When film-maker James Cameron was in Wellington during the making of Avatar, the biggest box-office moneymaker in history, he kept a low profile outside the confines of Sir Peter Jackson's studios.
While Avatar was being made, it was Cameron's longtime business partner and producer Jon Landau who gave interviews about the project. The creative force behind the 3-D science-fiction epic was nowhere to be seen.
Most likely, going on reports of Cameron's work ethic and perfectionism, he was still spending long hours, along with cast and crew, finishing the film, which made NZ$3.3 billion.
The closest the public got to Cameron was the occasional unconfirmed sighting in the capital's restaurants and reports after he held a party in January last year to thank Wellington film workers for their part in the 2009 film's success.
This is in stark contrast with the past fortnight, when the Canadian has made two public appearances in Wellington, first on the red carpet for the world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and then as a guest speaker this week at Te Papa for a deep-sea biology symposium.
In March, Cameron piloted his self-designed submarine 11 kilometres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean to the bottom of the Mariana Trench's Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth.
But Cameron, 58, has not come back to New Zealand just for The Hobbit or the symposium. He is here to complete the scripts for Avatar 2 and 3.
"I'm actually over here writing, because I need some peace and quiet," he says.
"So we're out on our farm in the Wairarapa and loving it. Unfortunately, it's distracting because it's so beautiful. You want to go fishing and on yachts and all that sort of thing. It's going to take me a while to get these scripts nailed down exactly the way I want them.
"I don't want to be writing the movie in post-production. We kind of did that on the first picture and I ended up cutting out a lot of scenes and so on."
Cameron paid about $20 million in January for two properties in the Wairarapa, including a 250-hectare dairy farm, and has since added three lifestyle blocks, a 13ha site containing several buildings and 21ha of land.
Cameron is here with his family and needs to spend a minimum of 88 days over two years to fulfil residency requirements.
He and his wife, actress Suzy Amis-Cameron, who was also at The Hobbit premiere, say they have met the neighbours.
"We know our immediate neighbours within a couple of miles radius a lot better in the first few weeks than we have in Los Angeles in 10 years. People in Los Angeles are very insular.
"We just said, ‘Come over and bang on the door', and they do. That would never happen in LA.
"Everyone is so welcoming."
But Cameron's presence at The Hobbit premiere wasn't just a courtesy. Visual-effects studio Weta Digital, part-owned by Jackson, was at the heart of creating Avatar.
At its height, more than 800 Weta Digital staff in Wellington were working on the film.
Cameron has long been an innovator and pioneer in pushing new technologies in film. His 1989 underwater sci-fi movie The Abyss included a small amount of computer-generated visual effects by George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic. Terminator 2: Judgement Day pushed computer-generated effects further for the "liquid metal" terminator.
While some computer-generated effects had been used in wide-release movies since 1982's Tron, Terminator 2 was the turning point, where audiences were shown how significant computer-generated effects could be. It wasn't long before they became an important part of Jackson's films, first notably with the The Frighteners in 1996.
In the case of The Hobbit being shot in 48 frames per second - twice that of most movies - Cameron is as enthusiastic about the frame rate as Jackson. In all likelihood, the next two Avatar movies will be shot in 48fps.
Before seeing The Hobbit last week, Cameron was shown about 18 minutes of the film about three months ago. "Peter shared that with me, so I could look at the progress on the high frame rate.
"He and I were both very enthusiastic about that and doing testing at the same time. It's spectacular."
One of the reasons for the popularity of Avatar was its use of 3-D. The 3-D aspect was part of the film from the ground up and it impressed many people who did not like 3-D in other films. Even people who continue to dislike 3-D make an exception for Avatar.
Cameron says that's why 48fps is so important to him.
"It solves the remaining problems with 3-D, because the 3-D elevated everything and made it more real," he says.
One of the problems for 3-D and visual effects in 24fps is a tendency at times to have a strobe-like effect or, as Cameron puts it, create "a stroboscopic artefact".
"The 48 just smooths it right out. It just gets rid of it completely."
Cameron, whose previous hit, Titanic, was the highest-grossing film in the world until Avatar, doesn't see new technology as the be-all and end-all to make a great movie. Even for The Hobbit, he says he hopes the film is a success whether people see it in 3-D and 48fps or 2-D and 24fps.
"But if there's acceptance of the 48, that will pave the way for the Avatar films and other films to take advantage of it.
"We charged out with the flag on 3-D with Avatar. Now, Peter's doing it with The Hobbit. It takes that kind of bold move to make change."
Wellington will also fly the flag for Avatar again, which will be a boost for the city once production wraps on The Hobbit trilogy.
About $362m was spent in New Zealand making the first Avatar. It employed more than 1500 people and injected about $100m into Wellington's economy.
Cameron says it will happen again. "When I get the scripts finished, which will probably be in late January [or] early February, then we are into the early pre-production. That puts us here [in Wellington] towards the end of 2013, I would say.
"It will be twice the energy and activity we had here on the first one, because we will do 2 and 3 very much the way Peter's doing it [with The Hobbit] and releasing them a year apart."
Most of the work will be visual effects for the two Avatar films.
Since Avatar's success, Cameron has established a new studio complex in Los Angeles.
While most of the motion-capture and live action filming for Avatar was done in New Zealand, the Los Angeles studio will be the base this time. But Cameron hasn't ruled out some motion-capture and live action filming for Avatar 2 and 3 in New Zealand.
"Now that we're officially locals, I might have wished to do more of the motion-capture as well here. We'll see as we go along.
"We may find ourselves doing more of the post-production here, especially on the third film. As time goes on, I just want to spend more and more time here."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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