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James Cameron Fought the Studio to Keep His Aliens Weird in "Avatar"

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We got a few minutes with Comic Con's king of the world, James Cameron, and he had plenty to say about Avatar's blue creatures. Find out whether Na'Vi gills are sexy, and how he fought to keep them alien.

How do you think people are going to react to Avatar?

[People] Better be ready to go blue, I guess. We spent a lot of time on the character design and we based it on the actors. We found out in our very early testing - and this is going back almost four years - that the closer the face was to the actor playing the character, the better the performance translated. In other words, it didn't have to be interpreted by too much animation. So when we actually cast this film, we were looking at [the actors] and making sure that it was a face that we wanted. In other words, we originally had this conceived (as): this is the character, it doesn't have to look like the actor, but that didn't turn out to be the case.

Let's say in the case of Zoe, for example. In theory, she doesn't appear in the film. But we wanted the character to be based on her - on her, the way her mouth an face and eyes look. Then we just kinda stretched... Her eyes are four times the size of the human eyeball, they're huge. But we knew that being driven by the performance that she did, it was still her heart and soul, which was the critical thing. I think after the first few minutes, you forget that they're blue.


How alien are these creatures?

It was a fine line to walk, between making them too alien. When some early images started to leak, and even with the banners, you know some of the fans are starting to say, "Gee, I thought they'd look more alien if you're gonna through all this trouble to CG everything." But If it wasn't a love story, if it was more a story about first contact with an alien race, I think it would be. But this is really more a story about assimilation, and Jake becoming one of them. And starting to see through the eyes of people who are culturally different. Plus it's a love story. So the physiological differences — the more alien we make them in the design phase, we just kept asking ourselves — basically, the crude version is: "Well, would you wanna do it?" And our all-male crew of artists would basically say, "Nope, take the gills out." It was pretty simple, but then taken in a very specific degree.


The Stan Wintson studio guys, who I'd worked with since Terminator, were brought in at that point to take the rough designs and really fine-tune them and do the busts, do the casts of the actor's faces.

We had done casts from the actors' faces, we did Sam's face, Zoe's, and CCH Pounder, who played Zoe's character's mom. There's a whole family... Because we wanted to capture them in the characters, but make the characters still emphasize the animal and the alien. The idea was, when we go to meet the future mother- and father-in-law, we want them to be scary and freaky. So the older Na'Vi are a little stranger than the younger Navi.

But we never asked ourselves the question, What if people won't accept it? I think that's the huge advantage of actually being a geek/fan yourself, but you just don't ask yourself questions like that. I mean, the studio guys — god love 'em, they signed up to write a big check for this movie. They backed our play 100%, all the way down the line. They would ask questions like, "Do they need to be blue?" "Do they need to have a tail?" things like that. And I thought, "Well, yeah, course they do."

How did you create this world?

Well you know, this [Avatar] has just been generating in fragments for years, even since the mid-70s when I was first sort of trying my hand at screenwriting. I was creating stories with spacecraft and other worlds and some of these creatures are actually the distant descendants of [those stories] through a long, Darwinian process. The bioluminescent world — I wrote a script called Xenogenesis that never got made. But it had a bioluminescent world in it. And I didn't even mention the transition point from being a fan reader of science fiction to actually putting them in scenes.


And so when I sat down as the CEO of Digital Domain in 1995, to package a story that would push us ahead in 3-D character development, I just took all these floating, kind of, fragments, I had already written story fragments, prior and when I got the gig to write Alien 2, I just grabbed a bunch of stuff I'd already been thinking about and slammed it together. It felt very, kind of mercenary at the time, I was just throwing crap at it, you know. But what happens is over time, you write it, you massage it, you improve it.

Where does Comic Con fit in with all of this? Where does Hall H [where they screened the footage] fit in?


Hall H fits, in the sense that it's a great launch and I wanna go through all of the Twitt-o-sphere later, and see what people are saying. We'll get some direct feedback from knowledgeable fans, you know, that don't have to be educated all the way up to understanding the movie. They can sort of look at it and *pow* I get it. And they'll get the references and things like that so I think that feedback could be really valuable. I mean, we're still cutting the picture.

These scenes won't change, probably, but there are other scenes we're still finalizing, that are still being massaged into place. And we're not talking about big cuts, but you know we still have a chance to shape it and shape the response. The other thing is, when you live with something over a total creative arc of, in this case, 14 years, you start to take certain things or granted that you understand so fundamentally that you got to remember people coming in cold, they're starting from zero. So I want to make sure that I haven't left anything out in terms of making sure that the story is fully accessible to everybody. Not just the fan audience, but a wider audience.


By fan audience, I mean somebody that knows all the references, knows all the other films. [Someone who is] steeped in the lore. [But at the same time] a construction worker, or somebody's mom — if they go see it, you've got to make a movie for everybody so it has to operate on a very visceral level of universal human archetype, if you will.

And the story's really designed for that because it's really a classic story, it's not a timely story in the sense that "Matrix" was a very timely story, it needed to evolve out of, sort of the cyberpunk era and just sort of the way the internet was changing human consciousness globally - Matrix comes out of that.


This story, it could have been written in the '30s. It could have been and Edgar Rice Burroughs-type story or a Rudyard Kipling story, or a western. But it's an adventure story, a guy from one culture dropped into another culture and I think it's universal.

How have you dealt with the pressure with this movie?

You've gotta eat pressure for breakfast, if you're gonna do this job. When I was making Terminator and I had zero street-cred, nobody knew who I was, couldn't get a call back from the lowest agent in Hollywood, I was under tremendous pressure to perform. Because I had to break in, I had to be a diamond-sharp drill, going through the door into Hollywood. So when does the pressure ever stop? I don't think it does. I think the stakes go up; you start playing with more money, you're bringing more money to the table and I think that pressure makes you good. You keep it always in the back of your mind.


So ... on the one hand I think the pressure's a good thing because it makes you really think about what you're doing, makes you really think about your audience. You're not making a very personal statement, like you would in a novel, you're making a movie. And you're making it at a budget level that's got to appeal to a broad audience. And I think you got to ask yourself a lot of hard questions, while you're making it. At the same time, you can't make a movie for everyone because that's the kiss of death. You've got to make a movie for yourself, so I think what I've found over the years that I'm enough of a fan and that I share a certain base response with people that like science fiction and fantasy films the same way I liked them when I was a kid. Like Seven Voyages of Sinbad, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I want somebody in a theater seat someplace to feel like I felt when I saw that stuff for the first time and it blew my mind. If I can do that, that's the biggest thrill there is.