James Cameron discusses the making of Avatar, advancements in film technology, business models, and the future of 3D and broadcasting, with News Corps James Murdoch at the Abu Dhabi Media Summit. BroadcastPro ME brings you excerpts from the conversation As a director and artist, how do you keep the technology from overwhelming the story and […]
James Cameron discusses the making of Avatar, advancements in film technology, business models, and the future of 3D and broadcasting, with News Corps James Murdoch at the Abu Dhabi Media Summit. BroadcastPro ME brings you excerpts from the conversation
As a director and artist, how do you keep the technology from overwhelming the story and performances, and how do you make the technology and storytelling work so seamlessly together?
The dynamic balance between technology and storytelling is so
mething that I have explored throughout my career. The challenge is to stay close to the heart of the characters. And I think my big advantage is that I write my own stories, so before I even think of what camera systems I am going to use or what CG effects Im going to use, I know my characters intimately, I know what they are feeling at every moment of the story, and that equips me with everything I need to talk to the actors, and draw from them their very best performance.
Even in a highly technical film like Avatar, where some characters like Zoe Saldanha were not even seen photographically in the film as they were only seen through the CG characters that we created, every nuance of their performance was important and was translated to the CG characters. As a director, I had to ensure that she, as a character, was able to work every moment with total emotional authority and that comes from the writing process.
Id like to expand on that a little bit. Avatar was interesting because I began thinking about it from a technological standpoint because I was the CEO of Digital Domain a start-up Visual Effects company in the early 1990s that was designed to create breakthroughs in CG character creation.
So I thought that as not only the CEO but as its biggest client at that time, I should throw them a challenge in really creating a quantum leap forward in CG character development.
I wrote Avatar to do that.
The answer I got from them was You are too early. It cant be done. Not now.
So there, the technology came first and then, the story telling.
How did you get those performances from your actors? It was an extraordinary leap of imagination.
The audience is moved by the characters they see on screen … not based on the vast vistas of another planet. What I wanted was a tight close up and so we had to be able to capture every nuance, every molecule in the sense of what the character was creating.
So we came up with a completely new way of capturing actors facial performances. We already knew how to capture body performances back then when we started Avatar. It was a fairly mature science but there was no way of capturing facial performances so we came up with the idea of mounting a little tiny camera so that the actors could remain free to do everything except kiss because the little camera got in the way. They could eat, talk, smoke cigarettes, and do whatever else they wanted.
The little camera actually made a video image of their face throughout their performance and that was a separate stream of data along with the body capture which was done through computer recognised markers. We then put all that information together and then, the CG characters the tall, blue, alien characters did exactly what the actors did.
Of course, it wasnt that simple. It took us two years to write the software, the code, the plug-ins, the applications required to take that raw data set, and turn it into a finished performance.
How do you feel about non-native 3D pictures that are shot for 2D being converted into 3D for theatrical release? Does it devalue the medium?
Yes, it does run the risk of devaluing the medium. It is a raging controversy in Hollywood now. Do we bear the extra expense upfront of shooting in 3D because there are extra expenses with VFX … not so much with live action production but VFX is more expensive, or do we bear that cost in post production once we have seen if the movie is worth it in a sense. Its a very cautious approach and people are harming themselves with this cautious approach.
We have a defined, very substantial uptake in the revenue stream. Ticket sales are flat or even down slightly but gross revenues are up because through 3D, we are able to charge a premium ticket price. So its actually been a big steroid shot for the business over the last year or so. But if you have to reap that reward, you have to pay for it and have a good business model.
Im a big advocate of shooting in 3D.
3D adds value to any kind of entertainment media. Sports, gaming, even drama, which people havent woken up to, certainly natural history, photography and movies but the value added is proportional to how much the 3D camera is able to simulate you being physically there. I think this controversy will go away in the next couple of years because it will be difficult for Hollywood producers and studios to say it is tricky to do 3D photography when tens of thousands of hours of broadcast programming are being generated live in 3D all the time. And of course, sports is going to drive 3D into the home.
But there are challenges. For instance, international football is played in stadiums of varying sizes … some big, some small with different quality of lighting across different continents, so we cant get consistent approaches.
Yes, there are challenges. If you were at a sporting event, youd want the seats right at the side of the field because thats where the camera wants to be. However, the cameras are still fairly large and that creates seat kills and interferes with the live experience for somebody sitting right behind them. To really optimise the upside value of 3D in sports, wed have to rethink our camera positions a little bit. To have a 2D multi-camera production and a separate 3D multi-camera production is clearly not a good business proposition because you are duplicating energy.
I anticipated this problem when designing Avatar. It was designed to serve both masters 2D and 3D in the same way that for years, filmmakers have served the two masters the giant screen and the small screen. And now, we are down to the tiny screen as people want to have that instant accessibility on mobile devices. So we have always served the two masters of different scale and now we are serving the two masters of depth or no depth.
So Avatar had no separate 3D version of the film. It was exactly the same edit and the same composition so I maintain that it can be done but clearly, the problems are greater in a live production environment.
But the next wave of camera systems will solve a lot of these problems that are plaguing the pioneers in live broadcast because the cameras will be smarter and there will be less requirement for humans in the loop making decisions of whats good stereo and whats bad stereo. Theyll actually be able to put software in the line, coming out of the camera and the truck that basically says Thats not good stereo. Make an adjustment. It will be done with algorithms at that point.
How do you think the media business and, in particular, the story telling business approaches risk?
Typically, what we see are patterns of risk management that actually cripple the business. We also see a pattern of disruptive ideas that come in and take big risks and succeed. Not all risk takers succeed but I think the disruptive successes do. Titanic and Avatar are both good examples of movies that did something against the grain of common wisdom.
Everyone drinks at the same trough of common wisdom so they all produce more or less the same thing. What the audience wants is something fresh and what they havent seen before so we have to try and give that.
With Avatar, I was consciously pushing back against what I saw as an avalanche of new technology that was going to cannibalise the theatrical marketplace.
I am a big screen guy and I like the big screen experience. I wanted to preserve that and make sure it maintains a kind of status as an anchor for our business. Of course, there are all of the other sources of content and they are proliferating and they will enjoy from these new platforms. But I wanted to preserve that big screen experience, when it was getting nibbled away. So I said, Lets do something that is so compelling that you can only best enjoy it in the theatre, and thats where 3D came from and thats why I went on this 10-year odyssey of perfecting the camera systems and dealing with the theatre owners, trying to get them to adopt the new system. A door opened at exactly that moment … and this is thinking about 10 years ago. That door was digital cinema. Everyone made the assumption that digital cinema was going to replace film. It didnt. 3D sort of became the catalyst that made digital cinema happen.
How can we break through excessive risk management to ensure more creative films can be made?
Its all about relationships between the business side of the business (the studios and marketing people ) and the creative side of the business (writers, filmmakers, producers etc). Most of the problems I see in Hollywood historically and I have been there for 30 years seems to come from applying the Wharton School of Business principles to films, and sometimes, it works and sometimes, it doesnt because it is a crazy, inventive creative business.
Ultimately, the people who are successful from the business and administrative side are the ones who create the closest relationships with the creative talent and understand their own products. The Studio executives who best understand how movies work in the mind of a fan or an audience are the most successful.
How did you deal with moments of crisis while making your films?
With every film, youre going into unknown territory. Thats the risk, but the greater risk is to not go into unknown territory and to do the same thing that people have seen before. But there will come a time by definition, when something is not working the way it was meant to work.
On Avatar, I felt like we were jumping down the airplane and, knitting the parachute on the way down, which we successfully did.
But there were moments early on, when we were checking out our performance capture technology and in the middle of a production day, things would grind to a halt because the systems were not working. Id look at my team, mainly in their mid 20s. I was the only old man there. Theyd all sit there with glum faces. Id stop what we were doing and wed pull up a table and brainstorm on how to solve the problem so that it did not recur. Wed make up names for things that had never been named. Id look at the glum faces and say, Guys, this is the good part. This is how we know we are pioneering. People will go to school on this and they will be able to look up a manual on how to do what we are thinking of right now.
In Silicon Valley in recent years, those same conversations were taking place and to be 30 years into a career and have that moment felt like a great gift to me.
How do you look at the creative trajectory that you have set in motion?
Someone asked me if the next thing would be 4D. I think we should first consolidate 3D which will take about five years to a decade. I could predict that we will see more 3D but how pervasive will it be? Will it be right down to the way you watch your news or on a tablet or laptop? Its really a question of how innovative the broadcast culture becomes about incorporating 3D and the business modelling for it.
Will we one day have entertainment that is indistinguishable from reality?
We are well on that path. When gamers spend eight to 12 hours immersed in a game, it becomes their reality. Its not distinguishable. When you start layering stereoscopic 3D in with gaming, peoples minds will literally go through their screen. The reason we say that 3D is such a profound change is because it can manifest itself on every platform at every level from little screens to big screens. If you look at what our society has become, we interact with our social media through screens much more than previous generations. If you change our basic contract with screens, whether entertainment or business screens, you will be doing something that will have a ripple effect across all platforms and all media.