Director James Cameron returns — this time to transport us to another planet in Avatar
After 11 long years, director James Cameron is back with Avatar. The much-awaited action film that hits the screens shortly takes us to a spectacular new world, where the hero (Sam Worthington) takes it upon himself to save a civilisation. Conceived by Cameron 14 years ago, the film that's taken over four years to make promises a new cinematic experience with stunning special effects that however do not undermine the deep emotions that run through it. In a breezy chat, the director opens up about the film and its making. Excerpts:
How did Avatar happen?
I wanted to create something I would have loved to have done as a kid. Something that takes place on another planet, something that is visually imaginative and original. I had been thinking about a lot of ideas and Avatar sort of wrote itself in about two weeks. I wrote the story in 1995 but fragments of it had pre-existed, like the bio-luminescent forest and some vehicles — so it came together very quickly.
But you had to wait really long to make the film…
With Avatar, despite wanting to push the technology, when we really evaluated it, we felt we were too many steps away. When we pushed the technology for The Abyss, we were a step or two away from being able to do that so we pushed and got there, but with Avatar it just seemed like we were four, five or six steps away from being able to do it, years away. Within a single production, we wouldn't be able to push it that hard or that far, no matter how much money we threw at it. So I said ‘Okay, fine, the timing's off' and threw the script in the back of a stack of files and that was that.
So were there any problems when you actually started making Avatar?
Oh yes, there were plenty of times during the production (which started more than four years ago), when my team faced seemingly insurmountable problems. We'd stop in the middle of the day and sit down at a table to figure out how to go about it because we'd hit a wall. And we had to make up terminology because we didn't know what to call things. We would shoot in fits and starts — we'd shoot a bit, then go figure out more stuff, and then we'd shoot a bit more. It was exploratory.
Tell us about Pandora and how did you think of creating this new world?
Pandora is a distant planet, where the indigenous population, the Na'vi, are a graceful people who live at one with Nature, peaceful until provoked. A militarised super company wants to explore the planet, driven by the lure of potential profits and have devised the Avatar programme, where humans are genetically engineered to become a kind of human/Na'vi hybrid, to send out a team on a reconnaissance mission to Pandora.
For me it was the opportunity to create an alien eco system with all sorts of cool alien creatures that are themselves mind blowing, I think. It was the chance to crack the code of doing human emotive photo-real characters that are unassailably real and connect with the audience. That's a huge challenge.
Does the film give out a message to society?
The innate message, the ideas in the film, were appealing to me and I thought they had a purpose in our society right now. Not that I think films should be educational or be a pulpit for morality. But I think it's good for our entertainment to not be completely vacuous and to make you think a little bit about our human relationship with the natural world and that's what Avatar does. It asks you questions about our relationships with each other, from culture to culture, and our relationship with the natural world at a time when we're suffering from — let's call it nature deficit disorder.
Will there be action in the film?
Of course! There will be plenty of action with huge battle scenes; the last of which is the mother of all battles, at least compared to anything I've worked on. And that takes place on Pandora. The battle is aerial, it's on the ground, it's cavalry, it's hand to hand — it's gonzo. It's almost a mini movie in itself.
There is a huge buzz about the technology used. Can you tell us more about that?
I had developed a Fusion digital 3D camera system for my 2003 documentary, Ghosts of the Abyss, and we refined and honed the system for Avatar. We are using the latest digital 3D technology for Avatar along with the latest performance capture effects. Performance capture is where an actor's movements and expressions are electronically tracked and translated into computer generated imagery to bring the character to life. Basically, Worthington and Weaver, wearing black leotards, would act out their roles as Avatars and the camera would super impose the computer generated creatures on to the images while shooting.
Experts have predicted that Avatar will represent a major breakthrough for cinema. What do you think about that?
I think it's part of the natural evolution of CG, performance capture technology and all of that. I think we can do more now than we could when we started the film. 3D is a revolution that's taking place and Avatar will have its part in that revolution. Maybe it can create its own little niche in the sense that it's live action, as well as what some people would think of as animation. The live action element of it — that's where Hollywood as a community is lagging behind. There hasn't been a main kind of tent pole movie made in live action 3D yet; it hasn't happened until now. So Avatar will be the test case.