May 26, 2011

The Path from Film School to Pandora

Avatar Producer/SCA Alum Jon Landau Speaks on Campus

Jon Landau, the producer of blockbusters Titanic and Avatar, is a very busy man. In addition to being writer/director James Cameron’s producing partner for seventeen years and heading production on the next two sequels to Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time, he is overseeing construction of a massive Manhattan Beach studio, the MBS Media Campus which will house the production of the two films. Landau took time out of his hectic schedule on Wednesday, May 25th to speak to students as part of the YouTube Creator Institute’s speaker series.

Jon Landau (right) at the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts' Motion Capture Lab
Jon Landau (right) at the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts' Motion
Capture Lab

Landau stressed the importance of life-long learning, the potential of 3D technology and how his experiences as a student at the School of Cinematic Arts shaped his skill set and helped him become the producer he is today.

When asked about his biggest lesson at SCA, Landau replied, “It’s OK to make mistakes. It was one of the really great things that USC offered because, as young filmmakers, you do make mistakes. It’s very tough to put your film up in front of a class and sit in the center of a circle and everyone tells you why your film sucked.”

Landau spoke as part of the YouTube Creator Institute, a “boot camp” on filmmaking running from, May 25-June 22 at SCA. The ten students accepted for the Institute were in attendance. The goal of the Institute is to provide aspiring and rising content creators with educational courses and access to some of the best film, TV, and video professors as well as industry leaders. SCA Associate Dean Dr. Michael Renov moderated the Q&A.

“YouTube has the potential to be the breeding ground for the next James Camerons and the George Lucases of the world,” said Landau.

After the Q & A, Landau traveled with the YouTube Creator’s Institute to the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts where he was given a tour of the Motion Capture Lab and shared some of the filmmaking techniques used on Avatar with the students.

“You are only as good as the people who are working for you,” continued Landau. “I look at the producer’s responsibility as hiring people who are smarter at their job that I could ever be.”

A running theme of Landau’s message was the importance of working with smart people. He shared how he and Cameron got together to work on Titanic and how he successfully made the transition from being a studio executive to being a producer.

“Jim shared a very early draft of Titanic and I fell in love with it,” said Landau. “It was not just the script but with the idea that this could be the last time that an epic, old-fashioned movie is made, with hundreds and hundreds of extras –which aren’t digital.”

“It was going through that experience with [Cameron] where we built up a mutual respect and a mutual bond with each other. We said, ‘Wait, instead of going off and doing your own thing, why don’t you come into the LightStorm fold.’”

Finally, Landau stressed the importance of story over technology.

“Number one, what you should always focus on is the story,” said Landau. “Everything is in service of that. If you get the story, you step back and ask, ‘How do we do that?’ That’s how the whole Avatar production pipeline really evolved.”

Landau is currently in production on the Avatar sequels and Battle Angel with LightStorm.