James Cameron

The Best Cinematography – The Many Looks Of Avatar

A navi in Avatar shoots a bow and arrow

Avatar wasn’t just a theatrical release in 2009, it was a full blown force of nature. The biggest box office hit of all time, Avatar also revolutionized motion capture and 3D in Hollywood and picked up several Oscar nods and wins, including a nomination for Best Picture. It also won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for its director of photographer, Mauro Fiore, an Italian-American who has also shot the films Training Day, The Island, Real Steel, and Runner Runner, to name a few.

While Avatar’s dominance was no surprise to anyone, its win for Cinematography was interesting considering its competition. Avatar is nearly seventy percent computer generated, in some respects practically an animated film, and Fiore had only been behind the camera for less than a third of the movie’s running time. Its competitors in the Cinematography category included a gritty indie film shot on 16mm, a stylistic Tarantino World War II film, a gloomy Harry Potter sequel and a black & white German drama. However, Avatar bears the marks of a Mauro Fiore-shot film, and despite its abundance of digital effects, is a superbly photographed movie worthy of its award.

The film’s digital and live action elements are inseparable, however, and it’s impossible to talk about the look of Avatar without understanding its technical foundation. Director James Cameron famously spent fifteen years developing the technology and the world of Avatar, waiting until it was physically possible to bring his vision of a distant alien world to life. Much of the film was shot with the Fusion Camera System, a digital 3D apparatus co-developed by Cameron and since used with several other films. The Fusion allowed Cameron, Furio and the crew to shoot in 3D with a revolutionary quieter, smaller setup. It used stereoscopic lenses—two separate lenses on the same horizontal plane—to mimic the vision of two human eyes. By capturing two images slightly adjacent to one another, it created the same three-dimensional depth people see with their eyes. By adjusting the intraocular distance between the two lenses, the filmmakers had control over how much depth was in a given shot.

A scene from Avatar

The Fusion was able to reduce the distance between lenses to an incredibly small amount while also incorporating ten other types of motion that gave the filmmakers an unprecedented amount of control to compose a three-dimensional image. It could do all this and still be stripped down to even perform handheld and Steadicam work, which was crucial to Cameron’s intense direction. The Fusion also allowed for several types of cameras to work with it. In Avatar, Fiore shot with three different HD Sony models. Cameron, a famously hands-on filmmaker, would often operate the camera himself while Fiore blocked the scene.

Fiore, obviously new to this system, took several weeks to get acquainted with the equipment before he felt confident enough to shoot with it. This included getting familiar with how the Fusion would handle light, something any DP needs as much control over as possible. During this testing period, Fiore found the Fusion created a ghosting effect that would blur images with especially bright and especially dark objects within the same frame. Fiore was able to block his set to account for this, keeping certain objects apart, lighting them appropriately, and even using smoke to temper the effects of the contrast and ghosting.

Another technical innovation Avatar introduced to Hollywood was its virtual cinematography. For shooting in the animated world of Pandora, Cameron and his team could use a handheld controller similar to the one used in video games. Using a monitor that would show the motion-capture actors in their pre-rendered animated states, the team had full control over the scale and motion of the virtual camera. By switching the scale, the camera could tower over the digital figures as if atop a 100 foot crane. The controller could also operate the camera as if it were on dolly tracks, or a Steadicam rig, or even handheld. In effect, it was total cinematic control over the digital image.

Sam Waterson in Avatar

Despite these major technical innovations, Avatar still had to rely on traditional filmmaking methods to be a fully realized movie. The live-action shooting, while a smaller proportion of the production, was key as the foundation for the motion-capture and digital creations of the film. To help see what they were shooting, Cameron and Fiore were able to watch their dailies in 3D and make adjustments as they progressed.

Shooting in 3D, even with the Fusion, limited the range of depth of field for the cinematography team. This was especially concerning given how complex the jungle world of Pandora looked on screen, and with everything in focus, the audience’s eye could easily be overwhelmed. Fiore directed the audience’s attention by creating depth-of-field through light and contrast, as well as blocking. A longer lens was used for many shots, especially when giving the perspective of Jake, Avatar’s protagonist. In order to ground the fantastical world and story of the epic, Cameron used his human protagonist and handheld camera work to give the film a more naturalistic foundation.

Light was perhaps the most important element to the cinematography team, and is also what helped Fiore get the Avatar gig in the first place. It was his characteristic use of light in the jungle-set war film Tears of the Sun that helped convince Cameron Fiore was the right man for the job. By using the strong beams of sunlight that permeated the towering trees of Pandora, Fiore created a lush, vibrant image that made the planet feel real. By painting with light, Fiore helped give Avatar its distinctive look.

Navi hold hands in Avatar

Light was also Fiore’s key to seamlessly merging Avatar’s digital effects with its live action. Had the filmmakers fail to blend the two into a coherent movie, Avatar might have been remembered as a optically-jarring flop as opposed to the visual masterpiece its now known as. Fiore realized early on in the production that he could use reflective paint and reflective material on certain objects that would react to UV light in a way that differentiated them in post-production, allowing the green screen around them to feel invisible.

Green screen was obviously a prominent part of Avatar’s shoot. Even the ceiling of many sets used green screen, which made it impossible for Fiore and his team to hide their lights. To work around this problem, Fiore cut stripes of green screen and hung them from the ceiling like curtains, in effect hiding the lights. Once the effects were superimposed on the green screen, the strips and ceiling all formed one single image.

Since many exterior scenes were also shot indoors with green screen, Fiore also had to block with light sources that weren’t physically there. In each shot he had to be aware of where the sun would be digitally added and theoretically light the scene. For one major sequence involving an army of soldiers, Cameron actually chose to shoot outside, night-for-day. At first, Fiore thought faking night for day was ludicrous but eventually saw Cameron’s reasoning. By lighting with their own equipment as opposed to the actual sun, they had total control over illumination and shadows. And if there was one thing Cameron cherished on his set, it was total control, even over the heavens.

A scene from Avatar

Since light was one of Fiore’s few physical tools, he used it creatively to establish movement as well. When there were scenes shot in the interiors of vehicles, typically these vehicles were stationary, limited by the green screen set. To create the illusion of fast and twisting movement, Fiore placed lights on quick-moving cranes and other equipment. By changing light and shadows on the actors and props inside the vehicles, Fiore could create apparent velocity and movement.

By using light and adapting to Cameron’s advanced hardware, Fiore and the Avatar team were able to create a grounded, physical look for a fantastical, digital movie. As a watershed film in Hollywood’s technological evolution, the cinematography of Avatar shows how the old and new can be combined to make something not quite either.

Breaking Down The Directors Of The Alien Franchise

Alien xemomorph

Nobody involved in the early stages of making a B-movie “Jaws in space” plotted Star Beast ever expected it would evolve into the billion-dollar plus Alien franchise. From the original 1979 film about a creature that lived to kill aboard a spaceship in the middle of nowhere spawned dozens of sequels, crossovers, prequels, comics, action figures, and video games.

Alien: Isolation is just the latest in the ever-expanding universe of murderous Xenomorphs and chestbursters. The next-gen video game is an ersatz sequel to the original film, boasting state of the art realistic graphics to tell the story of Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, and her search to find her mother and the doomed crew of the Nostromo, or at the very least, the truth of what happened to them.

While reviews of the gameplay have been mixed, its story and tone have been heralded as a worthy addition to the Alien Franchise. That tone has varied with every incarnation of the series and is best explored through the feature films spread across five decades of Hollywood history. And what better way to explore a film than through its director.

The Alien franchise has managed to find a wide range of talented directors at various points in their careers, though usually early—filmmakers who have added their own mark and together have woven a complex tapestry nobody reckoned could be built around something as simple as The Beast With Two Mouths.

Ridley Scott

Alien movie poster 1979

A lot of credit for the Alien franchise must go to original Alien director Ridley Scott. His patient, quiet yet epic style set up the world the franchise inhabits, and created the momentum that has since driven the series forward. By casting a seven-foot actor to inhabit the Xenomorph costume and using shadows and other filmmaking techniques to hide the Alien for most of the movie, Scott managed to create an otherworldly beast that looked too real for the special effects of the time—crucial to suspending the audience’s disbelief and scaring them out of their seats.

Scott was keen on having complex characters with backstories and motivations—something rarely seen in run-of-the-mill horror films where actors were merely fodder for their given monster. Combining this with the lived-in feel of the mining spaceship, Scott created an atmosphere not really seen in space movies before. Rather than the clean-cut scientist astronauts of 2001 and other films, the crew of the Nostromo more resembled offshore oil riggers getting paid by the hour in the Alaskan wilderness. Simply put, he made them relatable.

He also cast an unknown Sigourney Weaver in the lead role of Ellen Ripley, originally scripted as male. He not only helped Weaver launch her A-list career but created one of science-fiction’s most enduring heroines, who even thirty-five years later remains one of the few famous female leads in Hollywood genre cinema.

Alien was only Scott’s second film, but belayed the auteur’s skill with blockbuster special effects and set the tone for the rest of his career. Of all the Alien franchise’s directors, Ridley Scott is the only one to have directed more than one film. Thirty-three years after helming the original, Scott came back with the pseudo-prequel Prometheus, another slow-paced effects epic that is more concerned with our cosmic origins than with bloody deaths. While reviews of the movie were mixed, Scott proved that despite setting the tone for the franchise he could also bring it in new directions with the best of them.

James Cameron

Aliens movie poster

James Cameron may very well have been selected to be the director of the sequel to Alien because of his previous masterpiece, The Terminator. After all, both films centered on unstoppable killing machines following a vulnerable but strong-minded woman. Cameron, however, had other ideas, and his script for Aliens switched radically in tone from its predecessor.

Aliens is a war movie first, monster movie second, written and directed with an energy that celebrated cool guns, space tanks, and badass one-liners. Beneath its surface though was a smarter movie, the macho cheerleading a commentary on the Vietnam War, and Ripley’s character was given a depth and maternal narrative the original movie didn’t have time to establish. Aliens expanded on the first while at the same time it used its universe in entirely different ways for entirely different purposes, and cemented Cameron as an artist of the blockbuster, a future King of the World.

David Fincher

Alien 3 movie poster

Alien 3 was David Fincher’s first film after a career of directing commercials and music videos. Fincher was reportedly plagued by constant rewrites and changes by the studio, and was so disillusioned with the experience that he almost had his name removed from the credits.

However, his stamp remains and facets of the future Oscar nominee’s style are already prevalent in the dark, gloomy sequel. Besides Fincher’s favored brown and copper tones, Alien 3 has the bleak despair and bloody gore found across his oeuvre, including his immediate follow-up, Seven. Fincher is the director who presided over the death of hero Ellen Ripley, a controversial move lambasted from fanboys and previous director James Cameron alike.

The movie has its merits though and showed the Alien franchise could do horror in various shades of gray (or bronze). It also tied Ripley’s character into a larger-than-life battle with the Xenomorphs. In the original she was a bystander, in the second she was a survivor. In the end, she would become a nemesis of an entire species, her existence and fate entwined with the Aliens. She was no longer just a genre protagonist but a bona fide science-fiction legend, her hairless visage as synonymous with the franchise as the eponymous creatures themselves.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Alien Resurrection movie poster

French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet had already directed the post-apocalyptic black comedy Delicatessen and dark fantasy The City of Lost Children before taking on the fourth movie in the franchise, Alien: Resurrection. His following film, Amélie, made him more of a household name, and further proved his talent with cinematography built around CGI, then coming of age.

All of these personal touches came together for an offbeat sequel that never quite felt comfortable in its own skin. Like Alien, it was set aboard a doomed spaceship, like Aliens, it had futuristic marines facing off against a multitude of Xenomorphs and their queen. Ripley’s larger-than-life status was the core of the movie, with her clone being resurrected two hundred years after Alien 3 to battle the creatures. She was surrounded by oddball characters, including Jeunet regulars Ron Perlman and Dominique Pinon. Jeunet’s fun sense of quirk best came out in the interplay between Ripley and these characters, and are arguably the strongest element of the film.

Alien: Resurrection was released in 1997, right before The Matrix and Hollywood’s CGI revolution. Jeunet’s skills behind the camera and a script by Joss Whedon struggled to do something new with the franchise, but compared to similar fare of the pre-Matrix 90s, A:R looks beautiful and is dynamically shot. At it’s worst, it’s a generic space action movie with the skin of the Alien franchise, a trait that continued as Hollywood started taking less risks and digging their franchise heels in at the turn of the century. The following two films in the series would continue that trend, and without someone as skilled as Jeunet, they would sink where Resurrection managed to at least keep its head above water.

Paul W.S. Anderson

Alien vs Predator poster

Alien vs. Predator was a departure for the series in more ways than its additional extraterrestrial species. It’s also the first film in the franchise with a PG-13 rating, limiting the film’s violence, which in capable hands is not just a tool but part of the series’ foundation.

The PG-13 is one result of Hollywood’s twenty-first century movement to bring in as many viewers as possible. With ever-expanding budgets, it’s become paramount for films to make more money, which has led to duller, more mainstream-oriented fare and a dependency on recognizable names. Aliens had been fighting Predators for over a decade in other media—it was only in the 2000s that Hollywood felt the need to combine the two trademark properties.

While both the original Alien and Predator movies were slow-burns with its monsters picking off the cast one by one, AvP is a loud action film that is more interested in hitting its plot points fast enough to keep teenagers interested than it is in developing character or creating any sort of commentary or subtext. Far enough from the original, AvP also loses itself in nostalgia by beating the audience over the head with callbacks to the previous films rather than using them to season an original take on the mythology.

Of all the directors, Paul W.S. Anderson was the most experienced when he got behind the camera, having already made blockbusters like Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon and Resident Evil. While the previous Alien films all took chances with relatively unknown auteurs, it was a sign of the times that the franchise was placed in the hands of someone more workhorse than artist.

What could have been an exciting crossover with new things to say and new ways to say it, Alien vs. Predator continued the downward slope of the franchise by being just another dumb action flick.

The Brothers Strause

Aliens vs. Predator Requiem

Colin and Greg Strause were untested filmmakers with a respected expertise in special effects when they took on the follow-up crossover, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. The ho-hum response to the original AvP was strong enough for the studio to take a little more risk with the film, also allowing again for an R rating.

Unfortunately the Brothers Strause used the R rating for more gore, whether it be a maternity ward full of eviscerated wombs or a chestburster tearing itself out of a child’s body. This was shock value for shock value’s sake, as opposed to a genuine twist meant to disrupt the audience and change the game completely like the original chestbursting scene from Alien. The visceral violence wasn’t a product of an omnipresent despair like in Fincher’s Alien 3 but just another bullet point to check off on the Brothers’ how-to-make-a-horror-film checklist.

The result is a B-movie with slightly more character than the previous AvP but another forgettable entry for the franchise. Not as offensively bland, it isn’t impossible to sit through while watching, but as soon as it’s over you won’t remember much. That in itself may be the cardinal sin for the Alien franchise—the Xenomorphs have proven that they’re anything but forgettable.

Even their token appearance at the end of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was treated like an event. The franchise is currently dormant, but it will only be a matter of time before studio heads find a new way to approach the series, and like a mysterious otherworldly egg, it will slowly stir and come to life and bring us a new monster. Hopefully it will be a monster worth screaming at.

James Cameron

James CameronName: James Cameron

Essential DVDs: The Terminator (1984); Aliens (1986); Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991); True Lies (1994); Titianic (1997); Avatar (2009)

Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Editing (Titanic, 1998)

In His Own Words: “Less isn’t more. More is more.”

The future is what we make for ourselves,’ is a refrain repeated throughout James Cameron’s first film, The Terminator, and it’s a phrase he’s clearly taken to heart. But Cameron doesn’t just see the future coming; he makes it happen. He deserves to be known as more than just the master of the big budget, the huge grosser, and the high concept, or even the self-styled King Of The World, but instead as one of the most progressive and important technological innovators in cinema history.

Perhaps, second only to George Lucas, Cameron has been directly responsible for the staggering development in visual effects capabilities over the last fifteen years. The Abyss, TitanicAvatar, and everything in between featured effects that hadn’t been possible until Cameron pushed the envelope, while he’s recently developed a brand-new 3D camera system. Because he can.

And yet for a man who’s so clearly in love with the possibilities of technology, his movies constantly warn against the dangers of becoming enslaved to machinery (what is Titanic if not a lecture on man’s folly writ large?), while his preoccupation with nuclear weapons (there’s an atomic explosion in every Cameron film, bar Titanic… and yes, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning) burns throughout his movies. As does a great humanist streak, which sometimes gets lost amid the brouhaha about his occasionally clunky dialogue, financial excesses (Terminator 2, True Lies and Titanic were all, at the time of their release, the most expensive movies ever made), and his innate skills with an action sequence (he’s as influential in the action genre as Peckinpah or Woo). After all he took the measure of Ripley and turned her into the font of strong, modern female leads, from which he mined his own Sarah Connor, Rose in Titanic, and Jamie Lee Curtis’ ballsy housewife in True Lies.

Part of Cameron’s appeal is his go-for-broke nature—an enormous personality with a legendary temper (crews on his movies often sport T-shirts having wry pops at his demanding ways), no challenge is too great. You want a great sci-fi movie? He’ll knock out Terminator 1 and 2. A great sequel? How about Aliens, one of the greatest of them all. A great love story? Hell, he only went and made the most successful frickin’ film of all time.

Ah, Titanic. Since its immense success (11 Oscars, $2.2 billion worldwide), some snarly critics have perceived his failure to direct a full-length, live-action movie as a failure of nerve. In fact, it’s given him enormous freedom to do what he wants to do: make hundreds of deep-sea dives, produce films for other directors, and develop technology for his forthcoming fully 3D manga adaptation, Battle Angel. And to cap it all off, he’s planning to shoot a film at some point soon—in space. His career up to now has been brilliant, but Cameron prefers to focus on the future—and right now his is bright as it’s ever been.