Managing the making of Avatar, from Incite 70
Avatar is the biggest grossing movie ever, it may have only won 3 Oscars – one of them by our own Richard Baneham, an animation supervisor . This was a massively complex project costing over $310 million for production, and $150 million for promotion. The film was released for traditional two-dimensional projectors, as well as in 3-D. The stereoscopic filmmaking was touted as a likely breakthrough in cinematic technology.
If you sat through the endless list of credits for Avatar, you saw that Richard had about 3,000 colleagues working on the CGI epic, which has now grossed more than $2.5 billion worldwide, shattering box office records and reinventing cinema for the digital age. The boss of all those people was director James Cameron.
Rebecca Keegan sat in on sets while researching her book, The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron, and comments
“I watched the director’s often controversial management style up close. One of Hollywood’s most innovative filmmakers, Cameron is also one of its toughest taskmasters, a man who ran notoriously grueling sets for movies like The Terminator, Aliens and Titanic. After Titanic, Cameron spent years away from the movie business indulging a lifelong passion, deep ocean exploration. The experiences he had leading groups on the open sea tempered the director’s management style. But working for Cameron is still roughing it by Hollywood standards.”
From a seat on the Avatar set, she observes the rules that James Cameron manages by:
Break New Ground
“It’s Avatar, dude, nothing works the first time,” read a whiteboard in the spare Los Angeles warehouse that served as the sci fi film’s motion capture soundstage. Breaking new ground is Cameron’s raison d’être – nothing interests this man unless it’s hard to do. But innovation has also become a way of bonding his teams, both on Avatar and on his deep sea expeditions. “We’re out in the wilderness working far beyond the borders of the known,” Cameron says, comparing his CG and undersea projects. “We’re doing extraordinary things that outsiders would not even understand.” For Cameron, a sense of exploration isn’t just personally enriching, it’s a crucial tool for motivating and uniting his teams.
Firing Is Too Merciful
Everyone who has been part of Cameron’s cast and crew has bitter war stories about working for him, and yet they all seem to forget them when they’re clutching Oscars and cashing cheques. Many Cameron alumni will share a story from their first film with him, a day they were sure they were going to be fired, almost hoped for it. But Cameron rarely fires people. “Firing is too merciful,” he says. Instead he tests their endurance for long hours, hard tasks, and harsh criticism. Survivors tend to surprise themselves by turning in the best work of their careers, and signing on for Cameron’s next project.
Lead from the Front
Cameron is almost comically hands-on. He does things elite directors don’t do – hold the camera, man the editing console, sketch the creatures, apply the makeup. The truth is, he would do nearly every job on a movie himself if he could. But any film, much less one as ambitious as Avatar, relies on collaboration. Forced to lean on others, Cameron sets the pace. Among his 3,000 strong stable of artists and engineers, he’s the first to try a new challenge, the last to quit at the end of the day, and the hardest to please.
Good Enough Isn’t
Avatar took more than twice as long to make as an average film. Much of that added time was due to the film’s Herculean design demands and its reliance on untested technologies, but some of it was thanks to Cameron’s perfectionism. Hours were spent on the smallest details, like getting alien sap to drip precisely right. A column in one special effects shot annoyed Cameron. After 15 minutes debating its placement while teleconferencing with weary Weta Digital artists in New Zealand, he declared, “That column is worth $50 million of the domestic gross!” shaking his head at his own obsessiveness. It’s hard to argue with Cameron’s nitpicky style, however, when audiences thrill to immerse themselves in the richly detailed worlds he creates.
Hire People People
Aware that he can be a hard man to work for, Cameron wisely surrounds himself with amiable deputies. “I have my bad days, and on my best days I’m no Ron Howard,” he admits. Cameron’s closest associates, his producer, Jon Landau, and the head of his production company, Rae Sanchini, are management savants. They know when an exhausted crew needs a pep talk, when a wounded artist’s ego needs soothing, when an anxious studio executive needs reassurance. And — a talent never to be underestimated — they know when to order the pizza, and tell the boss to quit for dinner.
What can we learn from Cameron’s management style? Possibly to surround yourself with managers who can manage people better than you? Apparently his approach has been likened to that of Gordon Ramsey, he has been described also as “a wildly successful, hard-driving perfectionist.” Cameron admits that he’s not the best leader himself. “I think I’m a good filmmaker, but I’m not a natural leader. I’ve had to teach myself that as I go along.”
Whilst working for two years on pre-production Cameron explained that phase of making the movie, “We finished with the actors…. We’re just in this kind of CG hell – trying to create a world from scratch,” he explains. “It’s like trench warfare. We’re working with computer-generated characters that we want to be photorealistic. It’s been tough. We’ve set the bar high. We’re just now getting the confidence that it’s really going to work.”
And it has. I am off to see the movie on Friday, enjoy!
Billy Linehan, Celtar business and management consultants
Rebecca Keegan author of The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron
Harvard Business Review blog http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/03/how_james_cameron_leads.html#comments
For more on us see www.Celtar.ie