Screening of 'Avatar' and Q&A with James Cameron.

Last night I attended Variety Magazine’s Screening Series at Arclight, which showcased James Cameron’s “Avatar” [AVATR] in 3D with a half-hour Q&A with the director/writer and two production designers afterwards. This article is not a review of said film (but trust me, I do have my opinions of “Avatar”—many, many opinions. Even so, I do recommend seeing it in its 3D format on the big screen, just for the comic book spectacle of it all.) Now let me share with you the rare, behind-the-scenes information I gleaned at the post-movie Q&A.

A large, white vinyl step-and-repeat banner with Variety Mag’s logo in red was brought in quickly from the wings once “Avatar” finished, and four stools set up in front. As the house lights rose and blazed, Timothy M. Gray, Variety’s editor and the evening’s moderator, introduced James Cameron [JCAME], Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg to the “stage”, with mostly standing ovations from the crowd. Tim Gray asked the first question to James Cameron regarding the genesis of “Avatar”. He replied that the story concept came to him back in early 1995–96, when he created the movie’s treatment and designed the characters. So “Avatar” pre-dated Cameron’s other blockbuster, “Titanic”, but he felt the computer-generated (CG) technology at that time for “Avatar” to be successful wasn’t available, so he shelved it.

Cameron helped create Digital Domain, a visual effects and animation company, with Stan Winston (the premier stop-motion animator then) and others.  In so doing, Cameron wanted to push visual effects (VFX) ever further, so that he could bring “Avatar” to cinematic reality. It wasn’t until May 2005 that Cameron decided the time and tech was right to revisit “Avatar”, and he resumed the design and script writing process.

Tim Gray then asked about the design process of “Avatar” and Robert Stromberg, the film’s Visual Production Lead, said that it was very organic. Stromberg (who worked as visual effects artist on “2012”, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” and “Grey Gardens”, among others, and is currently working post-production on Tim Burton’s anticipated “Alice in Wonderland” [ALCNW]) came up with the floating mountains and the bioluminescent jungles of the moon-planet of Pandora (where much of “Avatar” is set.) Stromberg revealed that the moon-planet’s surroundings mirror Jack Sully’s human/Na’vi character’s time and experience on Pandora very subtly throughout the movie.

Cameron then piped in to say that, even though he had designed the characters already, he felt the actors portraying them needed to find each alien’s essence. He mentioned that Zoë Saldana (who played the fierce Na’vi warrior-princess, Neytiri) brought such a nuanced, yet bold acting in her audition—she even hissed!—that he knew she was right for the part. All the actors, whether cast as a real or CG character, needed to have fluidity in their acting and a broad range of abilities and ideas to fulfill Cameron’s vision.

To bring about Pandora’s creation was another “let’s push the visualization” process. How does one create a virtual planet for virtual characters played by real actors? Here Cameron admitted he “really didn’t know, which is not the best thing for a film director to admit.” He continued to say that he had worked with a gang of performance capture actors to block crowd scenes for months before the primary shooting began but, once the lead actors arrived on the set, there wasn’t really a “set”. The problem was solved when modular green-screen props and terrain were created to mimic cliff walls, fallen logs and hanging vines; which Robert Stromberg likened to “building an airplane in mid-flight.” This allowed the animators to match up the rough shots with finalized CG environments afterwards, which took about one year per shot to complete.

Cameron invented a new way to translate the human actors into their Na’vi counterparts. He created a virtual camera, which took the information from the active marker nodes on each actor’s motion capture suit and wrapped a low-res Na’vi skin in real-time CG, so Cameron could direct them as Na’vis jumping, swinging and flying on the virtual Pandora. Each actor had cameras placed on his or her head, which allowed each to see the others’ alien’s reactions in monitors, too. This anchored them emotionally and opened a doorway into pure acting experiences. This hybrid production method was a very intimate, low-cost process and allowed Cameron and the actors to “get the movie right” before it went to hi-res, final CG production (which is when the film’s production costs soared.)

Towards the end of the session, an audience member asked Cameron what was his impetus for creating “Avatar”, he replied that he wanted to show in film how nature is falling to humans on this planet by mirroring it on another, though he cautioned that “Avatar” is in no way “An Inconvenient Truth”. Cameron stressed that—even with the oversized, expansive landscape—it all came down to the characters who inhabited it. “How many times have people seen a ‘first kiss’ in the movies? One that was memorable? We have the first human-alien [sic] kiss [in ‘Avatar’.”] Cameron went on to reveal the origins of the nose-to-nose acknowledgement between lead characters Jack Sully and Neytiri as coming from the Maori culture: Noses together, inhaling each other’s breath, each other’s essence… It’s not a greeting, it’s not ‘goodbye’. It’s more ‘I am with you.’  

“Avatar” has upped the ante in blockbuster production, and many studios will push for their films to echo it, because who doesn’t want films that gross $1 billion (and counting?) This reviewer hopes wise heads prevail and that such large-scale CG be tailored to fit the type of movie in which it’s used.  Because no matter how much virtual “bells and whistles” Cameron’s latest movie has, “Avatar” is still a movie about the struggle between each of its characters. It would still be their story, their world, their plight—their “reality”—which would ultimately bring “Avatar” to life.


Lance J. Olson

Contributing Writer

Lance can be reached at lanceoutwest@yahoo.com



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By Lance J. Olson on Thursday, January 7, 2010 @ 04:59 PM        4892 views

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