Technology Thoughts

From Celluloid to Digital

The digital revolution in how films are seen and made is currently spelling a slow death for celluloid.

Since the early days of photographic film in the late 19th century, moving pictures have been captured and then projected via some form of celluloid print.

The origin of the name “film” even comes from the process and has been the primary method for recording and displaying motion pictures for over a century.

But with the advent of digital technology over the last decade the days of film-based production and projection are numbered.

This also presents an an interesting paradox: what will we call films once they are no longer shot or projected on film? (Should I rename this very website?)

But whilst we ponder that, it is worth exploring why this is all happening and the differences between the old and new processes.


From the early days of cinema until very recently light has shone through a piece of celluloid and the resultant moving image was then projected on to a cinema screen.

This video by the Phoenix Cinema in Finchley shows how film projection has traditionally worked:

In the last few years cinemas around the world have been gradually replacing the above method with digital projectors, which essentially replace cans of film with a large hard drive of data which is then projected via a computer system.

This video from the Electric Cinema in Birmingham shows how a local UK cinema is dealing with the transition to digital:

But why is this happening?

Think back to the first four months of 1998 when Titanic was dominating the global box office.

In cinemas around the world 35mm prints of that movie had been delivered in cans and spooled through projectors on to screens.

Although it was a box office phenomenon that played for an unusually long time, James Cameron has since revealed an interesting technical paradox about its success.

At the Cinema Con conference back in April he claimed that the only reason it didn’t play longer was because the prints physically wore out after 16 weeks.

“Titanic played so long that our prints fell apart. We actually only left theaters because our prints [had become] unwatchable. We hit the upper boundary of how long prints can run in theaters, and I can tell you how long that is – its 16 weeks. It’s a good problem to have but for the last half of that [theatrical run] they looked pretty ragged, they were all scratched up… so all that stuff is in the past and we’re really in a brave new world right now.”

The rise of digital cinema projection began in 1999 just when digital optical discs were gaining traction in the home market with the DVD format.

The first major film to be digitally projected was Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, although it was only shown on a limited number of screens in New York and Los Angeles.

Over the next decade, digital projection gradually become a reality: 2002 saw the major studios form a joint initiative to agree on technical standards and by 2007 many multiplex and arthouse screens in the UK began upgrading to digital systems.

But for wide acceptance the new system still needed a boost and in the same way that Star Wars in 1977 convinced cinemas to upgrade their sound systems, Avatar would be a game changer for visuals.

When James Cameron was making his sci-fi epic, he felt that 3D films would ride on the back of digital cinema, only to find out that its staggering commercial success actually drove the digital conversion of the remaining cinemas, as 3D movies can only be shown on digital screens.

So in the heady days of early 2010 as Avatar was overtaking Titanic as the all-time box office champ, many executives in Hollywood were convinced 3D was a magic formula, especially as it was quickly followed by the huge commercial successes of Tim Burton’s 3D version of Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3.

You could debate that those films were going to be hits anyway but studios and cinema owners looked at the numbers and felt they would be missing out if they didn’t have digital screens to show 3D movies, even if the quality was poor (as was the case with Clash of the Titans that Easter).

During 2009 there were 650 digital screens in the UK, but just a year later this had nearly trebled to 1400, with 1080 of them 3D enabled. This meant that 80 per cent of all cinema releases in the UK were on digital prints, compared to France where the figure was just 20 per cent.

Another driver has been hugely profitable animated films in 3D, such as the recent Pixar movies (Up, Toy Story 3) and even less acclaimed films like Ice Age 3 and Rio, which have been enormously profitable for studios.

The formula is a seductive one – they aren’t as risky or expensive to make as a big-budget live action film and they have a wide appeal to family audiences who often go more than once and buy their kids related merchandise.

This is why cinemas during school holidays increasingly resemble an animation convention.

But the post-Avatar boom in 3D titles has given way to a dip of sorts, with some questioning just how much it has boosted recent blockbusters, but whether the 3D trend continues or not, digital projection is here to stay.

But how long before film-based projection will effectively end?

It seems the end of 2013 will be a key moment.

Part of what is driving the digital revolution is raw economics and the reduced costs of shipping digital versions of movies to cinemas as opposed to cans of film.

At a movie conference in Australia earlier this year a participant said that major studios have made deals that will effectively end the wide distribution of film prints by 2013.

After that an independent cinema could still rent an old celluloid print, but the rise in costs will make it prohibitive for them, so in a few years this projection method will effectively be over.

At CinemCon earlier this year in Las Vegas, the head of NATO (North American Theater Owners) John Fithian said that almost 16,000 screens out of a total of 39,000 had been converted to digital and confirmed that the end of 2013 was effectively a cut off date.

He essentially urged members who hadn’t made the jump yet to get on board or go out of business:

“For any exhibitor who can hear my voice who hasn’t begun your digital transition, I urge you to get moving. The distribution and exhibition industries achieved history when we agreed to technical standards and a virtual print fee model to enable this transition. But the VPFs won’t last forever. Domestically, you must be installed by the end of 2012 if you want to qualify. Equally significantly, based on our assessment of the roll-out schedule and our conversations with our distribution partners, I believe that film prints could be unavailable as early as the end of 2013. Simply put, if you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.”

Is this a sad development or the start of a new and exciting era?

There is a lot of misplaced nostalgia about a print being lovingly threaded through a projector by a dedicated projectionist and that there is something inherently special in 35 mm.

It is true that a good print in a decent cinema looks great, but if you ventured outside of the premium cinemas that critics and filmmakers view films on, there was a different story.

Back in 2007 I saw Ocean’s Thirteen projected digitally at Warner Bros in London and it looked and sounded great – colours popped and the image was stable.

When I saw an analogue equivalent a few weeks later at a multiplex in East London, the image was dim, the print was scratched and the whole experience was less than satisfactory.

During 2009 I saw major releases such as Funny People and Sherlock Holmes on opening night at a suburban multiplex and not only were the celluloid prints degraded but it was also shown in the wrong aspect ratio (i.e. the widescreen image was clipped at the sides).

Part of the reason you don’t often hear about poor projection in the media is that most audiences don’t know any better (and who would they complain to if they did?) whilst journalists writing about films tend to see them at preview screenings at decent cinemas.

Hence you hear a lot about the decline of the projectionist as opposed to how poor the image and sound quality could be for most people who weren’t able to get to a decent cinema.

But with digital projection there are issues that still need to be addressed such as the brightness levels of 3D films and the wrong projector lenses being left on for 2D films.

As with any new technology, there will be teething problems. During a press screening at last month’s London film festival at the Odeon Leicester Square (probably the most high profile cinema in the country) faulty audio issues meant that the film had to be paused (as it was digitally projected, the image held on screen just like a DVD player)

But this isn’t primarily a technical issue, but a human one – if cinemas employed the right people to make the necessary checks then issues like this wouldn’t happen.

Multiplexes should actually continue to employ projectionists to oversee what the audience sees – cutting costs here is damaging to the long term health of the cinema experience.

In an age where it is much cheaper for audiences to rent or download a wide range of high quality films in the home, this is something they should be wary of.

As for the art-house chains in the UK, such as Picturehouse and Curzon, you could argue digital has been a success: not only is there a reduced cost for distributor and cinema but a film like Senna definitely benefited.

Watching Asif Kapadia’s documentary this summer at the HMV Curzon cinema in Wimbledon was an eye-opening experience: not only were the sound and audio excellent, but it was a good example of how digital can benefit lower budget films, as well as the big tent pole releases.

Although distributed by the UK arm of a major studio (Universal) it was a specialist release at selected cinemas which needed careful planning and the reduced costs in digital distribution almost certainly helped it become the highest grossing documentary so far this year.

It is also worth noting that digital has reduced costs for documentary filmmakers, which is perhaps why we are seeing a resurgence this year with films shot in the format from such heavy hitters such as Errol Morris (Tabloid) and Werner Herzog (Into the Abyss), along with directors newer to the genre like Kapadia.


The death of celluloid as a projection medium is only two years away, but arguably has a longer life as a tool to capture the action we end up seeing on screen.

But the long term future is less assured.

Last month the world’s leading film camera manufacturers – Arri, Panavision and Aaton – confirmed that they would cease production on traditional cameras and now focus entirely on digital models.

Arri’s VP for cameras Bill Russell said to Creative Cow recently:

“The demand for film cameras on a global basis has all but disappeared. There are still some markets – not in the U.S. – where film cameras are still sold, but those numbers are far fewer than they used to be. If you talk to the people in camera rentals, the amount of film camera utilization in the overall schedule is probably between 30 to 40 percent. In two or three years, it could be 85 percent digital and 15 percent film. But the date of the complete disappearance of film? No one knows.”

Although there will still be plenty of older camera bodies available for some time to come, it did seem to mark the end of an era: what would the medium of film be without film stock?

That question would seem to lie with Kodak and Fujifilm, the two main suppliers to the film industry.

But with the proliferation of consumer digital cameras in the home, 2011 is not a great time to be manufacturing celluloid – back in September the Wall Street Journal reported that Kodak’s share price had dropped to an all-time low as it hired lawyers to help restructure its business.

Ominously for fans of the older process, the large service companies that print and distribute celluloid for the major studios, principally Technicolor and Deluxe, have been hit by the rise of digital and are moving their processes in accordance with the times.

Technicolor recently shut their film labs in Hollywood and Montreal whilst Deluxe ceased processing 35mm and 16mm negatives at two UK facilities.

In preparation for a recent exhibition, artist Tacita Dean was shocked to discover that Deluxe had stopped processing 16mm film stock altogether.

Her latest work is simply called ‘Film’ and is essentially a love letter to the declining medium – a silent 35mm looped film projected onto a monolith standing 13 metres tall inside the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London.

In the Creative Cow article, Deluxe executive Gray Ainsworth basically admitted that they were preparing for a digital future:

“From the lab side, obviously film as a distribution medium is changing from the physical print world to file-based delivery and Digital Cinema. The big factories are absolutely in decline. Part of the planning for this has been significant investments and acquisitions to bolster the non-photochemical lab part of our business.”

With Technicolor also making investments in visual effects and 2D-to-3D conversion it seems that that two pillars of the old order are preparing for a future without celluloid.

However, film capture will remain for a few years to come with high profile directors like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan staying loyal to the traditional photochemical process.

But there is no doubt that over the last decade digital has gradually found favour with filmmakers such as Michael Mann, David Fincher and James Cameron.

If you take A-list directors as a group they are at something of a crossroads, with the film side claiming that digital is still visually inferior, whilst the digital camp say that cameras have not only caught up, but will get better and that a digital work flow saves money and time.

This split was best seen in early 2010 at a panel during the Santa Barbara Film Festival in the run up to last year’s Oscars when Quentin Tarantino declared that he would rather burn his LA repertory cinema down rather than show a digital print there [beginning at 5.20].

Whilst the crowd are laughing and applauding at Quentin for his defence of 35mm film prints, fellow panellist James Cameron can be seen shaking his head slightly as if he couldn’t disagree more, given his advocacy for digital capture and projection as the future of cinema.

Only a couple of months ago he was unveiling a new 3D rig for Arri’s Alexa M camera and said:

“People are welcoming that they can finally drive a stake through the heart of film”

From Cameron’s point of view the hurdle has been two-fold: to get filmmakers conditioned to using celluloid to embrace digital cameras and 3D.

Part of the reason is that film-based processes don’t work if you are shooting natively in 3D (as opposed to post-converting) as you need to sync both stereo channels with precision, which can’t really be achieved using conventional film cameras.

Whilst the jury may be out on 3D, it seems that the last 18 months have marked a tipping point for sceptical directors and cinematographers.

Arri were instrumental in shaping the film camera throughout the twentieth century, inventing the world’s first reflex shutter camera in 1937 – the Arri 35 – and then its successor the Arri 35 II, which is amongst the most influential 35mm cameras ever built, with its portable and durable design gracing numerous features and documentaries.

The Arri Alexa could be to the digital era what the 35 II was for the age of celluloid, with world class cinematographers like Roger Deakins and Robert Richardson using it, with Deakins saying in a recent interview with the British Society of Cinematographers:

“I was surprised how quickly I became comfortable shooting with a digital camera”

Richardson shot the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo in 3D using the aforementioned Alexa M camera and films such as Melancholia, Drive and Anonymous were all shot using the camera and the quality of the images appears to have won over many digital sceptics.

Anna Foerster, the DP on Roland Emmerich’s new film Anonymous, has said of the camera:

“It was interesting because so far I have always shot on 35 mm and I kind of felt lucky that I had escaped digital for so long. I think that the moment I was confronted with digital was the moment we reached a level that is absolutely amazing and incomparable to what has come before”

The pioneering company in the digital realm were RED whose cameras were embraced by Steven Soderbergh, Doug Liman and David Fincher and with the new Hobbit films being shot on them it would appear Peter Jackson has fully signed up to the digital revolution.

Soderbergh has shot all of his recent films on the RED camera (starting with Che in 2008) and talks here about what it means for directors:

Interestingly, the biggest release of next year will buck the digital trend – The Dark Knight Rises will be shot on a combination of IMAX and 35mm film stock, which will provide resolutions higher than any current digital camera can muster.

But even Christopher Nolan has admitted that the bulk of camera research and development over the last decade has gone into digital, so he represents an exception rather than the rule.

However, Nolan and his DP Wally Pfister are stout defenders of film-based cameras for a reason – the image captured on them can look phenomenal if done correctly.

At this year’s Cine Gear Expo 2011 Rob Hummel gave a talk as to why film is still a superior capture format:

Again at the recent London film festival I saw back-to-back press screenings of Like Crazy and Pariah on the NFT screen at the BFI Southbank, which is one of the best cinema screens in the country.

There was no question that Like Crazy (shot on Canon DSLR cameras) looked inferior to Pariah (shot using 35mm on an Arri Camlite), which demonstrates that film stock still has a place as a capture medium.

Cinematographer John Bailey spoke earlier this year about why he still shoots on film and the dilemma facing movie archives if we eventually move in to an all digital world:

But what does this march towards digital capture and projection mean for the industry and the average cinema goer?

Whilst some audience members won’t immediately notice the difference, digital projection means greater stability of image and perhaps an opportunity for lower budget films to make a greater mark, as it reduces distribution costs in the long run.

For many filmmakers, it represents the dawn of a new era in which workflows and resolutions will improve as sensors, lenses and on-set data systems (such as those used on Hugo) allow greater flexibility once they have adapted to the possibilities afforded to them by newer and ever improving technology.

For celluloid though the end has already begun, as the photochemical process which sustained cinema for over a century slowly fades into an oncoming digital reality.

> More on film stock at Wikipedia
> Matt Zoeller Seitz at Salon on the death of film
> WSJ on Kodak’s problems
> DLP cinema
> Time Out on the decline of projectionists

Interesting News Technology

James Cameron Accepts Popular Mechanics Award

James Cameron recently accepted the Popular Mechanics award for Breakthrough Leadership in 2011 where he discussed technology, filmmaking and the Avatar sequels.

Here is video of Popular Mechanics Editor-in-Chief Jim Meigs and Sigourney Weaver presenting the award to Cameron and his subsequent speech:

Earlier in the day he spoke at length to Meigs, where they discussed his early sci-fi influences, the importance of 2001: A Space Odyssey, why filmmakers should embrace technology, deep-sea exploration and the real-world influences on Avatar:

Here is the subsequent audience Q&A where he discusses higher frame rates, how the US can get its innovative edge back, the presentation of scientists on film and the experience of 3D in cinemas and the home.

> Popular Mechanics Archives
> Q&A print interview at Popular Mechanics
> Lengthy 2009 video interview where Cameron talks about the visual effects of Avatar
> More on James Cameron at Wikipedia
> Voice Cameos of James Cameron


Voice Cameos of James Cameron

Director James Cameron can often be heard making off-screen voice cameos in his movies.

In the The Terminator (1984), some have speculated that he voices the guy who leaves an answerphone message for Sarah Connor, cancelling their date for the evening.

But although it could be him putting on an accent, it seems more likely he is the motel receptionist later in the film who checks Sarah and Kyle Reese in as they flee the killer cyborg.

At a Terminator promotional event in 1991, Cameron admitted that he provided some of the sounds for the Alien Queen in Aliens (1986), dubbing them at his house near Pinewood Studios.

Near the beginning of The Abyss (1989), he began a tradition of voicing a pilot, as we can hear him ask for clearence to land a helicopter on the Benthic Explorer ship as he drops off the Navy SEAL team.

In Terminator 2 (1991) he went back to voicing villains, providing the screams of the T-1000 as it interacted with molten steel towards the end of the film.

With True Lies (1994), he was back to voicing pilots, as one of the Marine Harrier pilots who fires upon the terrorist convoy on the Overseas Highway bridge.

With Titanic (1997), his voice cameo is easily missed as a faint voice on deck asking a fellow passenger about ‘talk of an iceberg’. (Unusually, he also makes couple of visual cameos in the background of two scenes)

Avatar (2009) saw him return to pilot mode as he can be heard on the radio as Quaritch’s forces begin their attack on Hometree.

I’m guessing he finds voice cameos easier than making a distracting visual appearence and that it’s easier to dub in some dialogue during post-production.

> More on James Cameron at Wikipedia
> T2 fan event in 1991


Abu Dhabi Media Summit 2011

Earlier this year the Abu Dhabi Media Summit took place with some key Hollywood figures talking about issues facing the industry.

Firstly, director James Cameron spoke with News Corp’s European CEO James Murdoch about a variety of topics affecting the film business including:

  • The future of 3D
  • Technology and risk taking
  • The nature of business in Hollywood
  • Dealing with crisis
  • Exploration and the environment
  • The future of entertainment
  • Breaking down the barriers of reality and film

The conversation runs for 41 minutes and can be seen here:

The second panel was called ‘Hollywood Power Shifts’ and dealt with the wider issues facing the entertainment business.

Hosted by Dan Sabbagh of The Guardian, the guests included: Mohammed Al Mubarak (Chairman, Imagenation Abu Dhabi); Skip Brittenham (Senior Partner and Founder, Ziffren, Brittenham LLP); Ari Emanuel (Co-CEO WME Entertainment); Jim Gianopulos (Co-chairman & CEO, Fox Filmed Entertainment) and Walter Parkes (Former DreamWorks president and currently co-head of Parkes-MacDonald Productions).

The discussion covers:

  • The relationship between the consumers and content
  • Piracy and the role of Internet Service Providers
  • How social media affects studio marketing
  • Sequels and remakes
  • The possible power shift from West to East
  • How text messaging is helping movies with subtitles
  • How Muslim culture is represented in Hollywood movies
  • The changing nature of content (movies, TV and the web)
  • Brands and movies
Skip to 6.05 to get to the discussion:

There is was also an interesting talk called ‘Content and the Cloud’ by Charlie Boswell (Director of Digital Media and Entertainment at AMD) and Jules Urbach (Founder and CEO, OTOY).

They discuss how how filmmakers and game companies can benefit from using cloud technology to make and deliver content.

Although it may seem a little technical, the implications of what they say could be profound for movie studios and games companies.

They discuss how:

  • Production houses can shift heavy duty work to the cloud (e.g. Avatar and The Social Network)
  • How the cloud could revolutionise how movie studios deliver content
  • The possible end of optical discs (DVD and Blu-ray) and the rise of streaming via the cloud
  • Bandwidth issues
  • The relationship between games and movies

Given the direction Apple are moving in with iCloud, this is an area worth watching closely.

> YouTube channel for the 2011 Summit
> More on the Abu Dhabi Media Summit at Wikipedia

Directors Interesting

Steven Spielberg Panel at the DGA

The DGA recently paid tribute to Steven Spielberg with a panel event that included Michael Apted, James Cameron and J.J. Abrams.

Held on June 11th at the DGA Theater in Los Angeles, it was part of their 75th Anniversary ‘Game-Changer’ series of events.

After an introduction from current DGA president Taylor Hackford, Michael Apted hosts a discussion which sees Abrams and Cameron ask Spielberg questions about his films and career.

It isn’t availabe as an embed but if you click on the image below, it will take you to the DGA page where – if you scroll down a bit –  the full video can be found, along with highlights and photos:

Lasting over 90 minutes, it is a fascinating talk and covers:

  • The famous boat scene in Jaws (1975)
  • Abrams coming across the script for Jaws at Spielberg’s house
  • Using motion capture on his upcoming film version of Tin-Tin (2011)
  • Cameron’s love of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and how it influenced him
  • The early visual effects Spielberg employed on Close Encounters and why he re-shot the ending
  • The classic fight scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and the fact that Spielberg didn’t get ill whilst filming in Tunisia because he had Sainsbury’s canned food shipped in from the UK.
  • Tips on directing children and how a fantastic preview screening of E.T. (1982) upset actor Henry Thomas
  • How he had to adapt his directorial style for Schindler’s List (1993)
  • The visual effects breakthroughs on Jurassic Park (1993)
  • Being inspired by the films of David Lean and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  • How he edited on an Avid for the first time on the upcoming War Horse (2011)
  • How he was being glib when he once advised young directors to wear ‘comfortable shoes’
  • The importance of collaboration and listening to co-workers
  • How he loves shooting in England because the crew there call the director ‘Guv’.
  • JJ Abrams and James Cameron also have nice closing statements about how they have been inspired by him
  • Spielberg also closes by talking about his biggest regret, the film he’s proudest of and the one that most closely resembled his original vision.

[Via /Film]

> Steven Spielberg at Wikipedia and the IMDb

Behind The Scenes Interesting

20 Things about Terminator 2

It is 20 years since Terminator 2: Judgment Day opened in US cinemas, so to celebrate here are 20 facts about the film you may not know.

1. It is technically an independent film
The first Terminator was made outside the studio system, as it was funded by Hemdale Pictures and distributed by Orion. Although the original film was a box office hit in 1984, the sequel was held up by various legal issues which were only resolved when Carolco stepped in to purchase the rights. Run by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, the company had become very successful in the 1980s on the back of the Rambo franchise – First Blood (1982) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984) – the latter of which Cameron co-wrote. So, although a big budget spectacular, it was independently financed outside the studio system.

2. James Cameron had previously sold his rights to the franchise for $1
Although he created the iconic character and story, Cameron sold his stake in any future sequels for the nominal sum of $1 before the first film was even made. His reasoning was that this was the only way he would be allowed to direct his first feature film. As it established his career, he later said that was the price of a ‘Hollywood education’. In 2009 he told the Toronto Sun :

“I wish I hadn’t sold the rights for one dollar. If I had a little time machine and I could only send back something the length of a tweet, it’d be – ‘Don’t sell.’

Although he was paid a reported $6m to write and direct T2, he has never seen any money from any of the subsequent films, TV shows or merchandising.

3. The film has a strange connection with the Rodney King incident
The biker bar scene where the T800 arrives was filmed just across the road from where LAPD officers assaulted Rodney King in March 1991. The famous amateur video, shot by George Holliday, is reputed to have two bits of footage on it. One is the T2 crew filming shots of Schwarzenegger and Furlong on a motorbike in the San Fernando Valley and the other – shot later – is of several police officers beating the crap out of King.

The resulting trial of the officers and their controversial acquittal triggered the LA riots of April 1992.

The irony is that the villain of T2 is a cop. When writing the script several months before filming, Cameron wrestled with what form the T-1000 would settle on and in Rebecca Keegan’s biography ‘The Futurist’ explained why he chose a police officer:

“The Terminator films are not really about the human race getting killed off by future machines. They’re about us losing touch with our own humanity and becoming machines, which allows us to kill and brutalise each other. Cops think of all non-cops as less than they are, stupid, weak and evil. They dehumanise the people they are sworn to protect and desensitise themselves in order to do that job.”

4. The groundbreaking visuals involved the first version of Photoshop
Dennis Muren of ILM was in charge of the 35 CGI artists who achieved the ground breaking visual effects of T2. Using techniques that had been pioneered in The Abyss (1987) and Willow (1988), the breakthrough came with a new piece of software that was the first version of Photoshop.

John Knoll of ILM and his brother Thomas Knoll (a PhD student at the University of Michigan) had developed the program, and like the chip in the movie which takes Cyberdyne in new directions, it allowed them to create the remarkable liquid effects in the pseudopod sequence in The Abyss (the first film ever to use Photoshop) and the morphing transitions in Ron Howard’s Willow (where humans turn in to animals).

For Terminator 2 Cameron decided to go much further and have a major character which was heavily reliant on the emerging digital tools. ILM created a version of what would become the scene where a silvery T-1000 walks out of the fiery wreckage of a burning truck.

Cameron was impressed and the visual effects budget ended up being $6m (a huge sum at the time), but it raised the bar for the entire industry. Muren and ILM would build on their work by creating the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park (1993) – if you look closely at the scene where Cyberdyne Systems is introduced you can spot an inflatable dinosaur hanging from the ceiling.

5. Billy Idol was the original choice for the T-1000
Hemdale had wanted O.J. Simpson to play the Terminator in the original film and T2 had its own strange moment of casting when Billy Idol was considered for the role of the T-1000. Cameron even featured the rocker in early concept drawings for the character but after he got injured in a motorcycle accident Idol was replaced by Robert Patrick.

6. English censors had major problems with two scenes
The BBFC objected to the scene in the psychiatric hospital where Sarah Connor picks a lock with a paper-clip, as they felt it was too realistic and might encourage people to copy it. They also had issues with the shoot out at Cyberdyne Systems where the T-800 shoots several SWAT team members in the leg as it resembled the old IRA practice where paramilitaries shot victims through their kneecaps.

7. Two sets of twins were used in the film
Two scenes utilised a pair of identical twins to create the illusion of the T-1000 in disguise as another character. Don and Dan Stanton (who had previously been in Good Morning Vietnam) played the hospital security guard who gets caught out at the coffee machine. Linda Hamilton’s twin sister was used as a double in the climactic fight and another (deleted) scene involving a mirror.

8. It was the most expensive film ever made
At a budget of $102m it was, at the time, the most expensive film ever made. But, like the Rambo movies, it was funded by pre-sales to foreign distributors. With Schwarzenegger and Cameron now much more bankable figures at the box office, Carolco not only raised the budget easily but had even made a profit before the film was released. Cameron’s future films Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) would also become the most expensive made up to that point, as well as the most successful.

9. Cameron also produced Point Break whilst preparing T2
During the preparation for T2, Cameron also served as producer on Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break. Cameron had married Bigelow in 1989 and had also directed her in a music video (‘Reach’ by Martini Ranch), where she played the leader of a cowgirl gang.

Point Break was originally known as Johnny Utah and Bigelow was determined to cast Keanu Reeves in the lead role, which puzzled Cameron as the actor was best known for the Bill and Ted movies. The film would open the week after T2 in July 1991 and was a box office success which established Reeves as an action star.

10. Arnold Schwarzenegger was initially disappointed with his ‘good’ character
Cameron completed the script in a marathon 36 hour writing session in May 1990, just before flying to the Cannes film festival where Carolco officially announced it. When Cameron first told him of the idea that the T-800 would kill anyone, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a little concerned that the Terminator would not actually terminate anyone.

11. Part of Robert Patrick’s anatomy had to be digitally removed from one scene
For the scene where the naked T-1000 arrives and steals the cops clothes, the effects team had to digitally remove a sensitive part of Robert Patrick’s anatomy. But on video versions of the film it partially showed up, prompting Cameron to later joke that he wanted his money back for the “digital willy removal”.

12. Linda Hamilton became deaf in one ear during filming
In the elevator sequence where Sarah Connor escapes from the hospital with John and the T-800, Hamilton went for a bathroom break and forgot to put her ear plugs back in. When Schwarzenegger fired his shotgun at the T-1000 above right by her, it resulted in serious hearing loss in one ear.

13. Practical make-up was blended with the CGI
The visual effects by ILM were skilfully blended with practical special effects and make-up from Stan Winston’s studio which involved the deteriorating face and body of the T-800 and the changes in the T-1000 as it got shot and physically distorted.

14. The sounds of the film were a lot cheaper than the visuals
The sound of the T1000 morphing was achieved in a number of cost-effective ways. When it moves through the bars at the psychiatric hospital, we are hearing the sound of a can of dog food being emptied. Another foley effect was achieved by dipping a condom-covered microphone into a mixture of flour and water and then shooting compressed air into it.

15. The freeway chase involved some highly dangerous stunt work
Cameron shot the helicopter chase on the freeway himself as his Steadicam operator felt it was too risky. If you look closely you’ll see an actual chopper fly under the freeway overpass and in a later shot just clear a bridge. Cameron implicitly trusted his helicopter pilot, but also admitted that a stunt involving the T800 jumping on to a moving truck was “really dangerous” and that he wouldn’t have done it in later films.

16. The ending was changed late on
The original ending saw an older Sarah Connor look at her son John playing with his daughter in a peaceful future scenario but was cut after a test screening at Skywalker Ranch. Carolco felt it would ruin any future sequels and Cameron relented with a rewrite just one month before the film’s release, using road footage from the scene just before the attack on Cyberdyne Systems. The first ending can be seen in later special editions of the film.

17. It was the highest grossing film of 1991 and won 4 Oscars
When it eventually did open on July 4th weekend in 1991, it opened in 2,274 cinemas and half of all tickets sold in America were for T2. It earned $54 million during that weekend and would eventually gross $204 million in the United States and $519 million worldwide. 

At the 64th Academy Awards it won Oscars for Best Sound, Best Make Up, Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Editing. It was nominated for Best Cinematography and Film Editing.

18. Despite the huge success of T2 Carolco later went bankrupt
Although Carolco made had major hits such as T2 and Basic Instinct (1992), the company played a risky game in the early 1990s. As their budgets grew, they needed to have hit after hit to sustain their growing costs. Whilst major studios had the protection of a larger corporate owner, Carolco eventually came to grief with the disastrous releases of Cutthroat Island and Showgirls in 1995. Both were costly flops and the company filed for bankruptcy, with most of their assets being purchased for $50 million. Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna later created C2 Pictures which produced Terminator 3 in 2003.

19. It got a timely DVD release in August 1997
T2 has been released by several different companies on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray. In 1993, the Special Edition cut of the film was released to Laserdisc and VHS, containing 17 minutes of never-before-seen footage including a dream sequence featuring Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, a scene where John Connor prevents Sarah from destroying the Terminator and the original epilogue of an elderly Sarah in the future.

The subsequent “Ultimate Edition” and “Extreme Edition” releases also contain this version of the film. When it was first released on DVD as a single disc in August 1997 – the same month as the original ‘judgement day’ in the film.

20. Skynet went live around the same time as Google
In the film we learn that Skynet goes live on August 29th 1997, whilst in real life the domain name for Google was registered on September 15th 1997. Coincidence? 😉

> Buy Rebecca Keegan’s biography of James Cameron The Futurist at Amazon UK
> Find out more about T2 at Wikipedia and IMDb

News Technology Thoughts

The End of the Cinema Experience?

Last week some major questions about the cinema experience were raised at Cinema Con, the annual convention of American theater owners in Las Vegas.

Previously known as ShoWest, the convention has been relaunched and gathers the National Association of Theatre Owners, who represent over 30,000 movie screens in the US and additional cinema chains from around the world.

Studios go there to preview their big summer blockbusters and get exhibitors excited for upcoming titles like Super 8 and Real Steel.

It is an important place to spot industry trends this year two of the big ones were: higher frame rates and a controversial video on demand scheme backed by four of the major studios.


One of the fundamentals of cinema is that films are shown at 24 frames per second, as light is projected through a print on to a screen.

Even with the rise of digital projection systems, this has essentially stayed the same as audiences have got used to this particular look.

One major panel at Cinema Con saw James Cameron, George Lucas and Jeffrey Katzenberg discuss higher framerates for how films are projected.

Cameron was advocating that films in cinemas should be projected at 48 fps or 60fps and that the current generation of digital projectors could easily adopt this with a software upgrade.

But what would films screened at higher frame rates actually look like?

Visual effects maestro Douglas Trumbull has long been advocating higher frame rates with his Showscan cinematic process.

After his pioneering work on films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982), Trumbull came up with the idea for projecting higher quality images at 60fps on bigger cinema screens.

This NBC news clip in 1984 shows Trumbull promoting Showscan:

For various reasons, it never took off even though in 1993, Trumbull, Geoffrey Williamson, Robert Auguste and Edmund DiGiulio were awarded a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for devloping the system.

Trumbull persisted with a digital version of Showscan, which he thinks has a place in modern cinemas and can improve regular movies as well as those shot on 3D.

In this 2010 video, Trumbull demonstrates Showscan Digital:

Back at CinemaCon, Cameron indicated that he plans to shoot his upcoming Avatar sequels using a technique similar to Showscan.

He unveiled a series of basic scenes shot by Russell Carpenter (his DP on True Lies and Titanic) which involved a medieval set.

They included a lot of camera movements such as pans and sweeps that often cause “strobing” or the appearance of flicker.

The scenes involved included a banquet and a sword fight and part of the presentation was to compare them at different framerates: 24, 48 and 60, as well as 3D.

He spoke earlier this year of his desire for higher frame rates in a talk with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt:

Part of the argument against higher frame rates is that 24fps is the established look of film and to mess with it is unwise and will make films look weird.

It could also be argued that it would tend to benefit the action spectaculars Cameron specialises in.

But given how much money the director has generated for cinema owners with Terminator 2 (1991), Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), the audience would have given serious consideration to his idea.

As studios struggle to deal with declining DVD profits and cinema owners struggle to adapt to shifting audience expectations, it is a development worth watching over the next couple of years.

But that wasn’t the biggest news story to come out of Cinema Con as four of the major studios dropped a major bombshell regarding how films are distributed.


One of the hot topics for the film industry that has been smouldering for a number of years is the issue of the release window.

Since the advent of home video in the early 1980s, there was an established pattern of release for a movie which allowed it to be screened first at cinemas, then on video a few months later and eventually on TV platforms.

Each stage made money for the studios and it was important that one didn’t cannibalise the other.

But over the years the window has gradually shortened to the point that films hit DVD and Blu-ray around 3 months after they have opened in cinemas.

There is a now a growing movement of people that feel the release window is outdated and that audiences should be able to legally access films via download or pay-per-view at the same time as they are released in cinemas.

Obviously, the exhibitors are dead against this.

Not only would it potentially cut into their profits but could be the beginning of a slippery slope where the cinema experience would be badly damaged, perhaps fatally.

So when the news broke during CinemaCon that four of the major studios (Warner Bros., Fox, Sony and Universal) had signed up to a premium VOD service with satellite company DirectTV, it was a major slap in the face to exhibitors.

The details are that DirecTV will allow users to stream titles to their home from April, beginning with titles such as Unknown (the Liam Neeson thriller which came out in the US on February 18th) and Just Go With It (the Adam Sandler comedy which had a February 11th release in the US).

Wide theatrical releases will become available on this service just 60 days after they open at cinemas, at a cost of $30.

This means that the window of release has been shortened even further and NATO (National Association of Theater Owners) issued a swift statement, expressing “surprise and strong disappointment” at the move.

Firstly, they were pissed at the basic idea:

On March 30, it was reported that Warner Bros., Fox, Sony and Universal planned to release a certain number of their films to the home 60 days after their theatrical release in “premium” Video on Demand at a price point of $30. On behalf of its members, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) expresses our surprise and strong disappointment.

Then there was the timing (although I guess the studios plan was to ruffle feathers and get attention):

Theater operators were not consulted or informed of the substance, details or timing of this announcement. It’s particularly disappointing to confront this issue today, while we are celebrating our industry partnerships at our annual convention – CinemaCon – in Las Vegas. NATO has repeatedly, publicly and privately, raised concerns and questions about the wisdom of shortening the theatrical release window to address the studios’ difficulties in the home market.

Then there was the risks of ‘early-to-the-home VoD’:

We have pointed out the strength of theatrical exhibition — revenues have grown in four of the last five years — and that early-to-the-home VoD will import the problems of the home entertainment market into the theatrical market without fixing those problems. The studios have not managed to maintain a price point in the home market and we expect that they will be unable to do so with early VoD. They risk accelerating the already intense need to maximize revenues on every screen opening weekend and driving out films that need time to develop—like many of the recent Academy Award-nominated pictures.

Piracy also got a mention:

They risk exacerbating the scourge of movie theft by delivering a pristine, high definition, digital copy to pirates months earlier than they had previously been available.

Interestingly, Paramount is mentioned as being a hold out. (Could this be because Viacom boss Sumner Redstone has a background in movie exhibition?):

Paramount has explicitly cited piracy as a reason they will not pursue early VoD. Further, they risk damaging theatrical revenues without actually delivering what the home consumer seems to want, which is flexibility, portability and a low price.

Then the big guns really came out:

These plans fundamentally alter the economic relationship between exhibitors, filmmakers and producers, and the studios taking part in this misguided venture. We would expect cinema owners to respond to such a fundamental change and to reevaluate all aspects of their relationships with these four studios. As NATO’s Executive Board noted in their open letter of June 16, 2010, the length of a movie’s release window is an important economic consideration for theater owners in whether, how widely and under what terms they book a film.

Additionally, cinema owners devote countless hours of screen time each year to trailers promoting the movies that will play on their screens. With those trailers now arguably promoting movies that will appear shortly in the home market to the detriment of theater admissions, we can expect theater owners to calculate just how much that valuable screen time is worth to their bottom lines and to the studios that have collapsed the release window. The same consideration will no doubt be given to the acres of wall and floor space devoted to posters and standees.

And to finish there was what appeared to be a thinly veiled threat:

In the end, the entire motion picture community will have a say in how the industry moves forward. These studios have made their decision in what they no doubt perceive to be their best interests. Theater owners will do the same.

The above words could be read as: “You want to put Liam Neeson thrillers and Adam Sandler comedies on to VOD? Fine, we just won’t show them”.

Exhibitors still have this powerful weapon.

If they choose not to promote or even screen films, then that would almost certainly turn an expensively assembled theatrical release into a straight-to-DVD leper.

Earlier this year, the UK’s three big cinema chains – Odeon, Vue and Cineworld – threatened to boycott Alice in Wonderland in protest against Disney’s plan to shorten the theatrical run by bringing forward the DVD release date.

Eventually, agreements were reached but it highlighted the fact that big studios also have a powerful bargaining chip: they have the hit films cinemas need in order to survive.

But is it conceivable that in the future they could make a major film available on home platforms and bypass cinemas?

It would appear that established filmmakers are on the side of the cinemas.

During a Warner Bros presentation for The Hangover Part II, director Todd Phillips got wild applause for pledging his support for exhibitors.

Even futurists like Cameron and Lucas are still big believers in the theatrical experience.

But if you are on the studio side advocating the VOD argument, you might think that this is a bridge that should be crossed sooner rather than later.

The costs of digital distribution are lower and VOD potentially reaches the audiences who can’t make it to a cinema.

With lower-budget films dependent of word of mouth such as 127 Hours or Win Win, a studio like Fox Searchlight might argue that a mixed model of theatrical and VOD might benefit those films, as they would get more people watching and paying for them than is currently the case.

Strangely, it could be the more specialised films with lower marketing budgets that benefit more from the current plans.

But there are also those arguing that folding the release window is a suicidal move that would kill profits.

Former Twentieth Century Fox chief Bill Mechanic said to Bloomberg:

Every time [a film] plays the studios are earning back more money. If you eliminate all that to one window, it is completely destructive to the overall film business. This is myopic …very short-sighted and a very bad idea.

An anonymous columnist posted on The Wrap warning of a cinema apocalypse:

Film studios seem determined to kill the movie business completely. After putting video stores out of business by authorizing Redbox to rent videos for $1 per day from what amounts to a Coke machine, now they want to put movie theaters in a coma by authorizing a new at-home video-on-demand release during what has until now been the exclusive first-run theater window. As for the impact on theatrical attendance, I believe it will be devastating. However, among studio execs the best case quoted to me was a 10 percent drop in attendance with the executives insisting that, “Some theaters will close, others will raise prices … it’s all good.” The reality is that a 10 percent drop in total attendance, across the board and permanent, will cause 2/3 of all the theaters in the U.S. to close their doors and never open again.

Perhaps the uncomfortable truth is that there is a larger cultural change going on.

Although large numbers of the general public enjoy going to the cinema, the pace of technological change in devices (TVs, computers) and the distribution of films has made a key section of the audience impatient as to what, when and where the see something.

Major studios can gauge this and are willing to burn bridges with exhibitors in order to satisfy this demand and reduce their distribution costs.

I don’t think anyone film fan wants to see the theatrical experience go away, as it remains the best way to experience the medium.

But this move by the big studios makes it feel like major changes are just over the horizon.

DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Blu-ray: Avatar Extended Collector’s Edition

James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster finally gets the special edition treatment with the Avatar: Collector’s Extended Edition (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) after a barebones release back in the Spring.

In case you didn’t catch what is now the most financially successful film in history at cinemas, the story involves an ex-Marine (Sam Worthington) who to an exotic alien planet where is caught between a battle between the natives and the human colonists.

The image quality of the original Blu-ray transfer was stunning. Even without the 3D aspect, which helped bump up ticket sales in cinemas, the quality of the visuals is exemplary with the live action and visual effects shots integrating wonderfully.

With this extended edition the major selling point is that this package contains three different cuts: the original theatrical release, the special edition re-release, and the exclusive extended cut not shown in theaters.

Added to this are around eight hours of bonus features that exhaustively detail the production of the film.

The three discs break down as follows:

Disc 1: Three Movie Versions

  • Original Theatrical Edition (includes family audio track with objectionable language removed)
  • Special Edition Re-Release (includes family audio track with objectionable language removed)
  • Collector’s Extended Cut with 16 additional minutes, including alternate opening on earth

Disc 2: Filmmaker’s Journey

  • Over 45 minutes of never-before-seen deleted scenes
  • Screen tests, on-set footage, and visual-effects reels
  • Capturing Avatar: Feature-length documentary covering the 16-year filmmakers’ journey, including interviews with James Cameron, Jon Landau, cast and crew
  • A Message from Pandora: James Cameron’s visit to the Amazon rainforest
  • The 2006 art reel: Original pitch of the Avatar vision
  • Brother termite test: Original motion capture test
  • The ILM prototype: Visual effects reel
  • Screen tests: Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldana
  • Zoë’s life cast: Makeup session footage
  • On-set footage as live-action filming begins
  • VFX progressions
  • Crew film: The Volume

Disc 3: Pandora’s Box

  • Interactive scene deconstruction: Explore the stages of production of 17 different scenes through three viewing modes: capture level, template level, and final level with picture-in-picture reference
  • Production featurettes: Sculpting Avatar, Creating the Banshee, Creating the Thanator, The AMP Suit, Flying Vehicles, Na’vi Costumes, Speaking Na’vi, Pandora Flora, Stunts, Performance Capture, Virtual Camera, The 3D Fusion Camera, The Simul-Cam, Editing Avatar, Scoring Avatar, Sound Design, The Haka: The Spirit of New Zealand
  • Avatar original script
  • Avatar screenplay by James Cameron
  • Pandorapedia: Comprehensive guide to Pandora
  • Lyrics from five songs by James Cameron
  • The art of Avatar: Over 1,850 images in 16 themed galleries (The World of Pandora, The Creatures, Pandora Flora, Pandora Bioluminescence, The Na’vi, The Avatars, Maquettes, Na’vi Weapons, Na’vi Props, Na’vi Musical Instruments, RDA Designs, Flying Vehicles, AMP Suit, Human Weapons, Land Vehicles, One-Sheet Concepts)
  • BD-Live extras (requires BD-Live-enabled player and Internet connection–may be available a limited-time only): Crew Short: The Night Before Avatar; additional screen tests, including Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, and Laz Alonso; speaking Na’vi rehearsal footage; Weta Workshop: walk-and-talk presentation

Avatar Collector’s Extended Edition is out today from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

> Buy it on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> IMDb entry


James Cameron vs Glenn Beck


Director James Cameron had some strong words for Fox News host Glenn Beck yesterday calling him a “fu**ing a**hole” and a “madman”.

At a press event for the home entertainment launch of Avatar in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Cameron let rip when asked about Beck:

“Glenn Beck is a f***ing a**hole. I’ve met him. He called me the anti-Christ, and not about Avatar. He hadn’t even seen Avatar yet. I don’t know if he has seen it.”

The Hollywood Reporter has noted that Cameron’s beef with Beck goes back to 2007 when the talk show host was working for CNN and criticised the Cameron-produced documentary ‘The Lost Tomb of Jesus‘ by saying:

“Many people believe James Cameron officially has tossed his hat in the ring today and is officially running for anti-Christ.”

Cameron was less than thrilled with Beck’s comments:

“He’s dangerous because his ideas are poisonous. I couldn’t believe when he was on CNN. I thought, what happened to CNN? Who is this guy? Who is this madman? And then of course he wound up on Fox News, which is where he belongs, I guess.”

He later backtracked a little saying:

“You know what, he may or may not be an a**hole, but he certainly is dangerous, and I’d love to have a dialogue with him.”

Interestingly, both men have made a lot of money for Rupert Murdoch as Avatar was mostly funded and released by 20th Century Fox whilst Beck is one of the stars of Fox News.

In the same session Cameron also attacked climate change deniers:

“Anybody that is a global warming denier at this point in time has got their head so deeply up their ass I’m not sure they could hear me.”

The environmental themes of Avatar are forming a big part of its home video release, a point which Cameron was keen to emphasise:

“Look, at this point I’m less interested in making money for the movie and more interested in saving the world that my children are going to inhabit. How about that? I mean, look, I didn’t make this movie with these strong environmental anti-war themes in it to make friends on the right, you know.”

The DVD and Blu-ray release date for Avatar is April 22nd, which is also Earth Day.

> Avatar at the IMDb
> Find out more about James Cameron and Glenn Beck at Wikipedia
> Pre-order the Avatar Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK


James Cameron at the NRDC Event

An interesting and lengthy interview with James Cameron for a special online edition of KCRW’s The Treatment, recorded live at a benefit for the Natural Resources Defense Council.


Amusing Awards Season Images

The Oscars in one image


If there is one image that sums up this year’s Oscar race, it is this hilarious shot of Avatar director James Cameron and The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow from last night’s ceremony.

They were once married, but contrary to a lot of lazy media coverage in the build up to the awards, remain friends and even consult each other on their respective film projects.

Cameron urged his ex-wife to do The Hurt Locker after reading the script and even screened Avatar for Bigelow several times in post production to solicit her opinion on the sci-fi blockbuster.

Also, both films were – in their different ways – about the Iraq War as Cameron pointed out in an interview with CBS recently.

Someone has also done a nice Muckety map of the connections between the two directors.

In a way, it all worked out nicely as Avatar scooped the technical awards it deserved, as well as becoming the biggest grossing film of all time.

Meanwhile The Hurt Locker went from a film that almost no major studio wanted to make or release to a  Best Picture winner that also made Bigelow the first woman to get a Best Director Oscar.


James Cameron at TED


Box Office News

Avatar beats Titanic to break all-time box office record

James Cameron has conquered the worldwide box office again as Avatar has now beaten previous record holder Titanic to become the highest worldwide grosser of all time.

With weekend figures for his latest film adding up to a staggering $1.838 billion worldwide, this weekend’s expected $15 million US earnings allowed it to do what many thought was unthinkable and surpass his 1997 epic, which had a worldwide gross of $1.842 billion.

‘Titanic’ still remains the highest grosser domestically in the US with $600.8 million, but it only seems like a matter of time before Cameron’s latest film catches up after already earning $551.7 million as of Monday.

It is a remarkable achievement, as Titanic seemed a one off that would never be repeated, but the combination of multiple repeat viewings and the higher ticket prices for 3D screenings helped turn it into a tsunami of cash for 20th Century Fox.

Part of the key to its mainstream success lies in the fact that this is the first live action 3D film for a mass mainstream audience. Although 3D has become the norm at cinemas for animated films over the last 18 months, live action films such as The Final Destination were gimmicky and few and far between.

But Avatar was designed from the beginning as a spectacular and immersive 3D experience which would be shown on as many new digital screens as possible.

It was a calculated gamble for Fox and Cameron to push this technology on such a high profile film, which wasn’t an established property or sequel, but it has paid off handsomely.

Another aspect worth noting is how well it has done in markets such as China and Russia, which were harder to tap back in the late 1990s and this certainly helped its global box office numbers.

Why has it hit such a chord with audiences?

The combination of ground breaking visuals and a universal story line that fits neatly into many global cultures would appear to be the primary reasons but we should also bear in mind the Christmas box office, which features less competition than the summer.

Can it break the $2 billion barrier? At this point few would bet against it.

Cinema Thoughts


Neyteri (Zoe Saldana) and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in a scene from 'Avatar' / Photo credit: WETA & 20th Century Fox

The long awaited blockbuster from director James Cameron is a remarkable visual achievement and a thrilling sci-fi drama.

Anticipation over what Avatar would be has reached fever pitch in recent months as speculation mounted: Would the 3D change the way audiences see cinema? Why did it cost so much? What’s with all the blue aliens? And why is it called Avatar?

The less than ecstatic reaction in various quarters to the trailers and preview footage in the summer, combined with some sluggish tracking numbers, were probably enough to make folks at 20th Century Fox a little nervous.

But the simple fact is that Avatar really delivers. For the 163 minute running time it takes you on an adventure and into a different world with all manner of thrilling sights and sounds.

Set in the year 2154, the story and centres on a wheelchair bound US marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), sent on a mission to the planet of Pandora, replacing his recently deceased twin brother.

It has been partly colonised by humans who are trying to mine it for rare minerals because Earth is on the bring of ecological collapse.

Sully’s mission is to mix with Pandora’s native aliens the Na’vi by becoming an Avatar, a hybrid alien which he ‘becomes’ under lab conditions, as if in a dream.

Aided by the chief scientist (Sigourney Weaver) in charge of the project, he finds a way of blending in with the natives after the hawkish military commander (Stephen Lang) recruits him to be a spy.

But he soon comes to fall in love with the planet and its people after being rescued by Na’vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and finding himself at home on amongst their culture.

This causes inevitable tensions with the human colony’s desire to exploit their land.

Avatar poster

The most immediate thing about experiencing the film is how quickly you settle into the world of Pandora.

Forget all the Gawker-led hipster jibes about the Na’vi looking like smurfs – once you are  inside the cinema they look and feel like real characters, which is a major tribute to the CGI artists and actors who brought them to life.

But it is the stunning vistas and trippy details of Pandora that will really wow audiences.

Cameron waited a long time for technology to catch up with his expansive, psychedelic visions and the result is another landmark in cinema visuals, up there with the water in The Abyss, the T-1000 in T2, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and various landmark steps over this decade such as Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and Benjamin Button.

In utilising new advances in technology, Avatar goes in further in pushing the envelope: alien landscapes, major characters and various creatures are rendered with astounding detail and richness.

If you stay and watch the end credits you’ll see an unbelievable amount of visual effects artists and several different houses, although the primary credit goes to the WETA Digital team led by Joe Letteri.

At times it is so good that that you begin to take it for granted, which in a strange way almost makes it a victim of its own brilliance.

Another important aspect of Avatar is that it was filmed with the proprietary Fusion digital 3-D camera system (developed by Cameron and Vince Pace) which are stereoscopic cameras that ‘simulate’ human sight.

I saw it in 3D and was struck at how seamless it was. There was no obvious pointy images, but a visual design that draws you subconsciously into the screen. It will also work in 2D but I think 3D will prove the richer experience.

There’s been a lot of talk about this film being a game changer for 3D in mainstream cinema. I’m not sure every film at a multiplex should (or needs to) be shown like that, but for tentpole movies Avatar is a big leap forward.

Certainly it could influence writers, directors and producers to be more imaginative in how they approach the visual design of a blockbuster.

But what of the themes and subtext? For such a high profile film from a major Hollywood studio, it is a fairly stinging critique of US militarism and imperialism, firmly on the side of the indigenous insurgency with a pro-environmental message to boot – at one point a tree is literally hugged and spoke to!

Avatar ticketThe sight of futuristic US helicopters landing on jungles and firing incendiary bombs on the native Na’vi echoes Vietnam and the arc of the story carries more than a whiff of Dances With Wolves or even The New World.

There is also a certain irony that it was mostly funded by Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corp and makes you wonder if the Aussie media mogul got the memo about hundreds of millions of his dollars being spent on a film with such a liberal message.

It could certainly be interpreted as a big, middle-fingered salute to the Bush-Cheney era – a critique of US imperialism that embraces empathy with other races and respect for the environment.

The irony of course is that this is likely to wash right over the heads of Fox News junkies and Sarah Palin fans.

It isn’t exactly subtle, but props must go to Cameron for being so on the nose with the issues.

Just weeks after more US troops were sent to Afghanistan and the week global leaders meet in Copenhagen to discuss the environment, it could hardly be more topical – impressive for a sci-film set in the middle of the next century.

There are some minus points: the script contains some clunky dialogue; some sequences appear trimmed to keep the running time down; the originality of the visuals isn’t matched by the story; Leona Lewis singing over the end credits and at times the villains and their motives are a little one-dimensional.

I’d be wary of talking about Avatar as another Titanic. For various reasons it will be hard to ever crack the runaway box office success of that film and I don’t feel it will sweep the Oscar race this year (although the technical and visual effects awards are in the bag).

But if word of mouth catches fire, there could certainly be a slow-burn must-see effect – like with Titanic – that turns it into the kind of film people have to see in order to talk about it.

From The Terminator through to Titanic, James Cameron has always been a great technical director, even if his films have had their downsides.

By pushing relentlessly at how films look on screen he has helped raised standards of how we view movies and for that he deserves great credit.

Avatar demonstrates again that he understands one of the basic truths about cinema, which is its ability to lift audiences out of themselves for a couple of hours and make them feel giddy in the process.

Directors Interviews

James Cameron on 60 Minutes

Watch CBS News Videos Online

James Cameron was on 60 Minutes over the weekend where he discussed his career and the upcoming Avatar.

Look out for the bit around the 9 minute mark when he discusses The Terminator and the original studio’s choice for the main role.

“The head of Orion, who were gonna release the film, called me up and said, ‘Are you sitting down? I’ve cast this movie’. I was at a party, and it’s, ‘are you sitting down? It’s O.J. Simpson for the Terminator!’

And I said, ‘This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,’ you know. I didn’t know O.J. Simpson, I had nothing against him personally. I didn’t know he was gonna go murder his wife later and become the real Terminator”

There are also some other web extra videos which didn’t make the broadcast edit.


New Avatar Trailer


Slightly more narrative in this new trailer for the James Cameron sci-fi epic that opens worldwide on December 18th


Avatar Day in London

Avatar logo

Yesterday at 10am I went along to the free Avatar Day screening at the BFI London IMAX.

This was part of Fox’s marketing effort to build buzz for James Cameron’s first film since Titanic and what is reportedly one of the costliest productions of all time.

An unusual promotional event held at cinemas around the world, it saw about 100,000 viewers, who had signed up for free tickets online, get shown an extended preview of the film on IMAX screens in 3-D.

But what exactly is Avatar all about?

It is a sci-fic tale set in the future that has been filmed on cutting edge 3-D digital cameras that produce stereoscopic images that simulate human sight.

James Cameron and Sam Worthington on the set of AvatarThe story centres around a former marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who was wounded and paralyzed in combat on Earth and is selected to participate in the Avatar program, which enables him to walk and travel to Pandora, a jungle-covered extraterrestrial moon filled with different life forms.

It is also home to the Na’vi race, a tall humanoid species with tails and blue skin. As humans encroach on the planet in search of minerals, Jake becomes part of a program by which he can live through the genetically-bred human-Na’vi hybrid known as Avatars.

The Avatars are living, breathing bodies that are controlled by a human “driver” through a technology that links the driver’s mind to their Avatar body. On Pandora, through his Avatar body, Jake can walk once again through his new alien body.

Sent deep into Pandora’s jungles to scout for the soldiers that will follow, Jake discovers more about the planet and meets a young Na’vi female, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who he soon becomes attached to.

Amanda Nevill of the BFI and Chris Green of Fox UK gave short introductory speeches before they started the presentation.

A 50-foot-tall version of James Cameron appeared in 3-D, welcoming us to ‘the 22nd century’ and said that he wanted to offer more than just a trailer, explaining that we were about to see 15 minutes of the film (all taken from the first half of the film, so there were no major spoilers).

Here is how it broke down (if you don’t want to know what happens, then stop reading now):

1. The first shot was of boots walking along the ground whilst a voice says “You’re not in Kansas anymore” and we quickly see that it is a military officer (Stephen Lang) talking to his cadets. The music accompanying this is Journey to the Line from The Thin Red Line soundtrack by Hans Zimmer – which I’m guessing a temp track whilst the score has yet to be completed. The officer tells them that they’re about to be deployed on the planet Pandora, where “everything that walks, flies or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes.” While he’s speaking, we see the wheelchair-bound soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) enter the room. My initial impression was that the depth of the image was something I hadn’t seen before and it took a little getting used too.

2. The next sequence showed Jake lie on a machine that looks like a futuristic sunbed which is then inserted into what looks like an ultrasound machine. A scientist (Sigourney Weaver) is talking him through a procedure that will see him wake up in the body of his Na’vi avatar: a tall blue alien and he seems pleased that he can walk again.

3. The third sequence cuts to the planet and follows Jake (in his alien body) on a jungle-like planet as he’s told how to deal with the planet’s free-roaming population of strange dinosaur like creatures. The environment is pretty rich in detail and reminded me a little of the landscapes in a previous WETA creation – Skull Island in King Kong (2005).

4. A night time sequence on the same planet, we see Jake, separated from his group, get rescued from a dinosaur attack by a female Na’viwho fights with a bow and arrow. I’m pretty sure this character is Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana). Jake thanks her but she is angry and dismissive.

5. A daytime sequence with Jake and a group of native Na’vi, including Neytiri, on a mountain by a steep waterfall, where a flock of winged creatures are nesting. Jake tries to tame it and has to wrestle one to the ground and puts something in its mouth which calms it down. The female warrior shouts that he must take his first flight on its back to bond with it. Jake and his new creature then go tumbling off the side of the waterfall in a giddy sequence. This was impressively cut and shot and gave a glimpse of the epic feel Cameron is going for.

The very final images were a shortened version of the trailer before it all ended.

My initial impressions were that the scenes were a little too short to make any kind of sweeping prediction about the film.

I was perhaps expecting slightly sharper image quality (along the lines of The Dark Knight in IMAX) but then this was shot on digital cameras rather than on IMAX film, so perhaps that was an issue.

However, there was definitely enough to pique people’s interest and I suspect Cameron is saving the really juicy sequences for the proper theatrical release.

On the subject of the trailer, it was released on Thursday and seemed to be the main talking point in the queue beforehand. I wanted to avoid watching it before I saw the IMAX footage, but here it is in case you didn’t catch it.

According to a press release from the studio, it is now the most viewed trailer of all time on the Apple Trailers site, with over four million streams in its first day, shattering the previous record of 1.7 million (and this isn’t taking in to account the official and unofficial plays on YouTube).

The online buzz – from what I can gather – hasn’t been that positive with some people saying out that they think the alien design is a tad goofy (Jar Jar Binks and The Dark Crystal have been mentioned) and others have pointed out visual similarities to Ferngully, Delgo and even Dungeons and Dragons.

My guess is that this backlash (of sorts) is something to do with the way Avatar has been ‘pre-sold’ in marketing terms with hype about how it will revolutionise cinema with its astounding never-seen-before visuals.

Given the buzz and publicity the 25 minute preview at Comic-con got, Fox were presumably hoping that all was well in the long Avatar marketing campaign.

But selling a movie isn’t what it used to be and given the quick, online global dissection of anything produced by movie studios it was perhaps inevitable that the first Avatar trailer would struggle to live up to expectations.

However, let’s just hold it right there. The Avatar trailer is (or is perceived to be) struggling to live up to the hype. It says something about the modern movie business that this is the case.

The major studios have been willing to embrace this pre-release hype as we have seen in recent years when genre films (like Iron Man, The Spirit and Watchmen)  have all had big pushes at Comic-con.

This is the bizarre but now fully accepted practice of having a press conference, screening trailers and doing a full schedule of press about a film that isn’t even finished.

My guess is that Fox will be a little disappointed with some of the online reactions to the Avatar trailer but I think Cameron deserves to be cut some slack – shouldn’t we wait to see the actual film before passing judgement like this?

You know the one with the proper story which gives proper context to the images seen so far?

In this current age I guess keeping everything top secret until opening day isn’t an option but part of me wonders if movie studios could learn a trick or two from Apple.

They keep everything secret and by the time Steve Jobs unveils the latest i-Whatever the fever pitch has built to a frenzy bordering on the religuous.

Would it be impossible to release a movie like an iPhone? And is the current drawn out cycle of hype a help or a hindrance? Does it even matter given the many millions of dollars Fox will use to blitz conventional media outlets (TV, print & radio etc) in December?

It will be interesting to see what Fox does from now until the release. Aside from geeky community complaints, I’m guessing the major issue they have to address is what Avatar is (or means) to the wider public who don’t follow the minutiae of fanboy buzz on Twitter.


Trailer: Avatar

The trailer for James Cameron‘s upcoming sci-fi film Avatar, which is released worldwide on December 18th.

Directors Interesting News

Peter Jackson and James Cameron at Comic-Con

Peter Jackson and James Cameron took part in a ‘visionaries’ panel at Comic-Con recently where they discussed the future of films and filmmaking.

Here are video extracts from the session:

> Peter Jackson and James Cameron at the IMDb
> Official Comic-Con site


James Cameron talks Avatar at Comic-Con

James Cameron on Avatar set

James Cameron screened about 25 minutes of his new sci-fi film Avatar at the Comic-Con in San Diego yesterday.

Budgeted at a reported $240 million, the 3-D computer-generated epic is probably the most hotly anticipated film of the year.

It has an added aura due to the fact that it is Cameron’s first proper feature film since Titanic (1997) and that so many details have been kept under wraps.

According to Wikipedia, here is the basic premise:

Avatar is set during the 22nd century on a small moon called Pandora, which orbits a gas giant, and is inhabited by the tribal Na’vi, ten foot tall, blue humanoids that are peaceful unless attacked.

Humans cannot breathe Pandoran air, so they genetically engineer human/Na’vi hybrids known as Avatars that can be controlled via a mental link.

A paralyzed Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) volunteers to exist as an Avatar on Pandora, falling in love with a Na’vi princess and becoming caught up in the conflict between her people and the human military that is consuming their world.

Cameron introduced the footage by asking “Who wants to go to another planet?” before screening a few expositional sequences.

Apparently they showed the main character Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, becoming an avatar (a blue-skinned human-alien hybrid) before segueing into a series of jungle battle scenes in which Worthington and co-star Zoe Saldana fight with prehistoric-looking creatures.

Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere was one of many observers in the hall impressed with what he saw:

…it should come as no surprise to report that this taste of James Cameron’s 3-D action fantasy, set on a foreign planet and involving a primal conflict between militaristic humans and a race of ten-foot-tall aliens called Na’vi, played serious wowser.

As in “Jesus, this is something…oh, wow!…crap, this is new…oh, that’s cool…this is so friggin’ out there and vivid and real…love it all to hell.”

Cameron announced at the end of the presentation that the rest of the world will have a chance to sample Avatar in a similar way on Friday, August 21, which he called “Avatar Day.”

On that day IMAX theatres coast to coast (and, I presume, in various foreign nations) will show about 15 minutes worth of 3-D IMAX footage of Avatar to the public for free.

This is an ingenious way of spreading buzz – almost like drug dealers giving out free samples.

Anyway, Wells goes on:

I guess the footage will be shown at successive shows all day and into the night, and that some kind of ticket reservations system will be set up.

20th Century Fox will open Avatar all over on 12.18.09.

The 3-D photography that I saw this afternoon is clean and needle-sharp and easy on the eyes, and the CG animation looks as realistic and organically genuine as anything anyone might imagine, and which certainly seems to represent the best we’ve seen thus far.

6,000 people watched the show inside the San Diego Convention Center’s great Hall H, and then sat for a brief but informative presentation by Cameron, producer Jon Landau and costars Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang with a video apearance by costar Sam Worthington.

He also shot some footage of the presentation with Cameron and the cast:

Lewis Wallace of Wired reports:

So, what did Comic-Con attendees see in between the oohs, ahs and applause?

A first look at a movie formerly shrouded in secrecy; a film that builds on Cameron’s impressive cinematic track record (Aliens, Titanic, the first two Terminator movies); and a project that boasts the kind of big-budget, mind-blowing sci-fi with a conscience that a new franchise could be built upon.

In other words, Avatar could be Cameron’s Star Wars.

Avatar is a mind-expanding adventure on a beautiful world filled with plants and creatures both ferocious and whimsical.

Giant, dinosaur-type beasts; jellyfishlike creatures that float through the air; and all manner of other imaginatively bizarre beings that fight and fly through the bioluminescent, black-light forest Cameron and his talented artists have brought to life.

Perhaps the most amazing creatures are the avatars themselves: 10-foot-tall, slender blue beings, genetically engineered to look like the planet’s indigenous people, the Na’vi.

It is hard to say how well this film is going to do, but if Cameron really delivers the eye-popping visual goods some are expecting, then it could be something really special.

Avatar opens on December 18th later this year.

> Official website
> LA Times on the presentation

The Daily Video

The Daily Video: James Cameron on The Hour

George Stroumboulopoulos of CBC‘s The Hour interviews James Cameron about his career and they also discuss his upcoming film Avatar.