James Cameron Promises Innovation in 'Avatar' Sequels as He's Feted by Engineers

Cameron and Douglas Trumbull were honored at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers' Centennial Gala.
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James Cameron

James Cameron promised to “push” innovation in service of storytelling in his Avatar sequels as he accepted an honorary membership in the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers on Friday night during the society’s black-tie Centennial Gala. The distinction is the society's highest honor and has been reserved for such influencers as Walt Disney, Ray Dolby and George Lucas.

For the sequels to Avatar — the most successful movie ever made — the filmmaker, tech innovator and explorer said, “I'm going to push. Not only for better tools, workflow, high dynamic range and high frame rates — the things we are working toward. I’m still very bullish on 3D, but we need brighter projection, and ultimately I think it can happen — with no glasses. We’ll get there.”

VFX pioneer and motion picture innovator Douglas Trumbull also was awarded the SMPTE Progress Medal, the society's most prestigious award, during the ceremony at the Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland.

The program, hosted by actor John O’Hurley, celebrated the pioneering spirit and innovation of motion picture and TV engineers, highlighting advances of the past century from the first recorded images to virtual reality. During the ceremony, Cameron, Trumbull and others emphasized that science influences art by giving filmmakers the tools they need to tell their stories.

Cameron told the estimated 500 guests that movie “magic has to amaze … and that involves constant creation of new tools and techniques. The audience’s eyes adjust to what we did, and so we need to up our work.”

The director — who was presented with his honor by his Avatar VFX supervisor, four-time Oscar winner Joe Letteri — received enthusiastic applause as he told the room full of tech experts, “You’re my peeps. … To be acknowledged by engineers is so much more meaningful to me, truthfully, than all the glitz of the artist side of Hollywood. … I like sitting in a room with a bunch of smart people and solving technical problems.”

He also gave a shout-out to his fellow honoree, saying Trumbull's VFX on 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired him to become a filmmaker.

Accepting his award from four-time Oscar-winning VFX pioneer Richard Edlund (Star Wars), Trumbull — who is launching his MAGI Pod system that supports 4K, 3D at 120 frames per second in an effort to draw people out of their houses and into theaters — also addressed evolving cinema technology. He noted that Ang Lee’s Nov. 11 release Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which used an approach to 4K, 3D at 120fps, is “getting mixed reviews because this is shocking a lot of reviewers. … They don’t quite know what to do with it.” But he reminded the crowd that “2001 got terrible reviews when it opened.” Today, Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic is revered as one of the most influential films of all time.

Trumbull asserted to applause, “It’s time to give [new cinema technology] a chance, because everything is changing."

One of the reasons influential filmmakers such as Lee and Cameron are exploring high frame rates (HFR) is to learn how this tool might reduce or eliminate the issues in 3D that can cause viewing discomfort.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet, Cameron elaborated: “I think [high frame rates] is a tool, not a format. I think it’s something you want to weave in and out and use it when it soothes the eye, especially in 3D during panning, movements that [create] artifacts that I find very bothersome. I want to get rid of that stuff, and you can do it through high frame rates.

“In terms of that kind of hyper clarity, there may be some films that benefit from it," he continued. "But I feel you still have to have a little bit of that veil of unreality that comes with [today’s commonly used] 24 frames per second. This is my conclusion now. I don’t think you do it wall-to-wall, I think you do it where you need it.”

As for the sequels to Avatar, Cameron said in addition to HFR, he’s working on “HDR, 4K for native stereo reduction, all the plethora of things we can do with CG that we couldn’t do or were so difficult. I’m going to need a lot of water [simulations], dynamics sims. And merging water, air, fire, all that sort of stuff together into complex simulations is going to be essential for the Avatar films."

He asserted: “Movies are going to look better than they’ve ever looked. They already do and they are going to continue [to look better]. Anything we can imagine, we can put on the screen.”

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