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James Cameron

This holiday season, we welcome the impending future. The New Year transition to 2010 heralds a new decade of technology. It’s a year for which sci-fi authors like Arthur C. Clarke have long expected great things, and already the advances expected in the next years are no fiction.


One man who saw it all coming is James Cameron. The filmmaker has always been a technology guru. His advances in films like The Abyss, Terminator 2 and Titanic broke new ground in the film industry. Still, it has taken him a demanding 12 years to develop and complete his latest film, Avatar, and he boldly declares that it will change cinema forever. Not a bad way to end the first decade of the millennium.


“The ideal movie technology is so advanced that it waves a magic wand and makes itself disappear,” Cameron said. “I think that's what we tried to do on Avatar. I think it's what we tried to do on Titanic. We were using state of the art stuff on Titanic to tell a story that took place in 1912. I don't think people came out of the theater buzzing about the neat CG composite shots or the motion capture that was used for all the big crowd scenes. They were talking about the love story and about the emotions. Avatar is really cutting edge in how it was made, but that's not what people want to hear about. They want to hear about the story. So I think it finds its own level and if you do it right it's transparent.”


Avatar is set on the distant planet of Pandora, where the forests and oceans glow with neon light. The inhabitants of Pandora are 10 foot tall blue humanoids called the Na’Vi. They have a resource that Earth’s human military want, so they send a soldier undercover with the Na’Vi. The only way a human can pass for a Na’Vi is through a technology that allows him to remotely control an avatar of himself in Na’Vi form. 


Sounds complicated, but at its heart, Avatar is a big old adventure story. The military fights the big and blue natives, and the hero falls in love. “I want to make sure that the story is fully accessible to everybody,” Cameron said. “We have to make a movie for everybody. It has to operate on a very visceral level of kind of a universal human archetype, if you will. The story is really designed for that because it's really a classic story. It's not a timely story in the sense that The Matrix was a very timely story. It needed to evolve out of the sort of cyberpunk era and what was happening just with the way that the internet was changing human consciousness globally. The Matrix comes out of that. This story could've been written in the '30's. It could have been an Edgar Rice Burroughs type story or a Rudyard Kipling story or a western, but it's an adventure story of a guy from one culture dropped into another culture.”


The way to achieve it was not so simple. Cameron developed his own technology to create Pandora and the Na’Vi. The actors he hired performed the entire movie on a green screen stage. Cameron’s computers and cameras recorded all of their performance so that he could work with them digitally. Cameron turned Zoe Saldana into a graceful blue jungle warrior, not to mention creating the world of her home, Pandora. He also shot the movie in 3-D so viewers can get up close and personal with the big blue Na’Vi.


“In the beginning, I think it was a lack of knowledge, a lack of awareness of how the technology worked,” Saldana said. “It had me completely apprehensive. Then we worked on it for two years. We trained, we had extensive rehearsals with Jim.  It takes a little time for you to get used to it. After you get used to it, it is the most amazing thing because you’re not working in a movie where you have to pause, and they have to light again, and you have to start all over again. We would do a scene from the beginning to the end every time. As an actor, you can only be so lucky to do that. It was being a child again and not limiting your imagination.”

Ultimately, Saldana didn’t have to worry about how it was done. She could trust Cameron to put the pieces together. Her job was to convey the emotion of a noble warrior, challenged by the forbidden love with a newcomer, and the possible betrayal he could bring to their relationship.


“This was a film about the future but the essence, the essential story was very simple,” Saldana said. “What happens when man gets ahead of himself, defies his mortality and creates something so perfect it ends up coming back to haunt him? Titanic sort of had that same kind of essence, and then you have this story on another galaxy, on a planet called Pandora, with a different alien species called the Na’Vi, but it’s still about what happens when we under-appreciate things that we have. We’re forced to go elsewhere to sort of take resources from this other place and then we meet creatures that are not so okay with that. It’s a very universal story about using and abusing and learning to live, co-existing in a very amicable way together.”


That also confirms that the film won’t just be a toy box for boys. Kids might enjoy the pretty pictures, the cool spaceships and exciting action. Grown ups may relate to the political undertones of a military nation entering an indigenous nation with a selfish agenda. Romantics may just cry for those big blue lovers.



“I honestly think that [Cameron] is not afraid of being in tune with his vulnerable side,” Saldana said. “I also think it takes one to know one. I think that as human beings, we’re very androgynous and it just depends on how much we would like to listen to our masculinity as women and not feel butchy or be considered a tomboy or whatever. And for men, how much do you want to listen to your feminine side and be okay with being vulnerable and fragile while being strong? I think James is very much in tune with his fragility because he’s a very sensitive bugger. He will see something and it will drive him to tears or goosebumps and he’ll snap his fingers, but while at the same time too, he loves blowing up sh*t. He lives for that, so it’s sort of like the kind of person that you want to be when you grow up. It’s being in tune with both energies.”


The name James Cameron carries a lot of weight in the science fiction genre. He invented the Terminator franchise. He made what many consider a superior sequel to Alien. Lending even more “street cred” to Avatar is Cameron’s Aliens star Sigourney Weaver. The first lady of sci-fi played Ellen Ripley in four Alien films, and spoofed the genre in Galaxy Quest. In Avatar, she plays a scientist in charge of the avatar technology.


“We do science fiction, it’s for us to start to understand who we are, what it is to be human, what our purpose is in the universe,” Weaver said. “When we explore all these different life forms, we come back to this question of what it is to be human. I think in our story the most human human people are not the humans. They are distorted and crippled by greed, which if anything has become an even larger character in our world than when he started this movie. So I think science fiction has that capacity of going way out there and bringing us to ourselves in a way.”


Avatar,  Sigourney Weaver

The technology may be new, but Weaver recognized her old friend using the latest tools to tell a more classical story. “It was very satisfying to be working with Jim again,” she said. “It was like no time had passed. It was so easy for us, like putting on a pair of old slippers or something. Reading the script, I was so astonished by how ambitious it was, how much he was trying to say, how much he was trying to give us in terms of adventure and romance and it had a real point to it. So I was sort of thrilled to be a part of something that had such a huge canvas. He’s changed in the sense that I think he’s a very fulfilled person. He still has that same perfectionistic drive. He drives everyone hard but no one as hard as he drives himself. He operated on almost every shot. He invented the cameras. He invented the flora and fauna and the creatures.”


She agrees with Cameron’s assertion that Avatar will change the world of cinema. “I think this is the kind of movie that changes the way movies are made,” Weaver said. “The profound thing to me about 3-D is how good regular scenes seem in 3-D. They seem so natural. You just go, ‘Oh yes, this feels right.’ That I didn’t expect. I expected it to feel odd or novel. It doesn’t. It feels like ‘oh, this is the way we should be’. You should be in the room with these people.”


12 years ago, after winning Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture for Titanic, James Cameron thought of an idea he didn’t know how to do. Now Avatar shepherds in a new decade of technology, not just for movies. The next time Cameron has one of those big ideas, there won’t be anything to stop him.


“I kind of dread having an idea we can't do right now,” Cameron said. “The nice thing is that the infrastructure that we’ve created, and that other stuff we created to support this big project, now makes it possible for us to do anything.”


Avatar opens Friday, December 18! (P.S. Titanic debuted on Friday, December 19) / Issue 105 - September 2018
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