Beyond B.O. glory, a man who pushes the medium

Sheer box office success would probably get James Cameron over the bar for the PGA’s Milestone Award, which honors “an individual (or team) who has made historic contributions to the entertainment industry.”

But Cameron’s hits have been more than a gold seam for Hollywood. He has pushed the boundaries of filmmaking, first with digital effects (“The Abyss,” “Terminator 2″), then by combining digital vfx with sophisticated engineering (“Titanic”), and more recently, with “Avatar,” adding stereoscopic 3D and performance-capture animation to the mix to create a world of such beauty and power some viewers became depressed when reentering their own lives again.

All this while delivering hits that not only racked up huge grosses, but stoked unusual passion in fans as well.

“For me, the way it’s always worked is, I’m just earnest,” Cameron told Variety in the midst of the “Avatar” media whirlwind. “I’m not trying to be cool. I’m not trying to do cool dialogue. I’m just trying to earnestly tell the story. There’s something about that formula, about being earnest, to an audience, that they actually appreciate.”

He calls that storytelling style “a kind of Zen simplicity,” but it also recognizes the reality of the way he works. He helms epic movies that cost a fortune to make and another fortune to market. They have to make a couple of fortunes, then, to turn a profit. And while Cameron’s detractors call him a lot of names, “money-loser” isn’t among them.

“A movie like ‘Avatar’ … has gotta play,” says Cameron in response to those who accuse him of ham-fisted storytelling. “It’s gotta play in different cultures, it’s gotta play in different languages, and a lot of the subtlety of writing gets lost at that language barrier,” he says. “And you don’t know what’s coming out the other side. So you have to be really clear. I’m not just writing for an English audience, I’m writing for a Japanese audience, I’m writing for a Russian audience, I’m writing for a Chinese audience, you know.

“I don’t care what the critics say about the writing, as long as the audience gets it.”

“Avatar” was the longest 3D feature ever released, by far — and therefore a considerable risk. Nobody really knew until the picture began to screen whether auds’ could stomach such an extended exposure to stereo images.

While his faith in 3D has been vindicated, he’s not done campaigning for change. He’s talked of directing or producing a straight drama in 3D, just to show the business 3D isn’t just for tentpoles. He’s also pushing for higher frame rates to get clearer images and to reduce strobing on pans. “You could probably make a non-3D movie look almost as good as a 3D movie by shooting it at 48 frames a second,” he says. “If you couple 3D with higher frame rate, you’ll blow people’s minds.”

More on the PGA Awards:
PGA honors Rudin | PGA solidifies its credit standard | Cameron earns PGA Milestone | ‘Stand Up’ woman lauded | PGA fetes Hanks, Goetzman

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