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James Cameron: “I’m not interested in being an animator”


In last week’s LA Times, James Cameron continued to assert his position that Avatar isn’t animation, though at least he’s acknowledging now that “a whole team of animators” is used in the process:

“I’m not interested in being an animator. . . . That’s what Pixar does. What I do is talk to actors. ‘Here’s a scene. Let’s see what you can come up with,’ and when I walk away at the end of the day, it’s done in my mind. In the actor’s mind, it’s done. There may be a whole team of animators to make sure what we’ve done is preserved, but that’s their problem. Their job is to use the actor’s performance as an absolute template without variance for what comes out the other end.”

In the LA Times, animation director Henry Selick also weighed in publicly for the first time on the issue:

“The academy has to come to terms with where [performance capture] goes. Is it animation? Is it a new category? I’m like the academy. I don’t know where it fits. I will tell you this, animators have to work very, very hard with the motion-capture data. After the performance is captured, it’s not just plugged into the computer which spits out big blue people. It’s a hybrid.”

In response to the recent article, Kristin Thompson at Observations on Film Art has written a thoughtful article about the hybrid nature of the performance and the disingenousness of Camerons’ claim that the creative work ends with his actors.

(Earlier Brew coverage about the amount of animation in Avatar can be found here, here, here, and here.)

  • Cody Covell

    They actually put cat ears on the helmets?! HAHAHAH!! Oh god, the more I learn about this movie, the worse it gets… it’s bad enough I actually had to ENDURE it once

  • Ian

    What Cameron does probably is talk to actors and discuss a scene. That doesn’t negate a team of animators working hard to produce an animation from the motion data.

    “There may be a whole team of animators to make sure what we’ve done is preserved, but that’s their problem.”

    And here’s me thinking it was a team effort.

  • Matt Sullivan

    So he doesn’t want to be an animator. It’s not a PERSONAL insult.

    Motion capture isn’t EVIL guys it’s just a tool. And aren’t animators fond of saying “It’s just a tool” all the time?

    Relax. He’s not badmouthing the animation industry.

  • Vladimir

    I still can’t see why a large portion of the animation community is outraged over Avatar not being considered an animated movie. Is this kind of film what we want to associate ourselves (and the medium) with?

  • “it’s not just plugged into the computer which spits out big blue people” made my morning

  • Ben

    So what happens when a bad scene is inhanced by an animator changes made ,touch ups …etc does the animator get to share the nomination.

    If they do get nominated then we have to look back on every great animated scene and consider is that performance worth an nomination for best actor. As someones based it on some reference some where.

    If not ,well then he can teach his actors to animate, and they can fiddle around with matching their performances to the scenes,controling the smallest twitch of their ears, the simulating of their hair/cloth as it runs through there hands….etc anything that can contribute to the performance that their out of control of during there performance.

    Then you can surely give them an oscar.

  • I had never noticed before. The navi only have three fingers, like Bugs Bunny.

  • Tim Hodge

    JWLane – But the Avatars had four fingers like their human counterparts.

    Why don’t live action directors realize that animators are acting, too?
    Its like saying “I want a photo of a model and not a painting because I want the model’s true pose. Painters don’t know how to do that.”

  • Cameron’s not being disingenuous there, just disrespectful or even hateful.
    The disingenuous part is this:
    “What I do is talk to actors. ‘Here’s a scene. Let’s see what you can come up with”
    Because I pretty much remember the whole story being carried by a cumbersome reiterative narration. Not much room for improv’ there, to my mind.

  • Except Bugs Bunny was animated better.

  • I’m not offended by Cameron’s claim that he doesn’t want to be an animator. I could care less. What did offend me though is that he considers what he does acting and what Pixar (or any other animation studio) does not acting. Animators are actors, as well as voice actors, and just like Cameron has to discuss a scene with the “actors”, the animation “directors” talk with their “actors” as well.

    It doesn’t bother me that Avatar is not an animation movie, I wouldn’t have consider it to be. But what I am tired of is Cameron bad mouthing the medium, thinking it’s low class to whatever he comes up with.

  • ‘Here’s a scene. Let’s see what you can come up with,’ and when I walk away…
    If this is all it takes to be a director in Hollywood, what the heck am I doing wasting my time being a writer here in the Midwest?

  • Some pretty contentious words from Cameron. Let’s see a shot from Avitar before an animator touches it – then we can see the value of their contribution.

  • how about a “best digital performance” Oscar category? the effects team could share it with the actor.

  • I agree with Matt Sullivan – Motion Capture is just another tool in the filmmaker’s tool kit. By filmmaker – I mean animation and live action.

    To simplify the analogy – it’s like a painter using a figure model to work out the pose, lighting, etc., for him. Instead of imagining the form that he wants to paint, he draws from life.

    Hmm… maybe too simple.

  • You know its never a good thing when a manager (basically what a director is though a little more artistic) disrespects any part of his staff. Cameron, sir, animation is not a black box. Your film is mostly animation accept it. Its not movie magic to the person who makes it, its movie-fucking-hard-work.

  • When computer animation began, I recall a lot of talk about actors posthumously appearing in new films, Marilyn Monroe or Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne for example. In that case, the animator would certainly have been required to give credible life to a performance that was cobbled together from different sources.

    Working from an existing performance is more of a technical challenge than an acting one but it’s still pretty clear that there’s a vast difference between Gollum and Tom Hanks’ conductor. I would argue that the difference rests in the hands of the animator.

    If there is going to be some kind of performance capture category, wouldn’t it be fair for the actor and animator to share the prize?

  • It seems to me that once he finishes a film Cameron sticks his foot in his mouth in nearly every interview. I’ll bet craft services got more respect and appreciation than the animation effects crew received.

    I’m glad I’ve avoided seeing this film.

  • george

    you guys ever been to really long dailies and there are members in your ‘commitee of animators’ who just doesn’t get it, too stubborn to follow direction or just plain suck?? so if one was a hotshot director with gazillions to spare.. why not just pay millions to develop ‘technologies’ so that he’d never had to deal with headachs like that?? and then spend a couple million more just to discredit animation? hahaa! it’s not impossible i tell you…

  • Kelly

    Maybe he’s just afraid of being called the next Robert Zemeckis.

  • Caspar the friendly executive

    I was sooooo happy when the tech and design guys won at the British Academy Awards but Cameron himself got his blue butt kicked out of the theatre by ‘The Hurt Locker.’

  • “And aren’t animators fond of saying “It’s just a tool” all the time?”

    Hahaha, nice one. Usually used to defend your own cause only.

    I’m all for improving mocap technology. Characters in FX movies need to move as realistically as possible in order to live and blend in with the live-action world. The less you have to deal with mocap the better. I prefer keyframe. Have some fancy box deal with all the mocap. Looks better, less pain for animators.

  • Sean

    I like the simple difference in the picture above. Someone pointed out the ears on the helmet…but they do not move at all, so there are plenty of finite things that animators are responsible for beyond an “absolute template without variance.”

    His directing style of just talking to the actors, letting them do whatever, and then expecting the animators to make it function tells me that James Cameron doesn’t really want to be a director either, since other people have far more control over “his” product.
    Ultimately, who care whether this jackass wants to be an animator?

    The real slight is clearly how he seems to view animators. I mean, since the idea for Avatar was completely his “brain child,” (aside from being a rip-off of other plot lines and japanese manga) I am sure he feels he has no use for writers as well – since they were simply putting his ideas on paper after he has “walked away at the end of the day.”

    We now know how he feels about animators and animation, so an interview like this isn’t as angering anymore. What still gets my ire up is that Avatar is nominated for Best Picture at all… since, as a movie and with the exception of being pretty to look at, it was crap.

  • Donald C.

    He doesn’t seem to have much respect for the animators.

  • Brandon

    Let me just say that the cast of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” would be VERY OFFENDED by Cameron’s comment, ‘Here’s a scene. Let’s see what you can come up with’

  • Sam

    James Cameron is too egotistic with his own film. Because of this I am going to boycott his next movie. I hope animators would have been able to team up to boycott working on his film too so he has to kneel down, take back his own words and beg for them to come back working for him.

    If he doesn’t want to be an animator, he doesn’t have to be, but don’t diss it like the animators are just ‘slaves’ to solve his problems and not spare any credit to them. It’s a group effort, and it couldn’t be done without the animation department. Least he could do is just give everyone who helped him make this happen a thumbs up. But no.

  • I know nothing about motion capture.
    Anyone involved care to comment on this particular line?:
    “Their job is to use the actor’s performance as an absolute template without variance for what comes out the other end.”

  • optimist

    The suggestion by Cameron that “I’m[…]not an animator” is a non sequiter, really; no one to my knowledge has suggested any such thing about him.

    But there is an implied suggestion(pretty heavily implied, actually)that an animation director is much lesser than a live action one.

    He’s obviously bugged by an implicit notion that “computers do it all”-the same crap that CG feature places have dealt with forever. He’s fighting anyone saying “Well, Avatar was all done by tech guys”…which, you know, I mean,….look at the side-by-side heads above. An awful lot of the performance as seen on screen IS the end result of extremely skilled animation artists utilizing an X factor of creativity there. That’s a fact.

    Unfortunately the nuances of what they were given and what they made of it–raw footage, ALSO performances as directed by Cameron-are missed by 90% of the public and press. They just look at the screen and say “that’s CG. it was animated…by. um, computers or something. Right?” So he bends over backwards to talk down the animation aspect.
    Selick calls it perfectly.

  • William

    More than anything, it sounds like Cameron is shunning the options mo-cap offers. Restricting yourself by not allowing artists (non-animators) to return to the work is some strange logic, much less a vaild excuse to not identify with animation.

  • It’s been said before and I think it is still true. Mo-Cap is just rotoscoping technically enhanced. Zoe Saldana in a helmet with ears is not much different than Dave Fleischer jumping up and down like Koko the Clown. I’ve seen Mo-Cap data and you just don’t drop it in a 3D environment and voila!. There’s a lot of tweaking and inbetweening and this and that until you get the final figure. Avatar is basically a cartoon with some live action thrown in. Nothing wrong with that.

  • BT

    When Polar Express came out weren’t Amid and others here offended that it WAS considered animation? I seem to remember it being controversial that it was nominated for best animated feature because the movements were primarily done as motion capture and not frame-by-frame.

    But now it seems implied that we should be angry about Cameron not considering his live action with mocap movie to be animation. I don’t see the logic there, so I guess I’ll just have to not be outraged and enjoy different methods of filmmaking for what they are.

  • I’m surprised by the hubris of his dismissive comments. I think the person leading the animation team should have his or her name listed right next to James Cameron’s in the credits. That might knock Cameron down a peg or two.

  • Why is this an issue? It’s very simple, we do not see the actors on screen. We see characters that are created by a team of artists. Unlike an actor standing in front of a camera someone has designed them, modeled them, rigged them, textured them, lighted them, and then animators had to clean up the actors performance. This is more animation than live action. Mocap is very broken and choppy before animators get it. You can’t just send the actors performance to the can. It’s unwatchable. Not to mention this shouldn’t be getting best actor awards even if it was actual people on the screen. It was a ride at best. Something you might go see next to the Star Wars ride at Disneyland. This was nothing more than a really great exercise in effects, but it was not oscar worthy other than those effects. And it was not even as big a step in the world of film effects as was Jurassic Park when it came out. It was entertaining, but that was it. I did like the plants a lot.

  • Sean

    i agree with What in the Cell?
    The plants and the creatures were the best parts for me. I bet Cameron will claim that they were motion-captured from real alien creatures that he discovered himself – god forbid he recognize any animation or designing done on his “non-animated” movie.

  • Brendan

    My opinion, resulting directly from his own interviews, boiled down to a clear, concise verdict:

    James Cameron is an egotistical turd.

    And I hope he doesn’t win any Oscars.

  • hfr

    BT, I think it’s not about Cameron considering the film’s category as animation or not- personally, I think it doesn’t fit in that classification, it is just loaded with special effects and animation over mo-cap to make it even more realistic and actually less animated-looking- but the problem I see here is his way of speaking about animation in general as being some kind of a lower form of art, and about the animator’s role, which seems to be heavily underestimated by a director of the film which depends on animation so much. What he said sounds to me like he hates those hacks from animation department so much that he doesn’t even want to look down at them and their useless stuff, him being all great acclaimed movie director and all, and he was somehow forced to hire those losers to work on his new UNANIMATED film, but he has his actors and mo-cap, and animators aren’t really wanted on the set. Please stay in your designated area and don’t make me notice you, you… you… you animators.

    I get the impression that when he was hiring those people he specifically told them ‘but you have to remember, no Pixar on my set. Got it? Write it down somewhere, there’s no way you animators are going to remember about that. N-o P-i-x-a-r s-t-u-f-f.’

  • Caspar the friendly executive

    I hope all his Oscars turn out to be made of Unobtainium.

  • Nicky

    Im not gonna spend my hard earned cash to see this when cameron says “thats their problem” about animators. at least once the hype has died down we dont need to see another cameron flick for another 10 years!

  • so frustrating…

  • Ken

    The Academy Awards should just add a new category, but it does not really matter. Pixar will STILL hog up all the awards, (whether their films deserve it or not.)

  • marland

    i’m an animator(no didn’t work on that film) and i have no problem with what cameron said about animation regarding the avatar. at the end of the day it was the actor who decided when to blink, frown, how long to hold a pose, when and how to react to things around him… and all the animation team did was to make sure the poses, movement data transferred onto the rigs remain consistent and nice and remains ‘on model’. of cos it’s a lot of hard work and frame by frame tweaking to make sure what goes up on the screen is beautiful but i doubt any of them will be comfortable claiming any credit for the raw performance that the actors provided.. it’s like clean up vs key frame animators in 2d animation pipeline – with the cg animators taking over the role of clean-up guys in this performance capture set up. that being said i still do think the avatar animation team deserves more credit for all the crazy shitloads of animations that supplemented the main cast and made that movie such a rich visual experience. it’ll be nice if cameron publicly acknowledge that one day..

  • jason

    What I found funny in the article was Andy’s comment..

    “You can’t enhance a bad performance with animation. You can’t dial it up, lift the lip or the eyebrow. It has to be right at the core moment. It’s the same as conventional shooting.”

    When actually, you CAN enhance a bad performance. Not only that, you can change it completely. You can do whatever you want to it. In fact, with gollum we DID change things.. not just lift eyebrows or the lips, but changed the body, the face, the fingers, the toes.. we removed parts, added parts, completely changed parts. We modified the heck out of that performance. And while gollum would certainly not have been gollum without andy serkis who is a brilliant actor, it also would not have been gollum without animators like randy cook, mike stevens, steven hornby, melanie cordan, beth arko, etc etc etc. Let alone bay raitt, eric saindon, and all the other sculpters, riggers, technical artists, lighters, and compositors who made it happen.

    I’m all for giving actors tons of props and kudos.. just don’t ignore or belittle all the work the animators do to make the performance as well.

  • Tony Brain

    It’s animation. All thats been done is swapped a mouse for a camera. I’m very surprised this is worth talking about so long, but James Cameran can whine all he wants that the sky isnt blue, but his own opinion can’t repersent the fact the movie is animated. Ok so what you did motion capture, it still needs tweeking, and what about the backgrounds, did he mo-cap them too? No ofcourse not, besides most the creatures, the rest would be animated normally and the enviroment had to be created and staged. It seems Mr Cameran seems to give the impression he finds animation “kiddy” and wants to sound a big boy and use big words like motion capture, no, EMOTION capture, yeah, that sounds more impressive….

  • Lennie

    In his zeal to promote his actors, and also to maintain his pretense as “a real live action direcTOR”, Cameron does seem pretty dismissive of animation, which ignores the many truly animated creatures that the story depends on. Just the phrase “I am not interested in being an animator” shows a naiveté as to what an animator truly is. And to say “That’s what Pixar does” is so blunt, I am not sure what he means by it.

    I do agree with him, though, when he says that the Na’ vi are not animated. I do not see Mo-Cap, or as he calls it “Performance Capture” (I guess Perf-cap for short) as animation. Especially when the live performance is as closely followed as in Avatar.

    Animation is when animators create the performances. They can and should refer to as much reference as they want, but at some point they must commit to their creation or interpretation of the performance. If an animator actually uses a preexisting performance to dictate all or part of their performance, then they are not animating. They are Mo-Capping or Perf-Capping, whatever.

    In traditional (hand-drawn) animation the process of tracing live action performances frame by frame was called Rotoscope. Disney developed a process called “Selective Rotoscope.” That is when only the key poses, or selected poses were traced, and these poses were sometimes pushed by the animator to be more extreme, or appropriate, etc. to fit into the style of the animation. The actions dictated by these selected, and sometimes altered drawings were then re-timed, broken-down and inbetweened by the assistant animators with no reference to the live action. Disney did this to try to remove the curse of feeling false that came with rotoscope. They problem is, even after all of that, you could still tell that the performance was based on live action; and that stinks on the screen.

    Well, Mo-Perf-Cap falls victim to that very same curse of feeling false. What works is an animator’s interpretation of a performance. Not the since that someone’s hand is stuck up a character’s back-side controlling their actions. The characters should exist sincerely on the screen, for their own sake. Not manipulated by some distant live action like some kind of avatar. That sincerity only happens when the animator is creating the performance. This why animators make the best Mo-Cap artists, even though they are not actually animating, but nursing performances.

    Instead of wasting time fighting this battle, I guess Kristin Thompson and Henry Selik are right when he suggests a new catagory. Call them MoPerf-Captors.

  • C. James

    It is animation. But let’s not get so riled up that we forget that it’s MOTION CAPTURE as well. The rules are being re-defined here.

    It’s unfortunate that in his egomaniacal zeal to make sure he and his live actors get the lion share of the credit he feels it necessary to denigrate the animators. Someone definitely needs to slap Cameron hard and remind him that no one motion-captured those flying lizards, and that someone of skill took that raw mocap info from his actors and made it live digitally.

    But still, let’s recognize that this wasn’t like Eric Goldberg sitting down and 100% creating a performance from Robin Williams’ voice. The performance began with actors on a stage and that performance is largely preserved in the final film. That needs to be recognized.

    If there’s any justice, however, when Cameron goes to make another film using this process, the team of animators who broke their backs for him on Avatar will tell him to go shove it. That way he can go searching for an all-new group of people who will have to be trained from scratch how to do it, and likely won’t be as skilled.

  • ben

    I like what Jason had to say. It’s most definitely a collaboration between actor and animator, and the animator has a heavy influence in the final product. Both deserve credit.
    When we’re discussing this particular performance, I have to say that while it came out very well (and beautifully animated) I didn’t necessarily see Zoe’s performance as Oscar worthy compared to the other nominees. I can’t help but wonder how much of this nomination debate is really about her acting ability and not just a way to put the discussion of “actors receiving awards for animated performances” on the table.