James Cameron on How ‘Avatar’ Fights Climate Change (Between the Lines)

James Cameron has some pretty big things going on right now. The first is the National Geographic wildlife show Super/Natural, narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch and streamed Disney Plus Today. The second is a small movie series called Avatar. A wildlife documentary series and a sci-fi blockbuster may not seem like much in common, but they both have one clear goal: to encourage you to care about nature again.

Avatar 2: The Way of Water hits theaters December 16. As with the original film, the very latest filmmaking techniques are used to blow your socks off with Imax-sized action. Super/Natural, produced by Cameron, also uses stunningly clever filming techniques to show you nature in breathtaking close-ups. Diving deep beneath the waves or flying through the forest with drone cameras, the show focuses on the amazing abilities of animals large and small.

Cameron hopes that both these fiction and non-fiction stories will reconnect you with nature to encourage us to tackle the climate crisis that threatens and destroys many species, including us.

I chatted with the 68-year-old Oscar-winning and record-breaking writer, director and documentary filmmaker via Zoom from New Zealand, where he lives and works on filming multiple Avatar sequels.

Why now for Super/Natural? Is there a particular breakthrough in technology, or something that compelled you to make the show now?
Cameron: I have a long history with National Geographic, going back a few decades. I’m what they used to call an explorer, which we all realized was a contradiction, so we changed it to explorer in general. We’re constantly looking for new things to do together, and they developed something we didn’t have a title for back then with Plimsoll, a major British natural history production company [behind shows including Hostile Planet for Disney Plus and Night on Earth for Netflix]. When I read the overview about the amazing sensory apparatus of all these animals, and how that allows them to have all these different survival and mating strategies, I said, this is a superhero story! These are super powers! That’s where the “Super” idea came from.

Get up close with extraordinary animals in Supr/Natural.

National Geographic/Disney Plus

It seemed like an exciting way to use a lot of the new technology that was out there in terms of ultra-low-light cameras, ultra-high-speed cameras, things that are constantly being improved, and to collaborate with the best natural history photographers in the world. that macro world or underwater and so on, and put it all together into a really interesting new story or a new way of looking at nature.

So in the Avatar movies we create a fantasy world through which the viewer perceives a kind of 3D giant screen Imax a fantasy image of nature, but thematically underneath all that is this idea of ​​the interconnectedness, not only of nature with itself, but of us with nature, as inhabitants, as indigenous members of nature. So it occurred to me that philosophically this series has many of the same thematic elements, right? We see these closely interrelated animal and plant systems that have evolved over millions of years. And we get this overwhelming sense of wonder. You can look at a squirrel or an owl and say, well, that’s a familiar animal. In Avatar, we design these fantasy animals, so if we told you that they can see in ultraviolet and fly around the world and do all these things, you wouldn’t just shrug, would you? But when you see that a squirrel can not only fly, but can also recognize its friends in moonlight by the ultraviolet-reflecting surface on the underside of their bodies, you suddenly look at our world, our wonderful world, in a completely different light. , literally and conceptually.

Do you have a favorite innovation used in the show?
Cameron: The way they used the racer drones to fly through the forest and go with the animals, it was really a combination of bits of technology moving forward. You have the high speed cameras [which] become smaller. You have probe lenses, now the optics are getting better. And by using different coatings, they can make them sensitive to ultraviolet, which people didn’t necessarily look at, or infrared and so on. Ultra low-light cameras have always interested me because there is no light in the deep ocean. If you want to see the bioluminescence and you want to see the strategies that deep-sea animals use around vision, some of them have such big eyes because there are so few photons down there. [You need] low-light cameras and high-speed photography. We love that.

We’re going to go to very, very high frame rates, watching a stonefish take its prey in 16 milliseconds. It’s so fast you can’t even see it with your eyes. But then we can slow it down to expand our human perception. Our superpower is that we use technology to look at all the spectra and all the sound frequencies that animals use. They had to do it the hard way through millions of years of evolution. We are able to do it in a much shorter cycle of technological evolution.

A drone operator catches a drone on a boat in the open ocean.

Advanced film technology such as drones and miniature cameras give you a glimpse into nature.

Katrina Steele/National Geographic for Disney Plus

How do you hope to influence viewers’ attitudes towards the environment?
Cameron: I think the purpose of one of my big projects right now, Super/Natural or Avatar: The Way of Water, is to remind us how important nature is to us, and get us back into that kind of childlike perspective in which we experience this sense of wonder and connection with nature. Children feel connected to nature. They go out, they come back dirty, they come back after they catch things and play with them and study them. All the kids are natural historians, natural scientists, and then they leave it behind and we move on and we live in an increasing state of nature deficit disorder.

So a movie like this recreates that connection, that childish sense of wonder, by showing us things we take for granted. That owl does very, very interesting things, or a spider or a lizard that has its own diving system. That’s pretty cool. We’re doing something that people didn’t know because people are naturally curious. We engage in conversation through a narrator, Benedict Cumberbatch, who not only tells it, but he does it. He literally expands every line a bit.

We took that as a challenge to write it in a way that puts you in the mind of these animals that are just trying to survive, whether it’s from a predator’s perspective or from the prey’s perspective, or from a family perspective. , how they keep their bloodlines . We have an episode called Bloodlines. It’s essentially about parenting – how do you keep your kids alive?

A blue alien rides a flying fish over the sea in Avatar 2 The Weight of Water.

Avatar: The Weight of Water introduces us to more majestic fictional animals.

Disney

That episode mentions that dehydration is an increasing danger to young elephants as their environment gets warmer, which I really noticed. Do you think the climate crisis has become more urgent and attitudes towards climate change have changed, especially 10 years since the first Avatar? Do you hope viewers will react with greater urgency to this series and the Avatar movies in the coming years?
Cameron: Well, I’d like to think they see it primarily as entertainment, and secondly as some sort of moral, philosophical message. We’re focusing more on the oceans in The Way of Water, so greenhouse gases are also charring the ocean and threatening many species and disrupting ecosystems. But the message is a bit between the lines. The message in Super/Natural is also between the lines — we want you to have a new connection with nature, because you’re not going to defend or fight for what you don’t love and respect, right? Jacques Cousteau established this principle as early as the 1960s with his specials.

As a human species, we do a lot of things that are really harmful to these fragile ecosystems. Many of the animals we see in our series and enjoy and learn from are at risk. They are threatened.

And besides, the human species is endangered and threatened. Potentially even an existential threat if you go far enough, a few hundred years or so. Maybe even earlier.

I think we are also more aware in this state, but also more in denial. We are certainly not changing fast enough. Certainly, conscientious people curb or buy electric cars. Maybe they’ll start voting for people who really care about this for a change, after a horrendous period of not having it. But it’s not going fast enough. So we have to double or triple what we do to avoid this catastrophe.

I think everyone knows, but they just don’t want to think about it. So you can’t be there directly. We don’t make documentaries about climate change — we make documentaries about nature. I’m making a fictional story about nature [with Avatar], work on social awareness in a different way. Not with warnings and flattery, but by showing the beauty. Show the connection.