AvatarAvatar is the biggest thing to come out of Hollywood since The Matrix. No, scratch that — since Star Wars. No, no, no, actually — since Gone With the Wind.

I know that I’m not the first to herald the paradigmatic shift that James Cameron‘s epic sci-fi fantasy represents for its groundbreaking innovations in stereoscopic 3-D filmmaking. And you may well ask, why should we doc lovers care? But let’s give credit where credit is due for Avatar: to documentary filmmaking.

Nonfiction films have provided the foundation from which Avatar has sprung. The press has made a big fuss over the fact that Cameron hasn’t made a feature since 1997’s Titanic, and just skim over what he’s been doing in the interim. So what has he been doing? Making documentary films — directing three and producing an additional five of them — that have proven to be the training ground for the technology used — and even the ultimate look — for Avatar. In his Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep, Cameron developed the 3D camera techniques that have changed the movie-going experience forever. (If I’m sounding like I’m proselytizing, it’s because I am. I have the passion of a convert: I was deeply cynical about the annoying effects of 3D after seeing several kid movies with my daughter over the past year. Watching Avatar changed all that.)

James Cameron's Aliens of the DeepAnd for anyone who has seen the movie, it’s clear that Cameron adapted a lot of the sea world life that he saw while making Aliens of the Deep to his make-believe outer-space world. I spoke with Cameron several years ago, while he was still making Avatar, and he told me, “Titanic was my get-out-of-jail-free card. I got to go do all the things I wanted to do instead of work for a living.” He added that his years of doc filmmaking were “all exploration-oriented.”

This isn’t the first time that documentary films have shown Hollywood the way to new heights. Back in 1922, Robert Flaherty‘s Nanook of the North redefined the notion of “going on location,” as well as the popular appeal of realism. And in the 1960’s, the Maysles brothers spearheaded synchronous sound recording so that, once again, filmmaking could actually happen without over-reliance on fakery, such as looping back in a sound studio.

Those earlier innovations helped Hollywood make the real world more real. I’d suggest looking back at both Ghosts and Aliens to see the seeds of this new revolution. The funny twist is, Cameron’s innovations have made the unreal seem more real. Cool, huh?

Are you curious to see Cameron’s earlier documentary work? We were too — and now we’ve got one copy each of Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss to give away! All you have to do is follow Tom on Twitter and tweet this contest to spread the word between now and Tuesday, January 19 — or leave a comment sharing your thoughts on his post here. Two winners will be selected at random. And if you’re leaving a comment on the blog, please make sure to leave a valid email address in the field so we can contact you!

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen