Back at the helm

Cameron ready to captain bigscreen sci-fier

This article was updated at 10:00p.m.

After six years at sea, James Cameron is plotting his return to the megaplex.

The director of “Titanic,” the biggest box office hit of all time, is preparing his next studio feature, a sci-fi film he hopes to shoot for 20th Century Fox later this year with high-definition 3-D video cameras.

Cameron announced his plans Tuesday night at an appearance at ArcLight Hollywood after a screening of “Terminator 2.” He was tight-lipped about the title and concept during a Q&A session but described the feature as a “big-budget science-fiction film with a pile of special effects.”

“When I see a movie like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films and I see what’s possible with digital effects now, I can’t resist,” Cameron said. “I’ve got to come and play because there are some really cool images that I was never able to do before that I want to do now.”

Cameron said the sci-fi feature will be shot using the Reality Camera System, the patented 3-D camera rig used for “Ghosts of the Abyss,” his Imax docu about the Titanic, distributed last year by Disney. Cameron developed the rig with Vince Pace, a cinematographer and undersea filmmaker.

Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, has a first-look deal at Fox. John Landau, Cameron’s partner at Lightstorm, declined to speculate about how the project will be financed. But he noted that Fox Sports has begun testing the camera system and said Fox will likely distribute the sci-fi pic.

At the ArcLight gathering, Cameron said the Reality Camera System was “one of the more powerful experiences you can have in a theater. It’s also daunting from the filmmaker’s standpoint.” His decision to use the system for a studio feature was “based on three years of pretty intensive R&D image analysis.”

The “T2” screening was one of several recent public appearances in which Cameron has signaled a desire to end his long sojourn spent shooting documentaries and to harness his experiments with new technologies for a full-blown studio feature.

Cameron hinted at the untitled sci-fi project Saturday when he was presented with the Producers Guild’s Vanguard Award at the Century Plaza Hotel.

But Cameron’s most explicit commentary came at the ArcLight appearance, before an audience of dedicated fans, in the context of a conversation about “Terminator 2,” a film whose digital morphing technologies helped changed the face of special f/x.

“Even though this film is known for computer graphics, the effects were just arrows in the quiver,” Cameron said. “In ‘Terminator 2,’ there were 47 CG shots. In ‘Return of the King,’ there were more than 1,400.”

“Terminator 2” and “Titanic” broke box office records, but they also set new standards for production spending, helping to usher in an era of towering special-effects budgets. Sources at major f/x houses said Lightstorm doesn’t yet appear to have shopped the film to vendors.

Landau declined to say more about the project, but he did rule out a few possibilities. It’s not “Avatar,” an undersea sci-fi project that’s been linked to Cameron. It’s also not “The Dive,” a project about freediver Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras and wife Audrey Mestre, set up at Fox. Landau said Cameron intends to direct “The Dive,” but it won’t be his next feature.

Since “Titanic,” Cameron has directed “Ghost of the Abyss” and a documentary about German battleship the Bismark.

He’s now finishing another Imax docu, “Extreme Life,” which also will be released by Disney.

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