Interview: 'Avatar' Director James Cameron, A King With A Soft Touch - And His Own New World The Avatar director says you shouldn't believe those stories about what a tyrant he is on set. And although he created his very own alien world for his first film since the megahit Titanic, Cameron insists that finding emotional honesty in an FX extravaganza isn't as challenging as you might think.

James Cameron, A King With A Soft Touch?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


The world of "Avatar" germinated in the brain of writer and director James Cameron about 15 years ago. Now, it's on screens in eye-popping 3-D - the bioluminescent jungles of the moon Pandora with its indigenous population, the blue, 10-foot-tall Na'vi.


SAM WORTHINGTON: (As Jake Sully) Na'vi.

ZOE SALDANA: (as Neyriti) Na'vi.

WORTHINGTON: (as Jake Sully) Na'vi.

SALDANA: (as Neyriti) Na'vi.

WORTHINGTON: (as Jake Sully) Na'vi.

BLOCK: James Cameron shot the movie on a vast, gray performance-capture stage, called "the volume."

JAMES CAMERON: Then, that character gets exported to another program, called MotionBuilder - and this is all happening in the space of a few milliseconds - and in MotionBuilder, it puts that character into an environment. So in a sense, you're creating a kind of live video game of the performance of the scene.

BLOCK: There's a scene in the movie where Zoe Saldana's character, Neytiri, is teaching the avatar of Jake Sully how to ride a banshee - these giant, flying lizards. Let's take a listen here.


SALDANA: (as Neytiri) To become (unintelligible) hunter, you must choose your own (unintelligible), and he must choose you.

WORTHINGTON: (as Jake Sully) When?

SALDANA: (as Neytiri) When you are ready.

BLOCK: And off she goes, on that banshee.

CAMERON: And off she goes.

BLOCK: Now, what's she actually doing when she's on that stage in this volume that you're describing? Is she actually riding on something?

CAMERON: Right. Well, there were a couple of things there. When she jumped onto the back of the creature, believe it or not, she was actually jumping onto the back of a really big stunt guy - like, a 280-pound linebacker stunt guy. The object there was to have her land onto an organically moving platform, if you will. And then as she flies, we put her on a different rig, which is the banshee flying rig, which is basically a big fiberglass banshee on a two-axis gimbal. That was moved around by stunt guys. Now, it's not moving through space. It's just sort of rotating in place.

BLOCK: With a film like "Avatar," how do you gin up an emotional performance from one of your actors if they're - you know, on this barren, gray, huge, hangar-like stage with no real visual cues about this world that you have in your head?

CAMERON: So they don't really feed much from that. What they feed from, in terms of inspiring their performance moment, is the other actors. And so, you know, we found it to be this very kind of pure and very focused work.

BLOCK: You did, though, before you started shooting, you sent the cast to Hawaii, to the rainforest. Why did you do that?

CAMERON: Well, I figured if they're going to work in this austere, gray space, they need something to feed their sense of where they were so they could create a reality, you know? So the concept being, you know, we'll go out into the rainforest, and if it rains, it rains, whatever; and you'll be in some sort of rough version of your tribal wardrobe and then just, you know, kind of hunker down and do a scene right there, in the middle of the jungle. We surprised a few hikers, you know...


BLOCK: Yeah, I bet you did.

CAMERON: ...with, you know, Sam, you know, running around in a loincloth, you know, with a bow and arrow. And...

BLOCK: This is Sam Worthington, the main character.

CAMERON: Sam Worthington, right. Exactly.

BLOCK: What were some of the flaws in other CGI, computer generated imagery films that you saw that you were trying to improve here? What do you think you were trying to do to make it better?

CAMERON: And so by uncoupling the facial capture from the body capture, which is what we did on "Avatar," and using this head-rig or this image-based system, we really got every bit of detail that was needed to reproduce the actors' performance later in the CG character, and I mean down to every tiny amount of tension around the mouth or around the eyes, every blink, every tiny dart, and that all translated exactly to the final characters, which gave a real sense of truth and life to these characters.

BLOCK: It seems like another way that you were trying to sort of capture reality in this incredibly imaginative, fantastic world, is by naming things.


BLOCK: And I've been looking through a companion book, where every plant, every creature is named. It has a Latin name, it has a name in Na'vi. There's this giant panther called a thanator. And I was looking - its Na'vi name is - how do you say this?

CAMERON: The name I gave it was palulukan.

BLOCK: And it means?

CAMERON: Dry-mouthed bringer of fear.

BLOCK: You know that off the top of your head.



BLOCK: Now, was this...

CAMERON: That's how geeky this is, you know.

BLOCK: Yeah. Well, is that you as a geek? Were you coming up with those names?

CAMERON: I mean, everybody broke apart and did their work separately and came back. It was like generating this giant sort of NASA report.

BLOCK: Do you have a favorite creature or plant from the movie?

CAMERON: I guess I like the banshees the best. The one I had the most direct design input on was the thanator, where I designed its head and upper body. But we had a creature design team, and you know, we broke it up so that, you know, different groups were working on different creatures.

BLOCK: You mentioned that you had drawn, designed, the thanator, the dry- mouthed bringer of fear. Has anybody ever called you the dry-mouthed bringer of fear?


CAMERON: You know, in reality, on the set, I'm pretty crisp, pretty focused, and I don't think I necessarily inspire fear. What I like to inspire is people doing their - you know, bringing their best game, you know, whether it's the actors, whether it's the design artists or the computer artists that have to finally realize these images.

BLOCK: Well, James Cameron, thank you very much for talking with us.

CAMERON: It's been a pleasure.


BLOCK: James Cameron, the director of "Avatar." And if you're wondering whether he might go back and update his old movies like "Aliens" or "Terminator" with all this fancy new technology, you can hear what he thinks about that at


BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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