How often do you get to talk to James Cameron? Since he hasn't directed a feature film since "Titanic", it's been 12 years. He made a few nonfiction documentaries and produced a few movies for other directors, but to talk to James Cameron about a James Cameron film is long overdue.

Now the occasion is the long-awaited Avatar. Since he announced the very title of a 3-D sci-fi film, fans have gone ape of the promise of a brand new "Terminator," "Aliens" or "The Abyss" from a master of the genre. Those fans have started to get a peek at "Avatar," in Cameron's presentation at San Diego Comic Con last month. He also took the chance to speak to press at the convention.

Having shed his trademark beard in the ensuing years since "Titanic" (still the biggest movie of all time mind you), Cameron appeared a jolly fresh faced man in his element: Rooms full of techies and nerds who would understand his long diatribes about aliens and computer technology. Avatar doesn't open until December, but here's a preview from James Cameron himself.

Q: You've been doing deep see dives for so many years, has that inspired Avatar?

James Cameron: I saw a lot of stuff at the bottom of the ocean that influenced the designs. Bio-luminescence, not only in the deep ocean dives, but just diving around in a coral reef. The colors, the patterns. Sometimes something'll exist this big, that we made much larger. And there's a lot of stuff, obviously, in the film, beyond what you saw in 24 minutes. We didn't pick these scenes because they were necessarily the most beautiful, or the best action in the film. We picked them because they were the ones that, when strung together, told enough of the story that you got a good sort of footing in the world, but didn't do any big spoilers for the end.

Q: As you've started screening footage for people, what surprises have you found?

JC: Well, here's a big surprise. We screened for our friends and family, 20, 30 people that were kind of unfamiliar with the specifics, although they knew we were making the film. And none of them noticed that the avatars have four fingers, and the Na'Vi have three fingers. Or five and four, if you want to include a thumb as a finger. And they got through the whole movie and never noticed it. I don't even think it's really that important, but it's one of those little things that you sort of take for granted that people are gonna notice, that they didn't even notice. So, yeah. You do have to pay attention to what an audience says. And I'll be curious to see what the feedback is coming out of today's screening. Because we've got 6000 virgin pairs of eyes, a lot of people are going to go on-line, they're gonna talk about it. And we'll monitor that traffic. And I think there's something that can be learned. I think that that can be valuable to the film. Because we want the film to be the best possible version it can be, obviously.

Q: Are people receptive to the new aliens you've created?

JC: I think in some earlier images, when they started to leak and even with the banners some of the fans were saying, "Gee, I thought they'd look more alien, if you're going to go to all this trouble with CG and everything." But if it wasn't a love story, if it was more of a film about first contact with an alien race I think it would be. But this is really a story about assimilation and Jake becoming one of them and starting to see through the eyes of people who are culturally different. It's a love story, too. So the physiological differences, the more alien we made them in the early design phase we just kept asking ourselves, basically the crude version is, "Would you want to do her?" And our all male crew of artists were basically like, "No, take the gills out." It was pretty simple but then taken to a very sophisticated degree. The Stan Winston Studio guys that I've worked with since Terminator were brought in at that point to take the rough designs and to really fine tune them, do the busts, do the casts because we did casts from the actors faces: Sam's [Worthington] face, Zoe, CCH Pounder who plays Zoe's character's mom. You didn't see that in the clips here. There's a whole family. Wes Studi, he's a Native American actor you'd recognize right away if you don't know him by name. We wanted to capture them in their characters but make their characters, still emphasize the animal and the alien in them. The idea was that when we sort of go to meet the future mother and father in law we want them to be scary and freaky. So the older Na'vi are a little stranger than the younger Na'vi. So we had a lot of fun with the design but we never asked ourselves a question of whether people would accept it or not and I think that's the huge advantage of actually being a geek fan yourself. You don't ask yourself questions like that. I mean, the studio guys, God love them, they signed up to write a big check for this movie and they've backed our play a hundred percent, all the way down the line, thick or thin. But at the beginning, they would ask questions like, "Do they need to be blue? Do they need to have a tail?" Things like that. I thought, "Well, yeah, of course they do."

Q: What was the spark, the first thing that made you decide that this is the film you wanted to make?

JC: Well, look, this thing has been generating in fragments for a long time, even since the sort of mid '70's when I first started my hand at screenwriting. I was creating stories with spacecrafts and other worlds and some of these creatures actually are distance descendants through a long Darwinian process of the creatures that I was creating then. The Bio-Luminescent world, I wrote a script called Xeno Genesis in '76 or '77. It never got made, but it had a bio-luminescent force in it. I don't even remember the transition point from being a fan, a reader of science fiction and as an artist drawing things, drawing spacecraft, drawing aliens to actually putting them into scenes. When I sat down, honestly, as the CEO of Digital Domain in '95 to package a story that would push us ahead in 3-D character development I took all these floating fragments. I did the same thing on Aliens. I had already written story fragments prior and when I got the gig to write Alien II I just grabbed all the stuff that I'd already been thinking about and slammed it together. It felt very kind of mercenary at the time. I was just throwing crap at it. What happens is that over time you rewrite it, you massage it and you improve the storyline and all those sorts of things. So I don't know if there was a single spark. You love your characters. I think any writer falls in love with their characters, sometimes to their detriment as a filmmaker. They get a little precious with it or whatever, but I fall in love with my characters. And I fall in love with them all over again when they're cast. Now I have my cast in, all that tough process of whether this is the right person and what they bring versus this other person, you're always just absolutely dreading that you're going to screw it up because you learn over time that you might be the best director in the world but you cast a picture wrong you're screwed because people have to go on a journey with those characters. Those characters have to be played by someone that affects you, affects your emotionally. I think that Sam does that, Zoe does that. So I fall in love with my characters on the page and then I fall in love with them again later, and then at that point I give them up. I turn them over to the actors and they become theirs.

Q: When you've been living with a characters and a story for so long do you anticipate turning it over to the public? And is it scary, the thought of not living with it anymore?

JC: I think you want to be done with it at certain point and you want it out there and you want to start getting some feedback. Hopefully it flows. If they like the world, we want them to like it enough so that it becomes a persistent world that lives in other media whether that's games, books, graphic novels, all of that stuff so that it takes on a life of it's own. At a certain point you do kind of give it over to the world and then you know that other designers and other creators are going to come in, whether it's the design team at Ubisoft where we're designing other creatures, environments and vehicles and stuff. Then you're just sort of making sure that it's got a consistency to it.

Q: Are you beginning a franchise here, do you think? Will there be Avatar 2 and 3?

JC: I think so. I think we have to get the time it takes to make one of these movies down but that can be the next technical challenge, right? I mean, I think we know how to do it. Now, we've got to learn how to do it as a faster, easier pipeline. But you've got to remember, we had to create every damn thing you saw. Next time around, Jake exists, the interior exists, the forest exists. Things that we can now take for granted, and then build on that and go beyond it. And there'll be other worlds in the subsequent films. If we make money on this, there'll be another one. It's pretty much that simple.

Story/Interview by Fred Topel

Starpulse contributing writer

(Starpulse in Hollywood): Every week, Hollywood's biggest stars are meeting in the hot spots and Starpulse is there.