James Cameron: Yes, 'Avatar' is 'Dances with Wolves' in space. . .sorta (Los Angeles Times)


This is the second part of my interview with Oscar-winning director James Cameron, who is (finally) bringing the world his years-in-the-making sci-fi epic "Avatar." Today he explains why the film might be rightly considered "Dances with Wolves" in space and he shares his opinion of recent special-effects blockbusters -- he thought "Star Trek" absolutely rocked but "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," well, uh, not so much. He also teaches me a new word.


GB: With this movie, it feels like a classic going-native film, if that doesn't sound too flippant. In the half-hour of footage I saw I as reminded at certain points of “Farewell to the King,” “A Man Called Horse” and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.”

JC: Yeah, yeah, “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” was among the videos that I used as a reference. Yeah, absolutely. Tom Berenger did some real interesting stuff in that film.

GB: There’s also maybe some heritage linking it to “Dances With Wolves,” considering your story here of a battered military man who finds something pure in an endangered tribal culture.

JC: Yes, exactly, it is very much like that. You see the same theme in “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” and also “The Emerald Forest,” which maybe thematically isn’t that connected but it did have that clash of civilizations or of cultures. That was another reference point for me. There was some beautiful stuff in that film. I just gathered all this stuff in and then you look at it through the lens of science fiction and it comes out looking very different but is still recognizable in a universal story way. It’s almost comfortable for the audience – “I know what kind of tale this is.” They’re not just sitting there scratching their heads, they’re enjoying it and being taken along. And we still have turns and surprises in it, too, things you don’t see coming. But the idea that you feel like you are in a classic story, a story that could have been shaped by Rudyard Kipling or Edgar Rice Burroughs.

GB: Or Joseph Conrad…?

JC: Yes, exactly. And I think returning to classic tales is a powerful thing. Look, right now is a special time because we can basically do anything we imagine. I mean you have to work hard at it, and you’ve got to have the technique and you have to be willing to throw money at the problem. Sometimes you have to be a little bold and go out on a limb. But if you can imagine it, you can do it. That’s why we’re seeing this renaissance of visual imagination. It’s just a growth. Films look better now than they’ve ever looked. Sometimes they get a little lost in it though. I’ll go to a “Transformers” film for the fun of seeing the spectacle but, personally, my soul craves a little more story, a little more meat on the bone and characters and that sort of thing. Look, I think it's about finding a balance between story and all of this gimmickry. I think I veer toward classicism, being solidly rooted in the classic stuff. I mean really old-school science fiction. This is a movie I would have loved to have seen when I was a 14-year-old kid in 1968.

GB: Well, certainly, that’s why it's reassuring for anyone to see movies like “Star Trek” and “Up,” which might be my two favorite films this year, because both are examples of technology and craft achieving the fantastic but in service of great storytelling.

JC: Right, “Star Trek” -- look at that. That is a great example of a complete reinvention. Really, it’s beautifully done, really. Bravo. And I loved the first season of “Star Trek” back in 1965 or 1966 or whenever it was, it grabbed me as a kid, but I drifted away from it over time. And this was such a great way to see it come back as re-imagined. What fun.

GB: In the footage I saw it seemed to me that you were able to present nuanced emotion in the faces of the alien tribe and the human avatars who walk among them. That's vital, isn't it? I mean we've seen movies where computer-created or computer-augmented visages seemed wooden or dead-faced.

JC: That was the biggest challenge of the film. No matter how much art and technology we threw at this thing, if it wasn’t in the eyes of the characters – if you didn’t see a soul there – it would just be a big clanking machine. And I think that’s what people were responding to with … well I don’t want to throw a particular movie under the bus here, but let’s just say we’ve seen examples of motion-capture not quite getting it. It’s called the uncanny valley. We’ve seen movies never quite get out of the uncanny valley. That’s a reference to a negative effect that is created when something approaches human [in appearance] but isn’t quite there, it creates this creepiness. Our goal right from the get-go is that we had to get over the uncanny valley. These characters have to be real, they have to be alive. And what the actors do has to come through 100%. We didn’t want to get in and come back and muck around with a lot of key-framing where we would be animating over what the actors did. Our goal was a pure translation of the actors’ performance, at least as much as the physiology of that character allowed. The actors can’t act the tail, the actors can’t ears, so there is a layer of animation on top of what they are doing. But if I showed you the reference video track of what [lead actors] Zoe [Saldana] and Sam [Worthington] did, I think you’d be astonished at how closely it maps to the final performance that you see. I think it’s one-to-one. You know, and, we expected that maybe we’d get to 90%, maybe 95%, but I don’t think we dreamed that we’d get to 100%. But we did. There’s absolutely no diminishment.

GB: That's pretty confident talk! I talked to your producing partner Jon Landau and he said that you guys were referring to the work here as emotion-capture, as opposed to motion-capture. It’s a catchy phrase if you guys can live up to it.

JC: We spent the first year and a half of the film – before we were truly green-lit, but we were well-funded— developing the facial performance capture system and the pipeline that would see it through to completion. We even did an end-to-end test where we captured scenes and took them out to the final photo-real record just so we understood the process. And it’s a tribute to how much Weta Digital down in New Zealand has been able to evolve the state of the art beyond their own expectations at the beginning of the film. In fact we’re seeing a difference now between some of the first stuff they turned in a year ago and what we’re getting now. What we’re getting now is actually better.

GB: Your reputation is as a perfectionist, does that mean you need to re-do some early stuff?

JC: No I don’t think you’ll ever feel the diminishment as you go through the movie. But we’ll see a scene that was an earlier scene in process and they look great, but a newer stuff is stunning. And that stuff we haven’t even showed anyone yet. We’re just getting it in now. I’m about to head over to a Weta review right now, I’ll probably spend the next four hours in there reviewing stuff, and I look forward to it every day. When we unpack these shots, sometimes our jaws just drop at the verisimilitude to the actors. And that’s what thrills me most. I’m kind of over all the design stuff. That was the first two years. I’m kind of used to that stuff now, the floating mountains and thousand-foot trees. But when I see Sam Worthington captured exactly at a critical-performance moment -- that still gets me.

-- Geoff Boucher

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