Watching "Avatar: Special Edition" with James Cameron - Aug 24, 2010
It's not every day James Cameron comes to Seattle. And it's rarer still when he comes to town to show a special edition of Avatar at the Boeing IMAX theater in Seattle Center. This was a charity event to benefit MUSE Elementary, founded by his wife Suzi Amis Cameron, and Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington (I-LABS).
Being that Avatar is my son's favorite movie, I took him along. He was excited, but I don't think he really knew what he was in for.
We were greeted at the entrance to the IMAX theater by kids wearing MUSE t-shirts. Once inside, we exchanged our tickets for our "commemorative" tickets. If you had a cell phone, you had to check it. They gave you a wrist band that indicated what seats you could sit in. Cameron and I got purple wrist bands.
We walked down the descending ramp that circles the IMAX theater, and, once there, mingled with the crowd. There were people dressed in tuxedos, business suits, t-shirts, and shorts. (Cameron and I went for the middle ground: khakis and nice shirts.) They had a delicious buffet line, which Cameron and I grazed (while he was too excited to eat, he was, however, interested in the "free soda").
Finding our seats and the arrival of Mr. Cameron
We finally lined up and went into the theater, where we sat for 30 or so minutes. Of course, Cameron was impatient -- wanting the film to start right away. He kept asking me the time, but I didn't have my cell phone with me. (I taught him how to "steal" time from people around you.)
Near showtime (7:00 p.m.), I saw Suzi Amis-Cameron walk in and then noticed James Cameron standing there, too. Both of them were dressed up. Suzi started hugging a bunch of people in the audience.
After James Cameron was introduced, he talked about why they were releasing the Special Edition. He said that when they released the original version of Avatar, 20th-Century Fox was nervous about a 3D movie running over two hours. (Mr. Cameron said the studio executive said something like, "After two hours, people's heads might explode!"). Because of this, some scenes had to be cut. But now that the film had become the top grossing film of all time, the studio was much less nervous about releasing a "Director's Cut."
As far as my own opinion of "Director's Cuts," I've become more skeptical of them over time -- as they seem like another way for the studios to "double-dip." Today it seems like every third or fourth movie that releases includes a follow-up "Director's Cut" DVD -- or the even more tantalizing "Unrated" version. But sometimes, these versions of the films end up being superior to the original cuts -- Blade Runner and The Abyss, for example.
Watching Avatar with James Cameron
The film started, and I sat back and watched the new version of Avatar, clocking in at 2 hours 50 minutes. Several times I looked back to see if Mr. Cameron was watching the film with us -- and, sure enough, there he was -- wearing his bug-eyed 3D glasses.
As the credits rolled and the audience applauded, I thought about how those extra nine minutes had added much more depth to the story, answered questions, and effectively gave more motivation to Jake Sully's character at the end of the film. While I didn't know I was missing these scenes before, which proves they weren't necessarily needed, they now seemed somehow… essential. (This once again reminds me of the saying, "Art is never finished; it's abandoned.)
So, if you're one of the few people who hasn't seen Avatar -- like the gentleman who was sitting next to me -- I highly recommend the Special Edition over the original version.
James Cameron's Q&A
After the film, James Cameron spent about 45 minutes answering questions from the audience. He started off by saying he hadn't seen the film in 7 months and how it was fun to see how the actors changed lines here and there for the better.
Here were some of the questions, along with my impressions:
James Cameron in person
In person, James Cameron is genuine and passionate. He's extremely articulate, but also has a soft-spoken quality. As is true with most people, he's a mass of contradictions: In his case, he seems like an engineer trapped in a filmmaker's body. (To get a sense of this, listen to this interview with Teri Gross of Fresh Air.)
But what I knew of James Cameron before I saw him in person was manufactured by the Hollywood buzz machine and the media. In his case, he's been portrayed as an egomaniacal director who puts his films before all else, rules his sets with an iron fist, and fights with his actors. He fed into this image with his "I'm 'King of the World!'" line after he won Best Director for Titanic.
But what I saw was a man who cares deeply about film and storytelling, about the world, and about people. Some might twist this into arrogance, but I think it's jealousy. The guy has the number 1 and 2 top-grossing films of all time; you don't get there without talent and perseverance -- and, in the case of Avatar, giving up four years of your life. There are also going to be times when you have to fight for what you want.
On the environmental theme
Cameron said that while Avatar has come to be known as an "environmental" film, he didn't set out to make one. In fact, the studio was nervous about this theme having a negative effect on the box office. Cameron said (and I'm paraphrasing), "I just wanted to make my movie about another planet with space ships, guns, and aliens."
Hardest scene to cut (asked by Bob Rivers, Seattle talk radio host)
Cameron said it was the scene where Jake finds the dying Tsu Tey, who asks Jake to kill him to complete the transfer of leadership of the Omaticaya clan to Jake. This sets up the motivation for when Jake's mind and spirit are transferred from his human body to his avatar body. (From a storytelling point of view, it's also the reason Dr. Grace Augustine is mortally wounded and they try to transfer her body. This shows the audience needed how dangerous this process is.)
On the sequel
Cameron said they are indeed working on the sequel, which will take place in the jungle of Pandora and in the ocean. But don't expect this sequel for another four years (or more).
One thing that excites him about doing the next movie is that they don't need to re-invent the wheel, as they've invented the technology to make a film like Avatar. Now they can concentrate on other aspects of the film.
On the New Avatar Special Edition Boxed Set
Cameron said a new boxed set of Avatar is coming this year with even more footage (I think he said 40 extra minutes total). He said the boxed set is designed for people who want to immerse themselves fully in the world of Avatar and don't mind watching a 3-1/2 hour film and tons of extras (now I know why my Blu-ray copy of Avatar didn't have any extras on it).
He said that everything in the original script was shot.
Doing your part
A young girl in the audience asked what it felt like to have so much power to make changes in the world. Cameron turned the question around, challenging everyone in the audience to do their part to make the world better. For him, he said it might mean not making a film and getting more involved.
The freedom of digital filmmaking
One thing that I didn't realize until I heard Cameron's interview with Teri Gross was that the Avatar set was completely virtual. They captured the actors' performances digitally, which they could see on monitors. These images were crude versions of what would eventually end up in the film. This type of filmmaking made things easier for when they wanted to tweak the film later on. Typically, sets are torn down after a film is completed; but with Avatar, Cameron said if they wanted to change something, Sam Worthington (who played Jake) would just stop by when he was in town and reshoot a scene.
Digital vs. real
Someone in the audience asked about the divide between "digital" and "real."
Cameron joked, "It's all real."
The person went on to ask about how they blended real elements, like the water crashing on the shore in the last act of the film.
Cameron replied, "Oh, that was CG (computer graphics)," getting a laugh from the audience.
He did say that when he brought the idea of showing the ocean crashing against a shoreline, his digital effects team told him it was a near-impossible task to accomplish correctly. But they did.
On the Na'vi language
Someone asked how long it took for Cameron to "invent" the Na'vi language. Cameron said that the language was created by Dr. Paul Frommer in about six months.
He said the actor who had the most difficult role with the language was Zoe Saldana (Natyri), who had to speak English with a Na'vi accent. Cameron said they tried all kinds of accents before they found something that worked.
He also said that after Dr. Frommer saw the film, he wrote a memo to Cameron about how all the actors were speaking the Na'vi language incorrectly. Cameron joked that he somehow forgot to respond to that memo.
After the show
My son and I exited the theater and walked up to the main floor. A person from my work introduced me to Yuri Bartoli, one of the artists who worked on Avatar, who attended the screening. I was able to talk to Yuri for a while, which was interesting. While we were standing there, James Cameron and Suzi Amis-Cameron walked up the IMAX theater ramp. As he walked up, he posed for pictures and signed autographs. At this point, I pulled out the Avatar Blu-ray and red Sharpie that my son wanted Mr. Cameron to sign.
One of Mr. Cameron's assistants noticed me and that the autograph was for my son, so just as Mr. Cameron was heading for the door he said, "Jim, one more autograph over here!"
I handed the Blu-ray to Mr. Cameron and pointed to my son. "The autograph is for him."
At this point, I realized that James Cameron was pretty tall -- six-two or six-three. He walked over to Cameron and asked, "What's your name?"
"Cameron," my son said shyly.
"A-ha, it works as a first or last name!"
My son was also wearing a brace on his arm for a sprain, and Suzy asked him what he did to his arm.
"I fell off my bike," Cameron said, grinning.
Suzi then noticed my purple wrist band and asked, "Where did you get that?"
I told her it told us which seats we could sit in.
"I didn't get one," she said, in mock disappointment.
"You can have mine if you want," I said, but I realized she probably didn't want a band off my sweaty wrist.
I thanked Mr. Cameron for the autograph, and he and Suzi headed outside to a black SUV. I saw a few Seattle Police standing out there, too. After a minute or so, I saw camera flashes and noticed that James Cameron was outside taking pictures with fans, signing more autographs.
For some reason, I had this picture in my head of a man who was too busy for things like autographs, who would rush out the door surrounded by security people. But there he was, spending five or more minutes with that crowd.
When I grew up, I always thought of my heroes as abstractions, demigods, people who existed in the ether of TV and movies. This was one of the reasons I wanted to take my son to this premier -- to show him that James Cameron is a real person, that he can actually stand in front of you and sign an autograph and talk to you.
There's a lot of power in creating a film like Avatar -- but I think there's even more power in realizing it takes real people like Mr. Cameron and the artist we met, Yuri Bartoli, to actually do the creating. And creating is hard work -- harder than what most people are capable of.
I hope meeting James Cameron breaks down that wall a little for my son, that someday, if he works hard enough, he could work on a movie like Avatar, or whatever else he wants to do.