James Cameron's Craft: Blockbuster Special Effects You might define the films of James Cameron by listing two characteristics: state-of-the-art special effects and huge box-office receipts. Cameron discusses the special effects in his films Titanic, The Terminator and Avatar — and explains how he came up with his innovative filming techniques.
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James Cameron's Craft: Blockbuster Special Effects

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James Cameron's Craft: Blockbuster Special Effects

James Cameron's Craft: Blockbuster Special Effects

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross. Film director James Cameron has created the two highest-grossing movies of all time, the 1997 film "Titanic," and of course his latest, "Avatar," which is now out on DVD. "Avatar," which has made over $2.7 billion, also received Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Cameron first came up with the idea for "Avatar" 15 years ago, but he shelved the project, feeling that the technology didn't exist to make the film. In the intervening years, Cameron helped develop a new digital 3-D camera system, which he used to film many underwater documentaries, as well as "Avatar."

Now, most of the major animation studios and a handful of A-list directors are investing heavily in 3-D. They hail it as the next revolution in film. Terry spoke with James Cameron in February.

"Avatar" follows Jake Sully, a former Marine confined to a wheelchair, who along with other military contractors is hired by a corporation to become part of a mission on the planet Pandora. The company's goal is to extract a precious ore on Pandora, but the Na'vi tribe, who live on Pandora, are getting in the way. Jake becomes part of a scientific team that's tasked to interact with the natives.

He becomes an avatar in the form of a Na'vi. He's adopted by the group and begins to fall in love with his guide, Neytiri. As he becomes more and more involved in life on Pandora, he begins to question his mission.

Here's a scene from early in the film. Jake is recording his first video log. He talks about starting to learn the Na'vi ways.

(Soundbite of film, "Avatar")

Mr. SAM WORTHINGTON (Actor): (As Jake Sully) This is a video log, 12 times 21, 32. Do I have to do this now? I really need to get some rest.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) No, now, when it's fresh.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WORTHINGTON: (As Sully) Okay, location, shack, and the days are starting to blur together. The language is a pain, but you know, I figure it's like field-stripping a weapon. It's repetition, repetition. Na'vi.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) Na'vi.

Mr. WORTHINGTON: (As Sully) Na'vi.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) (Speaking foreign language).

Mr. WORTHINGTON: (As Sully) Neytiri calls me scoun(ph). It means moron.


Jim Cameron, welcome to FRESH AIR. Can I ask you to give us an example of a shot or two, or a scene, that epitomizes for you what you can do with 3-D that you couldn't do in a regular film?

Mr. JAMES CAMERON (Filmmaker, "Avatar"): Well, I think it's sometimes as simple as, you know, a shot in a snowstorm would feel so much more tactile to the viewer. You'd actually feel like the snowflakes were falling on you and around you, you know, that sort of thing, any time that the medium of the air between you and the subject can be filled with something.

So we did a lot of stuff in "Avatar" with, you know, floating wood sprites and little bits of stuff floating in the sunlight and so on, and rain and foreground leaves and things like that. It's all a way of wrapping the audience in the experience of the movie.

GROSS: And there's even a shot - and I think this looked deeper because of the 3-D, but you tell me - there's a shot in which the spaceship that's transporting the people to Pandora, it's a shot of, like, a long, narrow bench, basically, of seats, like a row of seats that the guys are sitting on. And I think it looked particularly long because of the 3-D, or is that just me?

Mr. CAMERON: No, I think you're right. I think it's an enhanced sense of depth. We get depth queuing in flat images all the time. We understand perspective, you know, linear perspective, aerial perspective. When we see a human figure, and that figure's very tiny, we don't - our brain immediately says that's not a tiny guy, an inch tall, that's somebody very far away.

So all those depth queues are always there. When you add what 3-D does, 3-D gives you parallax information. It actually gives you the difference between what the left eye sees and what the right eye sees, and that creates even more depth information.

So now all these different depth queues have to be correlated in the brain in the space of a few microseconds when you first see the image. And I would submit, although I haven't seen data on this, that the brain is more active. The brain is more engaged in the processing of the images.

GROSS: So do you see in 3-D as you're shooting?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, I mean, we all see in 3-D all the time.

GROSS: But not through a lens.

Mr. CAMERON: Well, no, I mean, I can. I have a 3-D viewing station nearby, but I typically don't use it because I've done - I've shot so much 3-D, I kind of know what it's going to look like. So I don't slow down to check it. But you know, I have somebody watching, and if there's something that I'm not aware of, they'll let me know.

GROSS: Didn't you help develop, like, a special, new virtual camera?

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, but that's a whole different deal. That has nothing...

GROSS: What is it?

Mr. CAMERON: That has nothing to do with 3-D. The virtual camera was a way of interfacing with a CG world so that I could view my actors as their characters when we were doing performance capture. So imagine, here's Zoe Saldana or Sam Worthington in our capture space, which we called the volume, and when you look at them, they're wearing kind of a black outfit, which is their capture suit. But what I look at, and what I see in my virtual camera monitor is an image of them as a 10-foot-tall, blue, alien creature with a tail.

GROSS: Wow, that's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: And it's in real time.

GROSS: That's kind of amazing.

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, it's simultaneous.

GROSS: So there's, like, a computer, a CG computer in the camera that transforms the image?

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, more or less. The camera really is just a monitor and a set of tracking markers, and it connects to a couple of computers, actually. The first one takes in that tracking data and figures out where the camera is in space relative to the actors. And then the second computer takes that information about the characters and where they are and turns them - or the actors and where they are and turns them into their characters and supplies the setting.

So I would see Zoe and Sam as Neytiri and Jake in the jungle of Pandora, for example, you know, fully lit image of the Pandoran rainforest. You know, it's not the same as the final image of the movie in the sense that it's a much lower resolution so it can render in real time.

GROSS: Now, you had to make up a language, also, I think with the help of a linguist.

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah.

GROSS: What were you looking for in the language, and how do you put together a kind of grammatically coherent language?

Mr. CAMERON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, that's where the linguist, Dr. Paul Frommer, came in. And he was the head of the linguistics department at USC at the time, and he did more than help. He actually created the language. Or more properly, he created the translations of the lines that we needed for the script. I don't think - he didn't create, like, a full language with a vocabulary of 20,000 words, but I think we now have a vocabulary of about 1,200 or 1,300 words.

And I actually had him on set with me so that if the actors wanted to improvise, they could go over to him, and say how would I saw this, how would I say that? Sometimes he had to create words right on the spot, but they had to be words that were consistent with the kind of sound system that we were using for the language.

And I guess I sort of set it in motion when I created character names and place names and based them on some, you know, kind of Polynesian sounds and some Indonesian sounds. And he riffed on that, and he brought in some African sounds that were ejective consonants and things like that, kind of clicks and pops, and he sprinkled those in. And he came up with a syntax and a typical sentence structure, which I think has the verb at the end, kind of in the German sentence structure, you know, I to the store go. It's noun, object, verb. So I think that's how Na'vi is structured.

So it follows linguistic rules, and that's why it sounds correct. And all the actors had to adhere to a standard of pronunciation so that it didn't sound like everybody was making up their own gobbledygook, which I think over a two-and-a-half-hour movie you would have felt you were being had if we had done it that way.

GROSS: So can you speak to me in the Na'vi language?

Mr. CAMERON: You know, I mean, I can only say lines that are in the film.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, that's fine.

Mr. CAMERON: I can say, well: (Speaking foreign language). That means I see you, my sister. No, I see you my brother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: (Speaking foreign language) is I see you, my sister. Or (Speaking foreign language) means I was going to kill him, but there was a sign from Awha(ph).

GROSS: "Avatar" combines a lot of different movie genres in its own way. There's aspects of the Vietnam War movie, aspects of the Iraq War movie because a lot of people think Iraq War is about oil, and...

Mr. CAMERON: Sure.

GROSS: ...the battle in your movie is about some kind of ore, some kind of mineral that's very valuable.

This parallels to the Westerns, where, you know, like the white people come and conquer the indigenous people. And there's parallels to, like, creature films like "King Kong" where he battles other prehistoric creatures and, you know, "Rodan vs. Godzilla" kind of film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Were you thinking of all those genres?

Mr. CAMERON: Now you're getting out on a - you're getting out on a limb now.

GROSS: No, I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: Well, you know, look, the Vietnam stuff and the Iraq stuff is there by design. And the references to the colonial period are there by design, the way in which, you know, European civilization flowed outward and sort of, you know, took over and displaced the indigenous people in North America, South America, Australia - pretty much everywhere they went, you know.

And, you know, so I think it's at a very, very high level, at a general, at a very generalized level, it's saying our attitude about indigenous people and our sort of entitlement to what is rightfully theirs but our sense of entitlement is the same sense of entitlement that causes us to bulldoze a forest and not blink an eye.

You know, it's a - it's just human nature that if we can take it, we will. And sometimes we do it in a very, you know, just naked and imperialistic way, and other times we do it in, you know, very sophisticated ways with lots of rationalization, but it's basically the same thing. It's a sense of entitlement. And we can't just go on in this kind of unsustainable way, just taking what we want and not giving back.

GROSS: The main character, the main male character in your movie is a Marine who lost the use of his legs in war, but by becoming an avatar, he gets to live a parallel life...

Mr. CAMERON: Right.

GROSS: ...through his avatar. And his avatar has these incredible physical adventures, beautiful physical adventures.

Mr. CAMERON: Right.

GROSS: And I read that your brother is, or was, a Marine.

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, well, you're never an ex-Marine. You know, once you're a Marine...

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. CAMERON: ...you're always a Marine, even if you're out of the Marine Corps. You know, he was in - he fought in Desert Storm in '91. And you know, he's regaled me with tales of the Marine Corps. And you know, I have a number of guys that work for me that were, you know, his squad mates or other Marines that he met, you know, in his travels.

And I have a great deal of respect for these guys. I really personally believe in their world view, which is one of a sense of being able to overcome any obstacle. They have a great sense of duty. They want to have a mission.

And I thought: How cool would it be to have a main character in a science fiction movie who was a Marine? And so I just played that idea out. You know, that was on my mind. You know, Desert Storm was in '91. I was writing this in '95.

And I think that's - and one thing that has struck me recently because there's been so much chat, kind of, around this movie, is that there's been almost zero dialogue about the fact that you have a major action movie where the main character is disabled, which I think is actually unprecedented. And yet nobody's said anything about that. I think it's kind of strange, to tell you the truth.

DAVIES: Director James Cameron, speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with director James Cameron, recorded in February. His film "Avatar" is now out on DVD.

GROSS: You are now probably most famous for your biggest films, "Titanic" and "Avatar," both of which have a lot of special effects and feats in them. But you started off helping to make Roger Corman's films.

Mr. CAMERON: Mm-hmm. Right.

GROSS: Movies like "Battle Beyond the Stars," "Galaxy of Terror." And Corman is famous for, in his early career, making these like, real low budget, quickie...

Mr. CAMERON: Cheap.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, you know, action films and...

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah. He's famous for being cheap.

GROSS: Yeah. So, what did you learn from the real cheap side of special effects...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...that you later applied to the real expensive side of special effects?

Mr. CAMERON: It's a funny question because I was just talking to Roger last night, and I haven't seen him in years, but we ran into each other, and we were joking about the fact that he's made - probably all of his movies combined would not have cost as much as "Avatar." And he's made, you know, 100 films.

But, you know, we were having a good laugh about that. But yeah, there are lessons that one learns in those early kind of guerrilla filmmaking days that stay with you the whole time.

And, you know, and what you learn in those early films is just that your will is the only thing that makes the difference in getting the job done - one's will. And it teaches you to improvise and in a funny way to never lose hope, because you're making a movie, and the movie can be what you want it to be. It's not in control of you. You're in control of it, you know, so there are a lot of lessons that are more really character lessons.

GROSS: So can you share your favorite cheap special effect that you were involved with from a Corman film?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: Well, they were all cheap. You know, I mean we used to love - we actually were fairly sophisticated even for that time. We were doing motion control and fairly complicated optical special effects and so on for Roger.

But, of course, the ones we liked the best were the biggest cheats, where we'd glue a model to a piece of glass and stick it in the foreground and pretend it was far, you know, far away and really big and have all the actors turn away from the camera and point at it even though it was sitting right in front of the camera. And it actually created a compelling illusion, you know, foreground miniature. It was a lot of fun. And it's the ones where you really think you're get, you know, you're pulling something over on the audience that were the most fun.

GROSS: Now, you know, in "Titanic" there were so many like, water-rushing-in kind of effects when the boat was when the ship was sinking.

Mr. CAMERON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I know you grew up not far from Niagara Falls. Is that right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: So is it stretching too much to think that the power of the water of Niagara Falls had some kind of influence on you?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, you know, I mean I grew up within the sound of Niagara Falls. I lived, you know, with that constant rumble in the background. So I certainly always had a respect for the power and the force of water.

And then in the filmmaking, starting with "The Abyss," I saw how, you know, you can dump a dump tank with 10,000 gallons in it and have it destroy your set, I mean literally rip it apart. And so, over time, I've learned to really, really respect that force of water from an engineering standpoint.

And I'm very rigorous when I work with water that my, that, you know, my special effects guys and my set construction people, so on, really understand what they're dealing with. Because generally speaking, they underestimate the force and energy of water by a factor of 10.

GROSS: When you say that this thing of water ripped apart your set, you mean accidentally, right?

Mr. CAMERON: Accidentally, yeah.

GROSS: What happened?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, it blew the wall right out. You know, we were doing a flooding scene, and it hadn't been properly strong-backed. And, you know, no one was hurt but, you know, it really makes you realize what you're dealing with.

So on "Titanic" we had a lot of water stunts. And, you know, I would, you know, constantly, you know, walk the set, look at how it was rigged and so on, and I'd want to see the engineering. I'd want to see the numbers. I'd want to see how they had calculated everything to make sure that there was a safety margin.

GROSS: Okay. James Cameron, years before Governor Schwarzenegger was governor, he was...

Mr. CAMERON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...your cyborg in "Terminator."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I'm sure you've told this many times but...

Mr. CAMERON: I'm not sure who was working for who at that time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm sure you've told the story many times but tell us how and why you cast him.

Mr. CAMERON: Well, you know, I actually had this kind of flash that Arnold had this amazing face. I wasn't - I mean his physique was fine, made sense that we could hide this kind of infernal machine inside that, you know, inside his size of his physique, but it was really his face that was interesting to me.

And, you know, someone suggested that he play the character played by Michael Biehn, and that didn't make much sense to me. But I wound up going to lunch with him, and we had this great time talking about the movie and just life in general. I found him to be incredibly charming and intelligent, and that was really the beginning of a friendship.

And so I went back to the executive producer of the film and said, you know, he's not going to work as Reese, but he'd make a great terminator. And we offered him the part that day and that's how the movie got made.

GROSS: Now, Charlton Heston was in one of your movies "True Lies," which...

Mr. CAMERON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...starred a more charming version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's like a...

Mr. CAMERON: Oh sure.

GROSS: ...a secret spy in it, and even his wife doesn't know he's a spy. And he's very charming and elegant in that side of his life.

Mr. CAMERON: Right. Right.

GROSS: And very tough and brutal on the other side of his life. Charlton Heston has a small part in it.

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah.

GROSS: And it must've been interesting to direct him. I mean, he was, among other things, Moses in the movies. I'm sure your politics are very different from him.

Mr. CAMERON: Oh yeah, very different. But I found him charming and really humble before the craft of acting in the old-school way. He came in, he said, just call me Chuck. Don't let the fact that I'm an icon, you know, affect you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: And...

GROSS: He said, modestly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: He said modestly. And then he sat in a chair, and he never left the set all day long. He came in for off-camera, you know, to do his side of the scene for off-camera, which, you know, certainly a star of his stature wouldn't need to do. And he never left the set. He just sat there and read.

And you could just see that it was a life of - there were patterns formed by a life of dedication to the craft, and I really respected that. And, you know, I felt I had to really be on my game that day and be 100 percent professional as a director because, you know, he came from the studio system where, you know, you shot X number of pages a day, boom, boom, boom, and everybody knew their tasks and, you know, it was a lot of fun working with him.

GROSS: Now, you didn't expect to go into movies. So what was your break that led you through the door?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, I think you make your own luck, you know, and it wasn't really a break. I had started I had sort of quit my job. I was working as a truck driver. I quit my job. I started making little films, you know, used up all my savings. And somehow a little effects film that I had made got the attention of somebody who was working for Corman on "Battle Beyond the Stars."

And I wound up getting an interview and coming into the model department and sort of clawing my way up through the system pretty rapidly, which you could do in that kind of environment because it was so kind of ad hoc, and nobody really knew what they were doing anyway.

So, you know, I mean you get the door open a crack, and then you, you know, you just keep wedging your way through the door. That's how you work it.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been fun and interesting. Thank you.

Mr. CAMERON: Thanks.

DAVIES: James Cameron, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in February. His film "Avatar" is now out on DVD. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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