cameron. “But I screwed up! Because I didn’t go one level out, I went four levels out. On The Abyss, with the water character, we’d gone kind of one level beyond. The same thing with Terminator 2 and the liquid metal dude, we could just barely imagine doing that. “But creating a non-human character that could be performed by an actor… it just seemed like we were years away from being about to do that, no matter how much money we threw at it. So I thought, ‘Okay, fine’ and I threw back on a stack of files and that was that.”

Cameron opted for Plan B. Plan B: make the biggest movie of all time. And so, the self-proclaimed “King Of The World” disappeared in search of another one to conquer. There was no more time or need to make other movies. Revolutionising cinema is a full-time job.

FANTASTIC VOYAGE

Growing up as the ringleader of five siblings in a small town not far from Niagara Falls, Cameron had always been fascinated by two things: space and water. “I always wanted to go to space, I wanted to go to other planets,” he says. “But when I was 16, I thought, well, I’ll probably never be an astronaut, because I’m a kid growing up in a tiny town in Canada – but I can still explore underwater.”

Over 16 months following Titanic’s recordbreaking box-office and Oscar haul, Cameron and his team made 40 dives. But only after he came agonisingly close to living his dream of space travel. In 2000, he trained in Russia to take a flight aboard the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz. He’d spent 10 years developing a “Holy Grail camera” with The Abyss cameraman Vince Pace – a 3D camera so light you could carry it. Cameron was to carry their Fusion 3D Camera System into space. But first, he wanted to test it by making one more dive to the Titanic wreck. While he was down there, all hell broke loose on the surface. Two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. The Soyuz expedition was off. Cameron never made it into orbit.

But he sat on NASA’s advisory council for three years. After all, he’d seen strange alien creatures already. Cameron had gone in search of “extremophiles”, the rarely seen organisms that live in ocean vents so deep that other life can’t survive. The only similar environments known to man exist on other planets. “It’s really the other planet we have right here,” explains Cameron. “It’s very alien and very complex and endless fascinating.” Along with Discovery Channel documentary Bismark and 3D IMAX docs Ghosts Of The Abyss and Aliens Of The Deep, he emerged from the deep with a brand new way of shooting movies.
 
Cameron blipped back on to the radar in 2005. He announced he was working on not one movie, but two. Anime mech-actioner adap Battle Angel would hit cinemas in 2007 and the mysterious “Project 880″ would follow in 2009. Both would be shot in 3D, using the camera system he’d developed in deep-ocean. Cameron showed his underwater 3D footage to special-effects legend Stan Winston, who’d won an Oscar creating the T-800 for Cameron’s 1984 debut. “I said, ‘I’m, thinking about doing a 3D film next, so I’ll do something small to start out with and build up,’” remembers Cameron. “And he said, ‘No, no, no! You do your biggest and your best idea first – you do your Star Wars!’”

Winston signed on and, following a five-day camera test,“Project 880”’s real name was revealed: Avatar. Hanging in deep space roughly 125 years in the future and five light years from Earth, the re-tooled script is romantic, cautionary sci-fi epic actioner. Having stripped own Earth’s natural resources bare, mankind has established a military colony on the distant moon of Pandora and paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully is sent to the surface to locate its powerful natural energy source, Unobtainium. Since humans can’t breathe the air on Pandora, Jake’s mind is piped into an “avatar”, a 9ft-tall genetically engineered biological body exactly like the indigenous blue-skinned population of Na’vi. But Jake falls in love with a Na’vi princess and he leads the natives in an epic war as they desperately defend their world against against the human colonists.

It sounded amazing. It sounded… expensive. Just as it had before, Avatar’s budget started skyrocketing towards $300 million before a single frame had been shot. The studio knew it was a budget big enough to break them. And the face of this extraordinarily risky cinematic venture? Sam… who? Sam… why? “His accent was thicker than Crocodile Dundee,” admits Cameron, of unknown Aussie beefcake Sam Worthington. “But we got along right from the get go. In my heart, Sam already had the part. I just thought he had something that I hadn’t seen before in a guy of that age. The voice, the demeanour. He has this amazing sense of not only authenticity, but just personal power. But we had to convince Fox that he could play the part. He was working furiously with the dialogue coach and we ultimately ended up doing a screen test that convinced them utterly he was the guy. It was a pretty big leap. There’s a big price tag hanging from this movie and to put it all the shoulder of this guy who was relatively unknown. The studio was quite nervous about that, but to their credit they saw what I saw.”

Long before knowing she was destined to play Star Trek’s Uhura, Zoe Saldana was cast as Na’vi warrior-princess Neytiri. Cameron-fave Sigourney Weaver dyed her hair red to play a botanist Dr Grace Augustine, a kind of sci-fi Diane Fosse. Three-time Cam-man Michael Biehn (Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss) met the filmmaker three times, but with Weaver already signed, Cameron wanted to avoid an Aliens reunion. So having missed out on Biehn’s role in Aliens, Public Enemies star Stephen Lang stepped in as brutal villain Colonel Miles Quaritch. The Shield’s CCH Pounder (as a Na’vi Queen), Giovanni Ribisi (as a military goon) and Michelle Rodriguez fleshed out the cast. Ever on the lookout for girl-power, Cameron based Rodriguez’s part on a 18-year-old hotshot female pilot who’d flown him into Antarctica.

That $300 million sure wasn’t going on star salaries. Wowed by CG characters like Gollum, King Kong and Davy Jones, Cameron teamed with Peter Jackson’s special-effects maestros WETA. And in 2006, he announced to the world that he would create now photo-realistic CG characters using motion-capture animation technology. Oh, but the world’s first big-budget 3D blockbuster would also be a live-action shoot using real locations. “At the end of the day the audience has no idea which they’re looking at,” claimed Cameron.

What was Cameron talking about? No one had a clue. The entire project was shrouded in secrecy. But then VIP guests including Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh and, bizarrely, even shock-rocker-turned-filmmaker Marilyn Manson were allowed to visit the set. Soderbergh summed up what they saw in one word: “Mindblowing.”

BRAVE NEW WORLD

James Cameron stands in the centre of a vast, grey industrial hangar. We call it a hanger. He calls it “the performance-capture volume”. Today, like every day, he wears his favourite blue shirt and soft-soled slippers. He’s holding a camera system in front of him like some strange alien plasma-rifle. Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington stand on the stage with him. They’re wearing black pyjamas covered with shiny white dots and skull-caps fitted with tiny cameras pointed at their faces. On the ceiling, yet more cameras track the actors’ movements.

But the banks of computer monitors around the room show a very different scene: Worthington and Saldana as giant blue feline creatures, as the camera soars through an incredible alien rainforest. Using his “virtual camera”, Cameron is directing in live 3D in real time. It’s the first time anyone has ever done this.

Saldana and Worthington lean in for a kiss… Clang! They can’t. Everyone laughs. Including Cameron. “What was THAT?!” he roars, beaming. Intimate they’re not, but those tiny head-cameras capture every subtle facial twitch, from the contractions of their pupils or a quiver of the lips. This is how his “synthespians”, says Cameron, can convey emotion as believeably as humans.

“Jim’s very clever at giving you something tactile to react off to,” Worthington tells us later, with a grin. “So instead of saying, ‘All right, here’s a bird flying over, have a look at it, Sam’, he’ll throw something in the air. Or if there’s an explosion, he’ll throw shit at you.” What kind of shit? “Foam. If a tree explodes, instead of me going, ‘Ooo-eeer!’, I’m need to react truthfully. Jim would go, ‘Hmmm, this ain’t working.’ Then he’ll throw buckets of foam at me and hit me with a big rubber stick. As I run past him, he’d belt me with this stick and I’ll go flying across the room. But when you watch it back, my blue alien goes flying, it looks like we’ve been blown up on a real set.”

Back on the stage, Saldana is making strange noises at Worthington. She’s talking in Na’vi. Inspired by fragments of Maori he picked up in New Zealand, Cameron worked with a linguist to create an entire alien language. Make that an entire living culture. Like Cameron, the Na’vi are all left-handed. Seems only fair. Cameron has designed them and everything else on Pandora.

Every weapon, like the “Armored Mobility Platform” suit used by the human military (think Aliens’ mech-loaders). Every plant, like those in the breathtaking bioluminscent forest (inspired by what Cameron had seen at the bottom of the ocean). Every one of Pandora’s extraordinry creatures: flame-coloured birds-of-prey (so big they can take down a military sky-helicopter), viper wolves (based on hyenas), Hammerheads (a cross between a rhino and bison)… Oh, and the Thanator. It’s Jim’s favourite. Like some terrifying cross-breed of lizard, dinosaur and black panther, the Thanator has six-legs, stretches 24ft long, bristles with armoured scales and boasts with a mighty set of jaws. According to Cameron’s Avatar treatment, a Thanator can eat an Alien for dessert.

God made the world in six days. The King Of The World needed a little longer. Each finished creature design had 100 drafts behind it and took a year and a half to complete. Creating the realistic CG facial muscles for Saldana’s character took a year. Computing a single frame of action takes 30 hours. The crew works 14 hours days. Everyone drinks a lot of coffee. Forgets to shave. No one has tans. Cameron drinks decaf (he stopped drinking caffeine after Terminator 2). Using his handheld virtual camera, he’s shot almost every frame of the movie himself.

Talk about all-consuming – Avatar was like a black hole. “Completely, utterly saturating,” nods Cameron. “I think that one of the miscalculations of the film was that we actually thought that it would be a very controlled process. Our initial test scene was two people talking in the woods. Worked very well. So we thought, ‘Oh well, now we know how to do this. Wrong. We didn’t. The first 62 days of this year were nonstop 16-hour days, no days off, no time off. And that gets old. After about Week Seven that gets old. It’s like herding cats.” He laughs. “We didn’t know what to call things! Nobody had ever done this before. So we made up terminology. Do you call it a set? Well, no, because the virtual part is really the set.” His points at the ground. “This is the terrain underlying it. We didn’t even know what to call it. So we ended up calling it a grid. So it was ‘grid 12’.”

Avatar has nearly three thousand effects shots. Cameron has sat in his chair, 12 hours a day, checking every one of them. Some as many as 20 times. Some he likes (“That fuckin’ rocks!”), some he’ll kick back to WETA  (“I hate this fucking thing”). Not that you’ll ever catch him complaining. He won’t. He can’t. “I can’t complain about the hours, you know,” he says. “When you’re on an expedition and you fall behind and the weather blows you out, you can’t complain. Because you’ve brought it upon yourself. But when you succeed, you feel like you’ve done something that not only hasn’t been done, but that you couldn’t even communicate what it took to do it. You could do it in some diary or something. But I always thought that if you have time to write a diary, you’re not doing it right…”

One scene took Cameron and his team two years to figure out. “It was crazy how hard it was,” say the director. “But it was worth our effort! And it’s a corker!” Nothing, he says, compares to Avatar’s final battle. Think rampaging Na’vi with 7ft maces and bows that shoot foot-long arrows versus human marines with jeep-mounted cannons, attack helicopters, flamethrowers and exo-suits. And that’s just for starters.  “I think it’s an extraordinary action sequence. The mother of all battles. It involves characters in four different scales all interacting with each other, all played by live performers. Biggest thing I’ve ever done, absolutely.” How big are we talking? “Aerial, ground, cavalry, infantry, mech, hand-to hand… It’s gonzo. It sort of has its own three-act structure. Terminator 2 had that epic finale sequence. I think from the time the chase gets underway, it’s about a non-stop 20 minutes right to the end and we’re in a similar situation here. I think from the time we kick into gear, we drive for 18 minutes. And it’s flat out.”

VIVE LA REVOLUTION?

After unveiling the first glimpse of Avatar footage at Comic Con 2009, Cameron announced that the whole world would get to see the same showreel on 21 August. A For August. A For Avatar Day. Reception was… mixed. Some thought they were watching the future of cinema. Some thought they were watching Dances With Wolves In Space. Ferngully 2. Pocahontas meets Halo. Thundercats: The Movie. Cameron is typically unphased. “Avatar Day to me was so necessary, because they were going to release a teaser trailer anyway.  I was concerned about seeing the material in a short form, especially on a small screen. You know, inherently, blue faces just don’t look real, so it’s very easy to dismiss it. That 100,000 people got up out of their houses and drove to a cinema, to see fifteen minutes of a movie that wouldn’t come out for almost five more months, is pretty remarkable.” He stops. “And none of them noticed that the avatars have four fingers and the Na’vi have three fingers!”

He’s got a point. Interest in Avatar, a movie with no stars and no official hype, was staggering. Four million people watched the Avatar trailer on Apple.com – more than double as many viewings as a trailer on the site had ever had. And when a new promo was released two months later, Avatar looked like a different animal. “Most of the comments were ‘Jury’s still out, because we don’t know if this is s story yet,’” says Cameron. “I thought that was tremendously telling, because it really shows that no matter how dazzling the visuals promise to be, people still want to know what it’s about, they want to know who the people are. And we have a great story, you know, we just weren’t selling that.”

And that’s point: there’s always been a beating human heart under Cameron’s dazzling technologies. Avatar’s apocalyptic romance is its real driving force. “But I think with all this technology and the green screen, the question is do you lose touch with humanity? The irony is that the technology made the technology go away, so what we went for is for the characters to have an emotional authenticity. I don’t think 2D or 3D really affects the narrative power of the story, that has to exist as its own thing.”

Will Avatar change cinema? No. It has already. Each one of the filmmakers who visited the Avatar set is now working on their own 3D movie – using Cameron’s technology. Thanks to Avatar, a cinema near you can now show 3D movies for the first time – the film’s release was pushed back months to allow 3D projectors to be installed in theatres around the world. There are now three times as many 3D screens in the US as there were last year.

“I think 3D is a revolution that’s taking place and Avatar will have its part in that revolution,” says Cameron.”The 3D revolution is a pretty much being driven by animation. There hasn’t been a tentpole movie that’s been made in live-action 3D yet. Avatar will be the test case.”

No question, the pressure and the expectation are bigger than anything Cameron – and perhaps any other filmmaker yet – has ever faced. “Well, you can’t ignore the pressure,” he shrugs. “I think you’ve got to acknowledge it and know that there’s a big expectation.” But pressure? What pressure? At depths of about 210 feet, the human body can’t survive. Cameron can free-dive to 110ft on one breath of air. When the pressure is on, so is Cameron.

People messed with him on /Piranha 2/ (fired after two weeks) and /Aliens/ (dismissively dubbed “Guv’nor” by an impudent British crew who refused to watch /Terminator/). People never messed with Jim again. Or rather, they never messed with “Mij”, the dark inverted nickname he earned from those who knew him. He can’t be reasoned with. Can’t be bargained with. And absolutely will not stop, ever, until he achieves his goal. Before beginning production on The Abyss, he told the president of Fox, “I want you to know one thing—once we embark on this adventure and I start to make this movie, the only way you’ll be able to stop me is to kill me.” He wasn’t joking. Wearing a T-Shirt that read, ‘Time Means Nothing In The Face Of Creativity,” Cameron proceed to nearly kill himself and everyone else while making the movie. Someone even tried to shut down the production by sprinkling hallucogenic drug PCP in the food. The second he realised what had happened, Cameron just stuck his fingers down his throat and got back to work.

It’s a fearless, frightening driving force. Going 10s of million overbudget on a movie that threatened to capsize every day. Having famously taped a razor blade to the editing suite (with the message, “Use only if movie sucks!”), he keeps the ship’s wheel from Titanic on display in his office. Just a little reminder. “If I ever want to know what it feels like to have that sinking feeling, I just stand here,” laughs Cameron. “That feeling of doom! Which we always have on the big films. We always feel like we’re doomed at some point…” But really, it’s a reminder that Cameron refuses to be doomed. “There is no fate but what you make”, a line from /Terminator/, his very first script, is his real mission statement.

So Avatar is about 9ft blue aliens with tails. It’s about war and peace. It’s about the future of cinema. But really, it’s about one man’s dream of the future. “This film integrates my life’s achievements,” says Cameron, finally. “I figure this is a place where I can speak from the heart. I’ve been working on this sucker four years now. Fourteen years in the dreaming. When I was a 14-year-old boy riding the school bus, reading a sci-fi book a day, my body was trapped in Chippewa but my mind was wandering the galaxy. This film is very much being made for that 14-year-old boy who is very much alive and well in the back of my mind. It’s this idea of living outside our bodies.”

He’s been to the bottom of the ocean and the far reaches of the outer space. Now at the end of the longest post-production process in the history of cinema, Cameron stands in front of the Titanic wheel in his office and waits to see if Avatar flies. He’s primed for mooted back-to-back sequels and a three-film adap of mech-anime series Battle Angel Alita. Either way, he’ll never make another movie in 2D. Question is, are we going to have to wait another 14 years for it? Someone asked exactly that at Comic Con. Cameron shot straight back: “You know, it’s not a great time to ask a woman if she wants to have other kids when she’s crowning…”

One Response to “James Cameron: Avatar”

  1. atrayah says:

    thankyou for an excellent article. been searching for comprehensive background to avatar, actors, film technologie and james cameron. fabulously written and comprehensively covered.

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Jonathan is a London-based journalist, critic and editor. He currently works for data visualisation agency Beyond Words.

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