James Cameron’s Avatar – Comic-Con Report

by | July 23, 2009 at 6:27 PM | The Movies

I’m here again at the San Diego Comic-Con 2009, waiting patiently for the chance to talk to the folks behind Avatar, which is the first film directed by James Cameron since he won a boatload of Oscars with Titanic. A top-secret high-tech 3-D spectacle, they’ve just announced that the trailer will be released on August 21 of this year to a worldwide audience in theaters, as well as actual extended preview scenes shown in 3-D IMAX theaters to the general public. Comic-Con crowds got a sneak peek of footage of the film, said to be about 40% live action and 60% really good CG that makes you really feel like you’re underwater in this virtual world that Jake (Sam Worthington) finds himself in. You’ll get to see the whole film December 18, including Zoe Saldana in full-on CG rendering, super-tall and beautifully blue-green, complete with a tail.

Here are the press conference highlights after the jump.

Cameron has been working on this for over 4 years. They looked closely at faces they wanted to animate when casting – they wanted the characters to be based on actors as opposed to just saying ‘let’s animate, it doesn’t have to look like people.’ It was a fine line to walk between making the characters look too alien. This is really a story about assimilation, and a love story crossing physiological differences.

In designing Zoe Saldana’s character, the art design basically came down to asking the all-male crew “would you want to do her? No? Okay, take the gills out.” (Nice laugh line).

The film has been generating in fragments for years, and some aliens here are distant descendants in a Darwinian process of Cameron hammering out screenplays since the late 70s, even. He did the same thing on Aliens, slamming fragments of story ideas together to make a movie. It felt very mercenary, but over time you massage it into a good story form.

Cameron falls in love with his characters, as all directors do sometimes to the detriment of them as filmmakers, getting too precious with them. Then they fall in love with them all over again after they’re cast with actors, although he has to give them up to the actors eventually. Then after laboring for so long on a project, you eventually just have to give it up, get it out there and to finally get some feedback.

He loves Hall H as a great launch, and he looks forward to going through the Twittersphere to check out the feedback. The scenes shown won’t change, but they are still cutting the picture and shaping it, so it’s possible the feedback could affect that process. He wants to make sure that he hasn’t left anything out so people could come in cold and get right in, which is a danger after working on the project for so many years. This story could’ve been written in the 30s. It could’ve been a western. A guy from one culture dropped into another culture.

“You gotta eat pressure for breakfast if you’re gonna do this job.” He’s been under pressure since trying to break in with Terminator, and it’s never stopped. The stakes go up, and pressure makes you good. You always keep it in the back of your mind. It makes you really think about what you’re doing. You can’t make a movie for everybody, because that’s the kiss of death – you have to make a movie for yourself. And yet the budget level means it has to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

“The ideal movie technology is so advanced that it waves a magic wand and makes itself disappear.” That’s what they tried to do with Avatar, and even Titanic. Early in his career, he wasn’t in balance with that, but he thinks he’s there now. “If you do it right, it’s transparent.”

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Sigourney Weaver calls Cameron a man in his element. He really accepts what his actors have to offer and makes sure they have as many takes as they want. He never passes that pressure onto his actors. She calls it an awesome privilege to be a part of it.

Weaver says Comic-Con fans are personally inspiring. She was a geek growing up, and she feels right at home. She was always acting things out with herself in make-believe, so she felt right at home in motion capture.

Saldana could barely turn on a computer when she started, so it was hard to get used to the motion capture filming process. She was very apprehensive, because Cameron was using a lot of big words to describe it. She didn’t want her eyes and lips put onto someone else. Cameron walked Sam and Zoe through the process of what they actually were doing with the footage. She then found it hard to go back to filming a regular movie. This is more alive than any book she’d ever read and any movie she’d ever seen even before the effects were finalized.

She feels part of growing old is limiting your imagination, so actors are always in training trying to force themselves to remain open, and motion-capture is a great tool for that.

Weaver says part of the thrill is that everybody in the world is going to be piling into theaters on December 18 and experiencing this together. The context of the story is so much about a planet, the timing is exquisite.

Stephen Lang, who looks ripped and is addicted to training, did his share of motion capture as well and enjoyed it very much. As Zoe said, it’s an exercise of the imagination. Lang and Weaver are friends from New York theater, but on opposite sides of the debate about the world Pandora in the film. He’s a tragic figure.

The cast went to Hawaii for a few days in early 2007 and tromped through the rainforest to give them a feel of the world they’d be living in. Weaver studied with a botanist as well. Weaver likes the pure unhealthiness of her chain-smoking character and how getting a new body in Pandora lets her be free and physically energetic while in the alien world, and returning to the broken body is very humbling.

Weaver thinks the most fun part of the business is how passionate people get about films like Galaxy Quest and Ghostbusters. She wouldn’t want to do nothing but genre films, but she finds it very encouraging.