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4K, 3D And Shooting Avatar 2 Underwater: A Producer’s Perspective

GP Productions

The risks producer Jon Landau has been willing to take on VFX-heavy and unconventional 3D movies have paid off profoundly. Partnering with James Cameron, Landau has production credits on two of the top grossing films in history: "Titanic" and "Avatar." Landau sat with Variety’s David Cohen during the keynote session at the 2013 Technology Summit, hosted by SMPTE, to discuss his opinions and viewpoints on trends currently affecting filmmakers and audiences alike.

Cohen kicked off the session with a pointed question about 4K. Siting last year’s 4K release of "The Hobbit," shot by director Peter Jackson, Cohen asked if a director should be encouraged to avoid shooting in 4L if it will cause a negative affect on the public’s viewing experience (many who saw "The Hobbit" complained that the 4K provided an unpleasant, artificial look.)

"No one should dictate to a filmmaker how to shoot their film," said Landau.

Landau went on to explain that the ultimate goal of 4K is to provide a better viewing experience for the audience. He felt filmmakers need time to experiment with the medium. Pointing to the fact that 3D has gone through a similar transformation – Landau suggested the audience think back to when the trend started. He then asked if, at that point, they could imagine a director such as Martin Scorsese shooting "Hugo" in 3D to such great success.

"Additionally, the tone of ‘The Hobbit’ was different than the first three movies," said Landau. "The audience should be watching a movie for the content, not the technology. As filmmakers, we have to keep in mind what is the goal of the technology we are using to move the story forward."

Cohen followed up with a number of questions related to the experience of movie goers, including if the components of film may affect their drive to visit a cinema. Landau stated the importance of sound and recent developments in sound design, but cautioned that, similarly to the lighting quality of digital images, sound has to be calibrated by theater staff correctly for a proper experience. In addition to providing a complete experience in the theater setting, right down to the comfort of seating, Landau stated a need for compelling content to drive an audience to the theater.

"TV has much more robust content," said Landau. "Film needs to challenge the audience. We need to heighten the quality of the content to be competitive with the dramas on television."

Despite his dissatisfaction with the content being offered at cineplexes, Landau still sees the big screen as a refuge to enjoy a communal experience of watching content together. He recalled several years ago, prior to the development of resources for downloading content, when his family would gather for a weekly viewing of "24." After the show they’d discuss the story points together and share ideas. Feeling the "water cooler" moments are gone due to the ease of finding and viewing content outside of airdaes, Landau sees the theater as one of the few locations where one can go and disengage from all distractions and be swept away by a story and feel like they are taking part in an event.

Cohen then led the discussion into the current state of 3D. He asked Landau to share his opinions on the landscape.

"Less is more – 3D is a window into a world, not a world coming out of a window," said Landau. "The last three Oscars for cinematography were all from 3D films."

While Landau is pleased 3D is being embraced, he wished it was more accessible to filmmakers. He firmly believes that a 3D film needs to be shot in stereo – he feels trying to cut corners by 3D conversion is not successful.

"If you want a movie in 3D, shoot it in 3D," said Landau. "Conversion is never going to be true 3D, and it’s more expensive than if you shoot it in 3D."

While discussing preservation, Landau shared his exasperation with the global crisis of what to do with digital files. He called the issue a "full time job" and, echoing many tech experts," stated there is "no answer we feel comfortable with."

"In ‘Avatar’ we preserved everything," said Landau. "The ‘Avatar’ machine room looks like a NASA headquarters."

When Cohen asked Landau to provide any insight into the rumors that the next installment of ‘Avatar’ would take place underwater, Landau remained tight-lipped. He described a retreat all departments heads had after "Avatar" was completed to review what worked and what fell short in the film. He also described using an office chair as an early means of exploring the movements of swimming in motion capture. Cohen pressed again: "So, will we see Na’Vi underwater in "Avatar II?"

"Maybe you will, maybe you won’t," responded Landau.