He attempts the impossible with every great leap forward. His secret: set the bar so high, that when he doesn’t quite carry it off, he fails way above the success of all the others. Interview.
HDvision: James Cameron, well… Bravo?
James Cameron: Yes, thank-you, we are still walking on air. Naturally we hoped that the film would be a commercial success, otherwise we would have been idiots to spend so much. But to this extent, it is slightly overwhelming. I was talking about it yesterday over dinner with Jon Landau, my co-producer. I said to him: « Jon, in your wildest dreams, did you ever imagine anything like this? » His answer: « no. »
HDvision: The film was released in Blu-ray, while it was still playing in cinemas. It recently has been re-released in special edition form. Having worked on each shot for 5 years, where did you find the strength to supervise these new edits?
James Cameron: It wasn’t a problem. I only watched it all the way through ONCE before the special effects were 100% complete, just a few days before the release.
James Cameron: Yes… We organised a screening with a few friends, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Spielberg and their wives, plus the cast, and I discovered it for the first time with them. It was miraculous. Usually, I don’t like watching my films once they are done, but in this case, I finally found myself in the audience’s position, watching the images in wonder.
HDvision: There is this sequence of impressive shots, right at the beginning, when Jake Sully gets out of the cargo ship that takes him to Pandora. He is in his wheelchair. We follow him with a front travelling shot as he discovers the giant landscape, the enormous wheels of the truck that drives in front of him, the monstrous Mech suit … The film’s entire agenda, it's over-scaling, seems encapsulated in this scene.
James Cameron: That was always the idea. For people to discover Pandora at the same time as him. To be overcome, overwhelmed by a world that is so different, that one decodes it via the sum of small details.
There are soldiers: it’s a base. There are dents in the lorry bodywork, arrows stuck in its wheels: man is at war with a primitive culture, it is an unevenly matched war between a technological army and another which is still in the Stone Age. You register all this in a single scene.
HDvision: We are talking about the images, but the criticism often heard is « Duh, Cameron didn’t put any effort in the screenplay ! ».
James Cameron: In order to successfully pull off the challenge of something visually "never seen", it was clear to me that I needed to anchor the film in something « already told », return to an archetypal fable. There is a big difference between cliché and archetype or clarity. It wanted to communicate thematically and emotionally with the public. There were a great many problems to overcome in the film. Discovering a new land with different life forms, assimilating the SF principle of the avatar, recognising the characters in several different incarnations, all added up to a lot of challenges for the audience. Therefore the themes had to be clear, strong, stated. I do not agree with the accusation of the script being « simplistic ». Archetype does not « simplify », it clarifies.
HDvision: Why did you opt to present the film in the 1.78 format, when the large majority of Home Cinema enthusiasts were waiting for a 2.35:1 version?
James Cameron: Cinema is a technical art by definition. However the vocation of technology is to achieve such a degree of sophistication that it ends up disappearing and becomes a sort of magic. That is why we opted for the 1.78 format for the Blu-rays. The most important thing is the characters, therefore the performances. The most important issue was to preserve this, to ensure that the interplay of the actors was not damaged when transferred to the TV screen.
HDvision: And it works! When the two heroes kiss, we see a pure movie kiss. And we even « feel » it carnally, without the poetic distance of representation. It looks like painted actors rather than synthetic images...
James Cameron: As a director, it took me quite a long time to achieve this, but I learned not to analyse what I was doing too much. Nor why I was doing it, nor why a particular image appeared to be sufficiently strong or not. A little like the surrealist artists who attempted to remain connected with their dream state, my work involves trying to remain in contact with my imagination, in order to convey it to the viewer. For the story to work, the virtual digital world needs to be more « organic, » more tactile and sensorial than the actual shots. When watching the film, it is hard to tell that it is digital, we are almost convinced that we are watching actors painted blue …
HDvision: Blu-ray is truly the best medium today to achieve this. You were one of the hardcore supporters of the laserdisc format. I imagine that you have been equipped for a long time.
James Cameron: I absolutely love the Blu-ray format, for me it is the reference format. Naturally, the relationship between the TV screen and the cinema screen remains different, TV cannot be as immersive, it does not cover your entire field of vision, but all the details, the image sharpness, are there – which has never been the case with previous media. The experience is different from the cinema, but in the absence of film in the cinemas, you have no other choice than to watch it at home and for that, Blu-ray is the ideal format.
HDvision: Let’s talk about your back catalogue. You don’t appear to be a fan of 3D conversions. Yet you are in the process of converting Titanic at the moment.
James Cameron: I am not a fan, precisely, of badly executed conversions. And nor am I a fan of conversions of recent films, filmed in 2D, to 3D, such as Clash of the Titans. The problem with the 3D explosion in the wake of the release of Avatar is that the decisions have been taken by the studios rather than by the directors. The studios only see one thing: a 3D conversion is a means of selling more expensive cinema tickets. They don’t care about the quality of these conversions, only money and profit count. You know, if they could, the studios would ensure that all films were shot with DV cameras. They don’t give a s**t about quality. Unfortunately, they are the ones taking the decisions on 3D now, not the directors.
James Cameron: The reason is simple: when we were in the process of making Avatar, a large majority of directors did not take us seriously. Nearly everyone said, "That idiot James Cameron is going to hang himself with his own rope! When his film bombs, we are going to have a good laugh! 3D is, and should remain, a thing of the past! ». But surprise, things didn’t turn out quite as they predicted ! And now their reaction is « S**t! Now I’ve got to make my next film in 3D! ». - (very serious) - What they should have said to themselves, is the same thing that Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, or Peter Jackson said to themselves: « We are going to make films in 3D! It looks cool” It’s a new art form! Give us the money! ». However, all but a handful completely missed it. And now, they are paying the price. The studios are forcing them to make the next episode of their successful franchise in 3D and if they don’t want to do it, they are off the project. With the new format the studios have taken the power, that should have been in the hands of the directors. This wasn’t how I had envisaged things!
HDvision: Many people online have complained that this first Blu-ray edition of Avatar does not include any bonuses, so they decided not to buy the Blu-ray. Others are not best pleased to see the special edition out in the shops after buying the first theatrical film only edition. What would you like to say to them?
James Cameron: We didn’t have time to design the bonuses that we had in mind as the public already wanted Blu-ray at home!
HDvision: Can we presume, in terms of bonuses, that the Blu-ray special edition is the final version?
James Cameron: Completely. The discs are filled up to the hilt. The “making of” is very comprehensive and covers nearly all the aspects of the film. You can see the version released in cinemas, then the recent special edition with 8 minutes of filming added to the edit by seamless branching, and the extended version, a total of 16 minutes longer, including the prologue which takes place on Earth in its entirety – all on a single disc. The extended version of the film is a version for the fans, which allows them to explore the original ideas which led us to the final theatrical edit. We have also included an extra 30 or 35 minutes of deleted scenes, from the rough cut of the film. Certain scenes are not be finished, as we did not have the budget or time to complete 30 or 35 minutes of CGI images. Don’t expect another Blu-ray version of Avatar. Apart from the 3D versions of course!
Interview by Leonard Haddad & Adam Gregorich.
Acknowledgements to Adam Gregorich and the Home-Theater Forum.