Art

Avatar’s James Cameron on art, artificial intelligence and outrage

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Paris (AFP) – From “Terminator” to “Titanic” to “Avatar,” director James Cameron has pushed Hollywood’s technical wizardry to new limits, but human emotions must always come first, he told AFP.

At a time when special effects are much more accessible to filmmakers and studios are willing to regularly spend hundreds of millions of dollars on blockbusters, it’s the artistic talent that makes the difference, Cameron said during a visit to Paris.

Whether he can still find the balance will be tested when the world finally gets to see “Avatar: The Way of Water” next week — a sequel to his seminal alien epic that’s been 13 years in the making.

“Anyone could buy a brush. Not everyone can paint a picture,” said the Canadian director. “Technology doesn’t create art. Artists create art – that’s important.”

It was originally hoped that a first sequel would be released in 2014, but Cameron’s gargantuan ambitions led to repeated delays.

He doesn’t come across as the kind of megalomaniac director of Hollywood lore – he describes his sets as “a big hippie commune with a bunch of really big artists.”

But these hippies are armed with some powerful computers.

“We had over 3,200 shots, which is a lot to maintain high quality, high quality control,” Cameron said.

“We brought in deep machine learning and plugged AI into different stages of the process to help us… not at all to take the place of the actors, but actually to be more truthful to what they had done,” he said.

‘Connection to nature’

The challenge was to manage to extract emotion from performances that were largely recorded in front of green screens, and where most of the sets and props would only appear later in the effects booths.

“The heart, the soul, the emotions, the conflict, the creativity… all that happens first, and then all the technical work begins,” he said.

Cameron has always justified the huge sums he has asked of the studios – “Titanic” was both the most expensive and most profitable film of all time after its release in 1997, only to be topped by “Avatar” in 2009 – and he feels that responsibility “every day”.

© ISABEL INFANTES / AFP

“I can’t be whimsical or impulsive, I have to be very focused and dedicated to creating something that both pleases me artistically and that I think will be pleasing to the public and commercially enough to make some money,” he said.

“It can’t be too intellectual, but I can make it satisfying to me by inserting secondary and tertiary levels of meaning that I know are there.”

Obviously, much of the Avatar series’ thrust is drawing attention to humanity’s impact on nature, but the sequel also focuses on Cameron’s aquatic interests.

Long fascinated by the sea, from 1989’s “The Abyss” to “Titanic,” Cameron became a deep-sea explorer for National Geographic in the 2000s and was the first solo human to visit the deepest underwater trench, the Mariana Trough, in a purpose-built submarine.

He sees “Avatar” as “awakening that thing in all of us, that connection to nature.

“The film asks you to feel something for nature… It’s about maybe feeling a sense of outrage,” Cameron said.

“These Navi characters… they don’t look like us, they’re blue, they have ears and a tail. But they represent the better angels of our nature.

“Maybe for 10 minutes after the movie ends, you see the world a little differently,” he added.

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