High-Def Digest Talks With 'Avatar' Producer Jon Landau

Posted Fri Apr 23, 2010 at 10:15 AM PDT by Mike Attebery

by Drew Taylor

A week ago, I was invited to take part in the 'Avatar' Blu-ray press day, at a fancy schmancy penthouse in midtown Manhattan. Jon Landau, producer of the biggest movie of all time, was on hand for the event, which included a brief introduction to several sequences from the Blu-ray (projected, beautifully, via HD projector). He told us that the movie was the only thing on this disc, there wouldn't be a single special feature (the emphasis here is on picture and sound – a four-disc jumbo deluxe edition will be out in time for Christmas, duh). (We didn't get a copy of the disc at the event, but I had already secured mine from a local vendor, I just hadn't watched it yet. Now that I have watched it, I can tell you it is beyond amazing.)

After all the interviews were done, Fox hosted a screening of the Blu-ray in its entirety. In between the demonstration and the screening, they served a blue, Pandora-inspired drink. I didn't have one, but it was turning everyone's teeth blue.

I was lucky enough to secure a one-on-one interview with the very gracious Landau, and a transcription of our chat follows.

HDD: My first question is – was there ever any doubt that people just wouldn't want to watch it on home video if it wasn't in 3D?

JL: No.

HDD: No fear whatsoever?

JL: There was a fear that people wouldn't go see the movie. [laughs] We always believed in the movie but you never know if people would go see the movie. But the 3D versus 2D was never a question to us, because we watched the movie in 2D, we edited the movie in 2D, we screened the movie for ourselves for a year and a half in 2D. That's how we watched it and that's how we made our creative decisions.

HDD: You didn't see it in 3D until when…?

JL: December 5th. Two weeks before it came out. [Note: I saw the movie in 3D on December 10th, which is kind of incredible to think that I saw it five days after the producer first watched it in 3D.) We would see things when we sent stuff to Weta [the effects house] but we didn't watch it as a complete 3D piece of content until two weeks before the movie came out.

HDD: So you guys just kind of hoped for the best?

JL: We knew that technically the shots worked. It was important for us, with the 2D version, to dramatically work. And that's what our focus would be on.

HDD: Well, if it didn't, you guys would be a couple of billion dollars off…

JL: Exactly!

HDD: Since the movie is the only thing on this disc, and there's nothing else, you just maxed out the space on the disc?

JL: The disc is full. We used every bit available.

HDD: So technically is this the most perfect Blu-ray yet?

JL: This is, technically, the best version that we can possibly present, both Blu-ray and DVD.

HDD: The later edition, the one you referred to earlier with the special features, is it not going to look as good as this disc? Or is there going to be a separate disc for that stuff?

JL: We have to decide that. We know we're going to come out with a four-disc set. We're going to have to see if we're just going to keep the movie on one disc as a stand alone or if through this process we can learn, "Gee, the daytime sequences arriving on the planet don't really need the bit rate we allowed for them" and we can reduce it by x, y or x and you won't be able to tell the difference there and allow us to have pieces (via branching) that tease to the other discs. I think that's all the stuff we have to look at. And now we'll look at that and continue to evaluate that and see if we can get away with a little more compression where we don't feel that it makes a difference. It won't be across the board, it will be specific sequences. Like the bioluminescent nighttime sequences we probably won't touch because we wanted you to be able to see all the detail and all of that.

HDD: What is the aspect ratio on this?

JL: 16x9

HDD: But in terms of the frame, how did you come to that conclusion? Because there was the IMAX version and the regular theatrical presentation…

JL: When we made the movie, we finished everything to a 16x9. For the theatrical release of the film we never sacrificed width in the theater. There are theaters, if you wanted to go 16x9, you would have to bring the sides in. So those theaters were 2.35. But wherever we could, get maximum width, and add height. That was in select digital screens and in all IMAX screens.

HDD: Was there any talk about doing it like "The Dark Knight," where it would sort of 'pop up?'

JL: No, no. Again: my feeling is, anytime you do something like that, you have interrupted your suspension of disbelief that you're asking from your audience. It might look cool, but you've lost that engagement with them and now you have to earn it back.

HDD: Now, I thought it was great that you guys came out and said, very honestly, "Listen, there's going to be another edition coming out." Was that always the plan?

JL: Well, we had to figure out the timing of the release. We had first thought that we would just do one release in November. But there was such public demand for something now, we couldn't do added content now, we don't have the time to prepare it. There's so much material that's available on the Internet of behind-the-scenes material. We don't just want to throw that stuff on the disc. We wanted to create original content. With the demand from people now, we didn't want to let the black market pirates to come in and take over that. So we came up with the idea of doing a disc now but let's be up front with people. Most people, the vast majority of people around the world, never watch the added value content. We don't live in that circle, we don't work in that world, but they do. So for them, this will fulfill their needs, and for those others, we'll be upfront with saying "Here's what we're doing." Somebody else said "let's discuss the elephant in the room." I said: "There is no elephant! The elephant is something you don't talk about it! We've been up front about this!"

HDD: It seems like if Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland' hadn't come out you guys would still be in the theaters.

JL: You know what I'd like to see happen? I'd like to see IMAX pick 50 of their screens and make it like a "Rocky Horror Picture Show," where it plays every Saturday night at 10 o'clock.

HDD: Do you have stuff plotted out for the four-disc set?

JL: We're still working on that. We know conceptually what we want to do, we want to do a filmmaker's journey. That would be a 2 hour + documentary about the making of the film. We want to do some in-world content, about Pandora itself. We want to do branching that takes people through all the layers. We want people to be able to watch sequences, picture-in-picture, where they can see the performance that the actors gave and the characters.

HDD: I was going to ask if you were going to do one where you could watch them just running around the motion capture set.

JL: Yes, we'll make that available through branching. Maybe not through the whole movie, but for certain sequences, I want to be able to watch the capture version.

HDD: Now there are going to be deleted scenes that are being finished by Weta? But they're not being put into the body of the movie or will they just be deleted scenes?

JL: That depends. I think in some versions they will be put in the body of the movie. But it won't be a director's cut. The movie is the director's cut.

HDD: Do you know what those scenes will be?

JL: I think those scenes will range – there will be dramatic scenes that give us background on Sigourney and the schoolhouse, there will be action scenes with Jake, there will be a little more of the bioluminescence, we will deliver on the things people responded to when they went to the movie. But this is not about "Oh, let's take this sequence that exists and add fifteen seconds to it." It's about taking something new that really wasn't in the movie before, and put it in.

HDD: I noticed from these sequences you showed [during the presentation] that things were brighter and sharper than they looked in the theater. The 3D is a little darker.

JL: There are two drawbacks to 3D in the theaters: one is brightness and the other is frame rate. But Jim went into Modern Film & Video, who did our color timing for the movie, he worked with our same color timer for a week and he sat there with five or six different monitors. They had never done this before – they had always color timed to one screen. And he went through and saw what looked good on a Plasma television, what looked good on an LCD, and made sure he got the best transfer across all of the screens. So it really does look the best.

And with that, our time was up. I thanked Mr. Landau for his time and for the opportunity to talk with him about the amazing world of Pandora.

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Tags: Industry Trends, 3D, Drew Taylor, Avatar, James Cameron, Jon Landau, 20th Century Fox (all tags)