Recently, while we watching a short documentary on the filming of Avatar, we wondered if Thomas Edison and Avatar director James Cameron followed any similar principles in their work.  We quickly found the similar principles.  To save time and space we will not list Edison’s application of these principles, only Cameron’s. 

1.    Using His Own Prior Experiences to Build New Technologies

Conjuring up this exotic world of Pandora allowed Cameron to engage in “big-time design,” he says, with six-legged hammerhead thanators, armored direhorses, pterodactyl-like banshees, hundreds of trees and plants, floating mountains and incredible landscapes, all created from scratch. He drew upon his experience with deep-sea biology and plant life for inspiration.

In order to pull more data from the actors’ faces, Cameron reworked an old idea he had sketched on a napkin back in 1995: fasten a tiny camera to the front of a helmet to track every facial movement, from darting eyes and twitching noses to furrowing eyebrows and the tricky interaction of jaw, lips, teeth and tongue.

2.    Engaging Associates to Come Up With New Technologies

Cameron challenged his virtual-production supervisor Glenn Derry to come up with a virtual camera that could show him a low-resolution view of Pandora as he shot the performances.

The resulting swing camera (so called because its screen could swing to any angle to give Cameron greater freedom of movement) is another of Avatar‘s breakthrough technologies.  We won’t give more detail here, but this creation has future applications as it evolves that will probably create alternate realities right in the theatre.    

3.    Willing to Endure a High Degree of Risk Taking

Cameron is perhaps even more famous as the industry’s biggest risk-taker, which might have made him a lot of enemies if his risks hadn’t been so spectacularly rewarded in the past.

The director’s unquenchable thirst for authenticity and technological perfection required deep-sea exploratory filming, expensive scale models and pioneering computer graphics that ballooned Titanic’s budget to $200 million. This upped the ante for everyone involved and frightened the heck out of the studio bean counters, but the bet paid off—Titanic went on to make $1.8 billion and win 11 Academy Awards.

Or as a Hollywood insider described Cameron’s style of directing, “there’s a term in Hollywood for Cameron’s style of directing.  They call this ‘building the parachute on the way down.'”

Describing his drive, Cameron said, “You have to eat pressure for breakfast if you are going to do this job.” And then he added, “On the one hand, pressure is a good thing. It makes you think about what you’re doing and your audience. You’re not making a personal statement, like a novel. But you can’t make a movie for everybody—that’s the kiss of death. You have to make it for yourself.”

4.    Continuously Using an Active Imagination

 A unique hybrid of scientist, explorer, inventor and artist, Cameron has made testing the limits of what is possible part of his standard operating procedure. He dreams almost impossibly big, and then invents ways to bring those dreams into reality.

Sigourney Weaver, who plays botanist Grace Augustine, calls it “the most ambitious movie I’ve ever been in. Every single plant and creature has come out of this crazy person’s head. This is what Cameron’s inner 14-year-old wanted to see.”

5.    Not Afraid of Hard work and Intense Effort

But it turns out there is no magic formula that can supplant hard work and lots of trial and error. After Cameron complained about a problem with the photographic images, the technology company spent another year perfecting it.  This resulted in the remarkably realistic faces in the computer generated images.  Ultimately, these changes were enough to meet Cameron’s sky-high standards.

It would also be interesting to consider the differences between Edison’s innovative style and Cameron’s.  That analysis will probably show up in a later blog. 

Note:  Much of this blog post is from information found in a Popular Mechanics article about Cameron and Avatar.  To read the entire article, click here.