That became the virtual world, the digital world. Meanwhile Rick Carter headed up a design art department in LA and designed the sets and the vehicles. There was overlap and integration between these departments but basically they designed the traditional, built environments. That information then all came down to me in New Zealand. I had one meeting with Jim [Cameron] in LA during preproduction but for the most part Rick dealt with him in preproduction because they were both in LA. Rick used to come down to New Zealand about once every three weeks for about two or three days at a time.
While we were building the sets we used to do video conferences with Jim. I would actually walk around the sets with a video camera plugged into my laptop and then Jim would give us his comments. Some time before the shoot Jim came down and we had him full time in New Zealand. It was a two-way process with Jim but basically he said, Okay here’s the idea, make it work. We were really getting it out of his head and onto the screen.
Some of the sets, particularly the aircraft, were quite challenging. They were quite lucky in LA in that they had “blue sky design”. They could design something and not worry about how to build it! So we’d get it and go, Holy cow, how are we going to build this? We couldn’t change it because in many cases it had become motion capture assets. And we’d have performance parameters . If a door was a door it had to be a door. It could look like anything but it had to be that exact size, that shape, that place in space. The pivot points couldn’t be changed or the spatial volume. So that was quite challenging. We pulled out hair out over that one.
It was also challenging because we were working to a budget. People will say it was the most expensive film ever made but every day we didn’t do something that we wanted to do because we couldn’t afford it. We often had to find cheaper ways of doing things. Jim is very practical. Giving him two choices he would sometimes say, Which one is cheaper? Or, Which has the best production value? You would say, Well this looks slightly better but it’s gonna cost a lot more and he would say, Look, I don’t think the value is going to be on screen. Go with the cheaper option. It was quite fulfilling to work with a producer/director -someone who was wearing a director’s hat but who was also conscious of cost.
AS: Was it overall a good experience to work with James Cameron?
KS: He was very good in New Zealand. He might have been “good Jim”. He was very good to work with because it was his world we were building. He was very good at communicating what he wanted. And very practical. I got on really well with him. In fifteen months I got shouted at twice and apologized to once. So that’s pretty good! Jim would seek me out, pat me on the back and say, This is a great set, I’m loving it. I couldn’t ask for anything better, good work. I don’t know how many years I’ve been doing this but it’s quite unusual for a director to publicly seek the designer or art director on set. They might think of it but not say it. Jim would often say it on set in front of crew, which is nice.