CinemaCon 2011: James Cameron, George Lucas, and Jeffrey Katzenberg Discuss the Future of Movies

Wow, my fingers have never typed as fast as they did to capture the notes for this panel. But how could they stop when it was James Cameron, George Lucas, and Jeffrey Katzenberg discussing the past, present and future of the movies.

The Importance of Digital Technology

George Lucas: All of art is technology, whether it’s learning to draw on a wall with charcoal or using the printing press.

Take for instance in graphic arts, the move from fresco painting, where you’re inside a building with a giant crew and need to work quickly before the paint dries. Each person has their specialty, one guy is responsible for only making blue paint who learned it from his father and his father before that. You have to organize them, which makes it complicated when you’re dealing with creativity.

Then oil paints came along, freeing the artist. He could go outside by himself and decide to paint the sun. And if he didn’t like it, he could change it. This freed artists creatively and this is what digital does.

James Cameron: Digital technology gives you the ability to create worlds. We’re at a point where if we can imagine it then we can create it using the photo-realistic CG tools that are available now.

Then there’s the digital exhibition side which maintains that quality. Titanic played so long that our film prints fell apart, we only left theatres because of that. We only did a new round of 100 prints as the older film prints began to literally fall out of the projector. There’s a limit to how long a film print can be played and I know what it is, it’s 16 weeks. A good problem to have.

A major catalyst in making digital exhibition more ubiquitous was 3D. It’s what drove and is currently driving the digital rollout. But for the next two Avatar movies I want to display a higher framerate, 48 or 60 frames per second. Don’t think “oh, no” we have to spend more in upgrades since it’s a small cost once you’re in the digital realm. The expensive part is already done. Plus the faster framerate shows you a different movie, it takes the glass out of the window and puts you in reality.

We have to constantly fight against other distribution methods like premium VOD and streaming and to do this we have to be great showmen. We need to have great sound and a great image.

Jeffrey Katzenberg: Digital evolution in animation has actually been a revolution. From when John Lasseter delivered that first full-length CG animated movie in 1994 (Toy Story) to where we are 16 years later, digital tools have more then transformed the experience, it transformed the art of how it’s made.

We’re constantly trying to push the technology. Currently, we have 250 engineers working purely in R&D to make sure our animators have the best tools, so that each time you watch our movie it’s a new “wowie!” But we’re just building knowledge, we’re still so early in the process.

Lucas: Where we are in the stage of digital is like being in 1900 during the chemical research phase of film. We’re just touching the surface. And once you go digital, spending the money to get in the game, everything after that is infinitely cheaper.

You can go millions of miles with very little bit of gas, you can modify and move inexpensively.

Katzenberg: When I saw Polar Express in 2004, that was the first time I ever had an experience like that in a theatre. It exhilarated me like no movie has done before. It pulled me in emotionally and physically. I came out of the theatre thinking we need to do this right now.

The Next Five Years

Lucas: The big transformation has happened which was sound. That type of change won’t come for another 30, 40, 50 years. In digital, the things we are doing are just little incremental tweaks that make it better. The “real event” has already happened.

Like many theatregoers, I love the movie theatre. I make my movies for the movie theatre, I don’t mind other platforms, but you have to see it in the movie theatre to experience it how I want you to experience it. Theatres represent a social art that you can’t get that on an iPhone or on a computer. People go to a huge venue to share that experience together. They get to dress up, show off to other people, laugh, cry together. Movie theatres will never ever go away.

Katzenberg: In animation the next level is the next level of computing: scalable multi-core processing. What it means is that the power or the microchip is about to take a quantum leap and Moore’s Law goes out the window. Our artists can create and see their work in real-time. Right now, they get a couple seconds of animation rendered at low resolution and it gives them an idea of what it’s going to look like. Then 8 or 12 hours later after going through a render farm they get to see it finalized. They make little tweaks and go through the whole process again.

In this next generation they will see their work as they’re making it. Before it’s as if they were painting blind, but are now able to see what they’re painting. The process will change the quality of what we’re able to do.

Avatar set the high bar for a whole new level of imagination, thats about to happen to us in animation.

3D Filmmaking

Cameron: I can spend two hours busting myths. Like the myth that you have to shoot differently. The answer is yes and no.

I didn’t shoot differently when I made Avatar. I knew it would be seen in 3D and 2D, plus 3D at home was still a ways away. If you wanted to, you can shoot differently to absolutely optimize the experience and once we have 3D ubiquity then I think we can go that direction, but the point is you don’t have to. An over-the-shoulder shot is still an over-the-should shot. A close-up is still a close-up.

Then the myth of not being able to cut as quickly in a 3D movie. Last time I checked Avatar was an action movie and there’s a lot of quick cutting. Is there a tiny bit of knowledge required? Yes, but that’s what the Cinematographer and Editors are for.

Make sure you hire a team that understands stereo, but that should all be transparent. Still make the movie as you would make it with the 3D team as yes people. I didn’t change the way I shot. I had to comfort myself that I wouldn’t change and the movie wouldn’t suffer, it would be value added. Once 3D takes away from your normal process then you should rethink shooting in 3D.

Lucas: Last time I was here I was pushing digital, I wasn’t thinking about 3D. But Zemeckis and Cameron were big 3D guys and we talked about ShoWest. I thought it would be a great way to push digital and 3D since 3D needs digital in order to work.

So I converted part of Star Wars into digital 3D. What I found is that it really does create a 3D space. We could never get Yoda to look right in that digital space in 2D. Once you saw him 3D it became real. The blue cats [in Avatar] are real.

In an over-the-shoulder shot you believe theres another side to it. When we converted Star Wars, it wasn’t a 3D movie, it was a movie in 3D. It puts you behind the proscenium.

Digital is like the invention of sound, 3D is like the invention of color. Sound changed everything in movies while color made it better. Just like when you see a 2D movie you’ll feel like you’re watching a black-and-white film. Ultimately everything will completely be in 3D.

3D Conversion Process for Titanic and Star Wars

Lucas: I’ve already gotten a lot of flack for changing the movie, but I’m interested in the concept of 3D that goes behind the proscenium. I’d love to see Jurassic Park in 3D. Who wouldn’t?

With the conversion tests we’ve done it hasn’t changed anything. But 3D is not a technical problem it’s a creative problem. We need to have people that are making informed decisions. It’s an artform and the shots are only as good as the people doing the shot. We’ve done the best conversion we could do since we began eight years ago. The crew knows every single shot so we have a certain advantage.

Cameron: I’m going to slam 3D conversion right now. You can’t convert in six weeks, that’s not 3D, it’s 2.2D. It’s false stereo. Because when it was being converted it was people looking at a screen, there’s no data stream captured when the shot was done to tell you the true spatial relationship. A guy at workstation can say this guy is big and this guy is little so I’ll put him in the background.

There’s no killer app that can convert something to 3D. It’s still about workstations and working for long periouds of time, hopefully with the filmmaker right there.

I can remember the Titanic set so I have insight about the space. We have scanned images of the performers from back then when it was used for face replacement FX. And since we have those scans of them, we can create continuous depth. But it can’t be done quickly.

It’s the bad 3D conversion which is eroding the artform. You can add all the bells and whistles you want, but you can’t add conversion to the post-production process. Unless if you have eight months which isn’t as cheap as just shooting natively in 3D.

Katzenberg: I don’t think its a question of tools, it’s the talent in control of the tools. 3D done to date that’s lowered the high bar has not had artists on the tools. It’s disappointing and devalues an amazing opportunity for all of us, which is why I’ve been too crticial perhaps. This is just the beginning and anybody that tries to cash in with the quick score will ruin it for the rest of us. It’s a travesty for us to take this amazing opportunity and offer something so important by taking the low road.

Lucas: The audience is listenting, to quote the famous line. Films that have been converted badly don’t go unnoticed.

Katzenberg: Will Episode VII be shot in 3D?

Lucas: Yes. By then it will be done as a hologram.

Final Thoughts on the Future of Cinema

Katzenberg: Above and beyond what you heard here, it’s the quality of the experience. The single greatest opportunity for exhibition is to acually bring together the ability to see a movie and eat a meal. It’s the next blockbuster thing that cannot be replicated in the home.

As George said, people want to go out and have a social experience. Here’s a way to keep theatres around forever.

Cameron: George and Jeff have been very eloquent about the social experience. There’s a sacredness to the theatre, that as a fillmmaker drove me to 3D. Once I saw digital 3D about 10-years ago, I thought: “that’s reality.” I’ve never shot on film again.

It was a 10-year journey of working on it, and the driver of that was the theatrical experience. We’ve taken hits from VHS and TV and we’ve rebounded, but we’ve rebounded with more confidence that we can put on a better show. Avatar is the highest-grossing movie of all-time, but it’s also one of the most pirated films in history. Then, why did it still make so much money?

Because of a cult-like need to watch it in theatre. If you didn’t, then you weren’t part of the conversation. It was the peer-to-peer social acceptance and ostracization that made it a huge success. Ticket sales for the 3D version of Avatar was about 50% of all ticket sales and by the end at was 80%. There was a need to have the 3D experience.

Lucas: Look, I’m bringing out Star Wars for the third time. Newsweek asked: “does he have no shame?”

Well we’re into the third generation that are under 12 who haven’t seen Star Wars. And I’m betting that people who have seen it many times will still join this new generation to see it again if it’s in a social experience.

Katzenberg: In 2005, when, along with Robert Zemeckis, we presented 3D to you guys, there weren’t even a 100 movie theatres in the world with 3D. In 2007 there were 707. By the end of this year there will be 35,000 theatres with 3D capabilities and we owe you a lot of thanks in your support and belief. We made it with a hope you would get there.

So for us and for filmmakers and for Hollywood, all we can say is “thank you.” Thank you in believing in us and believing in 3D.

Photos: ©Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.