James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ challenge

Helmer pushes technology for his vision

Calling James Cameron ambitious is an understatement. Try maniacally motivated to boldly go where no filmmaker has gone before.

For his socially conscious sci-fi adventure “Avatar,” the director waited 15 years for new technologies to catch up to his audacious vision. He developed much of the camera system and digital tools with his own team of collaborators, investing some $14 million. He pushed the boundaries of what was possible in the creation of nuanced CG characters and stayed committed to the 3D format when there were no assurances the exhibition industry would be ready for it. “There was almost nothing simple on this movie,” says Cameron, who has called the film the “most challenging” he’s ever made.

But Cameron thrives on challenges. As actor Bill Paxton told the New Yorker, “The words ‘No’ and ‘That’s impossible’ and phrases like ‘That can’t be done’ — that’s the stuff that gives him an erection.”

According to Cameron, when he started making “Terminator 2,” “We didn’t exactly know how we were going to do the liquid metal guy, but we figured it out. Same thing with ‘The Abyss.’ But this was clearly a case where I was gonna have to wait for a while.”

Cameron wrote the “Avatar” script before making “Titanic” as an intended follow-up. “I gave Digital Domain two years to figure out how to do it,” he says, referring to the special effects company. “I figured that was enough time. Wrong. Cut to two years later, and everybody’s like, ‘No, no, no, we’re not ready yet. We need to let the art mature.’ And it wasn’t just Digital Domain: The industry at large needed to build a lot more tools in CG character creation.”

There was also the minor issue of using new technologies alongside actual flesh-and-blood actors, who, lest we forget, are as crucial to the success of “Avatar” as creating credible 9-foot-tall blue natives and luminescent flora. “Part of it was making it a safe place,” says Cameron. For Sam Worthington, that sometimes meant “kickin’ the shit out of the set until he got mad enough to feel what he needed to feel,” the director says.