They've started with production!!!

source: New York Times

James Cameron, the director whose “Titanic” set a record for ticket sales around the world, will join 20th Century Fox in tackling a similarly ambitious and costly film, “Avatar,” which will test new technologies on a scale unseen before in Hollywood, the studio and the filmmaker said today.

The film, with a budget of close to $200 million, is an original science fiction story that will be shown in3D in conventional theaters. The story pits a human army against an alien army on a distant planet, using live actors and digital technology to make a large cast of virtual creatures who convey emotion as authentically as humans.

Earlier movies like the “The Lord of the Rings” did so on a limited basis, while those like “The Polar Express” have used live actors to drive animated images with so-called “motion capture” technology. But none has gone as far as “Avatar” will do to create an entirely photorealistic world, complete with virtual characters on that scale, Mr. Cameron said in a telephone interview.

“This film is a true hybrid — a full live-action shoot, with C.G. characters in C.G. and live environments,” he said, referring computer-generated images. “Ideally at the end of the of day the audience has no idea which they’re looking at.”

The making of “Titanic,” Mr. Cameron’s last full-blown Hollywood feature, was the stuff of movie legend. The film, released in 1997, went far over its planned cost to become the most expensive production that had then been made. But it went on to become a historic success, taking in a record-breaking $1.8 billion at the worldwide box office, and also winning 11 Oscars, including an award for best picture.

Mr. Cameron said that he had taken care to avoid the problems he encountered on his last gargantuan production, and that he was already four months into shooting the nonprincipal scenes by the time Fox gave final approval to the project today.

“I’ve looked long and hard at ‘Titanic’ and other effects-related things I’ve done where they’ve drifted budget-wise,” he said. “This has been designed from the ground up to avoid those pitfalls. Will we have other pitfalls? Yes, probably.”

For its aliens, “Avatar” will rely on characters that will be designed in the computer, but played by human actors, with tiny cameras on headsets recording their performances to be inserted into a virtual world.

Mr. Cameron has already devised revolutionary methods to shoot the film, which he has been quietly doing since the fall, and expects to create still more methods to bring to life the vision of a completely realistic alien world. He and computer experts have designed a camera that allows the director to observe the performance of the actors-as-aliens in the virtual environment in real time.

Sam Worthington, a young Australian actor, has been named to play the lead, as a paralyzed former marine who undergoes an experiment to exist as an avatar, another version of himself. The avatar is not paralyzed, but is an alien — 10 feet tall and blue. Zoe Saldana, another relative unknown, has been chosen as the love interest.

“We could do it with make-up, in a ‘Star Trek’ manner, we could put rubber on his face, but I wasn’t interested in doing it that way,” said Mr. Cameron. “With the new tools, we can create a humanoid character that is anything we imagine it to be — beautiful, elegant, graceful, powerful — evocative of us, but still with an emotional connection.”

The live-action shoot with actors will begin in April, with major effects being done by Weta, the filmmaker Peter Jackson’s New Zealand-based effects company, which worked on his “Lord of the Rings.” The film is scheduled for release in summer 2009.

“This will launch an entire new way of seeing and exhibiting movies,” said Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment. “It’s once again Jim is transforming the medium. Jim’s not just a filmmaker; every one of his films have pushed the envelope, in its aesthetic and in technology. This is an astounding undertaking, and one only Jim could do justice to.”