Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Cameron divulges 'Avatar' secrets

LOS ANGELES -- In the Na'vi language of Avatar, the now-famous saying "I see you" is expressed in similarly short, sweet fashion: "Oe Kame Nga".

This phrase is, of course, an invention and difficult to pronounce with its click sounds. At filmmaker James Cameron's urging, American linguist Paul Frommer made up the words, the sounds and the entire language and its grammatical structure. This is just one small, if significant detail serving as an indicator of how Cameron approached the Avatar universe, which he dreamed up 16 years ago and finally started turning into a film in 2005.

The goal, Cameron says now, was to make it all seem real. By "all" he means the sci-fi fantasy world of Pandora, an alien world threatened by future-shock humans who have already exhausted the natural resources of planet Earth. From the nine-foot Na'vi people to the fantastical flora and fauna of planet Pandora to the invading humans with their space-age technology, it did become real.

And so entertaining, and such a clarion call for environmentalists, that Avatar is both the highest-grossing movie ever and enormously influential among eco-activists. It is also a best-selling DVD and a Blu-ray that has tilted the home entertainment market toward high definition.

Cameron and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment are due to release the new Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition in both DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday. The timing is significant because Cameron and Fox executives just announced Cameron has committed to starting on Avatar II and III immediately. They will be shot back-to-back. Avatar II is due in December 2014, and III in December 2015, assuming all goes well with the advanced technology Cameron is developing to ensure he can "future-proof" the sequels from looking antiquated when they come out. In the meantime, Cameron is also writing the Avatar novel, adding backstory to the original movie.

As a show-and-tell that mirrors what you will see on Blu-ray, Cameron hosted media at his Los Angeles studio. The purpose was to show off his team and their secrets. "The thing is, behind the characters and behind the magic are people," Cameron says. "And it's not a vast army of people, as one might imagine. It was a small core group." Many were nominated for Oscars. Most will work on the sequels.

The techniques employ range from the development of three complex new camera systems -- only one in 3D -- to evolving a sophisticated way to turn motion capture into a photo-realistic version of an actor's performance. These technologies are already "really revolutionizing the way films are being made," Cameron says, referring to his Avatar sequels and to other directors' projects.

"It was so pioneering!" he says of Avatar technology. "Nobody knew the answers. We were making it up as we went along. I've even used the metaphor that we were sewing the parachute on the way down. We always managed to stop our fall before we hit the ground ... but just barely."

The paradox is that so much of Avatar was hands-on. Artists and craftspeople made thousands of real things -- from costumes to props to sculptures of major characters -- so that digital animators could do their work. Her contribution is an example, says costume designer Deborah Scott. "Because the costumes are so organic to the environment, and there are so many cultures put together, I think they really realized -- and Jim in particular -- that they needed to have actual pieces. They couldn't just draw them. They had to be made."

Scott considered the movement of fabrics, the weight of jewelled or beaded pieces, the texture of fabrics and other materials, and how everything hung on an actor's body. "It starts with these elements that are completely old-school, and everything that I made, or I did or the problems that I solved, would just be exactly if I did it on a real human being."

The same was true for concept designs and character studies. The original team began work in Cameron's house in the Malibu hills (where, coincidentally, local coyotes inspired the vocalizations of Pandora's viperwolves, once the coyotes' yelps were mixed with hyenas' growls). "We actually started off working with pencil drawings in black-and-white," says Oscar-nominated production designer Rob Stromberg. "I like to say," says artist Yuri Bartoli, "I started off sketching at a kitchen table in my parents' house and then I ended up sketching at a table at Jim's house. We started with basic technology."

Cameron is also an artist, as well as being a writer and filmmaker. "Jim didn't need any of us," Bartoli says, only half-joking. "If he could only clone himself, this movie would have gotten done in a year or so!" But an enormous amount of work by core team members, and eventually hundreds of other technicians, did produce the final film.

"It looks effortless on the screen," says Stromberg. "But I used to say: 'I see you ... in the intensive care unit!' But, like anything painful, something good can come out of that."

Some aspects of Avatar involve subtle manipulations. Pandora is introduced to audiences as a rain-sodden, gloomy and dangerous place. Then it is revealed to us as it is to Sam Worthington's avatar version of Jake, says Stromberg. "So, over time, you as an audience member is getting to know Pandora as something beautiful. And, over more time, something that you as an audience member would want to fight for, as Jake does." But nothing is more important than the motion capture, especially involving Worthington and Zoe Saldana, who plays heroine Neytiri. The technique had been used effectively with Andy Serkis for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. But there was no facial capture then, just body work.

For Avatar, Cameron fitted actors with tiny lightweight cameras mounted from leather headgear. They hung in front of their faces while they said their lines and acted out. "I actually thought it would drive them crazy," says Cameron, "but, after the first half-day, they forgot the damn thing was there." The facial cameras gave animators real footage of the actor's eyes and facial movements, which gave their digital characters what Cameron calls "the soul of their performances."

Meanwhile, they were liberated from the usual constraints of live action filmmaking. Cameron does not need elaborate lighting or complex sets or any normal camera setups to shoot his motion capture.

These actors should now be seen in a new light and held in higher esteem, even at the Oscars, Cameron says. "Precisely! I think it needs to be understood by the wider acting community. And when they understand it, they'll see the advantages of it: That they can transcend their physicality; they can transcend their age; they can transcend their gender; they can transcend anything they want using these tools. And there is no diminishment of the performance!"

Uniquely, using what looks like a TV monitor with handles, Cameron can direct motion capture while looking at a virtual environment. "The thing about this is that it is highly instinctive." Meanwhile, in shooting live action in a studio -- which he calls "the volume" -- Cameron uses yet another innovation. It is his new simulcam camera, allowing him to film a live scene against a greenscreen background. The technology lets him see the real actors, plus a motion capture performance from elsewhere, plus a virtual background like a forest in Pandora. It happens all at the same time, Cameron says, "which to me was the biggest breakthrough of this movie. That's the wild thing!" It will most influence other filmmakers doing special effects, Cameron says.

Meanwhile, he is influencing his own craftspeople and technicians, most of whom will carry on with the sequels. All in service of James Cameron. "It's his idea," in-house designer Neville Page says of the Avatar franchise. "It's his vision. You've got to recognize, when you are hired, that you help facilitate his vision. It's really not about you. It's about helping him bring his idea to life."


  1. Hello mr Cameron about What do you think tainos movie for future project...