Long regarded as afilm-making pioneer, James Cameron is a self-described "evangelist" for digital3D. The director recently talked to Screen International about his vision ofcinema's future. A shorter version of this interview appears in the July 28print edition of Screen International as part of a cover feature on digital 3D.
Screen International: Why do you think 3D and digital are the next stepin the evolution'
JC: I started experimenting with the digitalcamera, as a specific solution to shooting 3D, in 2000. I was actually going tomake an IMAX film but I didn't like the big IMAX cameras.
We started building our own camera system and itworked very nicely, but that was about the time digital cinema was reallystarting to take off as an idea. It wasn't taking off yet in terms ofapplication but as an idea. It occurred to me that these digital projectorscould project [images in] stereo because of their potential to run at very,very high frame rates. Film projectors can't do that, or else they have a verycumbersome way of doing it that's not very effective. With digital projectors,a little side benefit is that you can run them at 144 frames a second, which ismore than twice the speed of a Showscan projector, soyou can have a single projector 3D solution.
That's really important, because exhibitors don'twant to go from one film projector to two digital projectors to solve a 3Dproblem. Now you can tell them: "You know that digital projector you were goingto put in anyway because of all the other reasons that that makes sense' Onceyou've got that, you can now run 3D with a modification that costs somewherebetween $15,000 and $25,000."
So the idea now is that you've got the potentialfor thousands of 3D projectors, maybe tens of thousands in the long-run, notlimited to the IMAX platform. That works okay for documentaries, but you can'tgo making 3D feature films just to run them on IMAX, although Bob Zemeckis managed to do it. The Polar Express made pretty good money just on the IMAX screensbut I wouldn't want to count on that. In any case, I personally don't want tomake movies for a limited number of theatres.
SI: You said in 2005 that you hoped by mid-2007 there'd be about 1,0003D screens.
JC: I think we might be close to on-track for that.The picture that I'm doing right now (Avatar)comes out in 2008 so hopefully we'll be well north of that by then. I thinkthat what's happening is the envelope's getting pushed with each new release.
Disney sort of broke it initially with the 83screens they installed [in North America] for Chicken Little. Now people are talking about going up to 200 for Monster House and some of these otherreleases, and then by Beowulf maybeits 500, something like that.
New Line's doing Journey To The Center Of The Earth, whichis 3D photography not CG, and Disney's doing Meet The Robinsons and they're dimensionalising[converting from 2D to 3D] NightmareBefore Christmas, so there are a number of titles coming out. I think thatthe more product that's flowing into the marketplace at the same time that thegeneral digital cinema roll-out is taking place, the more people are going tohave an incentive to upgrade to 3D.
SI: Why do you think 3D is compelling to audiences' Why will it bringpeople into cinemas'
JC: Well, first of all we see in 3D. It moreclosely duplicates our vision system. Most people haven't seen what is possiblenow with the digital systems. We have digital cameras now that solve all thebad stereo space issues that gave people eye-strain in the past. The digitalprojectors are so bright and steady that it's really a whole new ball game,perfect for 3D projection.
People are intrigued by the illusion of stereo.They all showed up in droves for the early wave of 3D in the 1950s, but thatburned out very quickly because the films were crap. There were films thatwouldn't even have been made if they didn't have some kind of gimmick;certainly people wouldn't have gone to see them. The studios actively drovepeople away from the theatres and that's a mistake that can't be repeated.
But if you think about the way colour wasintroduced and the way widescreen was introduced, through Cinerama for exampleor Ultra Panavision, those were upgrades to theviewing system that were done only on the best films.
That's the way 3D needs to be embraced now. It isin fact happening that way. Bob Zemeckis wants to doit, I want to do it, Peter Jackson's doing it. If youhave filmmakers who are going to excite the public's imagination just based onthe fact that they are doing that film, regardless of the 3D, then it's not agimmick, it's a turbocharger. It's an upgrade. And my philosophy on this isthat you don't put a turbocharger on some whiny little engine. You put it on anengine that can be a champion engine.
Everything's being done right this time that wasn'tdone right back in the 1950s. The technology's better. The capture technologyis better, the display technology is better. I would say perfect. There are nodeficits.
SI: You have said before that "content is king". Do you think that,given the choice, that people will simply opt to watch2D instead of 3D' Will 3D really bring in new audiences'
JC: I liken it to when I was in high school andcollege. I made a clear distinction between seeing a film in 35mm or 70mm. Imean I had to see the film in 70mm. I would drive, no matter how far it took,to find that movie, whatever it was, ApocalypseNow, Close Encounters, whatever.If it was that type of movie I had to see it in 70mm. Now, my friends thought Iwas crazy and they would just go to the local theatre and see it in 35mm.People will make these distinctions. Some people will seek out the stereoexperience and be willing to pay more for it and some won't. Some people willbe more interested in the narrative content and other people in thepresentation. We're a consumer society. People will make those choices.
What we have seen during the last couple of years,with Chicken Little and The Polar Express, is that people selected thestereo experience. They were willing to pay more for it and drive further to have it. The 3D screens outperformed the 2D screens, but the2D screens still did fine.
There's a little bit of a marketing challenge here,because you definitely don't want to give people a sense that they are seeingan inferior version of the product, so I don't think you advertise the film as"the ultimate 3D experience", because if you do that you're screwed. What youdo is you show in your trailers and TV spots why people should see the movie,in the way you normally would. Then, at the end, the announcer says, in thatway that they talk really fast at the end "in 3D at selected theatres". So youdownplay it a little bit.
You have to know you're doing that. You're spendingthese millions of dollars to do this film in 3D but you're kind of holding itback and letting people discover it. I think that's the game you play in themarketing of the film and I think it will work very well. It already worked on Chicken Little. Disney didn't pound Chicken Little in the US TV ads as a 3Dmovie because they knew that they were only on 83 screens in 3D and they wereon 3,500 screens in 2D. And it still worked. Two percent numerically of thescreens accounted for 10% of the revenue. So there's a huge disproportionbetween the 2D and the 3D screens. Disney said the 3D screens sold out firstand most often and they had the longest legs - some of them lasted for 13weeks, which is unheard of with a normal release. I think these are significantdata points for what wasn't even conceived as a 3D movie. It was something theydecided to do after the film was completed.
SI: How is the new 3D going to succeed when it didn't in previousincarnations'
JC: Well the headache factor's been removed.Usually you were getting a headache because of [watching] bad stereo. Peoplejust didn't know what they were doing or the equipment didn't support fixingthe stereo problem. For example, 35mm film came with all these movies from Bwana Devil onwards. There were some 50or 55 titles, I think, 46 of them in a three-year period in the 1950s and thensprinkled through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, one or two per decade. Butthey were all made with the same kind of 35mm cameras and they didn't have theability to do dynamic convergence and dynamic interoctive,the things that we can do now which take that eyestrain factor out.
And the other thing is the projection would usuallyscrew up. They were doing it with the red/blue glasses, which give me aheadache. Anybody over the age of five can't watch the red/blue stuff, so to methat's a non-starter.
With the projection now it solves the problems theyused to have because they used to do what they call 'over and under 35' wherethe left eye was on one part of the frame and the right eye was on a lower partof the frame. If the projectionist threaded it up two perfsout of synch the left eye became the right eye and vice versa and everythingturned into visual jibberish. There was a realhistory of bad experiences in the theatre and you won't have that.
SI: Does shooting in 3D have a significantly lower cost than convertinga film to 3D after the fact'
JC: Oh, absolutely. If you had a straight two-hourlive action film shot already and you wanted to turn it into 3D you'd probablybe looking, today, at about $14m. Now, we think that over the next couple ofyears we're going to get that down to about half that number, but it's still asignificant number. It's not something you'd want to do. If you wanted yourmovie to be in 3D and you hadn't shot it yet, shoot it in 3D. The camera systemwill cost you maybe $1m more than your regular camera package would have andthen you've got maybe that again in the post-production chain, so you're comingout way ahead.
Now, if you have a lot of effects in the film itgets into a greyer area, but I think the dimensionalisationprocess should be reserved for those films that have really already proven themselves to be classics, to be major favourites, like Star Wars, Return Of The King, King Kong.I know Peter Jackson wants to do that. I would do T2 and Titanic from amongmy films, probably not The Abyss.
I think the film has to have a certain brand valuein the marketplace to justify re-release. And the same sort of re-release rulesapply because you still have to go spend $10m-$15m to release the damn thing,so the dimensionalisation costs have to be factoredinto an overall budget for a re-release. So there are certain films thatwarrant it and certain one that don't. Disney is doing Nightmare Before Christmas now and theysee that as something they can play as a perennial.
SI: Is there a concern that as 3D releases become more frequent -perhaps one every few weeks - so audiences will find the extra costprohibitive'
JC: You won't have that for a while. I think whatyou're going to have is that at the point where that becomes a problem it thenwon't be because of volume. If there is enough content for that to be a problemthen people are making enough money off it that they can narrow the gap betweenthe standard ticket and the 3D ticket. That gap may even go away.
SI: How is exhibitor support' Are you having any resistance'
JC: I think all the same sort of nattering naybobs of negativity that have plagued digital cinema overthe last few years are still out there. It's a lot quieter in the US right now.There's a lot more proactive optimism. I thought that digital cinema was justgoing to go ahead on its own and we'd just quietly piggyback on it, and then itjust stopped going ahead. So then I had to start running up and down the alleybanging the drum.
SI: Was it easier to convince exhibitors and distributors as it becameclearer copyright theft issues would be lessened with digital'
JC: I think a lot of the last minute negativeissues with digital cinema had to do with security, moving the data around, theencryption issues, the watermark issues, all of that. That's an area that Ihave stayed out of because I figured if you've got a film industry spending abillion-and-a-half dollars a year on release prints and you can get rid of themthen they're the ones who are going to save the money.
I focused on the 3D side and I coordinated with theprojection people 'cause really driving the chargeinitially was Texas Instruments (TI) with their DLP [digital light processing]technology. I think that even though the DCI [the Hollywood studio ventureaimed at establishing a common digital specification] [specification doesn't specificallysay you have to use that technology it creates a spec that those projectorsmeet already. So the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) for TI, Barco, Christies and NEC - their projectors already meetthat spec so those are the ones you're going to go buy right now. So I workedwith Texas Instruments to make sure that they were always going to be backcompatible for stereo right from the get go, from three years ago. So they'vemade sure that the electronics support the 3D. That was my big strategic moveback then.
SI: For several years you've been planning to shoot a feature with your3D Fusion cameras. Is the industry where it needs to be for you to do that now'
JC: I think so. Everything's coming along. We woundup pushing an additional year on that project, partially because I just neededmore time on the script because we switched projects. I was going to do Battle Angel first and then Avatar. We spent a fair amount of timelooking strategically at which order was the most cost effective, because we'restill doing both, in terms of the technical infrastructure that we had tocreate. We're going to be using a lot of the same kind of performance capturesystems and things like that on both films. We eventually came down on the sideof it making sense for Avatar to gofirst, so Avatar is going first andthen Battle Angel. But they're reallybeing done back-to-back.
SI: And they'll both be done in 3D'
JC: Yes, with the 3D cameras and the performancecapture CG techniques, so it's a hybrid. The performance capture techniques arekind of nascent right now. Bob Zemeckis has beendoing it. Our system is a fair bit different from his but it's the same basicprincipal - actors with balls all over them. You can't have one still leak outof that environment!