James Cameron, Inventor

James Cameron ignites creative fire as a script writer, a film director—and as an inventor. His inventions have reshaped cinematography and oceanography, and will have an impact on the future of both consumer and professional 3D applications.

James Cameron
James Cameron

Avatar is a Hollywood smash hit, and has arguably redefined the cinema experience for this generation. In a technique some have called “building the parachute on the way down” Avatar director James Cameron worked with a small team to develop new ways to record live action destined for a virtual world. It is not the first time Cameron has turned his creative side toward technology instead of art.

Cameron was invited to talk about his work as an inventor at the recent SolidWorks World 2010 conference. After he spoke to the 5,000 in attendance at the Anaheim Convention Center, SolidWorks CEO Jeff Ray told the press, “Now you understand why we asked Cameron to speak. He is an inventor, and he is one who thumbs his nose at the status quo.” Adds co-founder Jon Hirschtick, “He is an inventor first. Our expectations were wildly exceeded.”
Early in the production of Avatar, Cameron realized their live-action capture technology was providing unnatural results. It was, in Cameron’s words, “creepy.” “It scared the crap out of me,” he told Popular Mechanics magazine. “Horrible! It was dead, it was awful. It wasn’t Sam [Worthington, the actor playing Jake Sully]. I thought, ‘We’ve done everything right and this is what it looks like?’”
James Cameron with Fusion Virtual Camera
James Cameran with the Fusion Virtual Camera he co-invented. Image courtesy 20th Century Fox.

As a result, the Avatar team went beyond the use of the 3D Fusion camera Cameron invented for use in his earlier movies, including The Abyss. They put tiny digital cameras on head gear, mounted to view each actor’s face, to catch the nuances of expression existing motion capture technology could not record. And they built an extension of the Fusion camera, a stand-alone LCD screen that displays an augmented-reality view of the scene in real-time. The camera senses its position on the motion-capture stage and integrates the live action into the CG environment. The intuitive, immersive nature of this modification allowed Cameron the creative freedom to view Avatar scenes from any angle. He could direct with the screen in his hand, or look at and record scenes from different angles by navigating it in the empty set, reviewing CG footage.

To make it possible to see a mix of live action and CG in real time, the process was low-resolution. Only when final scenes and views were selected did production move to high-definition 3D images. On a single workstation it would take 50-100 hours to process one frame, so the studio put 40,000 CPU’s to work to create the final version.

Inventing as a Lifestyle
Cameron is no stranger to the process and lingo of inventing. His work on Titanic led him to take a deep interest (no pun intended) in oceanography. He is now collaborating on the design and construction of a new deep sea exploration vessel that will explore the Marianas Trench in the South Pacific. “The vessel is 9 tons, small by deep sea standards,” says Cameron. “There will be 116 PSI load on the pilot sphere. We did extremely fine detail FEA on the connection of the pilot sphere to the diver. The as-built FEA on the full circumference took one-and-a-half weeks on a four-core workstation.” Penn State engineers then did stress tests with strain gauges. “We feel very comfortable getting into this thing.”

The vessel will hold one pilot. Cameron will be one; fellow Hollywood director Ron Howard will be another. The human element is essential to exploration, Cameron notes. “I believe in the physical human presence. If we show a point of view from a vehicle with an observer present—the protagonist—it is much more powerful.”

Cameron the Former Machinist
Cameron is quick to explain he knows his limits as an inventor. “I’m not an engineer but I work with them a lot, and I know how to manage a project. I know enough about engineering technology to be dangerous.” His first part-time job while in college was as a machinist. “If you have actually cut metal, it helps,” he told the SolidWorks World crowd, a line that got him a big round of applause.

Cameron’s work and interests have led him to lead or participate in several expeditions over the years. Now when he starts an expedition project, Cameron sits his team down and puts three statements on a white board:

  • Hope is not a strategy.
  • Luck is not a factor.
  • Fear is not an option.
James Cameron at SolidWorks World
James Cameron meets members of the press at SolidWorks World 2010

Over the years Cameron has worked with NASA, which he no doubt loves because the agency combines invention with exploration. He consulted with NASA on the stereoscopic camera used on Mars Rovers, and has the utmost respect for the engineers there. “They land vehicles on other planets and drive them around. Nobody else does that.”

3D Printing, Augmented Reality and the Avatar Economy
Commenting on the science behind the science fiction in Avatar, Cameron said his team had to envision the economy and technology behind the human occupation of Pandora. “We had to create an economy for Avatar,” Cameron said.

“The bulldozers and other heavy vehicles were all printed on Pandora.” He got the idea from his work on the Mars projects, where 3D printing of equipment is being researched for future missions. “I geek out on the hard science side of science fiction.”

Avatar auagmented reality display
An augmented reality display in Avatar

Another envisioning of technology in Avatar was the implementation of augmented reality and 3D viewing. “We wanted a near-future feeling. We assumed everything would be stereoscopic; even the photos stuck up on the refrigerator were in 3D.” Cameron said implementing the Z depth was the key issue to solve. “We had to design movement [and human-computer interaction] with the Z factor in mind.”

There may be more consulting work in Cameron’ future. Hirschtick told the assembled press at SolidWorks World that Cameron wants to go to Paris and “talk specifics” with Dassault Systemes researchers. “Can’t say what,” Hirschtick told the press, assuring them it would not be fluff but technical details of interest to both parties.

The Final Analysis: ‘Stereoscopic Ubiquity’
Cameron is not only creative but astute. He notes that the ‘big thing’ at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was stereoscopic TV, but there is one problem. “There is not enough content.” It will take both artists and technologists, illustrators and engineers, to solve the content problem before a consumer 3D industry can take off.

Cameron told VEKTORRUM that the US Department of Defense and various intelligence agencies have both looked at his stereoscopic real-time technology. There are no commercial applications in the works yet, but they will come. Cameron sees a need for bi-directional data flow. “I think it is five years to stereoscopic ubiquity.” §