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'Avatar''s impact on the movie industry

How James Cameron’s ambitious new film defied expectations

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When James Cameron finish a movie, he picks out a souvenir. On display in his office in Santa Monica, for instance, is the helmsman’s wheel from the set of Titanic, as well as a cyborg hand from Terminator 2: Judgment Day and an underwater helmet from The Abyss. But the memento he’s chosen to keep from Avatar is so special — and so huge — he’s decided it belongs at home in Malibu. Any day now, he’s expecting delivery of the hulking, 14-foot-tall robotic combat suit — or AMP, as Cameron calls it, for Amplified Mobility Platform — that appears in the film’s climactic battle sequence.

”I’m thinking of putting it on my front yard,” says the director. He’s sitting in a lounge chair by the swimming pool at his sprawling, double-gated, multimansion compound on a private road off the Pacific Coast Highway. Somewhere a door must have opened, because a pair of enormous, wolfy-looking black hounds suddenly rush toward their master’s feet, as if waiting for a kill command. ”I’m serious — I’m putting it right on the front lawn,” Cameron adds, while petting his dogs. ”It’ll send a message to the neighbors. ‘Don’t f— with us.”’

Message received. Just three weeks into its release, Avatar became the second-highest-grossing film of all time worldwide, just behind his sinking-boat flick that won all those Oscars in 1998. Based on its current box office trajectory — $1.3 billion worldwide and counting — it’s even got a decent shot at surpassing Titanic‘s $1.8 billion to become the highest-grossing film in history. (”Then I’ll just have to rerelease Titanic in 3-D,” Cameron quips.) The movie has inspired an army of hardcore fans, who call themselves Avatards, gather at sites like naviblue.com, and post wistful stuff like ”Oh, how I wish Pandora was real.”

Avatar has also generated some of the best reviews of Cameron’s career (if you don’t count antismoking campaigners and some conservatives), fueling speculation that the 55-year-old director may take home his second Best Picture Oscar. Indeed, the eye-popping film, which mixes breakthrough photo-realistic CGI with state-of-the-art 3-D effects in ways the audience has never seen before, is being hailed by some as a technological watershed, the sort of film that redefines what people expect when they go to the movies, the way sound revolutionized film in the 1920s and color did in the 1930s.

”Let me put it this way,” Cameron says, a thin grin forming on his lips. ”All of those naysayers, the nattering nabobs of negativity, the people who were saying that the movie looked bad before they had even seen anything — you have to learn to ignore them. That’s something that I learned on Titanic. But yeah, it’s satisfying that I was able to prove them all wrong.”

Again.

So much has already been written about how Avatar was made — how it took nearly five years and a reported $300 million to complete, how Cameron shot nearly the whole thing in a barren airplane hangar he nicknamed the Volume, how he invented his own ”performance capture” cameras that could seamlessly sew human actors into a CGI world in real time — that it’s easy to forget that the production was once the most secretive in Hollywood. All anybody knew was that Cameron was holed up in Howard Hughes’ old Spruce Goose parking space in Playa Vista, working on something extraordinary. Every so often, you’d hear reports that Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson (whose CGI company, Weta, worked on some of the effects) had popped in on the set for a tour, and had left looking astonished. It was like Hollywood’s Manhattan Project, except the idea wasn’t to make a bomb — it was to explode the boundaries of cinema with an immersive film spectacle that transported audiences to the moonscape of Pandora, a trippy Yes album cover of an alien world where mountains float in the air, foliage glows in the dark, and sexy 10-foot-tall indigo girls literally fall out of the trees. In 3-D, no less.

In case you’re one of the few people on the planet who haven’t seen it, Avatar, which is rated PG-13, concerns a 22nd-century ex-Marine named Jake (Sam Worthington) at a mining outpost on a moon called Pandora. Jake is wired into an alien body, or avatar, and sent to spy on the natives, who live atop a deposit of ”Unobtainium,” an invaluable mineral on Earth. In short order, he meets and falls for the Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoë Saldana)…and then things get complicated. Think Pocahontas with a detour through Dune and a pit stop in FernGully. ”It was like going to Juilliard,” Saldana (Star Trek) says of the months she spent in a black leotard in an empty soundstage pretending to have a tail. ”Jim always incorporated us into everything that was happening. We got a glimpse of every scene. Every animal that he and his team would finish — he was like, ‘I did some tweaks. I want to see what you guys think.”’

Cameron has always been a fearless filmmaker. This is the guy who taught Arnold Schwarzenegger to act — to a degree, anyway — and who weathered a gale of bad buzz while shooting Titanic. ”Vitriol,” he calls the negative press over that film. ”No matter what we did, no matter how well we did it, we were damned.” That wasn’t as big a problem with Avatar, but the physical demands of making the movie were actually much rougher than when he sank an ocean liner. For one thing, Cameron was the only one who had mastered his experimental Fusion and Simul-Cam camera equipment, which meant he had to shoot virtually every bit of footage himself, with almost no help from second-unit crews. For another, the sheer length of the production, stretching over half a decade, took a grinding toll on everybody on the set, particularly the director.

”It turned out to be more labor-intensive than expected,” Cameron acknowledges. ”I took a day off about once every seven weeks, when I started slurring my words. I got the swine flu — I took a half day off for that. I did get frustrated and cranky. But then one day, I just sort of bitch-slapped myself. I told myself, ‘You’re f—ing rich. You don’t have to do this. You could be off doing deep-sea exploration. So you better find a way to love it.’ The next day, I came to work whistling. I was slapping the grips on the back.” He scratches one of his dogs behind the ear. ”It lasted till about noon.”

Cameron is known for having an ego, even by Hollywood standards. He’s supposed to be arrogant and imposing. (Remember when he stood on the Oscar stage and declared himself ”the king of the world”?) But earning another billion dollars at the box office must have lightened his mood. In fact, the most successful filmmaker of all time — the guy who’s outgrossed even the mighty George Lucas — seems pretty affable these days. At times he’s even startlingly self-deprecating. ”After jumping up and making a fool of myself with my acceptance speech, I’m sure nobody wants to see me at the Academy Awards again,” he says, when asked about his chances for another statuette. ”Or maybe they want me to win again to see if I can make an even bigger fool of myself.”

”If anything, Jim is even more Jim-like than he used to be — he still goes for it no matter what,” observes Sigourney Weaver, who, 24 years ago, did some famous bitch-slapping of her own while wearing an early model of an AMP suit in Cameron’s Aliens, and who now plays the chain-smoking scientist Dr. Grace Augustine. ”But I don’t know how he physically maintained the pace. Sometimes he almost had to stand on his head to get the shot. That’s new. When we were making Aliens, I don’t think he operated the camera at all.”

Shooting finally finished last spring, but, like a cartoon coyote running off a cliff, it took Cameron a few beats to realize it. ”You know how when you’re on a people mover at the airport and you step off it, and suddenly you’re at normal speed? That’s what it felt like finishing the movie. It was weird. I actually sat there and thought, ‘I don’t have anything to do.”’ In truth, there was plenty to keep him busy: postproduction on the film, as well as promotional duties worldwide. When opening day arrived, though, Cameron took cover at his ranch in central California. ”Some people treat opening weekends like Election Day,” he explains. ”They stare at the computer screen and watch the numbers change. I don’t. I go away. I just went off and stared at the fire and read some books. I can disconnect like that. My wife [actress Suzy Amis, whom Cameron met while making Titanic] would constantly come in and say, ‘Honey, you made this much in Japan.’ I’d be like, ‘That’s nice.’ I never get up and jump around too much. My first wife [Sharon Williams] used to say that I was the only person she knew who kept his instincts on file.”

Of course, the movie made a pile of Unobtainium that first weekend, despite fears that an East Coast storm might keep some U.S. moviegoers at home. Avatar grossed $232 million worldwide, the biggest opening of all time for any non-sequel, including Titanic. Sure, there have been grumblings from conservatives angry about the film’s arguably anti-military, pro-environment message. (”It’s not an Oliver Stone-style bludgeon-you-over-the-head political film,” Cameron says, ”but it does have a political subtext. I am a tree hugger.”) There was that bad review from the Vatican: ”Nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship,” the Pontiff’s radio station opined. And there have been complaints from anti-smoking advocates fuming over Weaver’s onscreen puffing (”I came up with so many alternatives — I suggested an inhaler — but Jim was adamant,” says the actress, a nonsmoker).

Still, the instinct Cameron must be feeling right now can be filed under W, for ”whew.”

As Sarah Connor put it in T2, the future is not set. Nobody yet knows if Avatar really is one of those once-in-a-generation paradigm-shifting films — like The Jazz Singer or King Kong or Star Wars — that alters the very meaning of going to the movies. But let’s go out on a limb and predict that it’ll at least give 3-D a boost. The cinematic gimmick has been around for ages, still requires clumsy eyewear, and, until recently, has been mostly reserved for animated fairy tales and cheesy horror movies (and Hannah Montana concert films). But Avatar may have finally changed the way moviemakers and moviegoers think about the technology. About 70 percent of Avatar‘s grosses have come from 3-D ticket buyers; even after you figure in higher ticket prices for 3-D showings, that’s an astounding number of people. ”It establishes 3-D as a viable method to make and watch movies in a very big way,” says Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research of the National Association of Theatre Owners. And it’s getting more viable every day. Last week the first 3-D TV sets were rolled out at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and ESPN announced that it would be the first to launch a 3-D TV network. In a couple of years, if 3-D DVD players exist, you may be watching Avatar’s glowing jellyfish thingies floating around your living room.

As for Cameron, it’s easy to predict his future: He’ll be making an Avatar sequel. Worthington has already signed on, and he jokingly e-mailed EW the following plot suggestions from London, where he’s shooting Clash of the Titans: ”Jake should have abused his avatar and now be fat and unfit and demand Neytiri to get him a beer.” Avatar‘s other actors seem keen on a repeat performance too, even the ones whose characters got killed at the end of the film. ”You think those two arrows in my chest are going to stop me from coming back?” barks Stephen Lang, who plays the evil Col. Miles Quaritch. ”Nothing’s over so long as they’ve got my DNA.” As it turns out, Cameron has been planning a sequel all along. ”I’ve had a story line in mind from the start — there are even scenes in Avatar that I kept in because they lead to the sequel,” he says. ”It just makes sense to think of it as a two-or-three-film arc, in terms of the business plan. The CG plants and trees and creatures and the musculoskeletal rigging of the main characters — that all takes an enormous amount of time to create. It’d be a waste not to use it again.”

Another trip to the Kodak Theatre also seems like a historic inevitability. There’s widespread consensus in Hollywood that Cameron will score Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations for Avatar. He may even be the front-runner — the film has already been nominated for Golden Globe, Directors Guild, and Producers Guild awards. Naturally, there’s also speculation about what sort of speech Cameron might give if he actually did win again. The irony is, this time, he could shout out that line about being king of the world and nobody would so much as snicker. Not with that Amplified Mobility Platform on his front lawn.


Performance capture: How they did it

To create Avatar’s Na’vi, James Cameron and his team used a three-step process called performance capture. —Adam B. Vary, with reporting by BS

Step 1: In an L.A. warehouse, the actors, wearing bodysuits studded with tiny dots, performed each scene as if in a play. About 140 digital cameras captured the movement of their bodies. Plus, a tiny camera rigged to each actor’s head recorded every subtle twitch of their faces and eyes. (For movies like The Polar Express, Robert Zemeckis reportedly did not use a distinctive set of cameras to capture facial movements.)

Step: 2: All of that data was then given to animators, who turned the actors into the Na’vi.

Step: 3: Animators studied video of the real-life actors doing each scene to make sure the Na’vi reflected every nuance of the performances.

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