Inside James Cameron's Head: Avatar, F-Bombs, and Hundreds of Millions of Dollars

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The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron, a biography of the director by former Time magazine Hollywood correspondent Rebecca Keegan, starts with the director's ancestors in Scotland and takes readers through post-production on the much-ballyhooed Avatar. The book hits stores December 15, the week the movie is released. Keegan told FastCompany.com about the man behind the camera, his inventive use of the F-word, and why Avatar is unlike any movie you've ever seen.

Tell me how the concept of the book came about and what fascinated you about Cameron at the time.

I visited the Avatar set in early 2008 for Time, and it was like no other movie set I'd been on. Normally there are tons of people, costumes, makeup, and props—all on a grand scale. This just looked like a weird post-modern play because it was so spare—it was in a real warehouse, but only had the gray triangles and polygons the actors were using to mimic terrain or vehicles. It was so bizarre. But what's astonishing is that when you looked in Cameron's camera lens, you saw something totally different. You saw a lush, vivid jungle, and Sigourney Weaver as a tall blue alien version of herself. It was unlike any other movie-making experience I've had.

What was it about Cameron himself that intrigued you?

I spent more time on the set because I became fascinated with this guy who invented all this technology, and then disappeared for twelve years after the highest grossing movie of all time [Titanic]—did he go all JD Salinger on us? Clearly this person likes doing things that are really hard, and making the kind of movie that has not been seen before.

What was Cameron trying to show the world by creating this film?

Cameron wanted it to be a proof of concept for a bunch of different technologies. Part of the reason he chose this film was because he thought it would be a big enough movie to get Hollywood to embrace 3-D. It started in the early 90s, when he wrote a digital manifesto! It was before Peter Jackson made Gollum, before Jar Jar, and before Titanic. He wanted a way to do really believable, intricate creatures using computers. At the time, no one had done it. He wanted to write a movie where characters exist halfway between humans and weird creatures. It would be weirder than something you do with makeup, but not so fantastical that they can't be played by human actors.

Cameron was responsible for several groundbreaking CG characters...

The first CG character that looked totally organic was in Cameron's Abyss in 1989, and the CG character that changed everything was the liquid metal man in Terminator 2 in 1991. And in the Titanic, the way he was able to do some of those stunts—like people falling off the ships—was with a very early use of motion capture and performance capture. He tried to do it with physical actors, but people were getting hurt. That was the beginning of digital stunts.

How high-tech was the set, and what were the most important technologies in play?

There are three important technological movie advances. The first is 3-D. The second is the little cameras mounted in front of the actors' faces, kind of like a sound boom but with a camera that images their faces. And the third is the camera that Cameron uses—it's a virtual production system. So while he's filming a CG movie, instead of just seeing actors running around in lycra bodysuits he can actually see their alien/CG selves while they're filming. This required creating a whole virtual production pipeline, from the camera to the editing to the way the images were bounced back and forth with Weta Digital to the motion capture company (Giant Studios) that provides the suit. One of the things that's different about the movie is that right there on set is an editor with an entire Avid editing bay—so they were editing as they were shooting.

Is the process totally different when you have cameras imaging the actors' faces instead of just using standard motion capture technology?

The body and facial movements are imaged, or captured, by these cameras, and then are imposed on these templates that Cameron and his team have created, which they send to Weta. Then Weta takes this information from a flat image—which would look like something from a 1980s video game—and turns up the level of detail. They do that by using the captured images of the actor's original performance, and animating on top of that.

james cameronWhat's Cameron's process for concepting and making a film of this magnitude?

He has different stages of his process. When he's writing, he totally bunkers himself. He works mainly at night so he's not interrupted, and he retreats—he has multiple idyllically located vacations homes. He's always got some fabulous place that he goes off to and he writes at night alone. I think he finds that process very painful, and it's his least favorite part of making a movie. When he's done with the writing, he enjoys diving into the physical aspects of making the movie, and actually shooting and getting into production.

Why does writing suck so bad?

A lot of good writers hate writing. It's like giving birth for a lot of people, and it's kind of lonely. So despite Cameron's rep of being tyrannical and tough to get a long with, he does like having people around to bounce ideas off and talk with. He's still making a very collaborative media, and when people muster up the courage to bring something up they often have a really interesting dialogue. He does often take peoples' suggestions and make their changes if he thinks they fit.

What's Cameron's MO on the set?

He's very intense, and he has the most colorful use of F-bombs of anyone I've ever been around. He also has the ability to laugh at himself. He'll go on a rant about something, but then make fun of his own obsession. At one point I was sitting in on one of these video conferences he does with artists at Weta in New Zealand. Cameron was sitting in a dark room looking at shots on the screen and pointing the laser pointer, saying, "I hate this tree limb! This bandage wrapped on the character's arm is driving me insane!" At one point he looked at me and said: "That's worth $50 million domestic gross." Clearly he was mocking the complete lack of importance those things had, though to him those details are important and that's what gives a movie its signature.

Nothing that happens on a James Cameron set that he doesn't have a say in. He's more hands on than any director I've ever seen—down to the most minor detail. At the Avid, he's the one holding the mouse. He's the one holding the camera when they're doing shots of Sigourney Weaver as alien, not a cameraman. He's very different from most directors, like Scorsese, Spielberg, or Lucas. He's more of a knob twister than anyone I've ever seen. Most people say he drives them insane—in the course of making a movie they want to kill him ten times, but at the end of the day they do the best work they've ever done for anyone.

That sounds like a pretty intense work environment.

For me, it was an enormous amount of information to process. I felt like these guys needed an extra lobe in their brain to take in all of that information at once. But the goal was to make the best movie out there—because you can design where to put the character or set and because you're not limited by physics or anything that limits you on a normal movie set. But what that does is create millions of little choices the director has to make. For some it's crippling, but for Cameron it's freeing because he likes to have a hand in every aspect of his movie.

Is the cinematic style closer to live-action or to animated films?

The camera Cameron used let him retain his own camera style—if he wanted to go in over a monster's shoulder, he could go in across the monster's shoulder. It's not like a traditional CG movie where a lot of it's done in post [production]. He was able to preserve a lot of the natural cinematic qualities you have in a live action movie within a CG environment by using the virtual production system they created for the film.

How does the story hold up?

In many ways it was like a sci-fi stew, and a lot of it is based on ideas that have been bouncing around in his head for decades. He's a diehard sci-fi lover, and brings to bear all the images in play in his head since he was teenager reading sci-fi novels. Fans of scifi literature will see a lot that's familiar in a way they'll like. What's different, though, is that it comes entirely out of Cameron's brain—it's not tied to novels like Harry Potter or comic books like Spiderman or toys like Transformers. There's no pre-existing Intellectual Property (IP), which is what made it a little risky from Fox's perspective.

People have tossed out different numbers—$250 million, $500 million—for the film's cost. Can you give us a ballpark?

Hollywood accounting is very entertaining. One thing they do is find ways to shift numbers to one section of the budget to another. When people talk about production budgets—Titanic cost $200 million—that doesn't include marketing costs. The $500 million number floating out there includes marketing costs. But a fair comparison is production costs to productions costs. At end of day it's a James Cameron movie—it's going to be really friggin' expensive. As far as production, the number I was hearing that was most accurate was $220 to $230 million—that was about a month ago. There are other partners with the film besides Fox, then there's the fact that Cameron funded some of the R&D on the cameras and whatnot himself—you can ask yourself, 'Is that part of the production budget?' I'm sure the people from Fox will be busy moving things from one column to another to make it to their advantage.

From a financing perspective, is that crazy?

From the studios' perspective, these movies are less risky. Avatar is sort of in a category in its own. But most movies in its price point—Spider-man, Harry Potter, Transformers—they know those are a slam dunk. There's no way those movies are not going to make hundreds of millions of dollars. Studios gotten out of the business of making smaller and mid-price movies, which is a shame from a creative standpoint because they're missing out on a whole category of movie and I don't know, business-wise, if that makes sense. The thing is, the giant movies have so many ancillary properties, like video games and action figures, and all the other ways studios can make money from them, that they actually see these movies as less of a risk than spending $45 or $60 million on another movie where you could be just pouring it down the drain.

Where does Avatar stand in the evolution of CG characters?

I think it's the next step beyond Gollum. Historically the problem with CG characters that are humanoid has been that you couldn't get emotion across—the goal was to get more emotion and avoid having that flat, blank look of typical CG characters. What was revolutionary about the Gollum character Andy Serkis played in The Lord of the Rings movies is that you really saw his performance. He's a Shakespearean actor, and the furrowing of his brow or the scrunching of his eyes completely came across. The Navi character [Zoe Saldana] and the Avatar character [Sam Worthington] are the next iteration of that. When Sam Worthington's or Sigourney Weaver's character is grimacing, you can really see the actor's performance in there. It's getting to the point where you now get more and more human qualities in the characters.

What's the 3-D like? Is it as good as the hype?

The movie isn't totally done for another two weeks, so I've just seen large chunks of it. But it's very different from any movie-going experience I've ever had. While you're watching these scenes of a jungle on Pandora, the alien planet they're on, you're seeing floating mountains and it all feels incredibly immersive, like you can reach across and pull a jungle branch over to the side. But it's not like the older 3-D; it's more subtle, like you've been pulled inside the environment— sort of like you're watching a documentary on another planet.

The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron, by Rebecca Keegan, arrives in stores December 15. Avatar lands in theaters December 18.

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