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Hollywood hopes for a game changer in 'Avatar'

November 15, 2009|John Horn and Claudia Eller

Inside a dark mixing stage at 20th Century Fox a few weeks ago, writer-director James Cameron, surrounded by nearly a dozen colleagues, stared at a clip from his upcoming movie, "Avatar," unhappy with the look of the precipitous peaks on the horizon.

Circling the summits with a red laser pointer and speaking to his computer-effects team at Weta Digital in New Zealand via videoconference, Cameron came up with a Muhammad-like solution: Shift the mountains to the left.

"Moving a mountain," the 55-year-old filmmaker said, laughing, "is nothing."

Such bravado might be expected from the man who declared, "I'm the king of the world!" during the Academy Awards 11 years ago, when his last feature film, "Titanic," collected 11 Oscars. It was the highest-grossing movie in cinema history.

Throughout his career, in films such as "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "The Abyss," Cameron has used eye-popping digital effects to create worlds and characters. But he never has attempted anything as creatively and commercially ambitious as "Avatar," a groundbreaking combination of 3-D filmmaking, photo-realistic computer animation and live-action drama that opens Dec. 18.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, November 16, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
'Avatar': An article in Sunday's Section A on director James Cameron's upcoming movie "Avatar" referred to video game maker Unisoft. The company's name is Ubisoft.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 22, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
'Avatar': An article in the Nov. 15 Section A on director James Cameron's upcoming movie "Avatar" misidentified video game maker Ubisoft as Unisoft.

"Avatar," a futuristic thriller, may be Hollywood's most expensive movie ever, and many in the industry fervently hope it will transform 21st century moviemaking the way sound and color did decades ago.

The film business, struggling with flat theater attendance, collapsing DVD sales and the serial firing of top executives, certainly could use a game changer -- an immersive moviegoing experience that delivers more than anyone can get from their HDTV or home computer screens. But though "Avatar" might be all that, it also defies conventional Hollywood wisdom that today's blockbuster movies need to be "pre-sold" as bestsellers ("Harry Potter," "The Lord of the Rings"), comic books ("Batman," "X-Men"), toys ("Transformers," the upcoming "Battleship") or based on other movies (every sequel ever made).

Thus the novelty of "Avatar" could also be its biggest liability. And some wonder if the film's plot -- dense with action sequences and special effects, but also featuring a love story between two 10-foot-tall blue aliens -- will resonate with a wide enough audience to steer the movie into profitability.

Hollywood has tracked "Avatar" closely. Many of Cameron's friends -- members of a filmmaking elite that includes Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott -- made pilgrimages to his Santa Monica production house and the Playa del Rey hangars where he worked on the film.

"I was blown away," said Guillermo del Toro, director of "Pan's Labyrinth" and the upcoming "Hobbit" movies. "The creation of this technology is what allows a movie like 'Avatar' to exist."

Said Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment: "He gets to the edge of the envelope, and then goes as far past it as possible."

To observe Cameron directing "Avatar" is to witness filmmaking as it's never been done before. Whereas most movies add all of their visual effects in post-production, Cameron was able to see fully composited shots in real time: The actors he was directing may have been performing in front of a blank green screen, but Cameron's camera eyepiece -- not to mention giant 3-D television monitors -- immediately displayed lush, synthetic backgrounds.

The filmmaker has spent the better part of a decade developing the technology used in "Avatar," which is set on a distant moon under siege by humans determined to pillage its natural resources. It required the reinvention of bulky 3-D cameras, which had to be downsized to fit into smaller spaces and move with fluidity, and lengthy experimentation with improvements in motion-capture animation, which superimposes animated characters onto real actors, as in the current Disney version of "A Christmas Carol."

As part of his research and development, Cameron directed the 3-D documentaries "Aliens of the Deep" and "Ghosts of the Abyss," which visited the Titanic's underwater wreckage. To overcome what many critics regard as the great flaw of motion-capture animation, the "dead-eye" appearance of characters, Cameron mounted tiny cameras above the faces of his "Avatar" actors, recording their smallest facial expressions and most intimate eye movements.

"What had been missing in motion capture was the 'E' -- the emotion," said "Avatar" producer Jon Landau.

The real test of this hybrid technology, the filmmakers acknowledge, will not be in the 3-D illusion of sending a rocket hurtling toward the audience, but in whether it enhances the tale's emotional resonance.

"Titanic" may have won the Oscar for visual effects, but it was the film's romance that lured millions of repeat viewers. One of Cameron's foremost challenges, then, is to ensure that the lead "Avatar" characters, played by Sam Worthington of "Terminator: Salvation" and Zoe Saldana of the most recent "Star Trek" movie, are as emotionally compelling as were Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

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