Cameron sets live-action, CG epic for 2009


James Cameron is set to direct "Avatar," his first dramatic feature since the Oscar-winning blockbuster "Titanic" in 1997.

Fox Filmed Entertainment chairmen Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman said Monday that Cameron will start virtual photography on the sci-fi epic in April, with live-action photography commencing in August, for a summer 2009 release. It will be filmed in a new digital 3-D format for release in 3-D.

The director already has spent years in R&D on the multiple processes needed to create a $190 million hybrid of live action and animation, which he vowed will never pass the $200 million mark. "I've been the busiest unemployed director in Hollywood," he said. "We're going to blow you to the back wall of the theater in a way you haven't seen for a long time. My goal is to rekindle those amazing mystical moments my generation felt when we first saw '2001: A Space Odyssey,' or the next generation's 'Star Wars.' It took me 10 years to find something hard enough to be interesting."

Said Rothman: "Jim has taken the time to get it right, and we're taking the time to do it right. It's worth the wait."

Neither Cameron nor Fox want to repeat the budget overruns that plagued the $200 million "Titanic," the director said. "We are shooting only 31 days of live action, all onstage. It's controllable. No weather conditions. No water on this one," he said. "When you come back to the table years later to make a movie of a certain scale, you want to make sure you cross all the t's and dot all the i's. We're 2 1/2 years out, and we've already shot 10 minutes of the film. The FX guys are working, the characters are designed, animators are already working."

Partly through its work on six documentary features including "Ghosts of the Abyss," Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment team has researched a potentially groundbreaking mix of live-action cinematography and virtual photorealistic production techniques for "Avatar," which will feature virtual characters.

"Avatar," with a screenplay by Cameron, will mark the director's return to the sci-fi action-adventure genre. He first wrote an 80-page treatment 11 years ago. The film centers on a wounded ex-Marine who is unwillingly sent to settle and exploit the faraway planet Pandora. He gets caught up in a battle for survival by the planet's inhabitants, called Na'vis, and falls in love with one of them. "Not only is this groundbreaking technologically, but it's an intimate story set against an epic canvas," Rothman said. "That's what Jim does. You can't compare it to anything out there. Its biggest upside, besides its revolutionary technology, is its newness. It's not a sequel to anything."

Cameron had been developing another sci-fi adventure, the comic book adaptation "Battle Angel Alita," but when Laeta Kalogridis' script for that project didn't come together after many drafts, he dusted off "Avatar," which he hadn't touched for five years. He started designing the movie in May 2005, he said.

During the next year and a half, Cameron continued to develop "Battle Angel" alongside "Avatar." Said producer Jon Landau: "We needed to prove to ourselves that we could make 'Avatar' and make it at the level of quality that Jim wanted. So throughout that early fall we went through a series of tests where we actually shot a scene from the movie to prove the process to ourselves." After finalizing 45 photo-real seconds of a five-minute performance-capture test, Cameron and the studio were convinced that "Avatar" could proceed.

For the film's lead role, the 22-year-old planetary adventurer Jack Sully, Cameron sought a new face. After global screen tests to satisfy the studio, he selected his first choice, Australian actor Sam Worthington, who has starred in "Somersault" and "Dirty Deeds" and had been considered to play James Bond. "He's got the weight, he's a tough guy -- a young Russell Crowe. They grow them differently over there," Cameron said.

Zoe Saldana, who appeared in "The Terminal" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," will portray Sully's love interest, one of the planet's primitive aliens. She will be a CG character, while Sully will exist in human (live action) and biological "avatar" (CG) form. As an avatar, the human Sully is able to project his consciousness into an alien body.

Both actors have signed on for possible future installments as well because Cameron and Fox see "Avatar" as a potential franchise. "If we make money, I guarantee there will be more," Cameron said. "If we don't, we'll pretend it never happened." Other casting will be announced shortly.

For "Avatar," Cameron will use performance-capture techniques similar to those used by such films as "Superman Returns" and "King Kong" as well as a real-time virtual camera system, which will blend the actors' performances and CG performances with real sets, miniatures and CG environments. With the virtual camera, the director will be able to look through an eyepiece and see his characters in their virtual world.

Saying the production process is similar to creating an animated film, Cameron estimated that the finished film will be 60% CG elements and 40% live action. He is aiming for the sort of photo-realism achieved by the CG sequences in "Kong" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

"We had a number of processes we wanted to bring to maturation," he said. "We wanted to kick up to the next level of cinematographic precision the 3-D live-action photography we had been using on the documentary films. We refined the second generation of the Fusion camera." The proprietary Fusion digital 3-D camera system was developed by Cameron and Vince Pace.

The performance-capture side took longer, Cameron said, "because as mature as performance capture is for gross body motion, facial performance capture is still a nascent art."

The competitive race among four VFX houses for the assignment to supervise the film's visual effects was won by Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning Weta Digital, which worked on "Rings."

"Any one of them could have handled the volume of shots, the scale of the project, and handled the technology," Cameron said. "Joe Lettieri and his team had a history of translating facial performance capture to really good photo-real characters. The culture there is imbued from the head down with a passion for fantasy filmmaking. And they met us halfway on the price."

"Avatar" will be produced by Cameron and Landau for Lightstorm. Principal photography will take place in and around Los Angeles and in New Zealand. Production designer Rick Carter, visual effects designer Rob Stromberg and visual effects producer Brooke Breton already have begun work. No director of photography has been hired.