“WELCOME to Avatar.”
The director James Cameron had materialized, as if by digital magic, before an early screening audience here of his latest blockbuster-in-waiting. But it’s not quite clear what the director was inviting them into this day in early December. The little $230 million picture he had just finished? The “world” created by his production’s advanced digital techniques? The “shameless engine of commerciality” he has not so jokingly claimed to have constructed? Whichever “Avatar” Mr. Cameron had in mind, a lot of people’s holiday happiness, and profit, rest upon it. And the debut did not come without a hiccup.
The houselights dimmed. The 20th Century Fox logo appeared. Trumpets blared. But before the first frame of this futuristic, sci-fi, eco-pacifist space fable could make an impression, the houselights rose.
“That was a bit shorter than you expected,” Mr. Cameron called out, to polite laughter. “There’s a problem in the projection room.” Fearing for the life of the projectionist, the audience watched Mr. Cameron, white-maned, a little paunchy these days and wearing his standard blue button-down, disappear. Darkness fell, and “Avatar” resurfaced. This time the audience got to see what four years of labor and state-of-the-art visual effects look like.
The next day Mr. Cameron was mock-mysterious during an interview at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. “Nobody knows,” he said when asked what went wrong with the film. “It shut off the computer and turned it back on. It fixes itself, and we don’t know why. I always hate that answer. I always want to know why.”
Sounding like the kid who took Dad’s watch apart to see why it ticked, Mr. Cameron has long been a director associated with technology as much as dramaturgy. His creations are unforgettable: The quicksilver villain of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”; the underwater phantasmagoria of “The Abyss”; the wet-and-wild ride of “Titanic”; movies that have occasionally seemed as much about what a director could do as should.
Likewise “Avatar.” Many in the movie industry — Mr. Cameron among them — assume processes he uses in the film, especially the technique known as “performance capture,” will revolutionize cinema, and that the Cameron-devised Fusion Camera System (a single camera that shoots live action in stereoscopic 3D), will redefine three-dimensional cinema. How huge a wake “Avatar” creates ultimately will depend in large part on how well the movie performs, aesthetically and financially.
Mr. Cameron does love his toys. Last April, at the Lightstorm Entertainment facilities in Playa del Rey, Calif. (the site of the old Hughes Aircraft), the physical machinery of “Avatar” lay dormant. The A.M.P. (“armored mobility platform”), which the actor Stephen Lang drives into the movie’s climactic battle scene, loomed like a sullen gray Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robot, with knuckles the size of carburetors. Helicopter shells, 8-foot guns and the 750-foot shed where Howard Hughes constructed his ill-fated Spruce Goose, all were silent, in an ominous way.
But across the parking lot, in the nondescript space that Mr. Cameron calls the performance-capture volume (or as Mr. Lang said, “Nerd Central”), Lightstorm’s team of animator-technicians tapped away on laptops, bringing to virtual life the world of “Avatar.” Some of it still looked like a 1990s video game, but the imagery would improve as it traveled through a universe with many creators: the Cameron-co-founded Digital Domain, Legacy FX, George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, and the New Zealand director Peter Jackson’s WETA, which Mr. Cameron said holds proprietary rights to some of the tools developed on “Avatar.” It is Mr. Cameron who is the reigning deity, though. He is hoping that, unlike the notorious vehicle that Hughes flew just once, his goose will lay golden eggs.
At the same time, however, he’s “hoping the technology story kind of sunsets” once “Avatar” is released on Friday.
“It’s been amusing watching five months of people talking about this movie,” he said this month, “when I realize they’re just nibbling around the outside edge of the cookie. They haven’t really gotten to it yet. The second they see the movie, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, there’s a whole lot of other stuff we need to be talking about here.’ ”
Stuff like imperialism. She-goddesses. The rape of nature. The year is 2154, and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a Marine who has lost the use of his legs fighting in a war he didn’t understand, is asked to replace his dead twin in a program being run light years away, on a moon called Pandora. With an atmosphere toxic to humans, Pandora is inhabited by a tribe known as the Na’vi, 11-foot, lithe, marbled-blue aboriginals for whom Pandora is sacred. What the earthlings want is the Pandoran mineral Unobtainium, which has proved to be the solution to a ravaged Earth’s energy problems. What the Na’vi want is the earthlings gone. In an effort to ingratiate themselves — and perhaps prevent Colonel Miles Quaritch (Mr. Lang) and his fellow corporate mercenaries from mowing down the Na’vis while taking their land — scientists attached to the mining campaign have created Na’vi-like avatars, which are genetically matched to their human “drivers.” Because Jake’s DNA matches his brother’s, he’s the perfect replacement. Because inhabiting an avatar means he’ll walk again, Jake agrees to go.
“Jake is an honorable guy,” Mr. Cameron said. “They tell him the money’s good, but he doesn’t take it for the money. He goes because he’s searching for something.” Mr. Cameron said in writing the script, which despite its topicality was begun before “Titanic” was shot, he got hung up on the wrong model.
“I was stuck in this sort of post-Vietnam-era-vet model, angry, bitter, and it just wasn’t working,” he said. “It wasn’t what a Marine would do. My brother’s a Marine, and his friends are my friends, and this is how they think. Their idea is that the harder things get, the better it defines you. That’s something I understand. It’s why I make the kind of movies that I make. I’m not humping a 100-pound pack through 120-degree heat for 10 hours, but it’s the same kind of thing. I know I’m doing something other people can’t do.”
What Mr. Cameron and his many associates have tried to do is dissolve the barrier between human emotion and animation. “Ultimately movies are about a close-up,” said Jon Landau, a producer of “Avatar” and a longtime partner of Mr. Cameron’s. “It’s not about a wide shot.” The team looked at what filmmakers had done in the past, including motion capture, which involves performers wearing sensors that translate their body movement onto a digital character ("The Polar Express" being probably the best-known exemplar). What it doesn’t do is capture facial expression, or feeling. “Motion capture to us has always been lacking one very key letter in front of it: E,” said Mr. Landau. “E-motion Capture.” They went instead to an image-based process, borrowing from the concert industry.
“If Madonna can be bouncing around with a microphone in her face and give a great performance,” Mr. Landau said, “we thought, ‘Let’s replace that microphone with a video camera.’ That video camera stays with the actor while we’re capturing the performance, and while we don’t use that image itself, we give it to the visual-effects company and they render it in a frame-by frame, almost pore-by-pore level.”
If they had used the image itself, he explained, the corresponding characters would have facial features of human proportion. The animators have more freedom, and the Na’vi a more original look (wider eyes, for instance), without a loss of expressiveness.
Arriving at the point where all this could be accomplished required faith on the part of Fox, which four and a half years ago was asked by Mr. Cameron and Mr. Landau to bankroll their project while they tested technology and created a world. “When you’re dealing with a filmmaker like Jim,” said Jim Gianopulos, a co-chairman of Fox, “and you know his ambitions, and how consistently he realizes them, well, you’re in for the ride.”
Mr. Gianopulos said he was gratified by the emotional content of the computer-generated characters, as well as the response that the studio has been getting from women, particularly toward Zoe Saldana’s character, Neytiri.
Mr. Cameron was less enthused about the cross-gender reaction. “Maybe we won’t have 14-year-old girls going back to see it four times,” he said, “but it’s definitely a movie for women.”
It’s also a move about peace, from a guy who admits to paramilitary impulses. “I have an absolute reverence for men who have a sense of duty, courage,” he said. “But I’m also a child of the ’60s. There’s a part of me who wants to put a daisy in the end of the gun barrel. I believe in peace through superior firepower, but on the other hand I abhor the abuse of power and creeping imperialism disguised as patriotism. Some of these things you can’t raise without being called unpatriotic, but I think it’s very patriotic to question a system that needs to be corralled, or it becomes Rome.”
Not that “Avatar” is a lecture. It’s too noisy for that. “He does like loud noises,” Mr. Lang said. “It’s the boy in us, it’s the fun part of filmmaking.” He recalled his last of shooting in Playa del Rey. “There was no day Jim didn’t come in with a sparkle,” Mr. Lang said. “But this one day he had this special sort of twinkle in his eye. And the first thing out of his mouth was ‘So, Slang, is it cool if we incinerate you today?’ ‘Sure,’ I said, rhetorically, ‘whatever you want,’ and that’s what we did. He proceeded to set me on fire.”
What Mr. Cameron wants now is the world to thrill at both the fireballs and other visual marvels he’s concocted, and the story they’re in service to. And, after the early December screening, he seemed past his April doubts of whether he’d “want do this again.” He seemed confident that the movie worked emotionally, technically and artistically. “Interestingly,” he added, “that bodes well for a sequel.”
And if there is no sequel? “It means we didn’t make any money.”