"Avatar" producer Jon Landau embraces star Zoe Saldana at July's San Diego Comic-Con 2009 (Shea Walsh/AP Images for Ubisoft)
For years, mention of writer-director James Cameron's much-anticipated 3-D sci-fi project, "AVATAR" was often followed by two other words: "Game changer." Today, thousands of eager filmgoers will begin to decide for themselves. (To see the teaser trailer, click HERE.)
Cameron and 20th Century Fox have promoted Friday as international "Avatar Day," as they screen an extended trailer for the film in selected theaters worldwide, including in about 100 IMAX theaters in the United States. The studio distributed those free tickets online this week (the offer crashed the movie site, and the tickets were reportedly going for as much as $40 on Craigslist). A preview of the film -- to be released in December -- also was scheduled to be shown in theaters today, and an online trailer was to be made available. (You want hot anticipation? Some viewers were already dissecting two minutes of leaked footage on Thursday, and "Avatar" was one of the top trending topics on Twitter.)
Comic Riffs screened about 25 minutes of the film at last month's San Diego Comic-Con, where Cameron -- dressed fittingly in all-blue -- discussed the film on a panel that included stars Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver. The footage revealed the blue-tinted race of Na'vi people battling on the planet Pandora; the cavernous hall of some 6,000 "fanboys" buzzed over the footage, though there was no roar of consensus yet. The film was beautiful and yet -- with only limited, out-of-context footage -- so much about the film still seemed elusive and mysterious.
Right before the July screening, Comic Riffs sat on a San Diego Convention Center terrace and discussed the vision behind making this film with "Avatar" producer JON LANDAU, who's worked with Cameron since the Oscar-winning "Titanic" more than a decade ago.
MICHAEL CAVNA: So we've heard so much hype and anticipation surrounding "Avatar" for at least a couple of years now -- that this is the film that will spur most theater owners to convert to 3D capability. So, what will we see in "Avatar" -- will it live up to the hype and anticipation?
JON LANDAU: I'm going to let you and the public decide how to qualify the movie. What the movie, virtually, is supposed to deliver is a much more engaging and immersive experience -- in a world unlike anything you've ever seen before. And I think that's what makes it exciting, because it has a great story -- that's what it starts with. When we made "Titanic," we told people that we were using special effects to make people feel like a part of history. On ["Avatar"], we want to take you to another world.
MC: To transport the viewer.
JL: Exactly. What Jim [Cameron] has done is [to have] themes that are relevant to today, right here.
MC: In what ways?
JL: In ways like -- Number one: There's a hero inside every one of us. I think that's something we can all [agree on]. There's a line ... where one of the characters says: "What made you think you could come out here?" He's a paraplegic with no training. [And the line plays on being] sick of doctors! ... I don't care whether you're 6 or 16 or 60, we ALL feel that. There are themes about: Don't judge a book by its color. Themes about foreign policy. ... These are things that everybody can relate to.
MC: It's great to see Sigourney Weaver in this, so many years after the "Alien" films [in which she played Ripley]. Did you have her in mind all along for "Avatar"?
JL: We didn't initially focus on Sigourney. The character's name [originally] was Grace Shipley -- too close to Ripley. When we cast Sigourney ... the character took on more definition. [Sigourney] centered the piece and she fell in love with it because of what the movie does with her character. She's been there every step of the way. And it's great to see them [Cameron and Weaver] coming back together. They have a shorthand with each other. I think either one would do anything for the other.
MC: And what about Zoe Saldana? Did you have any idea that she would be coming off such commercial and critical heat for "Star Trek"?
JL: I think J.J. [Abrams] might have seen some of our material -- and [laughing] that might have led to that. Likewise, I think that we might have seen some of [their] material. ... I think what we were so impressed with, with Zoe, is her ability to bring a total performance -- from toe to head -- in everythig she's doing. Because it's important to us that the Na'vi characters be of the world of Pandora and the world of the movie. She totally -- her whole body is that character. The range or performance -- there are things where you go: "Where did that come from?" Because when you meet her, you don't think that there's so much dynamite inside. And she'll just explode. But in a natural way. So we saw her and really, once we saw her, there was no other choice.
James Cameron on the set of his upcoming film "Avatar." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Mark Fellman)
MC: Jim [Cameron] has been quoted as saying that this film was a vision he's had for 14 years, but that technology needed to catchup before he made it.
MC: Now that he apparently has the technology, where will "Avatar" take us as an experience?
JL: The goal of "Avatar" is that technology can make you forget about technology. ... Creating The WORLD of "Avatar," we could have done at any point over the past 14 years. But being able to put engaging and emotive characters in the center of that world -- I think this is the first time it's really be done [in this way]. Where you are just captivated by the characters. You see the actors' performances come to you. And there's a THERE there, to their roles. That was what we were waiting for that time to happen. Where we could be the impetus to push the narrative. Movies ultimately are not about the scale and scope. Movies are about the person.
MC: So how long have you worked with Jim?
JL: I've been with Jim since the [mid-'90s] "Titanic" days.
MC: By the way, when the Titanic set was being built off the coast of Mexico, I read that the ship was built to 9/10ths scale, as opposed to full scale. Curious, all these year later: Is that true?
JL: It wasn't really to 9/10ths scale. What it was, was -- we built 9/10ths of the ship. We were able to shorten it up a bit.
MC: So some theater owners retrofitted and will be able to show "Avatar" in 3-D -- but it'll be available in 3-D and 2-D, right?
JL: The movie will be available in 3-D, 2-D, 1-D and No-D. I think 3-D is the ultimate way to see the movie. ... I tell people that when they first saw "Star Wars" in the theater, they probably saw it in mono sound. It did not hurt that experience. You've got to make a great movie first. The thing that what theater owners are finding is that the 3-D experience gives you something to take with you. And it really does provide a more engaging and immersive experience. I think that 3-D ultimately will become ubiquitous. Similar to maybe the way black-and-white [evolved] to color. People think it happened overnight. The first color films, I think, were in the 1930s.
MC: Like "Wizard of Oz" in '39, which of course was largely in color.
JL: Right. But it took until the 1960s for [the change-over to be complete]. We live our lives in 3-D. We live our lives in front of monitors and all these things. When you think about: Windows are a 3-D platform. ... One window behind another. Ultimately. it's all naturally giong to happen.
MC: So -- in layman's terms -- how is your 3-D technology different from, say, DreamWorks's' 3-D technology or someone else's 3-D?
JL: I think there's a philosophical approach to 3-D more than a technological approach to 3-D. What we try and do is mimic human vision. By that I mean, what humans have to do -- if you're looking at dynamic convergence control, with dynamic inter-ocular control -- they are putting the strain that used to be on the audience, they are putting that into the "capture" process. ... Hey, look -- there are a lot of different ways to do it. I think one of the keys is this inter-ocular contorl -- the distance between the two camera lenses. If you put them in one [camera] body, you don't have that -- to get the kind of quality that we're able to get.
MC: We hear it's long -- so what will "Avatar's" ultimate running time be?
JL: It will be an epic movie.
MC: So to get it down to "epic" from "uber-epic" in the cutting room, do you know: Has it been painful, or perhaps organic?
JL:It's been organic. Jim is always about the audience: "What is that in-theater experience like for people." That's why I think he's one of the best directors. He's not doing something he thought up in pre-production and forcing it onto the process. The process evolves. When he sits in the theater, he "gets" it. As we've watched cuts of the movie over the last several months, you make changes, you make adjustments. It's really taking great shape.
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