Today, my wife and I went to see "Avatar."
Having stood in what they call the "volume" during some of the performance capture (not 'motion capture,' mind you... "performance capture," as coined by Mr. Cameron), I had an idea of what to expect. After all, even during that part of the process, on stage at the former Howard Hughes plant in Playa Del Rey, anyone on the film could see what things were going to eventually look like - sure they all had rough edges and looked a bit flat somehow, not unlike video game characters - but you could see what Neytiri was going to be. You could even see a rough version of what the background might be. When my friend Zoe would move in the volume, not ten feet from me, and Cameron or his First AD/Co-Producer Josh McLaglen would yell "Fire!" to the techies, I could look at the big screen tv off to the side and not see Zoe in her dive suit, but the character as it would one day exist in the film.
None of this prepared me for what I would see on screen today. For the first time ever, I stopped seeing CG. What I saw were living, breathing creatures. The Navi, as rendered by a team of artists (and I include Zoe in that description), were... are... living breathing things.
There was a small boy sitting next to me in the theater. Maybe... 6 years-old. He was there with his dad. Before the film started, the kid was a bit fidgety and all I could think was "this is going to be terrible. This kid is going to drive me crazy." But when the film started, something magical happened. This little boy got lost in the film. He was literally transported. He spent the majority of the films nearly 3 hour running time literally on the edge of his seat! When things would pop out at us, the kid would jump. When those little floaty, jelly-fish-like things from the "home tree" appeared, he'd try to touch them. He was completely immersed in Cameron's wonderful world. In fact, the boy not only didn't bother me once, but actually became just as fun to watch as the film! Watching this boy, I couldn't help but feel in awe. This little boy, taken to the movies by his young father, was probably feeling something akin to what I felt as a kid seeing the "Star Wars" films. This astounding leap forward by James Cameron, was changing this kid's life... right there. In that moment.
Now, for me, while I enjoyed the film and am planning to see it again, I still had some problems overall - like James Horner's score for one... A few beautiful pieces marred by the man's typical ripping off of his own previous work (in this case, "Glory" and "Willow"). But, that said, I'm still amazed by the achievement here.
I recall standing on the volume one day while Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson dropped in. They wanted to talk to Cameron about the process and were studying up a bit on how they intended to use the technology for "Tintin." At one point, Spielberg asked me if I was learning from the experience. He asked if I was enjoying watching the process. I had to answer him honestly. "No," I said. "I miss the props. I miss the sets. Costumes... all of it." I told him I had nearly cried when I found out ILM was dismantling their model shop... "As good as this could be," I said, "it'll never have the texture, the weight, of real actors moving in real rooms carrying real props."
(For the record? Yeah. I was wrong.)
"That's ok," Mr. Spielberg told me, "guys like you will keep that stuff around." I smiled. "Look at me," he continued, "George [Lucas] has been trying to get me to go digital for years... But I won't. I'll be the last hold-out. I still cut on film!"
I took the man's compliment (I perceived it that way at least. After all, I named my company after a character in one of his films!) and watched as these three brilliant filmmakers went back to their meeting.
While the process of seeing actors stand in a real space surrounded by props and set dressing and wearing amazing costumes will probably always be the way to go for me, I must commend Mr. Cameron and his team.
Like that little boy sitting next to me in the theater, I too got lost on 'Pandora' for a while... and I too, felt a bit like a kid again.