Cameron creates new world with long-awaited 'Avatar'
Few movies come with expectations as high as “Avatar,” James Cameron’s long-awaited science-fiction tech-noir adventure. At this week’s Tokyo International Film Festival, audiences were treated to 20 minutes of eye-popping 3D footage ahead of the film’s worldwide Dec 18 release.
Cameron, 55, is busy in post-production, so it was left to producer Jon Landau and stars Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana to carry the flag. Over and over, they praised Cameron and assured us that “Avatar” –- which cost $300 million—would be like nothing audiences have ever seen.
Landau, who last collaborated with Cameron on the 1997 epic “Titanic,” said, “We started the ‘Titanic’ journey at the Tokyo film festival in 1997, and now we are starting the ‘Avatar’ journey here. This movie will take audiences on an emotional journey, dealing with universal themes and characters you can relate to. If you see it in 3D, you will not be seeing a movie, you will be experiencing it.”
“Avatar” has been in the works since 1994, said Landau. “James has put so much of himself into the film. He said it is the result of every science fiction film he has seen since he was 14. He invented new cameras and film technology because he is the kind of director who wants to deliver the best to the audience.”
“Avatar” tells the story of humans placed inside alien skins to survive on Pandora, a jungle-covered moon in the Alpha Centauri star system, filled with incredible life forms. Worthington plays one of those humans—a paraplegic ex-Marine whose genes are mixed with those of an alien creature to become a new creature known as an “avatar.” He soon finds himself in a desperate fight for his own survival and that of the indigenous people, including a princess (Saldana).
Weaver, 60, who plays a botanist, was happy to be reunited with Cameron, with whom she worked on “Aliens.” “We were the old-timers on this set,” she said. “What James does is so original and exciting. He was having a blast after not directing a movie in 12 years.”
Australian actor Worthington, 33, is certainly having a big year, first with “Terminator 4” and now “Avatar.” “I’m fortunate because I haven’t done anything that I am not proud of,” he said. “You get one shot to make a movie, and when it comes out, it is there for life, long after I’ll be ashes in the ground. So I want projects that I can put blood, sweat and tears into. James wants to leave on the screen what is in his heart and imagination. He demanded excellence of us and we demanded it of ourselves.”
Saldana, 31, has also had a banner year, having appeared in “Star Trek” in the summer. “Just working with a prolific director like James Cameron is an honor. I couldn’t believe the world he created for Pandora,” she said.
For “Avatar,” Cameron used a new technique called motion capture to create photo-realistic computer-generated characters. Instead of adding in the digital environment after the actors’ movements have been captured, the new virtual camera allows the director to observe directly on a monitor how the actors’ virtual counterparts interact with the digital world in real time and adjust and direct the scenes just as if shooting live action.
Landau said other innovations included a performance-capture stage, called The Volume, whereby facial expressions could be recorded by a special head rig fitted with a tiny camera that floats inches from the actors’ faces. It captures the movements of facial muscles, pupils, teeth, lips and tongue, and then transmits them to the computers. “What this means is that the actors’ mannerisms can be transferred to their digital counterparts,” he explained.
When seen in 3D, the end result is certainly impressive. “3D used to be gimmicky,” said Weaver, “but now, even in serious scenes where there no obvious special effects, you feel like you are right there in the room with everything happening around you.”
To get his cast in the mood for Pandora’s jungle, Cameron had them spend some time in the lush rain forests of Hawaii. Worthington recalls one day when he was wearing his avatar costume of ears and a tail and little else. “A truck driver stopped and asked me what I was doing. I said I was making a movie. I pointed to Jim, who was holding a small camera, and told the driver, ‘That’s James Cameron. He made ‘Titanic.’ The driver looked at me and said, ‘Boy, he’s sure gone downhill since then,’ and drove off.”
“Avatar” opens in Japan on Dec 18.