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Gary Thompson: 'Avatar' producers already thinking sequels

THERE'S NOTHING left to be said about the much-hyped "Avatar," so that leaves but one choice - start hyping the "Avatar" sequels.

The Na'vi  are half human, half cat.
The Na'vi are half human, half cat.Read more

THERE'S NOTHING left to be said about the much-hyped "Avatar," so that leaves but one choice - start hyping the "Avatar" sequels.

"Avatar" creator Jim Cameron has already hinted there will be more, so we asked his producer, Jon Landau, to confirm the rumors.

"We will see what the public wants. All I can say is that we've created the world, and there are other stories Jim wants to tell in this world. How we realize those stories, whether it's the big screen, or publishing, or some other venue, remains to be seen," said Landau, who's been Cameron's producing partner dating to "Titanic" in 1997.

The 3-D world that Cameron created for "Avatar" cost $230 million, the kind of investment that studios usually expect to be repaid, with interest.

A sequel would be far less expensive to produce - all of the complex computer models, the entire roster of characters, are alive in some hard drive in New Zealand, waiting for marching orders.

"We spent four months creating the scorpion helicopter you see in the movie, but once you've created one, it doesn't cost any more to create 50 of them," he said.

Everything rides on the opening weekend, and Landau admitted to being optimistic, even though "Avatar" to date is the most ambitious rollout of digital, 3-D product and a big commercial test.

"When we started this project, we thought we could justify doing 3-D exhibition in 1,000 domestic theaters and 150 international. We were just nowhere in terms of the digital rollout.

"Now, just a few years later, we're over 3,000 screens domestically and 4,500 internationally," he said.

Still, "Avatar" arrives on the heels of "A Christmas Carol," and its iffy box office performance - audiences were lukewarm and many critics didn't much care for the 3-D.

Landau said that "Avatar" and Cameron are offering something new, a different kind of 3-D technology that stands as a major upgrade.

Cameron, Landau said, had no interest in making a 3-D movie that didn't meet his near-perfectionist standards. So he built the camera and computer technology to film a several-minute sequence of "Avatar," just to see if the process worked to his exacting specs.

Cameron was satisfied that he was delivering something new, something significantly better than the motion capture on view in, say, "Polar Express" or even "Lord of the Rings."

His process, for instance, solved the problems of dead eyes. All newfangled 3-D has ways of capturing the movement of the actors, the shape of the faces, but Cameron went much further.

"Jim actually used the pupil of the eye as a tracking point, and he's able to track all of the subtleties and high frequency movement of the eyes," Landau said. "He was even able to record and reproduce the moisture level on the surface of the eye, a key to conveying emotion."

Cameron's technology captures the actor's facial performance - it's not a computer model of a static face manipulated by animators. Other directors have bragged that their computer modeling technology may replace actors, but Cameron has no such goal.

"We're enabling them to play characters they would not otherwise play," Landau said.

He offered the example of a young actor playing an old man. The reason it usually looks so phony, he said, is that makeup artists can only add layers. They can't shrink a face, which is what happens when a person ages. Cameron's facial mapping can capture a face and resize it, even as animators tweak the skin composition.

An actor can be realistically old, or he can be a 10-foot-tall blue alien, like the ones Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana play in "Avatar."

"We're not replacing actors," Landau said. "We're liberating them."