“Back in 95 I wrote Avatar partially because something I’d always wanted to do was a real geek project.”
Despite Cameron’s enthusiasm for his idea, two obstacles stood in his way. The first was the small matter of Titanic, a project which had been gestating since before True Lies. The second was the technical challenge of creating a believable world, in an era when ‘mo-cap’ was Andy’s sister in-law*.
“After Titanic my company was supposed to have all the answers about how to make this movie – I’d given them two years after all.” Cameron recalls, “I came back, and they still said ‘It won’t happen without a ridiculous amount of money and time’, which ultimately it did happen, with a ridiculous amount of money and time.”
Of course, Cameron didn’t let this set-back dampen his enthusiasm.
“I knew we’d get there, it was just a question of ‘when would be the right time to make ‘Avatar?’’”
Over the next twelve years the director took a break. During this period many people, both inside and outside of the film industry, suggested that the success of Titanic had become overwhelming for Cameron. He refutes the suggestion.
“I basically got hooked on deep ocean exploration. The thrill of that was greater than the glitz of a red carpet, winning an academy award.”
While discovering his inner mariner Cameron made the documentaries Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep, both of which were shot in 3D.
“I justified it to myself that I was perfecting the 3D technique to do a 3D movie in the future, and in fact that was true, we were doing that, but most of this time I was having a good time.”
Eventually the technology began to catch up to Cameron’s vision.
“Then it looked like the CG was mature enough that we could make Avatar if we were willing to push it a little bit to the next level. Then we started filming in ’05. We still had two years of research and development to develop to a level that could be believable. So then it’s 2007 and I actually started with the actors for the first time.”
Of all the innovations Cameron and his team have made with Avatar the most striking is the ability to capture an actor’s performance, as well as their movements.
Traditional motion capture uses spherical markers positioned around the body, with only a handful on the actor’s face. This leaves tens of muscles, as well as the actor’s eyes, unrecorded. Cameron’s solution was to have the actors wear head cameras while filming.
“The idea was we’d photograph a close-up 100 per-cent of the time while the actor worked.”
The result is remarkable. The characters not only look like the actors portraying them, but also have the same range of expression and emotion.
We will be publishing a full retrospective of Cameron’s career, including a closer look at the technical advances used in the filming of Avatar, at the end of the week. We hope to have some footage from the Alfred Dunhill BAFTA A Life in Pictures talk soon.
*Sorry, couldn’t resist.