AndyO Blog

Sunday, September 26, 2010

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).

Avatar commemorative ticket: Front

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.

Grand entrance

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.

Avatar commemorative ticket: Back

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.)

Listen to Bob Rivers' own impressions of this event.

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.

Final thoughts

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.


Video: James Cameron discusses why he's re-releasing Avatar

Blog: Avatar screenplay alterations and deletions

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posted by AndyO @ 3:53 PM   0 comments

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Review: Rush - White River Amphitheatre - Auburn, WA - 8/7/10

This review is from the White River Amphitheatre show in Auburn, WA, that happened on 8/7/10. It's taken me a while to write this, but here it is.

The short review: This was one of the best Rush shows I've ever attended. The band played at a level I'd never seen before; the stage design was imaginative and fun; the crowd was electric. What more could someone want at a Rush concert. Or any concert?

Pre-show: 5:05 p.m

I stood in the rain outside White River Amphitheatre with my 10-year-old son, Cameron, listening to the sound check. I hadn't heard Rush do a sound check since the Roll the Bones tour in Vancouver, B.C. (Gone are the days when they had jam sessions during sound check. Here's one that Billy Sheehan posted of a jam he had with Alex and Neil).

"Why does it sound so strange?" Cameron asked, referring to the booming sound echoing from the amphitheater.

"Because we're listening to it out here instead of inside," I said.

First, they played "Faithless," from Snakes & Arrows. Then came the title track from Presto, in its entirety. Finally, "The Spirit of Radio," from Permanent Waves, which would be the first song of the night. I heard a little bit of "Subdivisions" keyboard from Signals, and they were done.

Cameron and I gathered my wife Brenda and brother Erik from of the car and headed into the VIP entrance, the rain still beating down on us.

Living in VIP land

The VIP area at White River is a cordoned off section with a bar and free food (this is not the same thing as the VIP Rush package from Live Nation). We'd scored these tickets from Aaron, Erik's old roommate, and the VIP service came with them (thanks Aaron!). For us, this meant lounging around on a leather couch, eating BBQ sandwiches, chips, pretzels, and drinks.

Image: My ticket to White River Rush show

After an hour, we left the VIP area and headed to the mile-long line in front of the merch tent. Fortunately the rain had abated. I bought a new blue Time Machine shirt, and Cameron got a Moving Pictures shirt.

Time Machine: Set 1

Once we got to our seats, I said hello to all my friends, Steve, Monica, Dave and Keith from B.C., Paul, his son Nich, and Jen. It was nice to catch up, but there's never enough time before a Rush show.

Here's the view from our seats before the show:

The view from my seats

Here's a Photosynth that a friend of mine did from seats very close to ours, where you can see the entire amphitheater before showtime.

The show started with the intro film, which I'd seen on the Internet -- but it was even funnier with the anticipation of the show. And then Rush blasted into "The Spirit of Radio." A wave of energy released from the crowd, more intense than just about any Rush show I'd attended . 

Geddy Lee - Photo by John Arrowsmith

Our seats were dead center in section 103, row two, which had its advantages and disadvantages. First, these were great seats (thanks again, Aaron!) -- some of the best I've had at a show, and they worked well for Cameron, since he only had one row in front of him. However, because we were in front of an aisle, it was a little distracting to see a constant stream of people flowing by.

Alex Lifeson - Photo by John Arrowsmith

As Rush played through their set, which I'd read beforehand but hadn't memorized, I realized how different this show was from the previous years:

  • "Time Stand Still" hadn't been played in 16 years.
  • "Presto" had never been played live.
  • The funky, eclectic instrumental "Leave That Thing Alone" was back after a few tours, and it sounded better than ever. 
  • The opening riff to the new song "BU2B" was heavier than just about anything Rush had written in years, and the background visuals were stunning.

By the time the band got to "Marathon," I started to notice a confidence in Neil's playing that was fresh and exciting -- even a little dangerous.

Neil Peart - photo by John Arrowsmith

As most fans of Neil's know, his style and technique is always changing. When he joined Rush, his playing also had an adventurous quality, like Keith Moon, but more controlled. But as he and Rush developed over the years, his playing became more and more composed and confident. Since studying with Freddy Gruber before 1996's Test for Echo, I've heard a more improvisational style of playing creeping into Neil's performances.

Geddy Lee - Photo by John Arrowsmith

On this particular night, Neil seemed relaxed behind the kit, with new drum patterns emerging where another fill or beat once had been. I knew it wasn't just me: my brother and I kept sharing looks of disbelief. These new elements had the effect of lifting a song's intensity, and I think this is one of the reasons "Marathon" sounded so good.  

Rush ended the first set with "Subdivisions," which felt as smooth and powerful as ever. Geddy made the comment that Rush were "no longer spring chickens" and needed a rest, and it was intermission. I was surprised by how fast the first set had flown by.

Time Machine: Set 2

As the intermission came to an end, you could feel it in the air: the anticipation of hearing Rush's1981 breakthrough album, Moving Pictures. As many fans have pointed out since Rush returned to playing live 2002, they've played every song off Moving Pictures except "The Camera Eye." They've also played most of the songs off Permanent Waves, with the exception of "Jacob's Ladder" and "Different Strings." I was curious and excited to hear the original sequence of the the songs on Moving Pictures. After all, this album was from an era when song sequencing was an art form -- each song building on the last, like the stories in a book of short stories.

After the hilarious intro film, Rush tore through the songs of Moving Pictures as if they were as excited to play them as we were to hear them. They all sounded great, but for me the real gem I was waiting for was "The Camera Eye." I wasn't disappointed. In particular, I enjoyed the visuals, showing scenes of New York and London -- "Grim faced and forbidding, their faces closed tight" vs. "Wide-angled watcher of life's ancient tales."

Once again I noticed how Neil changed fills or beats throughout "The Camera Eye." One of the most interesting was the way he expanded the "double-ride" beat bridging the two parts of the song (he usually goes into a more conventional Rock beat about halfway through). They also cut some of the more repetitive sequences.

In short, the performance of Moving Pictures exceeded my expectations. I wondered if they could play it with this level of intensity every night (I knew I'd soon get a chance in Las Vegas to compare).


The new song "Caravan" also sounded great live, with a jam session in the bridge reminiscent of "Free Will." The visuals on the screen were also jaw dropping -- a perfect backdrop for the music.

Drum Solo

After reading Neil's August, 2010, blog entry, I was curious how he would approach his solo. In his section about traveling: "I: The Art of Improvisation," he wrote:

This tour I have deliberately designed my drum solo to be more improvisational than ever before, and that has led me into some "adventures" that have their analogues to the art of traveling…

My solo is built on three rhythmic foundations, which I think of as "The Steampunk Waltz" (freeform melodies and rhythms in 3/4 time), "The Steampunk Stomp" (polyrhythms in 4/4 with upbeats against downbeats), and "The Steampunk Mambo" (a Latin ostinato, or repeating rhythm--regular readers will recall its root in the Italian word for "obstinate," or "stubborn"). Through a couple of different variations, including the electronic drums at the back, I continue to explore and stretch my limits in all of those frameworks, and all of them converge toward the end--the big-band climax of "Love For Sale."

On this night, the improvisation over the "rhythmic foundations" certainly made the solo a lot more unpredictable -- even though I recognized patterns and melodies. Considering how many years of solos Neil has played, it's impressive that he continues to change and refine it.

Mr. Ray Daniels

One of the interesting things I noticed at the show was how Ray Daniels, Rush's manager, was watching the show -- usually from the handicap section, which was right in front of us. He seemed to know a lot of the people there, shaking hands, hugging people. He also seemed to be patrolling around the front section of the venue.

Erik turned to me and said, "Is Ray Daniels now doing security?" and we both laughed.

This was the second time I'd seen Ray Daniels at the Rush show in Seattle. Perhaps he'd always been there, but I'd never noticed him. 

The Final Act

As Rush continued through their final songs and into the encore, I was once again surprised.

In the final verse of "Closer to the Heart," the band downshifted into 6/8 time (a fast waltz), stretching out the music and the lyrics. Gone was the long jam on three notes with Alex introducing the band.

"2112: Overture" and "Temples of Syrinx," followed by "Far Cry," created a wave of energy that took the band into the Encore. (One "nugget" as Geddy called it during "2112" is worth noting: During the "And the meek shall inherit the earth" bridge between the two songs, as Geddy tried to sing Alex played the wrong notes. Geddy finally exclaimed, "Where is that guy?" When they started playing "Temples," Alex hid behind his amps in mock shame, with Geddy and Neil laughing.)

"La Villa Strangiato" started off as a kind of post-disco Polka. Neil played bells on the midi-marimba during this section, too. I have to say I didn't recognize anything at all until the "La Villa" riff, which finally blasted into the heavy version we're all used to.

For some reason, I never grow tired of "La Villa." All of the different movements, all the amazing musicianship, it truly fits the subtitle of the song, "An Exercise in Self-Indulgence." Only "The Main Monkey Business" from Snakes & Arrows has come close to the same level of self- indulgence, but in a much more compressed way.

"Working Man" with its Reggae opening was a tour-de-force, and Alex Lifeson was particularly brilliant. While I know this song has been played much in the past 8 years, I enjoyed the new arrangement.

And then they were done.

The outro film, I Still Love You, Man, riffed on the move, I Love You Man, starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, and I thought it was absolutely hilarious. The two Rush fans sneak backstage into Rush's dressing room, and then Rush arrives after the show. I especially like how Neil gets really mad, with deep sighs, steely-eyed glares.

Also funny was when they call Neil "Mr. Part." Neil says, "It's just Peeert."

"Are you sure?" the two fans ask. "Because we're pretty big fans."

White River blues

Trying to get out of the White River parking lot is an exercise in futility and patience. Unless you leave the show early, it's just a sad reality with this venue. The infrastructure isn't set up for 15-20,000 people trying to leave the parking lot at the same time.

It took us 40 or so minutes to get out of the parking lot, and my brother swore he'd never see a show at that venue again. I don't blame him.

I was home by 1:00 a.m.


The next day I slept in. I mean really slept in. Cameron had tried to wake me up several times because he wanted to play all of Moving Pictures in its entirety on the drums. My wife kept him at bay until 11:00 a.m.

Just to hear Cameron playing along to those songs in his own way was one of the great benefits of seeing that concert. That's Rush and Neil Peart -- inspiring on so many different levels.

And, as Jack Black said in the documentary: Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, they've still got the "Rocket Sauce."

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posted by AndyO @ 2:38 PM   0 comments