Cameron Geeks Out on Avatar
JC: The virtual camera stuff was pretty much new to me and pretty much new to this film. Rob Legato came up with the idea to structure it as what he called a "director-centric" workflow. And so we went through about four or five iterations of the virtual camera within a few months, as I kept asking them to make it lighter and change the configuration, and we really evolved the process from scratch using that camera. That wasn't a change for me because I had never done it before: that was a case of inventing the wheel. In the live-action production, the stereoscopic camera is something I had been working with on the documentary films, but I hadn't done it in a truly theatrical film, cinematic style. So adapting to a dolly and techno crane didn't really take long. I'd even been working with those tools on the documentaries. But we had to be more rigorous about our process and really check the quality of the stereo space as we went along on a shot by shot basis, which we did by having live viewing with a 2K projector within 50 feet of where we were working on the set.
BD: You get a great sense of POV with Jake. It was liberating for him being on Pandora. Was it liberating for you shooting virtually?
JC: Yeah, I enjoyed working in 3-D but I tried not letting it dominate. What I found with the virtual production was that it was very liberating in the sense that if I wanted to change the environment around, I could pretty much right then, even subsequent to having capture with the actors. I could change the background, I could move the sun, I could move the mountains. Sounds all very giddy and God-like, but what you find is for every moment where the CG allows you do these big gestures that you could never do in live-action filmmaking, there's something that would be so ridiculously easy in live action that you wouldn't think about it that would take five seconds, that in CG took a bunch of time. So it sort of balanced out. It was ultimately not better, just different.
BD: A perfect blend of style and content.
JC: Yes, that feeling of transport -- there was a nice consonance between the content, the style and the form: the content being a story that took place in an alien rainforest ecosystem; the style being a very subjective camera that's moving with characters, as I normally try to do; and the form being stereoscopic, widescreen cinema where you feel like you can reach out and touch the planet.
BD: A much more visceral experience.
JC: And that put huge pressure on the Weta guys to create extremely high resolution assets with a lot of detail. In fact, they found pretty quickly that to get to the photoreality that we needed, they couldn't really model every plant and every leaf on a tree and every vine and so on. It would've just been hideously prohibitive in terms of man hours so they can up with procedural processes for essentially growing the forest.
BD: Talk about the performance capture or E-Motion capture, as it's now called.
JC: Yeah, I didn't coin that but I prefer to call it performance capture because that's what it is: it's capturing the actor's performance -- that critical moment of truth that the actor creates and capturing it fully and completely.
BD: How challenging was it?