James Cameron: ‘If I wasn’t making Avatar [sequels] I would be experimenting with VR’


James Camera is one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors, best known for Titanic, and Avatar, two of the world’s top grossing filmsHe’s also been an evangelist of technological innovation in cinema production. Despite past skepticism, Cameron’s latest thoughts on VR show that he’s coming around to the idea, but still taking a pragmatic look.

Image courtesy Angela George (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Speaking during a recent interview surrounding the upcoming re-release of Terminator 2: Judgement Day 3D, Cameron notes that he’s well beyond the buzz of VR thanks to the virtual camera production techniques he employs.

Look I think… you know VR is kind of a yawn to me because I’ve been… our method of authoring the Avatar films… I work in a VR environment all day every day. When I finished with these interviews, I’m going to go work in VR for the rest of the day. Whether a new artform, a new form of cinema, that’s interactive can be created… I’m waiting for it to manifest.

Cameron clearly appreciates the difference between simple 360 video and more immersive VR video rendered in real-time, and suggests that most people in his circles are conflating the two. Clearly, he’d like to work with the latter.

I will tell you that if I wasn’t making the Avatar [sequels] and that wasn’t taking up so much of my bandwidth, I would be experimenting around with VR. Now what most people are calling VR right now isn’t VR. It’s really omnidirectional camera. And because you don’t really have any spatial control—any spatial movement is baked in—you [only] have the ability to look around in an environment, and that’s not true VR. [In] true VR, you can move around. And you have a lot of control over where you are spatially in the environment.

Though game engines are becoming increasingly capable, rendering a film with the visual complexity of Avatar isn’t possible today in real-time, Cameron notes. When that time comes, he’s ready to jump in.

But to do [real-time interactive VR] to a level of the kind of images we have in Avatar, I think that’s… several generations of technology away. It takes 100 hours of a massive render farm to do a single frame of an Avatar movie. So we’re decades away from being able to render at that level in real-time. Or maybe it’s a decade… whatever. But show me that and then I’ll say, let’s make movies in true VR.

Back in 2015, Cameron had a decidedly more skeptical take on VR tech for films, but it sounds like he’s becoming increasingly convinced at the tech’s potential as a film medium. And it’s true that we can’t render Avatar today in real-time, but between the latest advancements in real-time rendering and new technologies to bring cinema-quality assets to VR, we could hit a level of fidelity acceptable to Cameron sooner than he thinks.

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • Yeah, great that he’s appreciating VR now.

    • Get Schwifty!

      The delayed reaction is typical of any group of artists… they have dreamt, studied and worked to perfect within a given medium… then suddenly a new medium appears that truly does threaten the old one. The reality is the constraints of a 2-d environment does have it’s merit as an art form and will likely recede in time…. but “VR” film will undoubtedly eclipse it in time, and that coming from someone with a taste for true “cinema”. It’s many, many years away, but a time will come where watching 2d movies will be “quaint” and a thing among auteurs, while the masses will be watching VR “movies” with a whole different level of immersion. One thing I do believe is that acting will actually have to improve… when a viewer is a few feet away in many cases, the sense of presence means that nominal acting will appear worse…. so in a sense we come back to theater in its truest sense only now we can stand on the stage at times.

  • Matias Nassi

    Well, having called VR boring before, it’s a good sign that he’s at least considering VR now. But 100 full hours to render a single frame of Avatar… isn’t that way too much? Assuming it was filmed at 24 frames per second, 1 single second of movie would require 100 days. Hmm I’m probably missing something here…

    • benz145

      It’s possible he was quoting against some industry standard amount of rendering power/speed, but then a major film like Avatar can afford to parallelize the process across more render farms.

    • Andrew McEvoy

      Thats why vfx houses have huge render farms. Its true that most vfx work on films these days have really long rendering times and 2D often kick off a render over the weekend and come in Monday to see the results.

    • Nate Vander Plas

      That does seem pretty extreme, but I googled around and it looks like that might be accurate. I found a stat of 47 hours- but if you double that for left and right eye, it would be about 100. I wonder also if the 47 hours was on a single computer, not the entire farm. Most render engines only let you render one frame per computer at a time. Also keep in mind Avatar was released in 2009- nearly 8 years ago!

    • Marcus Scottus

      I suspect that he probably has access to more than one computer.

    • Cyrus Vachha

      Today, Unreal engine does realistic rendering in real time, so I hope that the rendering time today is significantly less

  • Haha, James Cameron might need a very very very powerful render farm.

  • Here are a few Virtual Reality Experiences we are working on that all run in real time on off the shelf consumer VR systems like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

    They might not be Avatar yet but you can move around like he said and they do look very good if you look closely.

    Tunnel(sm) https://youtu.be/9t4Sz0mLG1Y

    Baby’s Got a Temper(sm) https://youtu.be/I657zNTI6-0

    Smart Arena(sm) https://youtu.be/9t4Sz0mLG1Y

    Kiss Kiss Bang Bang(sm) https://youtu.be/5ZhX7w1f6rw

    Dawn of Evil(sm) https://youtu.be/lfacau8hAWc

    Enjoy the previews! ∞❤∞

  • Joe Black

    You and me both James. Of course whereas you are busy with other stuff my problem is that I can’t get hold of an officially supported PC HMD in my country.

  • OkinKun

    Hopefully Avatar 2 (or 3..) will do so terribly they won’t bother making more, let alone 5… wtf Cameron.. Why would you do that to yourself? Why would you think we’d need that many?
    At least more big-name movie guys are talking about VR now. :D

  • Jim Cherry

    Does anyone see the irony here. James camerons avatar is one of the big reasons the meant to be seen 3d forum existed. that forum was a large part of the diy 3d vr movement that spearheaded oculus dk1. And yet he’s not experimenting with the evolved version of the thing he made popular.

    • Master E

      Please stay alive long enough to finish your movies Mr. Cameron and then get busy on VR. Start with an Avatar single player RPG

  • NooYawker

    3D for the most part sucks. I watched a bunch of 3D movies on my vive and all you get is some more depth. The belief that making things come out at you or fly at the screen is too gimmicky is stupid. That’s why people want 3D to give you something you can’t get in 2D.

    • A VR headset is not the best way to enjoy 3D movies…

      • Candy Cab

        Agreed, they are a lot of fun when projected an an actual 100′ + screen. So far the whole “Cinema Mode” on VR headsets is not a great experience overall and does nothing for 3D imo.

  • Billy H

    If it takes 100 hours to render one frame of Avatar, it would have taken 2,663 years to render it. I guess he started on it, before christ was born!

  • brubble

    Avatar while technically cool… the rest? oh you know, all the important stuff, like plot, writing etc etc was tacky cliche’, lowest common denominator trash. One of the worst movies Ive ever seen. All of Cameron’s movies follow the same predictable and conventional BS. Dude thinks he’s God’s gift to films, he’s way over-rated.