James Cameron and Peter Jackson on making films in the age of technology.

Dec. 21 2009 7:07 AM

"It's About Storytelling. It's About Humans Playing Humans."

James Cameron and Peter Jackson on making films in the age of technology.

This conversation appears in Newsweek's "Interview" issue. To read more of the magazine's interviews with the year's biggest newsmakers, go to Newsweek.com.

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Cameron: They always say pioneers are those guys flying on planes with arrows in their backs. 3-D will find its place. It's like color. Color didn't affect the career of a single actor. And then people will find out about the intimacy to 3-D that can add to a dramatic film that's not even on the radar of the Hollywood studios right now.

Jackson: I find personally that within 10 minutes I forget that it's in 3-D, in a good way. The only thing about 3-D is the dullness of the image. But that's a relatively simple technical hurdle to overcome. It's just brightening the image.

Cameron: It's already been overcome. The new technology has already solved the light-level problem. We think it looks fantastic.

Jackson: How far away are we from taking glasses out of the 3-D equation?

Cameron: I've seen displays at a laptop size and a relatively modest plasma size that work quite well. You have to situate your head to the sweet spot so you don't get the double image. But people are always turning the laptop display to get the best image. I can imagine three or four years from now an iPhone that's 3-D-enabled that doesn't require glasses that you can watch a movie on. Certainly laptops will be here before that. I think the ones that succeed in the marketplace are the ones that initially make their sets, their displays, to be able to use the glasses. If you're going to do a Super Bowl party you're going to have a bowl of glasses on your coffee table, and they're going to be the disposable kind. And then eventually I think the glasses have to go away for home use. I think that will happen within five years.

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Jackson: I'm seeing there's a lot of misunderstanding about motion capture at the moment.

Cameron: The irony is that one of the first examples of motion capture that worked so beautifully is Gollum in the second and third of your films. Suddenly this new idea had burst on the scene, that a quasi-human creature could be created with such heart and soul.

Jackson: With Gollum and Kong, the key thing that we did was the eyes. I think Gollum and Kong represented the best eyes that I've seen in a CGI film.

Cameron: The experience of creating a soulful performance is through the eyes: knowing how to rig eyes, how to light for eyes, get the reflections and refractions in the eyes. Of course, we had big-eyed characters, which we did on purpose. We couldn't accomplish the character we're doing in Avatar through any kind of makeup means. That's been explored for 30 years of Star Trek and Star Wars. But I think the thing I hope that the media can convey to audiences is that this is an actor-driven process. Nayteri, in my film, for example—she is what Zoe [Saldana] created 100 percent. Initially I thought we want to keep the technique under wraps. We don't want to pull the curtain aside and show people how we've done this; we just want to show you my magic. But I've recently changed my tune. I want people to see a side-by-side image of Nayteri in a scene and Zoe doing the scene, so they understand that it's a physical and facial performance. Zoe took months of training at archery and martial arts, so she could move a certain way and have a certain grace. It's something she created that just translated to her character. This is a highly actor-driven process.

Jackson: Actors will never be replaced. The thought that somehow a computer version of a character is going to be something people prefer to look at is a ludicrous idea. It's just paranoia. What is great, when you would have used prosthetic makeup, you have motion capture to do a more emotive version. That's great for nonhuman characters, but in terms of creating nonhuman beings—why on earth would anyone want to do that? It's so expensive. It's 20 times more than an actor's going to cost.

Cameron: The other thing that people aren't talking about, you can take an actor of a given age, and you can transform their age. Additive makeup can age somebody, but it's hard to make someone younger. Let's say you have a novelistic storyline where you cast an actor in their 40s, but the first time you see them they're 15 years old and the last time you see them they're 80. This is the Benjamin Button idea. Clint Eastwood could do another Dirty Harry movie and look the way he looked in the '70s. He would still be making all the performance choices. It would be his voice. We'd just make him 30 years younger. If I did Titanic today, I'd do it very differently. There wouldn't be a 750-foot-long set. There would be small set pieces integrated into a large CGI set. I wouldn't have to wait seven days to get the perfect sunset for the kiss scene. We'd shoot it in front of a green screen, and we'd choose our sunset.

Jackson: There are all great tools that people haven't quite gotten their heads around yet. But one of the things that has happened [is that] people focus on technology. Probably the film industry has been guilty; there's more attention spent on the technical aspects than the story. That's led to a self-fulfilling prophecy. People regard CGI as a gimmick, they almost blame CGI for a bad story or a bad script. They talk about CGI as if it's responsible for a drop in standards. We've gotten to a point now where there isn't nothing else we haven't seen. We've seen dinosaurs, we've seen aliens; with Avatar we've seen realistic creatures. I think we're going to enter a phase where there's less interest in the CGI and there's a demand for story again. I think we've dropped the ball a little bit on stories for the sake of the amazing toys that we've played with.

Cameron: I think you're right. What's interesting in the marketing evolution of Avatar is that we put out a teaser trailer that was all about the imagery, and people were less than satisfied, because they weren't learning enough about the story. We put out a story trailer that set the stage and told you what the main character was, and all of a sudden people were wildly excited about the movie. There's the proof within the marketing evolution of a single film.

Slate V: Cameron on-set

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