SDCC 2009: James Cameron Shows Us His 'Avatar'


James Cameron reminded us today at Comic-Con that he's the same twisted guy who wrote Terminator. Back from his deep-sea expedition documentaries, Cameron talked about his upcoming film Avatar, a 3D epic that could be the sci-fi auteur's answer to Star Wars, albeit with the level of darkness his fans have grown accustomed to.

"You guys who cover the pop culture beat," said Cameron, "to you, I disappeared. I was just doing the shit I wanted to do. And I could afford to do it after Titanic. I did six deep-ocean expeditions because I could afford to do them, and at the time it looked like a master plan, using 3-D technology, trying to work with 3-D technology, we did a ton of 3-D shooting, some of it in very rough conditions. So in a funny way, when I started the live-action shoot on Avatar I knew exactly what to do. In fact it was almost easy by comparison. I had six days of prep in New Zealand before we started shooting. Normally you prep for sixty or ninety days. We had six days. The reason was, all the sets were already designed virtually in advance. We built from plans, and I was working on a virtual volume in LA, with virtual sets that were being built for real in New Zealand. So I walked in six days before and thought, "I've really in effect done all these shots." We kind of rehearsed on the sets virtually before we got there. Doing the undersea films in 3-D had prepped me for the live-action shoot so well that we just started, it was just very smooth."

When asked how his deep-sea diving experiences influenced Avatar, Cameron remarked, "I saw a lot of stuff at the bottom of the ocean that influenced the designs. Bioluminescence, not even in the deep ocean dives but just diving around coral reefs. The colors, the patterns. There's a lot of stuff in the film [beyond what you saw in the panel]."

Cameron claimed that the most challenging sequence was "one scene that took us two years to figure out how to shoot. It's the action finale, so I can't tell you what it is but it involved actors in four different scales interacting with each other, done by live performers. It was crazy how hard it was, but at least we knew it was the finale of the film, so it was worth it. It's a corker. I think the hardest part of this job, no matter who it is sitting here, is to maintain a fresh eye. This is true on any film. You've written and storyboarded and edited and you've seen it a thousand times before you make your final editorial decisions. If you take anything for granted, that the audience understands something that they can't possibly because you've taken out the information – you can  cut a moment too short too. It's just something you learn as you go along. You learn how to be objective about your own stuff, to see it with fresh eyes."

When asked about the level of technology used in the film, Cameron said that the humanistic themes on display in his past work will continue to shine through. "A lot of what we spent our time developing was a technology which was transparent to me as a filmmaker, was filmmaker-centric, so I could actually have tools that made it more intuitive, in the way that on the documentaries I just had that camera there and could just run over and shoot it. Or if I felt something was happening over there I'd turn, like that. Our virtual tools allowed me to do that, in the CGI, with that kind of real time instinctive quality. And for the actors too, we tried to make it transparent so they could just interact. The irony was that the technology made the technology go away. Did you feel that the characters had an emotional authenticity in the clips that you saw? That's what we went for."

Did this experience renew Cameron's love of filmmaking?

"I think so. I've always had fun pushing the envelope, kind of by design. You know, let's get out there, let's get in front, maybe it's my insecurity as a filmmaker that I want to have all this stuff to show people and dazzle them and all that. But it's good. It's a win-win deal. I get turned on by the challenges of that and the audience gets turned on by the results."

We asked Cameron if the joy he's found in ten years of his "expedition stuff," will mean a break in the darkness prevalent in his past science-fiction work. "No," he said. "I'm still the same twisted guy that I was back when I wrote Terminator. And there's a lot of dark stuff in this film. You get pummeled when you get into it deeper. It's a real emotional roller-coaster. You gotta earn the happiness in this movie. I think that makes a movie really work, really fire on all eight cylinders. People are talking about the world and the critters and the design and stuff which is cool, but there's a story. And it'll wring you out. Sigourney just saw the movie for the first time a couple days ago and she was crying for fifteen minutes at the end. In 2-D. I don't think it matters – 2-D, 3-D; it's the narrative of the story. That has to exist as it's own thing. I think every film needs to have a certain amount of darkness to appreciate the light. The thing is, it has real beauty, the film. But we wanted to balance the intensity and the terror and the darkness with moments of transporting beauty. Most films, I think, especially in the science fiction genre, don't do that. They should and occasionally they succeed, but I think it's really important to bring both."

"I'm very curious," he concluded, "to see what the feedback is coming out of today's screening. Six-thousand virgin pairs of eyes. A lot of people are going to go online and talk about it, and we'll monitor that traffic. I think there's something that can be learned."