Peter Cowie Talks to Jon Landau About 3D Movie Production

Jon Landau has produced the two most financially-successful films in the history of cinema, Titanic and Avatar.  He talks to Peter Cowie in an exclusive interview for Dolby.


Jon Landau working on Avatar
Production on Avatar

Was Avatar conceived for 3D from the very beginning?

Well, we started on the project in 1995, so, no, it wasn’t conceived initially for 3D.  But once we knew we wanted to move ahead on the movie, in 2005, it was always going to be in 3D from that point.

Did you know that there would be sufficient cinemas available to make a 3D release viable?

We hoped that we could go out on 1,000 domestic screens and 150 internationally. That was our benchmark for deciding if it would make sense to do the movie in 3D. As you know, we far exceeded that, with $200 million being grossed on IMAX screens alone.

Does a 3D production require a different approach to storyboarding, editing, and other aspects of production and post?

I don’t believe it does. We feel that it’s the same approach, because story-telling drives the movie. It’s like asking if color affects the cutting of a movie. I don’t think it does. You know you have it, it is indeed a creative tool—just as stereo sound is. So you work with that, and you just create the best possible presentation.

Is there a distinction in your mind between seeing Avatar in 3D and seeing it flat?

I think it’s very personal. I think that some people preferred the film in 2D, and others preferred it in 3D.

Did James Cameron want any soundscapes or atmospheres particular to Avatar?

Absolutely. One of the big challenges for our sound team was creating sound effects for an original universe that would match the incredible imagery we were getting back from Weta Digital.  After all, we want 3D to be a window into a world.  But to truly make that world believable, the sound needs to be an integral part of that world as well.

In your Foreword to the book, The Art of Avatar, you write, “We hope that the result of our journey inspires filmmakers of the future to avoid creating stories merely to utilize technology, but rather have them propel technology to tell stories that could not otherwise be told.” How has that technology changed in the dozen or so years since Titanic?


People get confused when they look at Avatar.  They think that the technology we were waiting for was 3D.  It was not. The technology we were waiting for involved the close-ups, in order to convey emotional and engaging performances in characters that we wanted to create using computer-generated technology. That’s the breakthrough. Movies are about close-ups; they’re not about scale and scope.  Now we can say, here is a character in a world that, prior to this, was not beyond our imagination, but it was beyond our realization capabilities.

How important is the quality of a cinema?  Your world premiere was held at the Empire Leicester Square and Odeon Leicester Square and Dolby was providing technical support in both cinemas very much as they did for Titanic’s premiere.  As producer, are you involved in supervising these vital occasions?

Absolutely. We are hands on when it comes to the key presentations of all of our films.

How have you found working with Dolby—especially now that the team is on hand to support you with the picture-projection setup as well as sound?  How have the Dolby® consultants helped you recently—in particular for Avatar?

We have had a great experience working with Ron Surbuts, who has been a part of many of our presentations, helping us out everywhere, from sound to picture, to servers, to all the intervening stages.  When we’ve needed him, Ron has been there for us, and we’ve greatly appreciated that.

Has Avatar’s success secured 3D for the future as a serious artistic and economic aspect of cinema?

I believe that Avatar has shown people that 3D doesn’t have to be a gimmick. It doesn’t have to be relegated to children’s movies or documentaries, but rather it can be a part of mainstream entertainment and culture. And that is very exciting.

And what’s the next project for Lightstorm?

Well, we have various projects in the hopper, but we are actively working on a 3D version of Titanic.