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Hollywood places biggest 3-D bet yet on 'Avatar'

James Cameron's new film promises to take 3-D cinematography to an unrivaled level, using a more nimble 3-D camera system that Cameron helped invent.

By The Associated Press / July 24, 2009

In this undated photo provided by 20th Century Fox, 'Avatar' director James Cameron is shown on the set of the film.

20th Century Fox/AP

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SAN DIEGO — When James Cameron directed his first 3-D film, "Terminator 2: 3-D," for Universal Studios theme parks more than a decade ago, the bulky camera equipment made some shots awkward or impossible.

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The 450-pound contraption — which had two film cameras mounted on a metal frame — was so heavy that producers had to jury-rig construction equipment to lift it off the ground for shots from above. The cameras, slightly set apart, had to be mechanically pointed together at the subject, then locked into place like an unwieldy set of eyes to help create the 3-D effect.

At $60 million, the 12-minute film was the most expensive frame-for-frame production ever.

Now, five months from its release, Cameron's "Avatar," the first feature film he has directed since "Titanic" (1997), promises to take 3-D cinematography to an unrivaled level, using a more nimble 3-D camera system that he helped invent.

Cameron's heavily hyped return also marks Hollywood's biggest bet yet that 3-D can bolster box office returns. News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox has budgeted $237 million for the production alone of "Avatar."

The movie uses digital 3-D technology, which requires audience members to wear polarized glasses. It is a vast improvement on the sometimes headache-inducing techniques that relied on cardboard cutout glasses with red and green lenses and rose and fell in popularity in the 1950s.

"Avatar" also raises the bar on "performance capture" technology, which creates computerized images from real human action. The movie depicts an ex-soldier's interactions with 10-foot-tall aliens on the luminous planet of Pandora.

"I'm speechless," said Nahum Villalobos, a 19-year-old Navy recruit from Vista, Calif., who watched 25 minutes of exclusive footage of "Avatar" along with 6,500 people at the Comic-Con convention in San Diego on Thursday. "It's more extraordinary than any other movie that is out there, or has been."

The $237 million production is not as expensive as some 2-D fare such as "Spider-Man 3" (2007), which was made for $258 million. But it blows away "Monsters vs. Aliens" (2009), a 3-D animation movie made for $175 million.

Then again, Cameron's last film grossed $1.84 billion worldwide. "Titanic" is the highest grossing film ever.

"If you know Jim Cameron, it's all about pushing the envelope," said Vince Pace, who helped him develop the 3-D camera system used in "Avatar."

Cameron tweaked his cameras through two 3-D documentaries he made for IMAX theaters, "Ghosts of the Abyss" (2003) and "Aliens of the Deep" (2005).

His camera rig is now lighter — up to only 50 pounds — and the two camera lenses can dynamically converge on a focal point with the help of a computer, which is crucial for sweeping camera moves and action sequences.