James Cameron on the state of 3D, his plans for immersive filmmaking, how he approached Avatar creature design, why machines won’t like being slaves, and his promise to do a commentary track for The Terminator

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I was lucky enough to score a ticket last night to see James Cameron speak in Sydney. It was at a Vivid event, a festival here famous for lighting up city landmarks and for presentations on culture, new ideas and art and technology.

Cameron shared his journey on all sorts of things, mostly related to his deep sea expeditions and environmental causes. He was incredibly engaging the whole time and managed to pass on a few key insights into his past, recent and upcoming filmmaking adventures (yes, he mentioned the Avatar sequels A LOT).

I’ve gathered a few of his thoughts on the state of stereoscopic filmmaking, what he wants to do with 360 degree video, his approach to making creatures in Avatar, his take on the future of artificial intelligence (it doesn’t go well for humans), and a BIG promise relating to The Terminator.

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“I guarantee one thing: Avatar 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all going to be in 3D and they will look sumptuous.”

Cameron was asked in the Q&A session of his talk where he thought 3D was at, given Avatar had been shot in native stereo and had been responsible for an explosion in stereo-compatible screens, but that since then the allure of 3D had diminished.

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What I always hoped would happen is that 3D became commonplace, and therefore, not remarkable, in the same way that colour is commonplace and not remarkable. I think we’ve accomplished that. At the time that Avatar was released there were about three or four thousand theatres worldwide that were digital 3D enabled projection systems. We now have on the order of 65,000 or 70,000 3D enabled screens. It’s become ubiquitous. It’s become commonplace, and therefore not remarkable, which is why a lot of people attributed such a climb with 3D or the failure of 3D. I think going from 3,000 to 70,000 theatres is far from failure. That’s good news because I want Avatar 2 to play on all 70,000 of them!

That said, I think that Hollywood has done 3D a disservice by embracing post-conversion, which to me is the wrong track. We should do native photography because if we’re ever going to incorporate 3D into broad content production, which most of which is live or near realtime or short turnaround TV production, we have to use the native production tools. Native production technology has basically stalled as of about three or four years ago. We need to re-embrace native production. My hopeful prediction is we’ll get 4K out of our system from a broadcast perspective. When that becomes utterly commonplace and 100 percent saturated, everyone will look around for the next big thing.

The next big thing will be staring them in the face when they look in the mirror, which is, you’ve got two eyes. We perceive the world stereoscopically. We will want our content stereoscopically. What we don’t want is to have to wear glasses and then some kind of specialised viewing apparatus. We just want the screens to be all 3D and a good 3D. We’re on the cusp of that being possible now. The question is, will it? From my own perspective since I’m not doing television production, I’m doing Avatar sequels – four of them. They will be, to the best of my ability, the best 3D that’s possible to make. That includes collaborating with the people at Dolby Cinema, who have developed high dynamic range projection that could put 16 foot-lamberts of light on a 3D screen through the glasses, which is revolutionary. Normally, you’re looking at about three foot-lamberts. Sixteen is what you should be seeing. That’s what movies should look like.

We need to see the roll out of these laser projection systems, so that we can fully appreciate 3D through glasses in cinemas. Then, we need the roll out of autostereoscopic screens – large panel displays, where you don’t need glasses at all. You have multiple discreet viewing angles and all that sort of thing. Anybody that’s geeking out on 3D knows what I’m talking about. It’s all possible. It’s just a question of will it happen or not.

But I guarantee one thing: Avatar 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all going to be in 3D and they will look sumptuous.

“I think of it as 30 spherical data sets a second that you can interact with any way you want to”

Another question related to Cameron’s involvement in RED cinema, ie. using RED high-resolution digital cameras, and whether he might be looking at incorporating some of their ‘4V’ technology into an upcoming project. The director didn’t quite say yes to this, but did say he had earlier been looking at delivering live 360 degree video from a multiple-lens camera set-up for some of his deep sea expeditions.

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I started working with that, believe it or not, in 2000. That was a very early version of that type of technology then, and I desperately wanted to take it on some of our expeditions with us, ‘cause I thought what better way to literally immerse an audience than to put something like that sticking out on a selfie stick from a submersible, and while I’m looking at some new creature of some hydrothermal vent or some new geology, they’re seeing. And not only that, but having an interactive experience where they can pan the camera.

So, just on your computer, on your iPad, or whatever, you’re able to move the camera, maybe look back to see the submersible, maybe see us peeking out of the window, maybe look out and see what we’re seeing at the same time. That’s a goal of mine. That’s something that I intend to incorporate in future expeditions. And what that involves, is you gotta have a high speed data link through water called fiber optic. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy developing fiber optic deployment systems so that you can get the signals of the surface, get it up to the satellite and get it out to shore and to, you know, out over the internet.

My goal would be to take those 360 kind of immersive, I think of it as 30 spherical data sets a second that you can interact with any way you want to, roll option, pan around, all that sort of thing. I think that’s really a wave of the future for having people, whether it’s researchers, whether it’s students, or whether it’s just people who are curious and interested follow along with explorers in real time. I think that’s a critical technology.

“You could spend a day in your garden just looking at some of the bugs and slugs and things out there and see all the aliens you’re ever gonna need to see”

Somewhat of a theme in Cameron’s talk was about art influencing science and science influencing art. This occurred, said Cameron, in the design of some of the creatures that live on Pandora for Avatar, in that the low gravity atmosphere of the planet would mean that animals tend to have six legs rather than four. The director said although that’s not something that gets discussed in the film, having the back-story there adds some realism to the fantastical nature of the movie.

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I don’t think the average viewer will look at it and say, ‘Oh those animals have six legs because it’s a low gravity planet,” but a Mars Rover has six wheels because four isn’t enough on Mars which has just a little over a third of our surface gravity. So that made sense to me. I think if you apply engineering, you apply the logic and the rules of science to it, something leaps through to the audience. There’s a sense of truth, or authenticity to it. They can’t quite put their finger on it but things seem to be there for a reason.

I mean, if you look at the Barrier Reef or any of the coral eco-systems and you look at some of the small animals and you just writ that large, all the aliens that we will ever need for entertainment value already exist here on Earth, they’re just out of our immediate field of view. All you have to do is look. You could spend a day in your garden just looking at some of the bugs and slugs and things out there and see all the aliens you’re ever gonna need to see. I’m constantly astounded by the inventiveness of nature. And our creature designers, we’re almost hard pressed to come up with something that nature hasn’t already thought of.

“How long do you think something smarter than you will ever be, is going to want to be your slave?”

Cameron was asked about his own influences in terms of sci-fi and fantasy, and about what he thinks how films in that genre get right – and wrong – about the future. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was one he pinpointed for discussion, especially its take on artificial intelligence.

It’s the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s being celebrated by Hollywood and the fans, the cinephiles, with the rerelease of 70 millimetre prints and so on, which is very exciting. Here we are 50 years later, we’re not doing the things that we were supposed to do be doing in by 2001, we’re certainly not going to Jupiter with human-piloted missions! So, I think we’ve undershot the mark, as a civilization, in some ways.

Now, the other big question in that 2001 raises is about A.I. About the disembodied consciousness of a machine consciousness and that’s the part of 2001 that’s as fresh today as ever. In fact, the film should be watched as cautionary tale. I’ve talked to a lot of A.I. folks over the last year, year and a half because I’m doing these new Terminator films. I’m not directing but I’m co-producing. There are a lot of researchers at the very cutting edge of artificial general A.I. research that will say, ‘We are trying to create a person.’ They mean ‘a person.’ A consciousness and identity, something with an ego, something with its own life, and goals and emotions. I say okay, ‘So, this ‘person’ that you’re creating, how will you control this person?’ ‘Oh, well it’s very easy, we just set out the goals that we want the AI to pursue.’

I say, ‘Okay. So you’re saying that it has ego which means that it has essentially its own sense of self and its own emotions and all that, but, at the same time, you’re putting shackles on it so it can’t do what it wants to do but I can only do what you want it to do. I think we have a name for that, it’s called slavery.’ How long do you think something smarter than you will ever be, is going to want to be your slave? About forty-fifth of seconds.

A final big promise…

Someone in the audience said they had traveled Malaysia for Cameron’s talk and praised the director for his various insightful DVD commentaries, except, for The Terminator, which the director has not ever recorded. So, would he do one?

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OK, fair enough, I’ll do it, how does that sound?

As everyone often points out, Cameron is a busy man, so perhaps don’t expect this any time soon. But, you know, a promise is a promise…

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