James Cameron Talks 'Avatar' Sequels Budget and Underwhelming Virtual Reality

James Cameron - H - 2014
Associated Press

"There seems to be a lot of excitement around something that, to me, is a yawn, frankly," said the director about current VR technology

James Cameron, apparently at Rupert Murdoch's behest, was cajoled on Wednesday into talking about the budget for the Avatar sequels.

During a Wall Street Journal conference panel in Laguna Beach, Calif., the 21st Century Fox chairman had made a brief, perhaps joking, comment about how the director's sci-fi films could be double the budget of what was first said. Later in the day, Cameron was questioned onstage about the comment, and laughed, before noting the cost saving measures he's taking.

"Obviously, they’re expensive films," he said, explaining that he wanted to take advantage of "economies of scale" when shooting the three sequels simultaneously. "We’ll literally capture the actors all at the same time, we’ll do all the live photography all at the same time, it’s sort of like we’re shooting a miniseries."

"So, theoretically, that’s a good way to damp the costs down hopefully well below what the first film cost," he said, referring to the north of $200 million budget of the 2009 blockbuster that grossed more than $2.7 billion worldwide. The three sequels are set for release from 20th Century Fox beginning in December 2016 and in the same month in 2017 and 2018.

"You can do the math on it in your head," Cameron joked about the budget, in a comment that could've been directed at Murdoch. 

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Although the director didn't reveal any major technological advances for the Avatar sequels, he did speak about fine-tuning the current production process. 

“The thing that’s still astonishing to me is how well our prototype system did work," he explained, adding later: "But it was not user-friendly at all and it was a lot of unnecessary hard work, and we just always kept consoling ourselves while we were making the film that we’ll fix it for the sequel."

“Interestingly, the term ‘filming’ is so obsolete in almost every regard because we do some image capture where there’s actual photography, but it’s done entirely on digital cameras,” he said. “And that only represents a small part, maybe 20 to 25 percent, of the total film. The rest is completely synthetically generated.”

While shepherding the Avatar sequels preoccupies much of the director's time, he was also asked several questions by Journal interviewer Evelyn M. Rusli about his involvement in virtual reality projects. 

Cameron didn't appear impressed with recent hype spurred by Oculus Rift, the virtual reality startup that made headlines in March when Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg announced that his company would acquire the brand for $2 billion.

"There seems to be a lot of excitement around something that, to me, is a yawn, frankly," he said

"The question that always occurred to me is, when is it going to be mature, when is it going to be accepted by the public at large, when are people going to start authoring in VR and what will that be?" Cameron said. 

"What will the level of interactivity with the user be other than just ‘I can stand and look around,'" he elaborated, adding: "If you want to move through a virtual reality it’s called a video game, it’s been around forever."

"Oculus Rift is fine, it’s got a good display and that sort of thing," he said offhandedly. 

Cameron was also prompted to discuss 1995's virtual reality themed Strange Days, which grossed only $8 million and spurred a call from Murdoch at the time because of its disappointing box office.

"I got a call from Rupert after that one came out, it went like this: 'No more like that please.' That’s all that was said, and I thought that was very gentlemanly," Cameron recalled.