James Cameron talks Disney+ nature series, changes to 'Avatar' and big sequel's 'leap of faith'

Turns out James Cameron is not just in the "Avatar" business after all.

The Oscar-winning director, hard at work bringing his "Avatar" sequels to the big screen, is executive producer of the National Geographic nature documentary "Super/Natural."

The tech-obsessed director said he was inspired by implementing the latest technology to illustrate animal powers for the five-part series (now streaming on Disney+), narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch.

"I thought we can do a superhero story with animals, showing their superpowers," says Cameron. "I want to bring the natural world's beauty, complexity and wonder to people so that they'll fight for it. Because right now nature is under assault."

Cameron discussed "Super/Natural," surprise changes to the newly restored 2009 world box-office champion  "Avatar" (in theaters Friday) and the first sequel, "Avatar: Way of the Water" (due Dec. 22).

James Cameron's 'Avatar' returns: Frst trailer for sequel 'The Way of Water'

"Super/Natural" gets up close to nature.

Question: Explain your role in producing 'Super/Natural."

Answer: It's figuring out what areas we wanted to send teams. We had 80 shoots in 25 countries over two years. And as the cuts came in, it's telling the story clearly and kicking it in the (butt), not having it be too reverential or droning on. It's storytelling that's almost getting into the animal's head. And then putting on a layer of (visual effects). The camera can't see a bat's sound wave. We coupled ultra-high speed photography with this overlay to see the chirps going out and coming back – a subjective picture of what that looks like to the bat. For the first time, I really understood how bat sonar worked.

"Super/Natural" claims the stunning shots of orcas hunting breeding devil rays hasn't been captured before. How did it happen?

Besides the planning, to do a show like this requires that element of luck. And then being able to turn on a dime when it happens and get the shot. That luck is like a lightning strike. Put enough people in the field and they'll finally photograph things that were maybe only seen by some people.

In some cases, we saw things that nobody had ever even seen, like the little Anole lizard using his skin to convey air up to bubble on his head acting like a helmet diver to avoid a predatory bird. Nobody had even dreamed of that.

An Anole lizard breathing underwater using its air bubble in Costa Rica in "Super/Natural."

Might there be an Anole lizard cameo in "Avatar: Way of the Water"?

As a filmmaker doing fictional stuff on an alien planet, I rely heavily on all the natural history photography, and am constantly using that as reference. Our conclusion, after 15 years of trying to design new amazing things for "Avatar" movies, nothing can compete with nature's imagination. Nature beats you to the punch every time. We're just ripping nature off left, right and center to make an amazing fantasy world.

"Avatar" (Sept. 23, theaters): Jake Sully (voiced by Sam Worthington) and the world of James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster fantasy are back on the big screen before the release of December's anticipated sequel, "Avatar: The Way of Water."

The newly remastered, 4K "Avatar" hits screens again Friday. Will moviegoers notice the difference?

I notice a big difference, but I know the film very well. It's brighter, clearer, sharper. The 3D is a little better, and it's 4K. Then there's the top sound format, 9.1 Atmos sound. But the really important thing is that there's a whole new generation of film fans that haven't had an opportunity to see "Avatar" in a movie theater. It's an opportunity to be reminded of the characters and this world going into the new film release.

Once you open "Avatar" up for a technical reboot, did you change any story content (as George Lucas did by making Greedo fire first in "Star Wars")? 

We sort of gave ourselves the edict that we wouldn't change a frame. Then I decided to add one tiny Easter egg. Nothing earth-shaking, a little connection to the coming sequel. Plus we have a little audience surprise at the end of the film.

Can you tell me just the Easter egg?

No, just go pay your admission like everyone else.

Q: One change you did make after 13 years, seen on the new "Avatar" poster, was the title font from Papyrus.

It's Papyrus lite. I happen to like Papyrus. So I said, "Don't change it too much. Just a little change."

Especially after Ryan Gosling's "SNL" skit about "Avatar" using the free Papyrus font, why the change?

I had to keep Ryan Gosling happy on this thing. Obviously, he had a serious traumatic experience around the font.

Before revealing "Way of the Water" clips at this month's D23 fan expo, you said you're about to "see if this was all worth it." How are you feeling about the sequel, 13 years after the original?

Obviously, you have to have the courage to take a serious leap of faith, And it's a leap of faith that in the current marketplace – after the pandemic, years later and with streaming ascendant – that there's still a marketplace for a movie of this size. But it's not a bigger leap of faith than we took on the first "Avatar," with untried technology and a whole new way of telling a story. We took that leap then, and we had no idea we were going to succeed like that, even after the first weekend.