Creating the world of James Cameron's "Avatar"

Producer Jon Landau talks about making the impossible possible in the $200 million-plus spectacle

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 17, 2009 1:16AM (EST)

A still from "Avatar"
A still from "Avatar"

It's pretty hard not to feel conflicted about James Cameron, the Hollywood visionary and self-appointed "king of the world" whose new CGI-driven science-fiction opus "Avatar" is, by most accounts, either No. 1 or No. 2 on the list of most expensive films ever made. On one hand, Cameron's career exemplifies the bigger-is-better tendency in American spectacle cinema, but on the other, you've got to admire his unmatched sense of showmanship and his wire-walker's penchant for drama.

After all, it's been 12 years since "Titanic," and many observers speculated that Cameron, now 55, was content producing TV series and underwater 3-D documentaries, and staying out of the young man's (and woman's) game of high-stakes Hollywood poker. But ever since the mid-'90s, Cameron and his producing partner Jon Landau have been working on "Avatar," an interplanetary morality tale that required multiple innovations in computer graphics and motion-capture animation -- and a budget that has reportedly crept north of $250 million.

Now "Avatar" is here, and while it's easy to damn this kind of movie with film-critic faint praise, this one is in fact a visual spectacle unlike anything else in movie history. If "Avatar" does indeed resemble a video game, both aesthetically and conceptually -- well, it's one unbelievable mofo of a video game. There's a lot more to be said on that point, including the fact that today's best video games are so sophisticated that the term really can't be considered much of an insult. (Another topic we'll be sure to hear about repeatedly is that of Cameron's relationship with his ex-wife, "Hurt Locker" director Kathryn Bigelow. I can assure you that the entertainment media en masse is hoping they both get Oscar nominations.)

My colleague Stephanie Zacharek will review "Avatar" on Friday, so I'll just say that while Cameron's plot and characters are familiar (somewhere between cliché and archetype), the world he has built for them is not. His three-dimensional Pandora -- the idyllic planet whose indigenous inhabitants, the Na'vi, resist human colonization and exploitation -- is an extraordinarily beautiful creation. I would happily have spent two or three hours there, with or without a consciousness-raising parable attached.

As for this movie's vaunted advances in motion-capture technology -- which allow a human actor like Zoe Saldana to "play" a 7-foot-tall blue alien, while still resembling herself -- it's clearly likely to lead to all sorts of bad and ridiculous things. But that's not Cameron's fault; for better or worse he's always been committed to rip-roaring storytelling, and "Avatar" is no exception. As "Avatar" producer Jon Landau told me in our telephone interview a few days ago, Cameron has opened a new toolbox -- call it Pandora's box, ha ha -- which will make new kinds of fantasy storytelling possible for an entire new generation of filmmakers.

As I clarified at the beginning of our chat, this producer named Jon Landau is not the other producer named Jon Landau, the music-biz titan best known for his long association with Bruce Springsteen. This one is a fair bit younger, the son of studio exec and producer Eli Landau, and a well-known online card shark on Hollywood Poker. A former executive at Fox, Landau has also produced several non-Cameron films, including Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris," Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." In 1998, he was up there on the dais with Cameron, collecting the best-picture Oscar for "Titanic." It's a task he may envision repeating in a few months (although he wouldn't jinx it by discussing it with me).

So, Jon, go back to the outset. When and how did "Avatar" originate? And how did you get involved?

Well, the outset was 1995, before we ever started filming "Titanic." I was working with Jim on "Titanic," and he handed me the first script version of "Avatar" to read. I thought it was amazing, but then I was like, "How do we do that?" There was no means by which to do it. People are confused about what the hang-up was. The hang-up wasn't in creating the world, it was in creating the close-up. Ultimately that’s what movies are about.

I can see that. You could have created the world, even then, with computer graphics. But to have human or humanoid characters in that world -- that wasn't possible.

To have the Na'vi characters be engaging and emotive, there was no means to do it.

So when did you get the first inklings that this might be possible, or become possible?

We did a test in 2002 for a movie called "Brother Termite." It was a movie that never happened. But we used something called image-based facial performance capturing. Instead of putting markers on people's faces to try and capture the performance, we had our actor wear a number of cameras that were turned toward his face. We used those images to drive the CGI characters' performance. In 2005, with "Avatar," we thought, "We have to perfect that." And considering what had happened with characters like Gollum [in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy], we thought we could.

Well, I didn't know what to expect going into the movie. But it does seem like new ground has been broken in that respect. You feel as if you're watching a performance by Zoe Saldana [who plays Neytiri, a Na'vi princess and the film's love interest], even though she's not physically in the movie. 

We look at it like she is in the movie. Just like somebody might have played through prosthetics in the past. Jack Nicholson as the Joker or Eric Stoltz in "Mask," that’s Zoe. But instead of having to play through a quarter-inch of latex that actually dulls your performance, her performance was driving the CGI -- with much greater subtlety than a makeup-based character.

Now, was it part of your original intention to create this intensely textured world? The first 40 or so minutes, after the human characters reach Pandora, are so amazing. I honestly could have watched another 40 minutes of that and not gotten bored.

Yeah, Pandora is a character in the movie, just like the ship was a character in "Titanic." We needed to do what we called the Ode to the Ship, which was just them sailing out. We wanted to introduce Pandora as a character, and show the two different ways of viewing it, from a human perspective and a Na'vi perspective.

In terms of a science-fiction story, it isn't totally new to depict the human beings as more morally compromised, more questionable, than the aliens they're confronting. But in the movies that's still somewhat unusual: It's a cowboy-and-Indian movie, where the cowboys are bad and the Indians good.

Jim looks at science fiction as a way of asking us to explore how we view our lives today. In order to do that, this was the way he best saw fit to do that.

This takes place during the 22nd century and Cameron just drops in the information that the earth has been poisoned or destroyed. You can miss it if you miss that one line, but there's been some ecological catastrophe which is never discussed.

Well, look where we're headed! We hope that's a fiction, but I think as people start to realize what we are doing, it might not be a fiction. It’s a big crisis we’re dealing with.

Inevitably, critics like me will see an analogy between the film's story and the colonization of the Americas. Is that a valid comparison?

I think it's the colonization of foreign lands, period. Both South and North America, for example. It's the history of the distant past but also the near past.

Another point of comparison for other people is the world of virtual reality and video games, where even the title has a particular resonance. Now, that barely existed, or theoretically existed, when Jim first wrote the script. How much of the film is about that idea, living in a virtual existence?

Not a lot, to be honest. It’s more about being able to project and live our lives in a real world differently than to go into a virtual world. The issues of "Avatar" are real-world issues and not cyber-issues.

I'm interested in this trope of the human beings in the story essentially being the villains, which is something that "District 9," another successful science-fiction film, did recently. Does this say something about the way we’re looking at our own civilization right now?

I think it does. We're challenging ourselves to examine ourselves. At the end of the day, we're judged by our actions. The choices we make in life affect those around us and the world around us.

Now, I don't know how much money you guys spent on this movie. Let's just say it was a lot.


I've read reports it wound up close to $300 million. Is that in the ballpark?

It's an expensive movie. We don't talk specifically about our budget, and we wouldn't talk about it if it was a $50 million movie. We're with Fox, and Jim has made all his movies, except the "Terminator" movies, with Fox. They know what they're getting in for when they do a Jim Cameron movie.

OK, here's the devil's-advocate question: Whatever the amount of money was, what is the moral justification for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie?

I think it's like any business. We make movies that are large scale and we make movies that pay investors a return on their capital. And for that, we give the audience something they can't get anywhere else. When they go to see our movie, and we've maybe spent more money than the next guy, you know what? The audience is getting more bang for their buck. They don't pay any more money to see our movie than they pay to see "Paranormal Activity." Plus, we were employing literally thousands of people, and pushing them to advance their craft. And now they're going back out into the workforce, better equipped to deal with what lies ahead for them.

I can tell you've had some practice with that question. There’s been a lot of talk about how "Avatar" may change the way films are made. How do you see that question right now?

I think what "Avatar" may do is open a small crack in the door for other filmmakers to tell stories that couldn't be told before. That's the real thing: You can tell that story, Steven Spielberg. You can tell that story, Bob Zemeckis. Ultimately, if we can drive the cost down, it'll allow younger filmmakers to do it where you don't need huge budgets.

I have to assume that over time, as new technologies come online, the cost of doing this kind of movie will drop.

Oh, I will tell you, we were doing stuff much more efficiently at the end of our process than we were at the beginning. If we were to start again tomorrow, our costs would already be down, because of the efficiency gained. Let alone the cost of computer power coming down, the cost of network storage coming down, all of those things.

You know, I had in mind to ask you whether there were specific skills and talents that you were able to bring to film from the music industry, and how they were comparable. But ...

Yeah, just to be clear: I'm not the Jon Landau in the music industry. A lot of people get confused about us, both ways. They ask me about him and him about me. We both spell our names the same way and we both live in New York. To be honest, sometimes I just let it go, because it's easier than convincing people otherwise.

It reminds me of when I was a kid and we went to the theater, and my father started talking to Harry Belafonte. Somebody came up to my father and said, "Mr. Mostel, can I have your autograph?" My father said, "I'm not Zero Mostel. But this right here is Harry Belafonte." The person looked at Harry Belafonte and said, "No, it's not. Mr. Mostel, can I have your autograph?" After three attempts, my father just signed the autograph and the person walked away.

Part of the media hype surrounding "Avatar" has been the idea, or the hope, that it can be that rare movie that is a huge success with audiences and also reaches across to critics and Academy members. Certainly you guys did that with "Titanic." Is that part of your aspiration?

Only the first part. Only the audience. That's why we make movies. We want to entertain people, and that's first and foremost. If anything else comes along, that's great. But we want people to enjoy the movies, not just viscerally but also emotionally.

Look, when Jim writes a story, we figure out the technology to realize it. It's not the other way around. We don't say, "Oh, here's the technology. Let's come up with some story to do!"

The 3-D projection that I saw this week in New York looked absolutely stunning. Is there some new advance in 3-D technology that you guys are using? I felt like this looked a lot better than other 3-D movies of the past few years.

You know, not really. I'll tell you what the difference is. It's a philosophical difference. Seriously, it's how we approach 3-D. It's not a world coming out of a window, it's a window into a world. We want the screen to disappear, philosophically speaking.

We see 3-D as a different medium from 2-D. We do a separate color grade for the 3-D release than we do for the 2-D release. It's a different system with different light values coming through. We try to have the two match as close to one another as possible, but we know it's a little bit different. It's like saying that you've got a Mac and a high-luster piece of paper, but you want the images to match as much as possible.

I never felt like you were doing 3-D for the sake of 3-D, or for shock value. Nobody throws a pair of scissors at me in the movie.

No. I don't like that stuff. That pulls you out of the narrative, instead of sucking you in.

"Avatar" opens Dec. 18 worldwide. 

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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