According to director James Cameron, the groundbreaking sci-fi epic Avatar is not only the highest grossing film of all time, but it is also the most pirated film of all time. However, that hasn’t deterred its box office numbers and, if Blu-ray/DVD sales are any indication, it’s not negatively impacting those numbers either.
In line with his strong environmental values, Cameron talked to press to promote the Blu-ray and DVD release scheduled for Earth Day (April 22nd) at a private estate in the hills of West Hollywood that makes use of solar paneling. During the interview, he was adamant that 16×9 is the best format for the film, previewed what fans can expect from the special edition, due out in November, explained why you won’t see the Blu-ray in 3-D for some time, and regarding Avatar 2, “the fastest we could imagine making another film is three to three and a half years, from the moment we start.” He also said they’re targeting a Spring 2012 release for Titanic 3D.
It’s a fantastic interview. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: What makes Earth Day the right time to release this Blu-ray/DVD?
Cameron: What we’ve found is that so many people have responded, in different groups and causes, that are attempting to deal with environmental issues and issues of indigenous rights, and they come to us and really see Avatar as a focusing lens for all of these issues. The public has really felt an emotional outpouring around these issues, so Earth Day is exactly the right time for us to premiere the discs. I just really want to express my gratitude to 20th Century Fox for throwing their weight behind these ideas.
I’m not trying to sell DVDs on the back of the hardship of the planet, as much as I’m hoping there will be a continued conversation around Avatar and around the needs and wishes that will elevate the consciousness and help us get the things done that need to be done. That’s my new mission. I almost see it as an opportunity for Avatar to be helpful, as opposed to things helping Avatar. My wife said, “Honey, this is more than just an opportunity here. This is a duty and a responsibility.” And, I actually see it that way now. I was always an environmental activist, but I’ve gone to a whole other level now, around the movie.
How much of the April 22nd release date for the Blu-ray/DVD has to do with the fact that Avatar is the most pirated film of all time?
Cameron: We’re not even worried about piracy, at this point. I think people associate Avatar with a high quality experience. Even while it was being wildly pirated, people were lining up and we were selling out in theaters. So, I think the wider public has made a decision that they want that premium experience. I see the same thing happening, in parallel, with the video release. Where normally Blu-ray pre-sales are at about the 15% level, we’re already running 50%, so people are definitely excited about the Blu-ray release and pre-selecting for the most premium version in which they can see Avatar in a home environment. I see parallels between the two situations. How that translates to total sales, I can’t say, at this point. We’ll find out, in a month.
What do you think the best format is to view this film in?
Cameron: The film was released in two formats. We released it in 16×9 and cinemascope aspect ratio. Obviously, the 35 mm prints were all in the scope ratio and with the IMAX stuff, we tried to take advantage of the height. The highest and best format for this movie is the 16×9, which plays beautifully. We finished the picture in 16×9 and then we vertically extracted the cinemascope when we were mastering the film for theatrical release.
In the theatrical release of the movie, it played in 3-D in non-IMAX digital theaters in both formats. We did that by selecting whichever theater was going to look best in which format. But, for the home, we wanted to go with the full picture. I really think it helps, with the sense of vertigo underneath the flying creatures, to have that little bit of extra frame down there, when they’re looking down over cliffs. It enhances the sense of height.
Even though I love the cinemascope ratio compositionally, I actually found myself falling in love with the movie in 16×9, as we went along, and I prefer to watch it in that. Everyone thought the best viewing conditions for the movie were in 3-D, but in 3-D what we struggled with was the light levels. We struggled to get the light levels up, in the theaters. You get such a bright, crisp, dynamic picture on the DVD and Blu-ray. Something actually comes back to the viewing experience that you don’t get in the theaters, with the colors and the strength of the contrast.
The Blu-ray/DVD will only be in 16×9?
Cameron: Yeah. There will be no letterbox scope video.
Will the 3-D also be in 16×9 when it comes out?
Cameron: Absolutely, yeah.
Why only include the film by itself on this edition?
Cameron: All these extraneous materials take down your bit rate. When you’re a long picture like Avatar that barely fits on the disc, and you have to make room for a lot of other content, it starts to degrade the image quality. The quality, in terms of the resolution, has no noise and no grain. All of the visual elements of the picture are fantastic. Also, by the way, I have this unwritten deal with Fox that, any time one of my movies makes more than a billion dollars, we leave all the crap trailers off of the Blu-ray and DVD, as a little service to the viewer. I can’t stand watching them, any more than you can.
Why won’t we see the 3-D Blu-ray right away?
Cameron: There just aren’t that many players and screens yet. We have more of a long-term strategy, in that area. But, I think it would be a shame to hold back the Blu-ray when people want it now, and I love it. I think it’s a great format. I would recommend that, if people are thinking of buying a Blu-ray player around this time, make sure you get one that’s 3-D compatible because you’re going to want it.
There’s no significant cost difference to buy one that’s 3-D enabled, at least in some of the sets. The Panasonic set that uses the passive glasses, or Real D glasses essentially, has a little bit more of an up charge because of the cost of putting this polarizing film on the surface of the screen. But, the other sets that use the active glasses have no significant additional cost in manufacturing because it’s really just in the chip set that drives the image. I don’t know exactly what all the price points are. I think most of them are up in the $1,500 to $2,500 range, just in size. If you’re going to go 3-D, go big. Get the biggest set you can, and then sit as close as you can stand. That’s my advice. Get the coffee table out of the way and slide the couch over, right in front of the TV.
What will be on the special edition Blu-Ray/DVD when it’s released in November?
Cameron: It will have a lot of great features, making of stuff and behind the scenes stuff. You’ll be able to do a branching experience where you can select if you want to watch the basic movie, if you want to watch the movie with six minutes of footage added back in, or if you want to watch an earlier cut of the film that has 30 or 35 minutes of additional footage. It will be an unrecognizable movie. You’ll be going on a journey into a whole different version of Avatar. And some of the scenes won’t be done because we won’t have the budget to finish 20 or 30 minutes of CG stuff. We’re taking the Greatest Hits six minutes and finishing that.
If you do that one experience, you’ll watch a movie that’s only about six minutes longer, but it’s seamless. If you do the other experience, you’re going to watch a movie that’s much longer and has a lot of stuff in it that you won’t recognize, some of which won’t be finished. It will be a little bit more like some of the Disney stuff that they do where they leave pencil tests in for scenes that were never done. That’s really more of a fan’s exploration of what the movie might have been, or a lot of the ideas that fed into it.
You’re also going to be able to look at a scene, and then look at the same scene with just the reference cameras of the capture. If it’s a close-up in the final cut scene, it will be the close-up reference camera. If it’s a wide shot, it will be the wide shot reference camera. We’ll literally have a parallel cut, where you can watch it just in the reference cameras. The remarkable thing about that, and we’ve watched a few scenes that way, is it’s the movie. It doesn’t look like the movie, but the essence of it and the moment is exactly what you see in the final film. It’s just people in black leotards. It’s pretty wild. It’s pretty amazing. The thing that I think is really cool is when you do it in a picture-in-picture, so you see the final image of Neytiri and you see what Zoe is doing, and it’s identical. That’s when you really get what the process is. You can talk about it for hours, or you can watch one scene in a picture-in-picture display and you’ll get it.
How is the experience of watching the movie different when you’re sitting on your couch, as opposed to going to the theater?
Cameron: Go in the kitchen, make some popcorn, put your feet up and enjoy the movie. That’s what the home viewing experience is all about. The richness, the vibrancy and the dynamics of the movie are preserved in the home experience. People can’t expect to have the same thing that you have on a 50-foot screen, when you’re watching a 3-foot or 4-foot screen. It’s different. It just is.
Do you think the story plays differently, when you see it in a more intimate setting?
Cameron: The story is the story. It still ends the same way. The bad guys die and the good guys win. It’s just a different experience. It’s immediate. You can put it in, any time you want. You can control your environment. You can pause it and go get a beer. It’s a different experience. It’s also the only way you’re going to be able to watch it, when it’s not in movie theaters anymore. When I’m cutting the movie, I’m working on a smaller screen that’s about 50 inches. That’s how I cut the film. That’s how I lived with the film, for months at a time. So, I’m looking at the narrative and the storytelling.
The big screen experience is just a bonus for me, when I get to go, “Oh, this is cool. Wow, it’s bigger.” But, all of the creative aesthetic decisions are made on a smaller screen, anyway. 95% of what I do as a director, in terms of supervising the design and the set construction, doing the photography, the lighting, working with the actors, all that stuff doesn’t change. That isn’t any different, no matter what screen it’s shown on, down to some limit.
I don’t feel that I’m making movies for iPhones. If someone wants to watch it on an iPhone, I’m not going to stop them, especially if they’re paying for it, but I don’t recommend it. I think it’s dumb, when you have characters that are so small in the frame that they’re not visible. I’m trying to make an epic. I’m not doing an episode of some talking heads, one-hour drama. To me, there’s a limit that you wouldn’t want to go below. I don’t know. I’ve never watched Avatar on a laptop. I guess it probably works, but I don’t recommend it. What I recommend is getting the coffee table out of the way and sticking your couch about four feet from your TV.
You’ve made it clear that you’re not a fan of the conversion from 2-D to 3-D. Can you explain why?
Cameron: Well, it’s not a blanket statement. We’re converting Titanic, but we’re doing it right. What I’m not a fan of is a rushed or slap-dashed conversion that’s not done right. And, I’m certainly not a fan of conversion when you could shoot the movie in 3-D.
Do you think more movies will be done through conversion for the cost savings, even if it’s lesser quality?
Cameron: I don’t know. How much quality do people want? The problem is that these decisions should be made my filmmakers. They shouldn’t be made by studios. If it’s up to studios, they’re going to sacrifice quality for lower cost. Is that the right answer? Is that the principle on which movies are made by filmmakers? They don’t get the cheapest lens. They don’t get the cheapest camera. They get the one that does the right job and that satisfies their aesthetic requirements. If it was up to the studio, everything would be shot with a camcorder.
The decisions need to be made by filmmakers. Right now, they’re being made by studios because all the filmmakers hung back and said, “Well, let’s go see if Cameron hangs himself. Then we can forget about this 3-D thing, and roll over and go back to sleep.” That didn’t happen, so now they’ve gotta go, “Oh, fuck, maybe I have to think about doing a movie in 3-D,” as opposed to what should have happened. They should have been pounding on the gates of the studios, saying, “We want to make movies in 3-D. It looks cool. It’s a new art form. Let’s go. Give us the money.” That didn’t happen, so now they’re paying the price, which is the studio telling them to make their movies in 3-D and they’re caught with their pants down.
What’s it going to take for that power to return to the filmmakers?
Cameron: The filmmakers haven’t done anything about it. They’re not standing up. It’s like, “Come on! Show some spine, guys.” The studios have the power. They’re going, “You’re doing your movie in 3-D. Guess what? You don’t have a choice. You don’t want to do it? That’s fine. We’ll get someone else.” That’s not how it was supposed to be. But, if the filmmakers take control of this thing, like they should, and like they control any other aesthetic aspect of their movie, then you’ll have the quality and people will spend the money.
If the technology had been there, would you have made Titanic in 3-D, in the first place?
Cameron: Absolutely. Oh, yeah, sure. That would have been awesome.
Is the conversion of Titanic your next project?
Cameron: It’s going to be done in parallel with whatever I’m doing next, over the next year. We’re targeting for a Spring 2012 release, which is the hundred year anniversary of the sailing of the Titanic. It’s a nice marketing hook.
Do you have another film you’re looking to do next?
Cameron: There are plenty. I’ve got a number of projects. I just have to decide which one I want to do.
Do you want some breathing room before a sequel happens?
Cameron: I think the breathing room is a given. The fastest we could imagine making another film is three to three and a half years, from the moment we start, and we’re not planning on starting tomorrow. It’s not about me needing breathing room. It’s that these films take time. There’s going to be a natural breathing room. People will have forgotten about Avatar, by the time we get a sequel done, and then they’ll go, “Oh, Avatar. Yeah, that would be cool.” It’s not like Iron Man 2, coming out the year after Iron Man 1. It ain’t going to work that way.