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James Cameron, Jon Landau discuss Avatar, Blu-ray and the 3D future

By Geoff Morrison

Avatar, Blu-ray and the 3D future according to the King of the World

I sat as close as I could.

Let me say, there are very few famous people I could give a crap about. Partly this is from living in L.A. and being celeb-jaded. Leo? Yeah, he lives next door to a friend of mine. Zooey? Yeah, she shops at my Whole Foods.

The other part is from a near-visceral aversion to meaningless celeb-culture.

But James Cameron? Is there a living director with a better track record? Has he not made some of the greatest action and sci-fi movies of all time? I won't lie, I went to Blu-Con specifically to hear him speak.

That, or because Chris was paying me to go. One of those two.

Cameron and Landau discuss Avatar, Blu-ray and 3D.

Mostly I was curious if Mr. Cameron would be able to indoctrinate me into his love of 3D. Personally, I think it's all marketing rubbish, but what I do I know? I'm ex-magazine's Geoff Morrison. He's James fraking Cameron.

The stage was adorned with two simple white leather chairs. Tiny Evian water bottles waited like the rest of us. After a brief and completely unnecessary introduction, Cameron and Titanic/Avatar producer Jon Landau entered stage left.

The shilling started immediately. Sure you should always know your audience, but the effusion of love for all things Blu-ray seemed a little over the top. Especially given the preaching-to-the-choir aspect. After all, everyone in the room was already involved with Blu-ray in some capacity .

They moved on to Avatar which, surprise!, has a three disc special edition coming out on the 16th [speaking of shilling, how about we make that a link - ed.]. Cameron said that he didn't want endless new special editions coming out with dribs and drabs of new content. This seemed surprising to me, especially given that this version wasn't 3D. Later, he even mentioned how the 3D version of Avatar is already mastered. OK, so it's available... when? [Avatar on Blu-ray 3D will be available 12/1/10 to buyers of Panasonic 3D TVs according to a trusted source... me - ed.]

However, I will say this. Every one of Cameron's director's cuts is superior to the theatrical release. I'm talking Aliens, Terminator 2 and The Abyss, the latter especially. So when Cameron says he wanted to add 16 minutes, who's going to argue?

The difficulty, and the reason he says this wasn't released in April, was that the scenes weren't ready. The theatrical re-release was done, in part, to help pay for the millions it cost to do the special effects for these deleted scenes so they matched the rest of the film. Cameron said in some cases, Avatar was costing over a million dollars a minute. I guess it turns out Avatar didn't make enough money for him to put these scenes in without the re-release. Too bad, everyone I know saw it opening weekend.

Then his attention moved on to 3D, and said something I was really surprised to hear. In his mind, the 3D wasn't the big deal about Avatar. He and his team had been doing 3D for over a decade. Cameron felt that the real aspect of the movie that was impressive, from a technical standpoint, was the performance capture.

Here we watched a clip from one of the making-of documentaries on the upcoming Special Edition release. Actors with blue and green dots on their faces, tiny cameras boomed out in front of them recording every facial expression. Cameron claims it took his team two years to develop the technology, and that it's far more advanced than simple motion capture, which is why he calls it performance capture.

The special edition has a feature to watch what was going on in reality (the actors on a soundstage) cut between the real-time 3D render (shown on set so Cameron could see what was going on), and then the final product. Each frame of the final movie took 50-100 hours per eye to render.

Moving back to 3D and speaking in broader terms, Mr. Landau chimed in to say that he felt that "3D is the way that everything is going." Cameron felt that "3D is here and it's here to stay," and that it would "continue indefinitely."

Part of this, Cameron felt, was because of the rapid progression of high quality 3D TV in the home. That 3D in general would be helped along by live 3D (like sporting events). So that when live 3D becomes commonplace, it would be more difficult for studios to say it was "too hard" to do 3D. He felt auto-stereoscopic 3D was 8-10 years away, something echoed by others in the industry.

Cameron and Landau watch a clip
Cameron and Landau watch a deleted scene from Avatar.

The progression of 3D technology on the filming side was touched upon by Landau, pointing out that when Cameron shot "T2 3D," the 3D camera weighed over 320 pounds, not including the rig it took to move it. For Avatar, the camera weighed 30 pounds.

Next, Cameron took to task studios for not understanding what it takes to do quality 3D, something that everyone can agree on. He said it's impossible to do a quality 3D conversion in 2-3 weeks. This kind of fast and cheap 3D conversion is terrible. He pointed to Clash of the Titans as an example of poorly done 3D, though he was very clear to say he didn't want to "throw that movie under the bus" because "my friend Sam is in it."

To do 3D right, Cameron continued, you can either shoot it in 3D, or spend 6 months in post just on 3D. When you consider that amount of time he felt that the cost difference to shoot it in 3D from the start is minimal. Doing 3D conversion should really only be done for catalog titles. His analogy is that 3D conversion is like colorization of black and white movies [take that, George Lucas! - ed.].

Interestingly, Cameron felt that 3D isn't something that should be forced on filmmakers by the studio. This is the first time I've heard this said aloud, and went a long way in alleviating my own personal bias against 3D.

In closing, Cameron and Landau each had some interesting things to say. Enough so that I wish more of the hour had been spent talking about 3D in general and less pimping the new Avatar disc (added that link myself). Cameron reiterated how much he likes the home 3D products, and feels that the real problem is the lack of content. Too bad there is nothing he could do about that. Others seem to be. He finished by saying that he hasn't seen any content yet that wouldn't benefit from 3D.

Landau, quoting something Cameron said at an earlier date, said 3D was "a window into a world, not a world coming out of a window."

That perspective, if adopted by more filmmakers, would go a long way into changing my and others opinion that 3D is a gimmick and has no purpose in quality entertainment.

Exit, stage left

It's always weird seeing somebody in person you've only see on TV. Hearing Cameron make his case for 3D didn't exactly convince me that 3D is good, but it did lean me away from it being stupid. How's that for star power?

Oh, and it's naVI not NAvi, apperently.

What did you think?

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