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Oscar-Winning Art Directors Talk Avatar, Pandora

Thompson on Hollywood By Cameron Carlson | Thompson on Hollywood March 9, 2010 at 7:34AM

Cameron Carlson reports on the Oscar-winning art directors on Avatar.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Cameron Carlson reports on the Oscar-winning art directors on Avatar.

Avatar’s win Sunday night for art direction didn’t come as much of a surprise – even to the three men who created Pandora’s towering waterfall, giant trees and frightening jungles. Here's their Oscar acceptance speech.

At a panel discussion the day before, Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg and Kim Sinclair almost anticipated their Oscar, thanking their production teams and fielding the lion’s share of audience questions.

For the record, the other nominees were The Young Victoria, Nine, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and Sherlock Holmes.

The Avatar group often avoided the technical aspects of their work, which was unfortunate because the details were fascinating. Stromberg said he spent three years creating a rough digital landscape for the entire film to be shot in real time. Each virtual set had trees and plants that were moveable, like real props. When director James Cameron finally signed off on the digital version, Sinclair and his team at Peter Jackson’s Weta integrated real props into the virtual backgrounds. Some film sets, Sinclair said, can cost $7,000 per second of footage, but a few sets can be a staggering $50,000 per second. Whether Avatar’s footage cost $50,000 per second on not, art and set direction were a large part of the film’s $230 million cost.

If there was a consensus among the production designers and art directors who participated in the panel at the Egyptian theater, it was that they love their craft. They claimed to thrive under pressure, even if it was unconventional. Sarah Greenwood, the production designer for Sherlock Holmes, joked that she was hard pressed to spend her giant budget.

Backstage, after accepting his Oscar, Carter likened the experience of working with Cameron to a “level of survival.” He said that in the ten years since Titanic Cameron had gone on deep-sea expeditions and taken the art directors with him.

“You can’t go on an expedition without having a lot of demands made upon you in ways that take you all the way to the level of survival,” Carter continued. “That’s where Jim has been, in the bottom of the ocean. It is where he is in his vision. It’s where he pushed all of us, and this is the result for us. But this represents his vision, the depth of what he has seen and through us, and the whole team of people, has been able to accomplish.”

He added that it was not about a working with a taskmaster but about “a visionary that you follow. And we’d follow him to the Alamo.”

This article is related to: Awards, Directors, Franchises, Guest Blogger, Oscars, James Cameron, Avatar


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.