James Cameron Will Make You Believe

Director talks Avatar's 'syn-thespians'

James Cameron's biggest challenge in revealing Avatar to the world won't be that he's striving to establish 3-D as a tool for all kinds of film-making and not just gimmicks, nor that every interview will ask what the hell he's been doing with his time since Titanic. No, the big challenge will be that Cameron needs his audience to believe that the computer-generated characters in his sci-fi epic are absolutely real. Making beings in a computer that remain completely convincing alongside live-action humans is something that has never been fully achieved in movies, although Peter Jackson has come closest and made enormous leaps. But Cameron believes he has the technology.

"Avatar will make people truly experience something," Cameron said at the Microsoft Advance '08 conference. "One more layer of the suspension of disbelief will be removed. All the syn-thespians are photo-realistic. Now that we've achieved it, we discovered CG characters in 3D look more real than in 2D. Your brain is cued – it's a real thing not a picture – and discounting part of [the] image that makes it look fake."

Those are some big words, but if there's a person who can do it, then we're sure it's Cameron. A good portion of his time since Titanic, and apparently much time before that film, has, after all, been dedicated to developing this technology. So he's been making sure to get it right.

Making "syn-thespians" believable to the eye is the last great hurdle for computer effects artists. It's been achieved in a static state, but no film yet made, no matter how much money they've spent, has achieved a level of detail and fluidity and naturalism of movement that means you stop thinking 'amazing effects', as you would with Gollum, King Kong or Jurassic Park's dinosaurs, and just fully believe them as part of the cast. The three films mentioned did incredible things with effects and giving CG characters personalities, but there's still a part of your mind that registers that they're not real. Cameron reckons that's because nobody has tried anything this complicated before.

"Avatar is the single most complex piece of film-making ever made," said Cameron. "We have 1,600 shots for a 2.5 hour movie. It's not with a single CGI character, like King Kong or Gollum. We have hundreds of photo-realistic CG characters."

He goes so far as to say that he's been concentrating so hard on getting the technology right that "I don't know whether [this] will be [a] great film from a narrative and critical standpoint. The experience of Avatar will be an experience unlike any other movies." We'd hope that doesn't mean he's sacrificing story for the benefit of visuals, but given how much and how passionately he's talked about the whole world of Avatar, and not just the technology, we very much doubt that to be the case.

Remember, Cameron is not (from everything we've heard on the film so far) creating CG humans, but aliens, and humanoid creatures that serve as the titular avatars for people venturing to the alien world. So this isn't some needless Final Fantasy type indulgence to imitate life for no good reason. These characters all slipping into the environment seamlessly is a vital part of the film, ostensibly about a human vs alien battle for a planet rich in rare mineral, which is why they have to be absolutely right. Suspension of disbelief is actually more complicated the closer you get to realism. It's easy to see now why it's taken so long to make and why we have the agonising wait until next December to see it. But we could not be more intrigued and excited.

Thus concludes super-long and complicated news story.