Creating Avatar

The first step was a trip to Hawaii to meet with some Sony executives about HD cameras. “Three elements needed to be determined,” says Pace. “We didn’t have a camera small enough with digital cinema quality. We didn’t have lenses capable of D-Cinema quality. And we didn’t have a recording methodology for 24 fps. Those were very critical layers that needed to be answered.”

At that meeting, Cameron described his 2D/3D dream camera. “They responded with the capability of a specialty camera based on the CineAlta line that could be small enough to put two of them side by side for stereo capture,” recalls Pace. “They called it the J-Cam. And so that was the camera system, the starting point of a body design that would be small enough to go on the rig, times two.”

Next came an examination of the practicalities and philosophies of shooting stereoscopically. Pace toured all the players in the 3D stereoscopic marketplace and studied all the “rules” for 3D. “It became clear to both of us that the 3D market was in much more of an infant stage than we had thought,” says Pace. “Jim’s theory at the time was that we didn’t know which one of these 3D rules applied, so why not make a system that did it all. Our edict was that it needed to be able to create any form of stereo possible. Those that we didn’t like on screen, we wouldn’t use anymore. We didn’t want to commit to a certain style of 3D.”

In the midst of all these trials, Cameron and Pace put their research to the test on Ghosts of the Abyss, the 2003 documentary in which Cameron and his team explore the wreckage of the Titanic, and shoot the expedition in 3D stereoscopy. Pace was the documentary’s cinematographer.

Then in 2005, Cameron made Aliens of the Deep, another 3D stereoscopic documentary, which takes audiences deep underwater to volcanic sites where exotic life thrives. Cameron and Pace were cinematographers on that film.

Landau describes how the thinking on the best way to capture 3D stereoscopic images evolved. “Initially, the thinking was that it would be a side-by-side rig and that would be the answer for all the issues associated with stereo photography,” he says. “The more Jim and Vince worked with the camera, they saw the place for beam-splitter rigs where the interocular distance is much smaller.

“Vince is a brilliant engineer,” Landau continues. “He put these things together, and working on Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep was what helped make these the best and most robust systems.”

Core to Cameron’s idea was to use two cameras to mimic human eyesight, which meant that the two cameras would have to be as close to each other as the distance between two human pupils, which Pace says is estimated at 69mm. “That isn’t just for the dimensional quality, but to go after what it would feel like to be there and see it with your own eyes,” explains Pace.