On November 16th fans will have another opportunity to go back to Pandora when the Avatar Extended Collector's Edition Blu-ray and DVD hits stores. The new collection will include three versions of the film; the original theatrical cut, the special edition cut and a collector's edition cut. The new Collector's Edition cut will feature six additional minutes that were not included in the special edition, making the film sixteen minutes longer than the theatrical version. Recently we had a chance to attend a special media day that director James Cameron and producer Jon Landau hosted in honor of the upcoming release of the Avatar Extended Collector's Edition Blu-ray and DVD.
The event was held at Beatrice Studios in Los Angeles, CA and it was not your average media day. Cameron gathered many of the important people who had worked behind the scenes on the film to come in and hold different classes for us, in order to show us how their work made the movie possible. We began our day being greeted by Landau and Cameron, who shared his excitement for the event. "This is really an exciting moment for us. Its truly exciting for us because we got back together the entire Avatar team in the process of putting together this day," said Cameron.
The director went on to explain where the idea for the event came from. "Where the concept came from, frankly, was me just dreading another junket. Because we all do the same thing, we all play our parts. I sit in a chair, you cycle through, everybody's got five minutes and there is no real time to get down to the cool stuff," said Cameron. "I just knew that since the purpose of this Collector's Edition set that we are promoting today is to celebrate the team, the effort behind the film and help the fans and the film community at large know how the film was made, with all these new pioneering techniques. I thought if that is the purpose of this collection, how are we going to try and say that in five-minute interviews? We're going to do fifty of the same interviews in a day and never get to that message? That's pointless so Jon and I talked about doing this day," explained the director.
"So we jumped on this idea and created this incredible environment," continued Landau. "When you go through today, we're really letting you behind the curtains of how the movie was made and as you go through it, keep in mind that it is the heart of this movie that really allows it to work on a global scale. It's the characters being able to captivate people, its not the technology, its all about servicing the story and putting the characters up on the screen. You are going to see that from the start today, all the way to the end."
"The thing is that behind the magic and behind the characters are people," explained Cameron. "It's not a vast army of people the way one might imagine when you are talking about a big expensive movie like this. With the scope and scale that you see on the screen, you imagine thousands of people building enormous sets and that's not the case. It was a small, core group and you are going to meet them all today. You are going to meet the people that were the core creative team on this movie. They are eager to explain the process that they went through because it was so pioneering. They were all very experienced people but when they got to Avatar nobody knew the answer. We were making this up as we went along. I even used the metaphor that we were sewing a parachute on the way down, Cameron joked. "That is pretty much the case but we were always able to stop our fall before we hit the ground but just barely. I think everyone that is gathered here today is eager to share with you in detail the process that they went through. I think this will be great for you guys, whether you are fans of the film or not, to really pull the curtain back on some of this process and understand how this is really changing the way movies are getting made."
Landau began to discuss exactly what we would be doing that day. "So today we have a series of stations that we are going to walk you around to and really let you see some of these things that you might not know about. From the design and what they did at Legacy Effects to the virtual camera and Simulcam. You know people think that all these different things we did will have a big effect on the film industry, but it might be this little thing called the Simulcam that has the biggest effect on the industry going forward, explained Landau. "It's interesting because people have talked about Avatar being revolutionary in terms of the 3D, but from our perspective the 3D was really a mature art from before we started the film," said Cameron. "That was not our biggest challenge, our biggest challenge was in creating the CG worlds. Creating the CG characters, doing the facial performance capture and the entire capture process in such a way that it was intuitive and filmmaker friendly. You'll get talked through all of that stuff today," said Cameron
Before we were sent to our different stations, we had a chance to screen the four and a half minute "alternate beginning" to the film, which takes place on Earth. The new beginning can be seen on the Collector's Edition cut and features a wheelchair bound Jake. Jake is living a sad existence after his accident and the death of his brother. We even see him get into a bar fight at one point, before he identifies his brother's body. Eventually we see the moment that Jake is offered his brother's job. But the best part of the "alternate opening" was the cool special effects used to create the bright lights of the futuristic city that Jake was living in on Earth.
Now it was time for us to go to our various stations and the first one we stopped at was "The Na'vi World," with linguist Paul Frommer and botanist Jodie Holt. Frommer was hired by Cameron to actually create an entirely new language to be used in the movie. "Once you have the basic grammatical rules in place and you know how certain structures work, then you can continue to build vocabulary," Frommer said of creating the language. Jodie Holt was hired by the production to advise on the design of the plant life found on Pandora. "I was initially contacted to work with Sigourney Weaver so she could play a credible field botanist. I also informed the dialogue a little bit. There were a lot of questions about this obvious connection between plants, animals and the Na'vi and they were looking for some kind of explanation to that," said Holt.
Next it was on to "Making The Cut" with the films editors, John Refoua and Stephen Rivkin. The editors explained that cutting Avatar was like editing two different movies, because they first cut together all the raw footage that was shot with the actors in motion capture suits. Once they had selected their shots, and visual effects had animated them, then they had to essentially re-cut the film. "We had to scrutinize the performances with the director and select parts of the performances to put together," said Rivkin. "A little section, about ten seconds of the movie, is probably two to three hours of material that was captured," explained Refoua.
Our next stop was to "The Sounds Of Pandora," where we met Academy Award winning composer James Horner. This is Horner's second collaboration with Cameron after his award winning work on Titanic. The composer played some of his score for us and explained his inspiration for the music during the flying scenes. "This was all about the spirituality, the majesty and beauty of what flying is all about. It had to be ethnic in quality so it has a slightly African quality to it. I wanted to use an African children's choir along with a rhythmic background. It really expresses the way I feel about flight and is true to the quality of the film," said Horner. "Jim was very happy with it and it kind of expresses how we both feel about Jake's feeling about flying these things. It was actually one of the first things I wrote for the film so it was an important sequence to get approved by Jim."
Next up, we visited the "Characters, Creatures and Vehicles" station with concept artist Neville Page and character effects coordinator John Rosengrant. They explained that while much of what they physically created was then redone with CGI, it was extremely helpful for the digital artists to have actual props and maquettes to use as reference. In fact, on display was the AMP suit and several creature maquettes including a life-size bust of Grace. After that, we visited the "Designing The World" station with production designer Robert Stromberger, supervising virtual art director Yuri Bartolli and costume designer Deborah Lynn Scott. Again, while all of the clothing and jewelry worn by the Na'vi was ultimately created digitally, Scott produced actual clothing and jewelry for the digital artists to use as references. But unlike a normal production, every costume piece only had to be produced once as reference and then could be reproduced as many times as needed digitally.
Following that, we went to the "Virtual Production" station with members of the virtual production department, which included Matt Madden, Richie Beneham and Glenn Derry. First, we were allowed to actually operate a real motion capture camera. It was very cool. They had two actors on set in the motion capture suits, walking through the motion capture forest, which is just hanging cables with tiny cameras connected to them. As we pointed the camera towards the actors and looked through the lens, we could no longer see them but instead only their Na'vi characters. Next, we were shown the Simulcam, which is the camera that was created especially for the film. Essentially, it's just a 3D camera that has the motion capture image that you just took, already in it. They demonstrated this by shooting practically a scene with an actor in a helicopter being attacked by the Na'vi. As they demonstrated the scene, you could see that inside the camera the Na'vi is actually in the scene attacking the helicopter. While the actor cannot see it, the director has an opportunity to see how the scene will look when he is done, while he is still shooting it. That is basically how Cameron made the movie. It was ridiculously awesome to watch how that was done on set.
Our next station was "A Look Through The Lens" with the Los Angeles director of photography, Vince Pace, who has worked with Cameron since The Abyss. We had an opportunity to look at the 3D camera that was used to shoot the film and Pace talked about Cameron's goal in using 3D. "Jim always wanted to shoot 3D using 2D technology. What he means by that is all the methodology that you would usually use, steady-cam, handheld, and incorporate it into his 3D effort. So he didn't want to compromise that for the sake of a 3D product," explained Pace. Our final station on the tour was "Visual Effects," with Joe Letteri and Stephen Rosenbaum from Weta Digital, who discussed how they did the groundbreaking visual effects for the film.
Finally, we were done with our behind-the-scenes tour of the making of Avatar, and joined James Cameron and Jon Landau once again, where they took questions from the audience. First, Cameron was asked what is thoughts were when he first saw a final cut of the theatrical release? "I think we were all ready to have a heart attack if the film didn't work," admitted the director. "Even if it didn't work up to our standards. I initially held back seeing the film in 3D from end to end. I hadn't seen every part of it in 3D and I had seen it from end to end, but I hadn't had that combined experience. I chose to sit and watch it with friends and cast. Sigourney sat on one side and Zoe (Saldana) and Sam (Worthington) on the other side. Steven Spielberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger were sitting behind me. So it better be fucking good," exclaimed Cameron. "I Just sort of felt the vibe from Zoe, Sam, and Sigourney and knowing that they loved the movie it predisposed me to like what I was seeing. I actually enjoyed the screening, which sounds unfathomable when you have deconstructed it down to every molecule over so much time, but I actually enjoyed it. At that point I relaxed because I knew as long as people enjoyed the movie, we were going to be okay. So it didn't bother me to watch two hours and twenty-one minutes in 3D."
Following that, Cameron was asked if he has dreamed of any new technologies that he hopes to be able to use someday? "I dream of a world which we evolve to respect nature enough where we stop dong things like off shore drilling and digging up the tar sands. That's where my dreams are and those feel a lot more impossible than the things we are doing on Avatar," the director answered honestly. "In terms of the movies, I think anything we imagine we can go after and eventually we will get there. I can imagine a smaller, lighter, more fully integrated and portable, single user 3D camera. I can imagine a camera that shows me an image in real time and we will get there, it may be five years or it may be ten. We are at an interesting juncture, where if you can imagine it, you can do it. I thought that five or ten years ago, but it was kind of bluff," Cameron admitted. "But there were still barriers and thresholds, but the final barrier, I believe, is photo real human empathetic performance and we did that. So, we are there. Pretty much anything you can imagine you can do. Now we got to find out how to make it cheaper. So all of our focus is on how to make our process more efficient, more intuitive, more filmmaker friendly, more actor friendly, and cheaper."
With three versions of the film available on the new Blu-ray, an audience member asked Cameron, what he would suggest is the most enjoyable way to watch the movie? "It is up to the individual viewer, what they want, what their appetite is," answered Cameron. "I think it is very important that the originally released version, which is the Academy Award nominated version, exist on all future disk sets. It should never be supplanted by alternatives. So it exists. If you want to see it the way you saw it in the movie theaters exactly, you may. If you want to see the nine-minute version, and you don't have an extra sixteen-minutes because you have a long day tomorrow, you can. I am guessing people that want a longer version will jump right to the sixteen-minute minute longer version. But these are what are available, the two that were in release and this new version. So we are just giving people options and you know some people may not want to just sit and see a completely different version of the movie. That might be upsetting to them. Everyone can choose what he or she wants. If you want to pause it and go get a beer, its something you can do on Blu-ray. A sixteen-minute longer version may not have played in the movie theater. We don't know? We still don't know the answer to that. We don't know what the upper boundary is for sitting with 3D glasses on before your eyes start to bleed. We just don't have that data yet," explained Cameron.
Finally, Cameron was asked if he thinks that in the wrong hands, Hollywood could do some real damage with the technology that he has helped to create and make available? "You can see the wrong applications of just about everything we hopefully tried to do right. You have seen 3D done wrong before and after Avatar. I think you will see it done wrong for a long time. Hopefully there will be enough good examples that standards will be created," said Cameron. "The fact is that if people are paying for a premium ticket at movie theaters, and if they are paying a premium price for a 3D TV set at home, then they are probably going to pay a premium price for a 3D channel coming into their home. But that is going to require those standards are met. We have a lot of work to do in terms of training people and teaching people good 3D practices. How do you use the cameras and have better quality? Any new technology can be abused. Performance capture will probably be abused. The example is, wouldn't you want to see Marilyn Monroe in a movie? Yeah, but she's dead! If she were alive now and wanted to play herself younger, that would be great. That would be cool. We could all get behind that. If Clint Eastwood wanted to play Dirty Harry one more time from the 70s, that would be great. But, the power has to come from the actor. That is my philosophy, my set of guidelines. But I can't guarantee other people won't abuse this technology," the director said in closing.