We caught up with Avatar producer Jon Landau to discuss making James Cameron's vision a reality.

Space Odyssey

on November 17, 2009 by Amy Nicholson


Producer Jon Landau is credited with helping to steer Titanic to worldwide success when advance buzz had doomed it to the iceberg. His latest project with writer-director James Cameron is even more ambitious. Yet one of Landau's biggest challenges during the four-and-a-half years of production work on Avatar wasn't just inventing a world, concocting a language, and blazing new trails in digital technology. The hard part was not being able to share the work he and James Cameron had done to swoop audiences into the center of the fight for planet Pandora's future. But now, finally on the cusp of the release, Landau opens up to B OXOFFICE about of one of the most-talked about films of the year—if not the decade.

Avatar is huge for exhibition. It's been the goal for this year's digital rollout—and even the future success of digital 3D itself has been linked to the success of Avatar.

I don't think you can put that burden on any one movie, to be honest. I think that Avatar is a step in the digital evolution, both cinematically from what we're able to put up on screen and what we're able to display in the theaters, thanks to digital projection. We've worked very hard to understand the strengths and the weaknesses of the technology that's available today, and make sure that we've erred on the side of the strengths.

How have you and James Cameron reacted to quotes like Jeffrey Katzenberg touting, “The day after Jim Cameron’s movie comes out, it’s a new world,” and RealD's Michael Lewis saying that the 3D industry is looking to Avatar to be its Citizen Kane ?

The only pressure we have is to make the best possible version of the movie we set out to make. And I think we've accomplished that. We've also been lucky enough to share that with people—to go out there and show them scenes and clips, share with exhibitors 23 minutes of the movie—so they can see what it's like. It's not a movie that you can really talk about. It's a movie that you have to go and see—you have to experience. That's the great thing about film in general. Going into a theater and the lights being dimmed and the movie transporting you to another place: that's the magic of cinema.

As part of that magic, there's the relationship between technology and imagination. When Cameron wrote the script in 1995, he wrote it for the imagination—the technology wasn't yet even a possibility.

That's right. Jim wrote this purely for imagination—I feel like he wrote it from a dream. None of these things existed. He created that. Years ago, he worked with 3D technology when he did T2: 3D for Universal Studios. At the time, he loved the results, but hated the process because it was so cumbersome to work with. With the advent of digital technology, he can now have a 3D camera that weighs less than a Panavision camera. You can hold it, you can shoot a 3D movie the same way you can shoot one in 2D. Then with digital projection, no longer do you have to wear the anaglyph glasses that frankly made everything look like caca. The colors are true and it changes the experience. When people have seen the Avatar footage, yes it's about technology, but it's also about philosophy in your approach to 3D. For us, 3D is not about gags coming off the screen. 3D is about creating a window into a world—almost making the screen plane disappear and letting the audience have almost a voyeuristic experience.

Tell me about shaping this vision from the ground up.

In terms of shaping the vision of the movie, it was all about story. It was all about putting up on the screen characters that the audience would want to follow into a world. People don't go to movies for worlds; they go for characters. That was our focus—to not let technology get in the way of keeping our focus on that.

You have so much freedom to design a planet, design the characters who live on it—how do you know when the design is finally perfect?

You want to give the audience touchstones of familiarity. Touchstones that they can understand. We're designing alien creatures. They could have had 22 eyes; they could have one eye. They could have 92 ears or five ears—whatever we wanted to come up with. But in the human sense, we show emotions through basic functions: a smile, a teardrop, a frown. So we kept the designs of our aliens closer to humanoid so that they could be relatable. The same thing with the world. We didn't want to just go out there and create a world that was strange and odd. In some ways, we took what Mother Nature created in our world, and then took it out of context. Mother Nature has created some phenomenal things. We'd take what happens undersea at night when cuttlefish become bio-luminescent. But instead of playing that under the ocean, we played that above land. We looked at what exists in the Amazon Rainforest—poisonous dart frogs, these one-and-a-half inch creatures with bright, vibrant colors and patterns—and we'd put them on winged creatures with 60-foot wingspans. These things exist here, but we don't often see them—now, they're subconsciously familiar even though out of context.

What are some of the subtle details of the film you're proud of that might take a second viewing to notice?

It's interesting. With the capabilities of digital, each image is so densely layered with detail that in one scene you might notice the plant, but the second time around, you might not even notice the plant because you're watching the bugs that are flying by, or a floating mountain that you didn't notice before. There's a lot there and I think that everybody's going to take away a little something different.

What do you want people to be talking about after they've seen it?

That they were entertained, that it was provocative, that it made them think. Our main character goes on a journey, and on that journey one of the things he learns is that his actions and our actions affect the world around us. If some people come away with that, that would be great.

If people wanted to, they could look for modern parallels in the story. A military goes to war in a foreign country for a substance they need...

Science Fiction is a metaphor for the world in which we live—good science fiction. It should make us reflect upon how we live our lives and what we do. And I think Jim has incorporated a lot of that reflection in Avatar.

You've said that the last third of the movie has 'the mother of all movie battles'—what can you tell me about it?

When we go into battle at the end of our movie, we have the heavily armed forces of the corporation that is mining on the planet—aircraft, weaponry, the whole fleet—going up against a relatively primitive group of aliens who are on flying creatures and ground creatures. And they confront each other in a battle that ebbs and flows.

You developed a virtual camera just to shoot the film.

The world of Pandora doesn't exist. We could not go to Pandora to film. So we had to figure out a way that we could let Jim shoot this movie with the same flexibility that he would have if he actually went to Pandora. For that, we turned to what we called 'virtual production.' We created a stage where when Jim picked up a virtual camera, he could pan that camera around the stage we were on—that was really barren of any stage dressing—and he would see the world of Pandora. He could design his shots as if he was actually there. We did the same thing with the performers: he was able to see their performances in real time, work with them and compose with them with the same intimacy he had with Kate and Leo in Titanic.

How exactly was it done? Similar to motion capture with dots all over the body?

It was twofold. There were several different parts to it. The performances, we captured in a more traditional way with markers on the body and body joints. But for the faces, we went through an image-based process where we actually photographed the faces. We then looked at that photographed image and interpreted the performance on a frame-by-frame, pore-by-pore level to drive the CGI characters. James Cameron and his virtual camera were also tracked in performance capture, and it would know that instead of applying the movement of the camera to a skeleton, as you would for a body, it would apply it to a view. So as he moved the camera, he saw the real time view of whatever he was looking at.

What was a day on set like for you?

It started before dawn and ended way after dusk. It's interesting because on this movie, the blending of pre-production, production and post-production was complete. We started post-production the day we started production. We started post-production the day we started pre-production. So we'd have a day of photography or a day of capture, and at the end, we'd go meet with the visual effects company. We turned over material on a month-by-month basis so they could get the work in their pipeline.

And a linguist invented the language of Na'vi—did you pick up any?

I have enough trouble with English! I could say a few words in Na'vi, but not much. Na'vi is a hard language. When I knew we had to create a language for the movie, I thought, okay, you go hire someone and say, 'This is the word we have to say.' And they'd come up with the word. I was wrong. Paul Frommer, our linguist, took six months just to define the structure of language, which I thought was fascinating. And after that, he'd start coming up with the sentences that we needed.

Does it have parallels to any language on earth?

I think it's relatively unique. We didn't want someone to hear it and go, 'Wow, that's Watusi!” Or Maori, or French.

Your tie-ins are unusually broad-ranging—toys to technology.

We have a partnership with companies that range from Panasonic to McDonalds to Coke Zero to LG to MovieSoft. One of the things that's been exciting for us is the innovation that these companies have brought to their campaign. Whether it's MovieSoft that's been developing the technology to make the video game 3D compatible, or whether it be Mattel coming up with what they call 'eye tags,' where you can activate something through your web camera with a toy that you've purchased—you get a downloaded file and you can interact with it. It's the first time they've ever applied that to a toy line.

And up next, Battle Angel ?

Battle Angel is definitely a movie that we want to make. We have a draft of the script that we're very happy with. Whether that's going to be the next one or the one after, I can't tell you at this point.

Tell me how you're going to feel on opening day.

I'm going to be very excited. We've worked on this movie for four-and-a-half years total. Four years of which, we haven't shared anything of the movie to anybody. Why do you make movies? You make movies to share them with people. So on December 18th, we're going to be able to share this movie that we've worked on so long with the world, and that's very exciting.

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