James Cameron on 3-D

'Avatar' director busts stereo myths

Director James Cameron’s upcoming “Avatar” must rank as one of the most anticipated film projects in recent memory. His first narrative film since making the No. 1 box office hit of all time, 1997’s “Titanic,” “Avatar” will be the realization of Cameron’s long-held dream of melding digital 3-D stereo with epic bigscreen storytelling. Variety‘s David S. Cohen conducted this email interview with Cameron, which is the director’s most extensive exploration of 3-D to date.

(Click here for an online-only extended version of this interview.)

You’ve worked in 3-D before and have been an evangelist for this technology. As a storyteller and director, what does 3-D add to the creative side of a project?

I believe that Godard got it exactly backwards. Cinema is not truth 24 times a second, it is lies 24 times a second. Actors are pretending to be people they’re not. Day for night, dry for wet, Vancouver for New York, potato shavings for snow. It’s all illusion, but the prize goes to those who make the fantasy the most real, the most visceral, the most involving.

This sensation of truthfulness is vastly enhanced by the stereoscopic illusion. Especially in the types of films which have been my specialty to date, the fantasy experience is served best by a sense of detail and textural reality supporting the narrative moment by moment. The characters, the dialogue, the production design, photography and visual effects must all strive to give the illusion that what you’re seeing is really happening, no matter how improbable the situation might be if you stopped to think about it — a time-traveling cyborg out to change history by killing a waitress, for example.

When you see a scene in 3-D, that sense of reality is supercharged. The visual cortex is being cued, at a subliminal but pervasive level, that what is being seen is real. All the films I’ve done previously could absolutely have benefited from 3-D. So, creatively, I see 3-D as a natural extension of my cinematic craft.

A 3-D film immerses you in the scene, with a greatly enhanced sense of physical presence and participation. When most people think of 3-D films, they think first of the gimmick shots — objects or characters flying, floating or poking out into the audience. In fact, in a good stereo movie, these shots should be the exception rather than the rule.

Watching a stereo movie is looking into an alternate reality through a window. It is intuitive to the film industry that this immersive quality is perfect for action, fantasy and animation.

What’s less obvious is that the enhanced sense of presence and realism works in all types of scenes, even intimate dramatic moments. Which is not to say that all films should be made in 3-D, because the returns may not warrant the costs in many cases, but certainly there should be no creative reason why any film could not be shot in 3-D and benefit from it.

The new 3-D, this stereo renaissance, not only solves all the old problems of bad projection, eyestrain, etc., but it is being used on first-class movies that are on people’s must-see lists. These are fundamental changes from what happened with the flash-in-the-pan 3-D craze of the ’50s. 3-D is also a chance to rewrite the rules, to raise ticket prices for a tangible reason, for demonstrable value-added.

As the film’s director, how do you handle shooting material for trailers, TV commercials and other media where you can’t count on 3-D being available?

All films are made to serve many masters. Every director knows his film will be seen by more people on DVD or network TV on a small screen than in a theater. Does that change the way we direct? Not much. First and foremost, the film must be a good movie. The 3-D should always be thought of as a turbocharger, an enhancer, to a work whose raison d’etre is vested in its story, its characters, its style, etc.

Before I decided to make a major movie in 3-D, I had to resolve to my own satisfaction that the 3-D would not degrade in any measurable way the 2-D viewing experience. Only when I had done enough 3-D production and testing to answer these questions was I willing to proceed.

I don’t think the economics of 3-D are clear yet, and won’t be for a few years. I think it is a mistake under any circumstances to make a film which is dependent on 3-D for its success, either aesthetically or commercially. The film should not be marketed first and foremost as a 3-D experience. The film should be sold on its merits, and the consumer should be informed that they can purchase the experience in 2-D or, for a couple extra bucks, in 3-D. It should be like ordering at Starbucks. Lots of choices. If the new media of the last decade has taught us anything, it is that people like choices, and they like control.

How do you shoot differently for 3-D?

On “Avatar,” I have not consciously composed my shots differently for 3-D. I am just using the same style I always do. In fact, after the first couple of weeks, I stopped looking at the shots in 3-D while I was working, even though the digital cameras allow real-time stereo viewing.

Having said that, I am not above milking a good 3-D moment, as long as it doesn’t interrupt the narrative flow.

There are a couple of minor adjustments that need to be made to lighting and camera placement to create a smooth and unobtrusive stereo experience. But once you learn these few tricks, you stop thinking much about them.

I compose the shots on a 2-D monitor, while in the back of my mind I’m imagining it in 3-D. That way I know I’m always making a good 2-D movie as I go along. I also edit in 2-D, for the same reason.

How about the way actors work or the way you work with actors?

I made it my mission to keep the 3-D out of the actors’ consciousness completely. Every once in a while, one of them would go over to the theater and watch some dailies and come back wide-eyed. But it really didn’t change a thing they were doing on set.

We’ve been told that “Citizen Kane” was a great example of how to shoot for 3-D: great depth of field, wide-angle lenses, etc.

I think it’s a myth that you want deep focus in 3-D shots. I find the opposite is true. With 3-D, the director needs to lead the audience’s eye, not let it roam around the screen to areas which are not converged. So all the usual cinematic techniques of selective focus, separation lighting, composition, etc., that one would use in a 2-D film to direct the eye to the subject of interest, still apply, and are perhaps even more important.

Every time I watch a movie lately, from “300” to “Atonement,” I think how wonderful it would have been if shot in 3-D.

How does 3-D change the way you cut a film? The current trend toward very quick cutting, so popular now in action films, seems not to work in 3-D. Or does it?

The new cameras allow complete control over the stereospace. You should think of interocular like volume. You can turn the 3-D up or down, and do it smoothly on the fly during a shot. So if you know you’re in a scene which will require very fast cuts, you turn the stereo down and you can cut fast and smoothly. The point here is that just because you’re making a stereo movie doesn’t mean that stereo is the most important thing in every shot or sequence. If you choose to do rapid cutting, then the motion of the subject from shot to shot to shot is more important than the perception of stereospace at that moment in the film. So sacrifice the stereospace and enjoy the fast cutting. Stereo is just another color to paint with.

Right now, 3-D is pretty much being used for films that have some spectacle in them; nobody’s talking about using it for domestic dramas. But does 3-D change the experience of watching actors act?

I plan to shoot a small dramatic film in 3-D, just to prove this point, after “Avatar.” In “Avatar,” there are a number of scenes that are straight dramatic scenes, no action, no effects. They play very well, and in fact seem to be enhanced by the stereo viewing experience. So I think this can work for the full length of a dramatic feature.

How important is it to work in an all 3-D post-production pipeline?

You don’t need to be in 3-D at every step of the way. I cut on a normal Avid, and only when the scene is fine cut do we output left and right eye video tracks to the server in the screening room and check the cut for stereo. A shot is judged on the merits of performance, operating, lighting, etc., and not 3-D. I think this is a healthy approach.

There are already calls to increase the frame rate to at least 30 frames per second for digital 3-D because certain camera moves, especially pans, look jumpy in 3-D. You’ve been an advocate for both 3-D and higher frame rates. What do you think is the solution?

For three-fourths of a century of 2-D cinema, we have grown accustomed to the strobing effect produced by the 24-frames-per-second display rate. When we see the same thing in 3-D, it stands out more, not because it is intrinsically worse, but because all other things have gotten better. Suddenly the image looks so real, it’s like you’re standing there in the room with the characters, but when the camera pans, there is this strange motion artifact. It’s like you never saw it before, when in fact it’s been hiding in plain sight the whole time. Some people call it judder, others strobing. I call it annoying. It’s also easily fixed.

Our current generation of digital projectors can currently run up to 144 frames per second, and they are still being improved. So right now, today, we could be shooting 2-D movies at 48 frames and running them at that speed. This alone would make 2-D movies look astonishingly clear and sharp, at very little extra cost, with equipment that’s already installed or being installed. I’ve run tests on 48 frame per second stereo and it is stunning. The cameras can do it, the projectors can (with a small modification) do it.

So why aren’t we doing it, as an industry? Because people have been asking the wrong question for years. They have been so focused on resolution, and counting pixels and lines, that they have forgotten about frame rate. A 2K image at 48 frames per second looks as sharp as a 4K image at 24 frames per second … with one fundamental difference: the 4K/24 image will judder miserably during a panning shot, and the 2K/48 won’t.

If every single digital theater was perceived by the audience as being equivalent to Imax or Showscan in image quality, which is readily achievable with off-the-shelf technology now, running at higher frame rates, then isn’t that the same kind of marketing hook as 3-D itself? Something you can’t get at home. An aspect of the film that you can’t pirate.

Of course, the ideal format is 3-D/2K/48 fps projection. I’d love to have done ‘Avatar’ at 48 frames. But I have to fight these battles one at a time. I’m just happy people are waking up to 3-D.

Maybe on “Avatar 2.”

It’s turning out that 3-D that’s optimized for one screen size doesn’t look right if the screen size gets a lot bigger or smaller. Technologists are talking about the need to turn down the stereo for big screens and turn it up for small screens as a movie goes through its life cycle at a multiplex and then on to homevideo.

I don’t agree with this at all. I think the effect you are describing has more to do with the fact that people tend to sit farther from monitors than they do from cinema screens, when calculated as a ratio of viewer distance to screen width. I certainly would never change the stereospace of a film to fit different screen sizes. In fact, for photographic films, it can’t be changed. The interocular is set at the moment of photography. People will tell you they can fix it later, in post, by changing the convergence, but they are wrong.

As for 3-D in the home: The only limitation to having stereo viewing in the home is the number of titles currently available. The technology exists and is straightforward. It should be remembered that good 3-D requires a more immersive relationship between audience and screen. Unless you’re willing to sit within four feet of a 50-inch monitor, which only a few geeks (like me) will do in a home setting, then you’re not going to get the same bang for the buck out of a 3-D movie on a home system as you would in a theater, regardless of whether the resolution of the image is the same. So there may always be a greater distinction between seeing a 3-D movie at home vs. seeing a 2-D movie at home. Which is good. Because 3-D then becomes a technology which will help preserve the health of the theatrical exhibition business in a time when it is besieged.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that 10 or 15 years from now, stereo displays will be ubiquitous, from cinemas to open-air advertising, to home screens and down to handheld devices. It may be that eventually all of our news and information, as well as our sports and entertainment, will come to us in stereo.

In the future world shown in “Avatar,” all display devices, including handheld devices and even photos, are all in 3-D.

We evolved to see in 3-D for a reason. It made us better hunters, or allowed us to spot and avoid predators. Why wouldn’t we want this Darwinian edge in our workplace, in our sports and entertainment, in all our peak visual experiences?

You know what I think.

— Jim out.

James Cameron helped develop the 3-D camera rigs used on “Journey 3-D,” which will be the subject of a case study in the NAB Content Theater on Monday.

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