The ''Titanic'' director finally returns with ''Avatar''

By Jeff Jensen
January 12, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
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Nine years after Titanic earned him 11 Oscars and the right to do anything he wanted, James Cameron is finally making another full-length feature: The 3-D sci-fi extravaganza Avatar, starring newcomer Sam Worthington, will blend CG and live-action elements. ”No part of me doubted that Jim would direct again,” says 20th Century Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman. ”I had a hunch that the longer it took, the bigger it would be. Most people make movies. Jim moves the bar.” Here’s everything you need to know about Cameron’s ambitious new project, which is slated to hit theaters in summer 2009.

What is Avatar?
It’s the story of an ex-Marine named Jake who travels to the inhospitable planet of Pandora, where humans can survive only by — buckle up, kids — projecting their consciousness into genetically engineered bodies (a.k.a. ”avatars”). Seems earthlings want to colonize Pandora in order to mine a valuable substance Cameron conspicuously dubs Unobtanium. Pandora’s population — a fearsome alien race who lives in harmony with nature — isn’t too keen on being exploited. Jake falls in love with a native (Zoe Saldana), war ensues, and he must choose a side. Cameron is so committed to creating a fully formed Pandoran culture that he has linguistics professor Paul Frommer devising a new language: ”[Paul] told me, ‘We’re going to out-Klingon Klingon!”’

What took Cameron so long?
The director wrote an 80-page treatment for Avatar in 1996 — but the technology (or the lack of it) held him up. That avatar the hero occupies for much of the film? It’s big and blue, and Cameron had to wait for the F/X world to develop the means to realize his vision. The tipping point: Gollum, King Kong, and sundry visual advances pioneered by director Peter Jackson. Morever, Cameron says he’s been waiting for movie theaters to embrace 3-D digital exhibition; he projects that Avatar will be opening on up to 1,500 3-D screens in 2009. (It’ll also be released in 2-D format.) Finally, there was another pet project competing for his attention: Battle Angel, an adaptation of a Japanese graphic novel. Script problems on Angel and inspiring Avatar test footage helped Cameron decide.

What kind of F/X wizardry is involved?
Real actors will supply movements and facial expressions for Avatar‘s CG characters, utilizing new techniques created by Jackson’s New Zealand-based F/X shop, Weta. Cameron will also use a new camera system that allows him to see his actors exactly as they will appear in Avatar rather than having to wait until the shoot is completed. Filming begins this April in L.A.; this summer, it’s off to Weta to oversee the intricate postproduction process. Says Cameron, ”It’s going to be, ‘Thanks for building all this, Peter — now can you move out for a year and let me use it?”’

How did he persuade Fox to bankroll this risky project?
Fox gave the notoriously budget-busting director an unspecified amount of money to begin developing Avatar — with the mandate that he devise a detailed plan for producing it with little risk. After Cameron spent his cash allotment, Fox allowed him to continue, albeit on a week-to-week basis. The director soon realized that the best way to prove he could make Avatar was by…actually making Avatar. Last fall, Cameron gave execs a tour of the filmmaking facility he’d established with their development money in Playa Vista, Calif., and even showed them some near-finished footage. ”We quietly began making the film,” he says, ”and then challenged Fox to tell us we couldn’t make it.” The project was officially greenlit with a $195 million budget. If it holds, that would make it cheaper than Superman Returns and X-Men 3. ”I’m actually hoping to come in under budget,” says Cameron. ”Really shock everyone.”

So the pressure’s on, right?
Told that Avatar‘s official launch caused a stir among fans, Cameron quips: ”Good! I knew there were still five or six of them out there.” But he says he’s more excited than nervous: ”The truth is, I’ve been back at work for a year and a half. I feel like it’s the Manhattan Project, and we’re just now going public.” Yes, he just compared Avatar to a bomb — but we’ll assume he meant it in a good way.

M. Night Shyamalan and James Cameron start a title wave

Poor M. Night Shyamalan. On the same day Fox announced James Cameron’s Avatar, news broke that Shyamalan’s new project will be a live-action adaptation of a Nickelodeon cartoon called… Avatar: The Last Airbender. (Shyamalan is committed to making three Avatar films with Paramount’s Nick Movies.) A Fox rep says they’re keeping the title, while a Paramount rep had no update about their project’s name. How about a coin toss?

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