James Cameron on 3D: the TechRadar interview
6th Apr 2012 | 13:30
Talks 3D's future, Avatar 2 and Titanic 3D
Walking With Dinosaurs, the BBC and good 3D
To coincide with the launch of Titanic 3D in the UK and US, TechRadar presents its exclusive James Cameron interview it got with the director back in late 2011. In it he talks about the making of Titanic and why post-converting 3D is one of the toughest things he's ever had to do...
James Cameron is the biggest advocate for 3D working in Hollywood today.
His hit movie Avatar kick-started a new wave of 3D movie-making, using techniques and technology that proved 3D could move beyond being a gimmick.
Although it wasn't to some critics' tastes, the numbers do not lie. Not only is Avatar the best-grossing 3D movie ever made, it is the best-grossing movie ever made.
The key to Avatar's success was that Cameron put 3D at the forefront of the film-making process, and he is now building a business out of offering his insight (and equipment) to other film-makers.
Cameron and the BBC
The fruits of this could be seen at this year's IBC (International Broadcasting Convention), where the Cameron | Pace group, which he runs with co-chairman and cinematographer Vince Pace, announced it would be working with the BBC on a feature film of Walking With Dinosaurs, as well as announcing that Evergreen Films will be the first company with Cameron | Pace certification.
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"It's a theatrical motion picture so it will be in the IMAX in the UK and in digital 3D," said Cameron to TechRadar when we met up with him at IBC for an extensive chat on all things 3D.
"We had a very good meeting with the BBC here, where we said we could be doing all kinds of things together."
Walking With Dinosaurs is the biggest 3D production the BBC has undertaken, so it's good that the broadcaster has decided to do it under the tutelage of Cameron, who believes the Beeb needs to increase its 3D output.
DO THE DINOSAUR:Cameron will be working with the BBC
"The BBC has held back a little bit with 3D, where as BSkyB has jumped in and ESPN has jumped in.
"The point I made to the head of BBC was that you can't hold back indefinitely.
"You have to muscle in on this; you have to learn how to do this. This is what broadcasters are starting to wake up to, that 3D is going to happen."
Although the BBC has only taken tentative steps into 3D production – as seen in this year's Wimbledon finals – Cameron does believe that the UK is well equipped for 3D and in some ways leading the way.
"The UK isn't waiting for a massive install base of 3D sets in the home; Sky is going for the sports bars and the pubs.
"That is a very creative solution and is one that can work all around the world."
A new 3D standard
One of the ways Cameron is setting out to improve 3D is to offer up the Cameron | Pace name to productions that use the company's technologies. Like THX before it, it's set to become a symbol to consumers that the 3D in the movie they are about to watch is the best it possibly can be.
PACE OF LIFE: The Cameron | Pace group hopes to bring quality to 3D
But with the sales of 3D TVs not exactly setting the economic world on fire, Cameron understands that it sometimes quality isn't enough, you have to offer quantity as well.
"We care about the quality of 3D, so we are looking to constantly improve it. But for the general public, the biggest improvement we can make for them is to give them more stuff.
"They just want more stuff so when they do purchase their 3D TV set, they want to make sure that there is some programming to justify it."
3D TV should be cheaper
Alongside programming, the cost of installing 3D into your home is something else that needs to improve. Cameron believes that the introduction of passive glasses into the home could be key to mass adoption.
"Instead of having to pay a premium at the cinema, the general public have to fork out on the glasses which are expensive," said Cameron to TechRadar.
"Passive glasses are here and the quality is improving all the time. The fact that they are throwaway means this technology could be critical."
3D TALK:James Cameron with his cinematographer Vince Pace
Sitting down with Cameron it is clear to see that 3D isn't just a passion for the director, it is what he is fully focused on career-wise, so much so that it's hard to see him releasing a movie again without using the technology.
Filming in 3D "never gets old"
"Vince [Pace] and I have been involved in so much 3D photography – we love it, it never gets old for us.
"When we shot the recent Cirque du Soleil film back in December, we were in the truck looking at the images and saying to each other: 'Look at that! That's great!' We're kind of like kids.
"In a way, though, I think we should look forward to 3D when it is less remarkable. In the same way we don't talk about how great the colour is on our TV sets any more or how great the colour is in a movie.
"We need to get to that point of equilibrium, where the tail isn't wagging the dog."
AVATAR: The second instalment will use high frame rate cameras
Unfortunately, since the launch of Avatar there's been a number of movies that have sullied the 3D format – one of which, according to Cameron, was Piranha 3D, a franchise that is linked to the director's early days as a film-maker.
Cameron's first directorial gig was on Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. The franchise was given a tongue-and-cheek 3D remake in 2010 by director Alandre Aja and has spawned the brilliantly titled sequel Piranha 3DD, but Cameron was less than impressed with the results.
"When you are watching a bad 3D movie in 2D and I was watching one the other night, this Piranha film, it was just bad storytelling in 3D, because everything would come to a stop and this grotesque thing would be sitting in the middle of the screen.
"[The movie uses] these stupid 3D tricks that people used to think were good. And there would be one of these zingers every few minutes where everything would come to a screeching halt and some 3D gag would be hanging right in your face.
"That's the 3D influencing the film-makers and not the other way around."
How to ensure 3D success
Although Cameron doesn't get annoyed that films like Piranha make audiences question the quality of 3D – "The film didn't make that much money, anyway," he explains – he does note that 3D done right is the only real way for box-office success.
"Good 3D that's done well in an integrated way and is an enhancement will make a film money.
"Like Alice In Wonderland and the new Transformers, the 3D was done well on that, it was deep and integrated into the shot design."
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High frame rates, Avatar 2 and Titanic 3D
One quality improvement for 3D, which Cameron has publicly hailed as the future of the format, is matching the technology with fast frame rate shooting. Although we aren't going to see it used by Cameron until Avatar 2 – which is pencilled in for a 2014 release date – it is a technique that Peter Jackson is using for The Hobbit.
3D WORLD: Cameron behind the scenes of Avatar
"When I went to Show West in 2005 and showed 3D and said this is the future, there was a lot of sniggering and scepticism – even though it turned out to be the case," said Cameron to TechRadar.
"When I showed them high frame rate, however, I did a compelling demonstration, showing the same shot at 24, 48, 60 and so forth and the response was immediate. The exhibitors just got it and understood that this was something they could do quickly, that would be inexpensive.
"It seems to be gathering more momentum than 3D and by the time that I do release the next Avatar in four years it is going to be all over the shop. Something like 50 people would have done it and Peter Jackson looks like the one to break the ice."
3D conversion is "mind numbing"
Although we won't see Avatar 2 for a number of years, Cameron will soon be releasing Titanic 3D, which will be the first time the director has used 2D to 3D conversion – a process that's easy for CG movies like Toy Story but for use on movies with real actors, it is a painstaking process of image manipulation and one Cameron is not entirely enthused about.
TITANIC 3D: A 'mind-numbing process'
"I really don't enjoy the process," he explained.
"While Vince and I sit gleefully watching our 3D images being shot, a conversion is the exact opposite.
"It is a mind numbing process of creating depth subjectively.
"I am five months in so the artists are becoming good and starting to read my mind a little, so it has become easier, but I still sit there with the jog wheel and look through the movie frame by frame and make notes on depth."
"'That should be closer, that should be further back, there's not enough full depth here, there is not enough volume on that shoulder, a little more volume on that urn in the background, see that chair in the background on the left, no the other one on the left, that one needs to come forward another six inches… when the captain stands up we have to do an interlocular dynamic, da da, da da, da da… it's fricking endless!
"It's a mind-numbing process; it's like mowing the lawn with a toenail clipper."
KIDS ARE ALRIGHT:Cameron and Pace are like kids when shooting in 3D
While this doesn't mean we won't see other Cameron classics getting the 3D treatment – "Never say never, but if we can't do it with Titanic and George Lucas can't do it with Star Wars, then there isn't a market" – it does prove that introducing 3D at the beginning of the film-making process is far easier than doing it after the fact.
Cameron was keen to point out, however, just how much time he is investing into Titanic 3D.
"We are spending $18 million on Titanic and giving the project a year," he notes after we ask him why he thinks 2D to 3D conversions have failed before, using Clash of the Titans as an example.
"That was a classic mistake," said Cameron.
"They tried to make 3D a post-production process like sound editing and that doesn't work. The film-maker has to be involved and it takes time and good money to do a proper conversion.
"All of those things work against you in post production, where the film-maker is spread thin with getting the visual effects and getting the sound and music done so can't be looking after the 3D and somebody else is doing it.
"They spend five weeks getting stuff done that should take five months, or eight weeks that should take eight months, they spend 10 million dollars on something that costs twice that."
3D has arrived
It is only when you sit down with Cameron you really begin to realise how deep his fascination with 3D is, and that despite the technology still not being where he wants (something he is realistic about), he still believes that 3D's time is now and the tech has arrived at a point when cinema has reached a pinnacle technology-wise.
FACE TO FACE: TechRadar was granted an extensive interview with Cameron
"We have cracked the frame rate issue and there's not much more to be done. I am going to have to spending my entire day on just creative issues," laughed Cameron.
"But we have sort of done it. We have got colour, we have got widescreen, we've got sound, we've stereophonic sound and stereoscopic projection – we are done! We have covered all of the senses.
"For me now, it is getting good practises for 3D into the home, into the workplace, and into our daily image consumption."
Part of this daily 3D image consumption is weaning consumers off the idea that 3D equals glasses.
"We can't wait for big-screen autostereoscopic displays, because right now the quality on them is too poor.
"But smaller screens that are in the desktop, laptop, tablet size, where it is basically a single user model, you can do those right now. And you are going to see a lot more of those products coming to market over the next year and so.
"Then people will realise that 3D doesn't equal glasses, 3D only equals glasses in certain circumstances.
"Ultimately with tablets and laptops, people can toggle between 2D and 3D, and it will just become part of their diet."
For more information on the productions that are using Cameron | Pace equipment and news on their upcoming projects, head over to www.cameronpace.com.