This conversation appears in Newsweek’s “Interview” issue. To read more of the magazine’s interviews with the year’s biggest newsmakers, go to Newsweek.com.
James Cameron and Peter Jackson are the kings of the CGI world. Cameron, of course, directed Titanic, the highest-grossing movie of all time—which he says he’d make with no ship if he were filming today. Jackson was the guy behind bringing Middle-earth to the big screen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Now they are back with Avatar and The Lovely Bones, two of the most-hyped films of the holiday season. Newsweek asked them about their new films and how technology is changing Hollywood. An excerpt of the transcript is printed below:
Cameron: So how’s the road trip been on The Lovely Bones?
Jackson: It’s all right. Not too bad. Having a harder job getting over the jet lag than I normally do, but never mind. Getting older, I guess. I’m in … Berlin.
Cameron: Ha, ha! You had to think about it for a minute!
Jackson: I did! I’m flying to Paris as soon as this phone call is over. So we’re talking about technology and movies?
Cameron: People often ask us about the future of filmmaking because we’ve both been innovators in the last few years, creating cutting-edge stuff that gets widely or narrowly adopted. I think the simple answer is that filmmaking is not going to ever fundamentally change. It’s about storytelling. It’s about humans playing humans. It’s about close-ups of actors. It’s about those actors somehow saying the words and playing the moment in a way that gets in contact with the audience’s hearts. I don’t think that changes. I don’t think that’s changed in the last century.
Jackson: There’s no doubt that the industry is in a weird position. It’s not just Hollywood—it’s international. The loss of the independent distribution companies and the finance companies, and the lack of ability to get medium-budget films these days. The studios have found comfort in these enormous movies. The big-budget blockbuster is becoming one of the most dependable forms of filmmaking. It was only three or four years ago when there was a significant risk with that kind of film. Now, especially last summer, we saw blockbuster after blockbuster be released, and they all had significant budgets and they’re all doing fine. It almost doesn’t matter if the film is a good film or a bad film, they’re all doing OK. They’ve lost the ability to have that happen with a low-budget movie and with midrange-budget movies.
Cameron: But they’ve also lost the courage to make, frankly, a movie like Avatar, which is a blockbuster-scaled movie not based on prior arc. All the blockbusters of the last four years, like Transformers, Harry Potter, Spider-Man—they’re all films based on other films or part of a franchise. The idea of making a film of that scale that’s a unique piece has been lost. In the meantime, we have all these increases in technology. And there’s no clear way to pay for these blockbuster movies in the old traditional way. It’s not clear that the technology will come down in price in the near future.
Jackson: People are holding on to the idea of lowering the price. The vast majority of the CGI budget is labor. Unless everything goes to China or Eastern Europe in the sweatshops, that sort of approach, labor is never going to go down. It’s only going to go up.
Cameron: Because computers don’t create beautiful images. People do. Down at your place in Wellington [New Zealand], we had 800 people working on Avatar for the past six months.
Jackson: The ones that are conscious anyway.
Cameron: I’m sure there was a big night at the Wellington pubs a few days ago when they turned over their last shot.
Jackson: I think there were a few pillows and sleeping bags under desks. A lot of media attention is switching to technology in the wrong way. They’re saying the industry is in trouble; will 3-D save it? That really doesn’t have anything to do with it. The industry is in trouble, but it has nothing to do with technology, nor is technology going to necessarily be the savior.
Cameron: No, it can’t: 3-D may help define the idea of the big show at the cinema, the cinematic experience, but I think the heart of the cinematic experience is the group experience. It’s the psychology of sitting in a dark room with a bunch of people and reacting to something, and feeling like your reaction is the same as the rest of the group, a way of proof-checking your emotions are normal.
Jackson: Or not.
Cameron: If you’re the one guy laughing out of 400 people, you’re obviously out of step. I don’t think that’s going to change. People have been downloading films, watching films on laptops, watching films on iPods for quite some time now. Ticket sales are not dropping at the same rate that those other methods of media are rising. I came to filmmaking in the early ‘80s, and it was a time of deep economic recession. It was a time when VHS home video was taking money from the theaters. The film industry was depressed. That’s what I knew—a state of upheaval and change. It all sorted itself out. These things always sort themselves out. The fundamental question is: is cinema staying or is it going away? I think it shows no signs of going away. I feel quite confident you and I are going to make the kinds of films we love 10 and 20 years from now.
Jackson: I do too. In addition to the theatrical experience, we will be seeing a lot of other forms of distribution and delivery, which is going to be interesting. We have things like Xbox Live with all the subscribers. It’s not going to be too much longer before Xbox Live produces programming. There are so many opportunities there. Everybody is playing a defensive game. Nobody is going on the attack and being brave and courageous, apart from you.
Cameron: They always say pioneers are those guys flying on planes with arrows in their backs. 3-D will find its place. It’s like color. Color didn’t affect the career of a single actor. And then people will find out about the intimacy to 3-D that can add to a dramatic film that’s not even on the radar of the Hollywood studios right now.
Jackson: I find personally that within 10 minutes I forget that it’s in 3-D, in a good way. The only thing about 3-D is the dullness of the image. But that’s a relatively simple technical hurdle to overcome. It’s just brightening the image.
Cameron: It’s already been overcome. The new technology has already solved the light-level problem. We think it looks fantastic.
Jackson: How far away are we from taking glasses out of the 3-D equation?
Cameron: I’ve seen displays at a laptop size and a relatively modest plasma size that work quite well. You have to situate your head to the sweet spot so you don’t get the double image. But people are always turning the laptop display to get the best image. I can imagine three or four years from now an iPhone that’s 3-D-enabled that doesn’t require glasses that you can watch a movie on. Certainly laptops will be here before that. I think the ones that succeed in the marketplace are the ones that initially make their sets, their displays, to be able to use the glasses. If you’re going to do a Super Bowl party you’re going to have a bowl of glasses on your coffee table, and they’re going to be the disposable kind. And then eventually I think the glasses have to go away for home use. I think that will happen within five years.
Jackson: I’m seeing there’s a lot of misunderstanding about motion capture at the moment.
Cameron: The irony is that one of the first examples of motion capture that worked so beautifully is Gollum in the second and third of your films. Suddenly this new idea had burst on the scene, that a quasi-human creature could be created with such heart and soul.
Jackson: With Gollum and Kong, the key thing that we did was the eyes. I think Gollum and Kong represented the best eyes that I’ve seen in a CGI film.
Cameron: The experience of creating a soulful performance is through the eyes: knowing how to rig eyes, how to light for eyes, get the reflections and refractions in the eyes. Of course, we had big-eyed characters, which we did on purpose. We couldn’t accomplish the character we’re doing in Avatar through any kind of makeup means. That’s been explored for 30 years of Star Trek and Star Wars. But I think the thing I hope that the media can convey to audiences is that this is an actor-driven process. Nayteri, in my film, for example—she is what Zoe [Saldana] created 100 percent. Initially I thought we want to keep the technique under wraps. We don’t want to pull the curtain aside and show people how we’ve done this; we just want to show you my magic. But I’ve recently changed my tune. I want people to see a side-by-side image of Nayteri in a scene and Zoe doing the scene, so they understand that it’s a physical and facial performance. Zoe took months of training at archery and martial arts, so she could move a certain way and have a certain grace. It’s something she created that just translated to her character. This is a highly actor-driven process.
Jackson: Actors will never be replaced. The thought that somehow a computer version of a character is going to be something people prefer to look at is a ludicrous idea. It’s just paranoia. What is great, when you would have used prosthetic makeup, you have motion capture to do a more emotive version. That’s great for nonhuman characters, but in terms of creating nonhuman beings—why on earth would anyone want to do that? It’s so expensive. It’s 20 times more than an actor’s going to cost.
Cameron: The other thing that people aren’t talking about, you can take an actor of a given age, and you can transform their age. Additive makeup can age somebody, but it’s hard to make someone younger. Let’s say you have a novelistic storyline where you cast an actor in their 40s, but the first time you see them they’re 15 years old and the last time you see them they’re 80. This is the Benjamin Button idea. Clint Eastwood could do another Dirty Harry movie and look the way he looked in the ‘70s. He would still be making all the performance choices. It would be his voice. We’d just make him 30 years younger. If I did Titanic today, I’d do it very differently. There wouldn’t be a 750-foot-long set. There would be small set pieces integrated into a large CGI set. I wouldn’t have to wait seven days to get the perfect sunset for the kiss scene. We’d shoot it in front of a green screen, and we’d choose our sunset.
Jackson: There are all great tools that people haven’t quite gotten their heads around yet. But one of the things that has happened [is that] people focus on technology. Probably the film industry has been guilty; there’s more attention spent on the technical aspects than the story. That’s led to a self-fulfilling prophecy. People regard CGI as a gimmick, they almost blame CGI for a bad story or a bad script. They talk about CGI as if it’s responsible for a drop in standards. We’ve gotten to a point now where there isn’t nothing else we haven’t seen. We’ve seen dinosaurs, we’ve seen aliens; with Avatar we’ve seen realistic creatures. I think we’re going to enter a phase where there’s less interest in the CGI and there’s a demand for story again. I think we’ve dropped the ball a little bit on stories for the sake of the amazing toys that we’ve played with.
Cameron: I think you’re right. What’s interesting in the marketing evolution of Avatar is that we put out a teaser trailer that was all about the imagery, and people were less than satisfied, because they weren’t learning enough about the story. We put out a story trailer that set the stage and told you what the main character was, and all of a sudden people were wildly excited about the movie. There’s the proof within the marketing evolution of a single film.
Slate V: Cameron on-set