James Cameron discusses Avatar Extended Collector's Edition and 3D

James Cameron (above) is on stage at Blu-Con 2010, previewing the three disc (2D) Avatar Extended Collector’s Edition, due out on November 15. His audience in LA is made up of industry creatives and studio bigwigs. We’re eavesdropping on the event via a live link-up from the Walt Disney HQ in London. The man with the Midas touch has everyone’s attention. It’s all very exciting.

“I’ve been working with 3D for years before even starting Avatar,” declares Cameron, “making documentaries and the theme park stuff [the writer director created The Terminator 2: 3D attraction for Universal Studios], and developing the camera system – so (for me) 3D for Avatar wasn’t a big deal. The big challenge was the performance capture. We wanted photorealistic characters to be the main focus of the movie; fully emotional, fully articulate and fully realised, only done as a CG process. The tools to do that didn’t exist. We spent two years just in R&D figuring out how to make that work.” Exactly how Cameron and his team did it is revealed at length in the new Blu-ray set.

The writer-director skates over the fact that Avatar Extended Collector’s Edition is 2D only (if you don’t want to buy a Panasonic 3D TV to get the pre-Christmas 3D promotional release, you’ll have to wait until next year before you can own a 3D version of your own), but there’s no doubt that the new three-disc set looks sensational. To use Cameron’s words, it’s “jam-packed with stuff.”

He says without irony: “I told our team we don’t want to come back over and over and do further iterations and special editions, digging up more footage that people haven’t seen before. I wanted this (release) to be definitive, to have everything that a fan could possibly want.”

The new triple-disc set is ample compensation for last spring’s original bare-bones release. There are three versions of the movie included: the original theatrical cut, the nine minute Special Edition re-release and a new 16-minute magnum opus.

The longest cut features an opening sequence set on Earth, before Jake Scully travels to Pandora. The director describes it as “an alternate experience of the movie”.

A million dollars a minute

Cameron is joined on stage at Blu-Con by Avatar producer Jon Landau, who says the special effects wizards at Weta worked until the end of the summer rendering new material for the extended version of the movie, at a cost of a million dollars a minute.

“They put into it the same discipline, the same technology and the same creativity that they did for the theatrical version of the movie.”

One inclusion that will have Avatar aficionados salivating is a spectacular forest hunt. Not included in any theatrical version, this is a huge special effects sequence fully rendered to photo-realistic quality by Weta, which involves scores of Na’vi warriors riding horsethings and dragons, trying to bring down a thundering Sturmbeast. Fast moving, gorgeous to look at and breathlessly paced, it’s a classic system demo in the making.

In total, says Cameron, there are 47 minutes of deleted scenes plus a feature-length documentary to explore. While these deleted scenes lack the photorealism of the film, they are watchable in a virtual-reality kind of way. “This is what the fans want to see. And of course what the fans also want to see besides more of the characters and more of the world is how did we do it – what’s behind the scenes, how was all this magic created? So that’s what we’ve given them.”

A feature length documentary, Capturing Pandora, reveals in extraordinary detail how the movie was made – from concept to completion. In addition, there are 17 further featurettes which focus on specific areas, including performance capture, sound, editing, casting and stunts.

“Basically if there’s anything you want to know about how this movie was made, it will reside within these discs.”

There’s material off the discs as well. Taking advantage of BD-Live, owners will be able to go online for additional content, including a mockumentary made by one of the crew.

Cameron says that it was fun returning to Pandora without the pressure of a theatrical deadline. “That was killing us a year ago. We put a subset of our original team together, got the band back together. In fact, the Weta guys used the release as an opportunity to improve their art and their process even further, thinking ahead to future Avatar films.”

So how did they fund this endeavour? “We were fortunate enough to have the film be a big hit,” says Cameron with a sense of understatement, “so we went back to Fox and said ‘Look there are a lot of scenes that we love that we didn’t finish, let’s spend the money to make this Collector's Edition everything it can be.’ They agreed. The photorealistic rendering work is costly, more than a million dollars a minute in some cases. So for us to put 16 minutes back into the film is a sizeable financial investment on Fox’s part. In a sense, we did the theatrical re-release of the film to help pay for that exercise.”

But isn’t 3D just a gimmick?

After running through a selection of the extras, the floor of Blu-con 2010 is thrown open to some Q&As. It doesn’t start well.

“But isn’t 3D just a gimmick?”

Cameron is clearly weary of the question. “It’s kind of a waste of time for me to even answer that,” he declares. “3D is here and it’s here to stay, and that’s been pretty resoundingly demonstrated over the last couple of years. This is a renaissance for 3D and it’s going to continue indefinitely. It’s a bit like the HD launch. HD wasn’t a flirtation and now it’s pretty ubiquitous. 3D is going to be exactly the same.”

He warns that the industry needs to be agile to keep up. “It’s not a question of 3D slowly rolling out,” he says. “We’ve already leapfrogged over steps that I thought were going to take years. It’s a bit like colour. Colour was around in the late 1930s but it wasn’t until the mid-sixties that every movie had to be made in colour, and the reason for it was the adoption of colour TV.

"Movies were made in both colour and black and white for a long period of time, a couple of decades. But then colour TV came along and after that every movie had to be made in colour if it was going to get a network sale. So one medium affects the other and there’s a feedback loop between them.”

“Once we get past the last threshold, which is autostereoscopic (glasses-free) displays, then I think 3D is going to be the way we watch all our media – in the movie theatres and at home. That’s probably eight to ten years out.”

Inevitably the subject of 2D-to-3D conversions also comes up. It’s a controversial area that the director has strong views on.

“Studios like the idea of taking a movie that’s in production and converting it to 3D, but they are trying to shoehorn this new process into their normal post-production schedule. I maintain that you can’t do a good conversion of a two hour movie in high quality in just a few weeks, like they tried with do with Clash of the Titans.”

Hollywood, he says, has two choices: “They can shoot the movie in 3D or spend the money and the time to do a conversion that’s indistinguishable from having it shot in 3D. To do that I would say that realistically you would need to put six months into your post production schedule that wasn’t there before. If you’re making a $150m movie, what’s the cost of the money for that additional six months? No one’s factoring that into their comparative analysis between shooting in 3D and doing a post conversion.

“My personal philosophy is that 3D conversions should be used for one thing only: to take library titles which are favourites and convert them into 3D. Whether it’s Jaws, E.T., Titanic or Indiana Jones. That’s what conversion should be for. Unless you have a time machine, you have no other choice.”

Owners of the original Blu-ray release of Avatar can take advantage of its BD-Live connection to see previews of material from the Extended Collector's set. Avatar Extended Collector’s Edition goes on sale November 15.

Andy Clough

Andy is Global Brand Director of What Hi-Fi? and has been a technology journalist for 30 years. During that time he has covered everything from VHS and Betamax, MiniDisc and DCC to CDi, Laserdisc and 3D TV, and any number of other formats that have come and gone. He loves nothing better than a good old format war. Andy edited several hi-fi and home cinema magazines before relaunching whathifi.com in 2008 and helping turn it into the global success it is today. When not listening to music or watching TV, he spends far too much of his time reading about cars he can't afford to buy.