Avatar's Silicon Valley Roots

Why James Cameron turned to tech

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
    James Cameron's "Avatar," created in Silicon Valley.

    As you've already heard, the special effects in Avatar are flat out eye-poppingly awesome.  So it should be no surprise that, to track down how they were put onto the big screen, we went to Industrial Light and Magic, the house Yoda built.

    Set back in San Francisco's quiet Presidio, ILM is legendary for its movie effects, from Star Wars, to Pirates of the Caribbean, and now to Avatar.  John Knoll, who has an Oscar on his mantel thanks to Pirates, sat down to talk with us about how his team put the jaw-dropping effects onto the big screen, and what it's like to work with mercurial director James Cameron.

    Put it this way, Knoll says with Cameron, "You know exactly where you need to go, it's just a matter of getting there."  Unlike many directors, who come to ILM with humility and a lot of questions, Cameron came with a map, and a long to-do list.  Money, obviously, was no object.  "This was really diving in," Knoll says.  "With both feet."

    Some $300 million later, Avatar is hauling in good reviews, big money ($3.5 million in the early Friday hours), and lots of Oscar buzz.  Unlike most "effects" movies, that feature three or four scenes to strut their stuff, Avatar creates a whole different world. And you're immersed into it.  It's 3D, but not with swords flying out of the screen at you; this is an entire 3D world we haven't seen in a movie before.

    The guess here is that, as people line up to see it over the next few weeks, Hollywood will have taken a turn:  A new kind of special effects movie, that will likely change the way films are made in the future.  Much like Cameron's last big-budget blockbuster, Titanic.  Which, you may remember, cleaned up at Oscar time.

    And how does it feel to have created this buzz?  Says Knoll, "I have to see other people's reactions.  It's rewarding to see what they think."  He should prepare for a lot of rewards.

    Scott Budman has decided, in an homage to James Cameron, to write his next post in 12 years.