A theatrical rerelease of James Cameron’s Academy Award®-winning 2009 epic adventure in stunning 4K High Dynamic Range.
Moviegoers will once again have the opportunity to travel in 3D across the universe to the distant planet of Pandora in the year 2154.
Written and directed by Academy Award® winner James Cameron, “Avatar” stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver. The film was produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau. Nominated for nine Academy Awards® including Best Picture and Best Director, the film won three Oscars®, for Best Cinematography, Production Design and Visual Effects.
Thirteen years ago, Academy Award®-winner James Cameron introduced moviegoers to a world unlike any they’d ever seen with his breathtaking epic “Avatar.” Cameron’s visionary tale delivered a fully immersive cinematic adventure of a new kind, charting one man’s fight to save the alien moon he learns to call home. Now, audiences can experience the majesty and wonder of the film anew as a remastered “Avatar” arrives in theaters worldwide Sept. 23, 2022. Now in 4K, at a higher frame rate and with High Dynamic Range, “Avatar” will return to the big screen in both 2D and 3D for a limited time.
The year is 2154, and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a former Marine confined to a wheelchair, yet, despite his physical limitations, Jake remains a warrior at heart. He is recruited to travel light years across the universe to a human outpost on Pandora, where a corporate consortium is mining a rare mineral that is the key to solving Earth’s energy crisis. Because Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic, they have created the Avatar Program, in which human “drivers” have their consciousness linked to an avatar, a remotely controlled biological body that can survive in the lethal air. These avatars are genetically engineered hybrids of human DNA mixed with DNA from the natives of Pandora… the Na’vi.
Reborn in avatar form, Jake can walk again, and he is given a mission to infiltrate the Na’vi, who have become a major obstacle to mining the precious ore. But after a beautiful Na’vi female, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), saves Jake’s life, everything changes. Jake is taken in by her clan and learns to become one of them by completing tests of strength and courage. As Jake’s relationship with his reluctant teacher Neytiri deepens, he learns to respect the Na’vi way and finally takes his place among the indigenous tribe. Soon, events draw him into a clash of civilizations, and Jake faces the ultimate test as he leads a monumental battle that will decide the fate of an entire world.
“I wanted to create a familiar type of adventure in an unfamiliar environment,” explains writer-director Cameron, “by setting the classic tale of a newcomer to a foreign land and culture on an alien planet. I had dreamed of creating a film like this, set on another world of great danger and beauty, since I was a kid reading pulp science fiction and comic books by the truckload, and sitting in math class drawing creatures and aliens behind my propped-up textbook. With ‘Avatar,’ I finally got my chance.”
Cameron wrote an early treatment for the film in 1994, even though the means to realize his vision did not yet exist. Embarking on the production more than a decade later, the trailblazing filmmaker brought the wealth of knowledge he had amassed on the sets of his earlier triumphs—including such unforgettable blockbusters as “Titanic,” “The Terminator,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Aliens,” “True Lies,” and “The Abyss”— to “Avatar,” creating a live action film that pushed performance capture and visual effects technology to a new and astonishing frontier. Yet, at every turn, Cameron took care to ensure that the revolutionary technology invented for the movie never overwhelmed the emotion of the characters or the sweep of the story.
At that point in his singular career, “Avatar” represented the most challenging film Cameron had ever made, and after four years of tireless creative work, Cameron unveiled his masterpiece on December 18, 2009, in 3,452 theaters in North America, plus an additional 17,222 around the globe. Wowing critics and audiences alike, “Avatar” would go on to gross more than $2.8 billion worldwide. It earned a total of nine Oscar® nominations including best director and best picture, winning three for its ravishing cinematography and its innovative visual effects and production design.
Perhaps most significantly, though, “Avatar” set a new standard for the cinematic experience by marrying spectacle, compelling characters, and technical wizardry resolutely in service of telling an immersive and emotional story. By expertly utilizing enhanced 3D technology, Cameron transported filmgoers inside the narrative, enabling them to truly experience the richly detailed environments of Pandora and allowing them the opportunity to traverse its magical terrain alongside brave and bold heroes Jake and Neytiri.
WHERE AND WHEN
“Avatar” takes place on Pandora, a moon with an Earth-like environment that orbits a gas-giant planet called Polyphemus in the Alpha Centauri-A star system. At 4.4 light years away, Alpha Centauri is our nearest stellar neighbor, and when it is discovered that Pandora is rich in a rare-earth mineral called Unobtainium, the race is on to mine the new world’s resources. Unobtainium does not exist in our solar system, but it is the key to solving Earth’s energy crisis in the 22nd century, so the Resources Development Administration (RDA) is spending hundreds of billions of dollars to mine the distant world.
Our story takes place in 2154, three decades after a mining colony was established on Pandora. The encroachment by human activities into the territory of the indigenous Na’vi has created increasing tension between the two species and has set them down a path to war. By a twist of fate—the death of his twin brother—Jake Sully is thrust into the middle of this tense situation. He is on Pandora as the newest “driver” for the Avatar Program, an attempt by human scientists to create a “bridge of trust” with the Na’vi by using genetically engineered avatar bodies to walk among these alien giants in a familiar form.
But Jake is co-opted by Colonel Miles Quaritch, the head of security for the human colony, to infiltrate the local clan and learn how to control them or defeat them. Quaritch is the commander of Secops, the private security force that defends the human’s base of Hell’s Gate against the fierce predators of Pandora and the equally fierce Na’vi. They are a scruffy but well-equipped mercenary army, complete with heavily armed tilt-rotor aircraft and “AMP Suits”—huge exeskeletal fighting suits. Jake becomes the “wrong guy” to have placed in such a volatile position. When he finds himself torn between the Na’vi and the RDA forces that are bent on destroying their ancestral home of 10,000 years, Jake takes action.
And all hell breaks loose.
HOW THEY DID IT
Cameron was not interested in using makeup to create his alien species. Humanoid aliens have been played by actors in makeup for decades, since the B-movies of the ’50s, and on through four decades of “Star Trek” spin-offs and other science fiction films and TV shows. Virtually every design and method for putting rubber onto actors’ faces has now been explored—additionally, the process it is inherently limiting. The size and the spacing of the eyes can’t be changed. The proportions of the body can’t be changed, nor can the overall size of the character. Rubber appliance makeup is limiting to the actor’s performance because it acts as a barrier between the actor and the lens.
With the performance capture method, none of these negatives apply. Although the CG characters in “Avatar” resemble the actors who play them, their fundamental proportions are different. The Na’vi eyes are twice the diameter of human eyes, and they are spaced farther apart. The Na’vi are much leaner than humans, with longer necks, and they have different bone and muscle structures, including most obviously, their three-fingered hands. As CG characters, the Na’vi and the avatars can be made much larger than human. Blue make-up would have made the skin opaque, but with CG, the characters can be given translucent skin that behaves like real skin in which the pigment at the surface does not mask the red glow of the blood beneath, such as when strong sunlight hits the backs of the characters’ ears. All these subtleties combine to allow the creation of seemingly living creatures.
Cameron was looking for a way to take alien character creation into the 21st century. In 1995, Cameron saw the rapid advances in CG characters and thought that his dream project set on another world might be possible to make. Having already created CG milestone characters in “The Abyss” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Cameron wanted to push the CG arts to new heights, and so the visually ambitious “Avatar” was written. But when the treatment was broken down by CG experts, Cameron realized that the technologies required for photorealism were still years off, so the project was shelved.
When Cameron revived the project in 2005, it seemed the techniques required were right around the corner. At that time, there was still concern that the characters would not appear quite real and would suffer from the disturbing “dead eye” effect seen in some early performance capture films. Cameron’s team sought to go far beyond prior efforts to ensure the complete reality of the characters. To do this, they developed a new “image-based facial performance capture” system, using a head-rig camera to accurately record the smallest nuances of the actors’ facial performances. Instead of using the motion capture technique of placing reflective markers on the actors’ faces to capture their expressions, the actors wore special headgear, not unlike a football helmet, to which a tiny camera was attached. The rig faced towards the actors’ faces, and the camera recorded facial expression and muscle movements to a degree never before possible. Most importantly, the camera recorded eye movement, which had not been the case with prior systems.
The head-rig system allowed actors’ facial performances to be captured with unprecedented clarity and precision. And since the head-rig system did not rely on the motion-capture cameras of the past, those cameras were now being used only to capture body movement, so they could be moved much farther from the actors. This allowed the “Avatar” team to use a much larger capture environment, or “Volume,” than had ever been used before. At six times the size of previous capture volumes, the Volume for “Avatar” was used to capture live galloping horses, stunts requiring elaborate wire rigging and even aerial dogfights between aircraft and flying creatures. The revolutionary head-rigs were the key not only to the subtlest nuances of the characters’ emotions, but also to the film’s grandest spectacle.
Another innovation created especially for “Avatar” was the Virtual Camera, which allowed Cameron to shoot scenes within his computer-generated world, just as if he were filming on a Hollywood soundstage. Through this virtual camera, the director would see not Zoe Saldaña, but her 10-foot tall, blue-skinned character, Neytiri. Instead of Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver, he would see their giant blue avatars, complete with tails and huge golden eyes. And instead of the austere gray space of the Volume, he would see the lush rainforest of Pandora or perhaps the floating Hallelujah Mountains or the human colony at Hell’s Gate.
After working out the details of how to exactly capture the actors’ performances, the next step was to enlist the aid of Peter Jackson’s Academy Award®-winning visual effects powerhouse WETA Digital in New Zealand. WETA’s groundbreaking photo-real characters— like Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films and the utterly lifelike King Kong—led Cameron to believe that they could breathe life into his Na’vi characters.
It was critical to Cameron from the beginning that every detail of the actors’ performances be preserved in the final CG characters appearing on screen. WETA assured him that their team of world-class animators would make it their mission to convey 100 percent of the actors’ performances to their Na’vi or avatar characters. This involved ensuring that highly accurate data be recorded at the moment the scene was performed, and it also required more than a year of work by the animation team to create the “rigs” that allowed the CG characters to emote exactly like the actors whose performance they were mirroring.
CUTTING-EDGE PERFORMANCE CAPTURE
It took great skill on the part of the visual effects artists at WETA to ensure that the Avatar characters performed exactly as the actors did. No liberties were taken with those performances. They were not embellished or exaggerated in any way. The VFX artists sought to be utterly truthful to the actors’ work, doing no more and certainly no less than what Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña or Sigourney Weaver had done in the Volume. Of course, they added subtle movements of the Na’vi tails and ears, which the actors could not do themselves. But even in those cases, the goal was always to remain consistent with the emotions created by the actors during the original performance capture. So when Neytiri’s tail lashes and her ears lower in fury, they are merely further expressing the anger created by Saldaña in the moment of acting the scene.
“Actors ask me if we’re trying to replace them,” says Cameron. “On the contrary, we’re trying to empower them, to give them new methods to express themselves and to create characters without limitation. I don’t want to replace actors; I love working with actors. It’s what I do as a director. What we’re trying to replace is the five hours in the makeup chair, which is how you used to create characters like aliens, werewolves, witches, demons and so on. Now you can be whoever or whatever you want, at any age, even change gender, and without the time and discomfort of complex makeup.”
Saldaña trained for months to create a physical reality for her character, so that she could fully express Neytiri’s natural athletic grace. She knew that this was not just a voice performance for a typical animated film, but instead a “total performance,” and that every nuance of her facial expressiveness and her body movement would be captured.
Cameron and the actors worked together in the Volume for more than a year, on and off. It was every bit as intense a working relationship as on a photographic film set, except that there were no lights, cameras or dolly track. It was pure acting. And this allowed everyone to really focus on performance, and the emotional truth of each moment, without all the distractions of photography. Director and actors alike were enthralled by the process and enjoyed the rapport and focus that performance capture allowed. But it was not until Cameron and his cast saw the first finished scenes coming back from WETA that they completely realized how revolutionary this movie was going to be. Neytiri, Jake and Grace were alive.
With “Avatar,” it was critical to achieve an absolute authenticity of performance for all the many characters. “Avatar”’s CG characters would be, says the film’s producer Jon Landau, “real, soulful and emotional.” Adds Cameron: “Every nuance and bit of performance was created by the actors, who do all the things you see their CG characters do in the film, down to the slightest hand gesture. These characters ARE precisely and only what the actors created.”
“Avatar” goes a step farther, by placing these photorealistic characters into a world that is also computer generated but seems completely real. Every plant, every tree, every rock is created and rendered in the computers of WETA Digital. Significant breakthroughs in lighting, shading and rendering allowed WETA to create a photo-real world that was alien in its details, but which strikes the eye as completely natural. Over a Petabyte (1,000 terabytes) of digital storage was required by WETA for all the CG “assets” of the film… all the myriad plants and animals, insects, rocks, mountains and clouds. To put this in perspective, “Titanic” required 2 terabytes to create (and sink) the ship and its thousands of passengers, about l/500th the amount used for “Avatar.”
In addition to all this complexity, “Avatar” was made in stereoscopic 3D. So not only did WETA need to work in 3D in creating their CG scenes (as did other visual effects vendors including ILM), but the live-action scenes needed to be shot in 3D as well. For this, Cameron used the Fusion Camera System, which he had co-developed with Vince Pace. It took seven years of development to create the Fusion system, which is the world’s most advanced stereoscopic camera system. The cameras performed flawlessly on the set of “Avatar,” allowing the live-action scenes to merge smoothly with the CG scenes into a unified whole.
Because of the many layers of technology developed specifically for this project, “Avatar” was by far the most challenging of all of Cameron’s films to date. The filmmakers found themselves in uncharted territory, figuring out the answers as they went along. Eighteen months were spent developing the performance capture “pipeline” before a single scene was captured with the cast. “I’ve always tried to push the envelope,” Cameron points out, “But this time it pushed back. So we had to push harder. I liken the experience of making ‘Avatar’ to jumping off a cliff and knitting the parachute on the way down.”
But these revolutionary technologies are just tools in the filmmaker’s “toolbox,” and are always in the service of the story, emotion and characters. Says producer Landau: “Ultimately, the audience’s reaction to ‘Avatar’ is not going to be about the technology; it’s going to be about the characters and story Jim created. The technology allows Jim to tell a story that otherwise couldn’t be told.” Adds Cameron: “It always boils down to this question: Is it a good story? Ultimately, the discussion is going to be about the characters—alien and human—and their journeys.”
Landau compares Cameron’s use of these groundbreaking tools in “Avatar” to the way he used then-cutting-edge advances in his Best Picture Oscar®-winning drama “Titanic.” “On ‘Titanic,’ Jim used visual effects to make people feel like a part of history; on ‘Avatar,’ he is using new technology to transport people into the future to another world.” Cameron notes, “The technology is at such a high level that it disappears, leaving only the magic… the feeling that you’re really there, and that the story, the characters, the emotions are real.”
THE ACTORS, CHARACTERS, AND THEIR JOURNEYS
“Avatar” explores the hero’s journey of Jake Sully, a wounded former Marine confined to a wheelchair whose bravery and destiny help define a world he didn’t even know existed. When Jake is recruited to travel to the moon of Pandora to take on an enormous challenge—the details of which he is initially unaware—he barely hesitates. “Jake had joined the Marines for the hardship, to test himself,” says Cameron. “So when he’s asked to travel to Pandora, he picks up his pack and, as the Marines would say, ‘grunts on.’” Jake’s disability, hard-headedness and courage make him an immediately recognizable and relatable figure. “He’s an everyman with an emotional resonance to which audiences can relate,” says Landau.
Jake has been recruited to travel to Pandora by the RDA, to replace his genetically identical twin brother, a young scientist who trained for the mission but died just before shipping out from Earth. Jake is no scientist, but his DNA makes him uniquely qualified, since his brother’s DNA was combined with that of Pandora’s indigenous Na’vi to create a human-Na’vi hybrid…or avatar. Now only Jake can “drive,” or telepathically operate, what was once his brother’s avatar.
Through his avatar body, Jake is given a new purpose, new challenges and an adventure that will take him to his limits—and beyond. Says actor Sam Worthington: “Pandora gives Jake the opportunity to find himself, realize his potential and understand that through his choices, he can become a better man.”
Jake is a rich and complex character with a rare combination of passion, strength, street smarts and soul. It’s a role requiring a lot from an actor—a fact that Cameron acknowledged when he, Landau and casting director Margery Simkin began their search to fill the part. “The trick about Jake was not writing the character,” says Cameron. “The trick was finding the guy to play him.”
After spending months looking at actors in the U.S. and Europe, Simkin reported to Cameron that she found a candidate…in Australia. Sam Worthington, Simkin told the filmmaker, had a “visceral quality and would make audiences believe that people would follow him. There was an intelligence and intensity in his eyes that never wavered.”
Intrigued, the filmmakers offered Worthington an audition, but he was initially skeptical due to the secrecy surrounding the project and the scant details about the character of Jake being offered to Worthington at that time. “I got a phone call to do this audition, but they wouldn’t tell me anything about the script or even who the director was,” Worthington recalls. “And I thought, ‘Well, here’s another waste of my time.’ Then, a week later, I got another phone call… ‘Look, Jim Cameron wants to fly you to L.A. to audition for him.’ And I said, ‘Yes, but for what?”’
Of course, the audition was for “Avatar” and a role Worthington would come to embrace. But even after Cameron filled him in on the story and on the character of Jake, adding an intriguing question to complete his pitch to the actor—“Are you ready to start the adventure?” —Worthington had one Earthbound priority to fulfill before beginning his journey to Pandora. “I told Jim, yes, of course I’ll join him on the adventure, but first I’ve got to get the brakes fixed on my car.”
For Cameron and Landau, Worthington was worth the wait. “I think one of the hardest things to find in an actor of Sam’s age is a combination of sensitivity, vulnerability and strength, and Sam has all of that,” says Landau.
Worthington’s innate fearlessness not only helped him capture Jake’s spirit and courage, but it also stood him in good stead with his director, a bigger-than-life figure in his own right. “I take my work seriously, just like Jim takes his work seriously,” says Worthington. “We both come at the work wanting to give it everything we’ve got.”
Although many of the actors, including Worthington, received special physical and weapons training, Worthington was more interested in the mental preparation to portray Jake. “I didn’t want my prep to be like boot camp,” he says. “Anyone can do push-ups. I hung out with Jim’s brother, John David, a former Marine. To me, it was more about capturing the way these Marines see the world and how their training can make them think they’re unstoppable.”
Jake’s first encounter with Pandora’s indigenous Na’vi is a fateful one, leading to unexpected emotional resonances, as well as high-stakes action and adventure. While exploring the moon’s lush rainforest, Jake is attacked by some of its deadliest animals. As he faces certain death, Jake is rescued by Neytiri, a fearless and beautiful huntress who is a member of the nearby Omaticaya Clan. Their meeting is charged with strong emotions, both negative and positive, and ultimately leads to a connection that neither could have anticipated. “Jake starts to realize she’s a strong, independent woman who can help him become a better person,” Worthington says.
Neytiri’s initial impression of Jake is not a favorable one; in fact, it’s contemptuous. Even as an avatar, Jake represents to Neytiri the humans’ slash-and-burn mentality, which threatens the Na’vi’s very existence. To save Jake’s life, she has had to kill viperwolves, whose viciousness makes them no less an integral part of the planet’s ecosystem, to which the Na’vi have a strong connection. “Neytiri, like all her people, doesn’t understand the ways of the humans and their methods and mission of human cruelty,” says Zoe Saldaña, who portrays Neytiri. “The Na’vi also can’t understand how the humans mistreat the environment, which is holy to the Na’vi.”
“In my mind, Neytiri and her people represent our better selves in how they live in their world—in symbiosis, empathy and harmony,” adds Cameron. “This is something to which we should all aspire. To that end, I think the story celebrates a connection to the environment, maybe at a time when we’ve lost touch with it.”
Neytiri’s instinctual gifts allow her to see beyond Jake’s coarseness. “She sees something about Jake to which she is attracted,” says Saldaña. “Sure, at first, she absolutely hates him, but her feelings become more complex, confusing her and forcing her to make the most important decisions of her life.”
The character of Neytiri points to Cameron’s interest in creating strong female characters, and Neytiri joins such previous Cameron iconic heroines as Ellen Ripley in “Aliens,” played by Sigourney Weaver, whose performance became a template for action heroines and who reunited with Cameron on “Avatar” after more than 20 years since their landmark collaboration. Also included among that elite group is Sarah Connor from “The Terminator” and “T2”; Rose DeWitt Bukater from “Titanic”; Lindsay Brigman from “The Abyss”; and Helen Tasker from “True Lies.” None of these characters can be reduced to being simply a love interest, and Neytiri follows that rich tradition, combining strength, grace, athleticism, beauty, sexuality, vulnerability and emotional clarity. “Zoe captured every aspect of the character I envisioned,” notes Cameron, who especially admired her “combination of delicacy and fierceness and incredible physicality,” developed through years of professional dancing.
“Neytiri was the most physically demanding role I’ve ever done, and I trained for months before production to capture the character’s grace and power,” says Saldaña. “I wanted to incorporate my body into a character, and ‘Avatar’ was an amazing opportunity to do that.” Saldaña’s reaction to the CG renderings of Neytiri? “I thanked Jim. Neytiri is sexy and cut, long and lean. And the performance was all me!”
Saldaña’s pre-production training regimen included riding, martial arts, archery and movement study and practice. In addition, she and other principal cast members traveled with Cameron to Hawaii, which substituted for the environment he had envisioned for Pandora. “We had to live without sophisticated technology, tools and comforts,” Saldaña recalls. “I was almost naked for three days, digging and climbing and muddy like a dead rat,” she laughs. “I was missing creature comforts, and I was like, ‘I can’t deal with this.’ And Jim said, ‘Oh come on, Neytiri, suck it up!’”
Once the cast and filmmakers arrived at the Los Angeles performance capture stage, Saldaña was thankful to have experienced the Hawaii adventure. “On this bare stage, which had no sets, we had to act as if we were in Pandora’s mud, water, humidity, trees, elevation—everything,” Saldaña says. “Being in Hawaii gave us a mental imprint on which we could draw when we had to simulate an action on the virtual stage.”
Another woman in Jake’s new life on Pandora is Grace Augustine, a scientist who runs the Avatar Program. A trained botanist, Grace has lived on Pandora for 15 years, having long departed Earth because the overcrowded, ecologically devastated planet no longer has biodiversity worthy of study. On Pandora, Grace moves back and forth between her scientific work on the human base, Hell’s Gate, and her fieldwork as an avatar in the Pandoran rainforest. “Grace is trying to create a bridge of trust with the Na’vi, but she keeps getting sabotaged by the soldiers on the base,” says Sigourney Weaver, who portrays Grace. “Grace loves Pandora and the Na’vi with all her heart and hopes she can somehow protect them from the forces of industrial Earth.”
Grace is not pleased by Jake’s arrival on Pandora to join the Avatar Program. She sees him as ill prepared, if not totally unqualified, to become part of an elite scientific team. “Grace is livid about Jake becoming an avatar,” says Weaver. “She’s thinking, ‘He’s here because he fits the suit?!’” referring to his DNA match with the avatar’s former “driver,” Jake’s deceased scientist brother.
Grace comes to have a change of heart about Jake, who impresses his new boss with his burgeoning affection for and respect of the Na’vi. Weaver enjoyed playing the Jake-Grace dynamic opposite Sam Worthington, whom she sees as a new action hero—and more. And Weaver—forever beloved for her role as Ellen Ripley from the “Alien” film series—obviously knows a thing or two about action movie icons. “It’s hard to play action heroes,” she explains. “You have to be very specific about your approach. People think that action movies are all about physicality; they are not. You have to have the other ‘lives’ going on at the same time. You have to endow the character with so much specificity. I saw Sam do all of that on ‘Avatar.’”
Augustine’s bete noir is Col. Miles Quaritch, head of security for the human base on Pandora. Quaritch’s mission is to facilitate the RDA’s goal to mine Pandora, not to win the hearts and minds of the Na’vi. He has contempt for the Avatar Program because it runs counter to his mission, which is to protect the humans who live and work on Pandora. Quaritch has qualities that are less than admirable, but actor Stephen Lang says he found much to admire, and even pity, in the character. “Quaritch has a sense of mission and discipline and that appealed to me,” says Lang, known for his turn as a Depression-era FBI agent in Michael Mann’s drama “Public Enemies,” among other roles. “He’s an able frontline leader; no one doubts his abilities.”
But is he a villain? “Well, he’s certainly not a hypocrite,” Lang says. “With Quaritch, what you see is what you get. I found Quaritch to be very moving for what he lacked—that his soul was in such a state of chaos and decrepitude. It’s a sad thing for him to be in a veritable Eden and yet be incapable of understanding it. I think he’s relatable to many people who’ve experienced the trials and anguish of war.”
Another capable and tough human at Hell’s Gate is Trudy Chacon, a tilt-rotor pilot who’s tasked with shuttling both humans and avatars from the base to science sites out in the wilderness. But unlike Quaritch, Trudy is cool, laid back and definitely not like the other soldiers. “Basically, Trudy takes care of the scientists in the Avatar Program, flying them back and forth from the lab to their duties in country,” explains Michelle Rodriguez, who takes on the role—another great James Cameron action heroine.
Rodriguez, who first drew attention for her film debut, the acclaimed independent drama “Girlfight,” appreciates Cameron’s ability to write great female characters, as well as his perceptions about acting and actors. “I think Jim really has the ability see through people,” says Rodriguez. “He really understands people for what and who they really are.”
Norm Spellman, another scientist/avatar in the Program, was the project’s golden boy, having worked and studied for his journey to Pandora for five years. But that changes when Jake arrives. “Norm is booksmart, but he is no match for Jake’s innate leadership skills,” says Joel David Moore, who plays Norm and whose many credits include the comedy smash “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.” “Norm is resentful and jealous of Jake, but like so many on Pandora, he comes to admire Jake and be inspired by him.”
Keeping a watchful eye on the mining operation, the scientists and all the activities at Hell’s Gate is Parker Selfridge, the smart, forceful, charismatic station administrator who is focused on the success of RDA’s operations on Pandora. Giovanni Ribisi (“Public Enemies,” “Lost in Translation”) says that Selfridge is “calm and ruthless in pursuit of his goals. He’s an administrator but has a lot of hubris and considers himself more of a CEO or corporate president.” But even a hardened corporate type like Selfridge, who notes that the “one thing the RDA stockholders hate worse than bad press is a bad quarterly statement,” can undergo life altering changes on Pandora.
Other key roles in “Avatar” are taken by CCH Pounder (“The Shield”) as the Na’vi matriarch Mo’at, whose command and dignity holds the respect of her people; Wes Studi (“Last of the Mohicans”) as Na’vi clan leader Eytukan, a stern, commanding presence who provides for the Na’vi and protects them from harm; Laz Alonso as Tsu’tey, the clan’s most accomplished hunter, who constantly challenges Jake throughout the latter’s journey on Pandora; Dileep Rao (“Drag Me to Hell”) as Dr. Max Patel, a scientist in the Avatar Program; and Matt Gerald (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”) as Corp. Lyle Wainfleet, a cruel Secops trooper who typifies the humans’ contempt for the Na’vi.
Providing added dimensions to specific aspects of the actors’ performances are noted linguist Paul Frommer, Ph.D., who worked with Cameron to devise an entire language for the Na’vi; as well as Terry Notary, a former Cirque du Soleil performer, and celebrated choreographer Lula Washington, who respectively helped the create Na’vi movements and the choreography for the Na’vi dancers.
As with so many aspects of “Avatar,” the Na’vi language brings together the completely original with the familiar and relatable. Frommer, a professor at USC, explains: “The Na’vi have similar sound limitations as humans, enabling the Avatar scientists to actually learn and speak [the Na’vi tongue].”
Early in the process, Cameron provided Frommer with the kinds of sounds the filmmaker had in mind for the Na’vi. Frommer then designed a linguistic palette. “It was all about giving Jim possibilities and options,” says Frommer. “Some sounds he liked; some not. Then we locked in the language’s structural properties, pronunciation rules and how the words were built.”
This complex work resulted in the creation of a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words, as well as a specific structure and grammar, all of which the actors learned with skill and speed. The cast also worked closely with dialect coach Carla Meyer to fine-tune the dialect for the invented tongue.
Sam Worthington’s linguistic challenges were heightened by the fact that the Australian native had to learn to speak not only a new language; he had to acquire an American accent. “It was like learning two languages,” says Worthington. “And let me tell you: the Na’vi [language] was easier than the American accent! I spent at least two hours a day working on the American accent and learning the Na’vi language. I worked to phonetically break the language down, so it didn’t sound like I’m acting through gauze.”
Worthington notes that Jake’s grasp of the Na’vi language is a work-in-progress throughout the story, which allowed or even necessitated the occasional linguistic slip-up. Zoe Saldaña and Laz Alonso, both fluent in Spanish, found it easier to learn the Na’vi language, walking away from the “Avatar” shoot as probably the only actor/ tri-linguists in the world fluent in….Na’vi. But perhaps the most fun with the invented patois was had by the film’s crew, which adopted specific Na’vi words— “skowng,” meaning “moron,” was a particular favorite—to playfully tease one another.
Dance and movement studies also enabled the actors to delve further into their characters. Na’vi dance choreographer Lula Washington, artistic director of the Lula Washington Dance Theater, notes that the Pandora natives celebrate themselves through dance. “They’re an elegant, proud people who love their land. In that respect, they’re close to our aboriginal cultures.” The dancers from Lula’s troupe became part of the cast, as members of the Omaticaya clan, and their graceful, feral movement can be seen throughout the film.
Terry Notary created movements inspired by indigenous cultures as well as animals like big cats and primates. He explains: “We worked to answer questions like, How would the Na’vi touch? How would they reach? How would they move when they’re happy? And how would they use their tails?”
With the actors working tirelessly to incorporate all these physical, linguistic and emotional nuances that were central to their characters and to Cameron’s vision, the filmmaker was determined to capture it all in the actors’ computer-generated incarnations. Worthington and the other actors found it liberating to be working on the bare stage known as the Volume, while wearing special performance capture suits and headgear. “We embraced the performance capture and had a lot of fun with it,” says Worthington. “Even though Jake’s avatar is ten feet tall and blue, it has my personality and soul. It’s spectacular that Jim can do that.
“Performance capture is incredibly freeing,” Worthington continues. “You can’t hide, so every take has to be truthful. At first, it’s a little nerve-wracking, but you forget you’re wearing headgear and a few hundred dots on your face.”
“You wonder if you’ll have the mental capacity to look at the gray, stark [performance capture] stage, and see a humongous snake or a lush forest,” adds Laz Alonso. “I mean, the Volume is as drab as you can get. But thanks to Jim’s direction, performance capture and the virtual camera, something great starts happening—you really start to see these animals and this incredible environment. You get so deep into this world that you start seeing, smelling, hearing and feeling Pandora.”
Joel David Moore says the way the Volume sparked the imagination reminded him of a back-to-basics approach to acting. “Working on the performance-capture stage takes you back to the old theater days,” he explains. “All you’d have [on the theater stage] is a wall, a table, and some chairs. You had to imagine everything else.”
Another revolutionary advance was the virtual camera, which not only made the CG work director-centric and performance-centric, it created a new production paradigm that gave Cameron the unprecedented ability to actually see an actor’s CG character and the CG environments in camera as he worked with the actors in the Volume. “The virtual camera allowed Jim to direct actors in an immediacy never before possible,” explains producer Landau. “At the same time, actors get a much better feel for their CG characters because they get to see the CG scene and environments almost immediately, instead of having to wait months for the effects house to deliver the shots.
The in-camera CG imagery had only the resolution of a video game of the era, but after Cameron completed filming and editing a specific sequence, WETA would then work on it for months to create the final, high-resolution photographic images. In effect, each shot was created twice; once with Cameron in the Volume, and again after WETA completed its months-long work finishing the shot.
The virtual camera, which resembles a videogame controller with a video monitor attached, is not really a camera at all because it doesn’t even have a lens; instead, it emulates a camera as it is “fed” the CG images by a bank of state-of-the-art computers surrounding the Volume. A small screen on the device displays the CG image fed to it by these computers. This allowed Cameron to shoot the action from any angle or approach, giving him unprecedented spontaneity, flexibility and options on the virtual production stage.
“For example, Jim could tell us to create a five-to-one scale in vertical,” says WETA’s Stephen Rosenbaum. “And when he moves the camera, instead of moving it three feet, it’s a 15-foot crane move in real time. In effect, Jim could turn the camera crew into a team of 10-foot-tall Na’vi.” Adds Cameron: “Long after the actors had gone home, I would still be in the Volume with the virtual camera, shooting coverage on the scene. Just by playing back the take, I can get the scene from different angles. We can re-light it. We can do all sorts of things.”
“It’s filmmaking on a different level—like comparing grade school to a doctoral program at M.I.T.,” says Laz Alonso.
Another groundbreaking tool in Cameron’s “toolbox” was the Simul-Cam, which integrated, in real time, CG characters and environments into the film’s live-action Fusion camera eyepiece. The technology essentially treats a photographic camera like the virtual camera, taking the virtual production toolset and superimposing it on the physical production. “The ability to shoot on a live-action set and see in your camera eyepiece CG characters and environments that are not there allowed Jim to shoot that scene with the same sensibility he would a live-action scene,” explains Landau.
Since all the action of “Avatar” takes place on Pandora, whether within the human base at Hell’s Gate or out in the wilds of the rainforest, every single thing that went before the cameras or was rendered in CG had to be designed from scratch. In parallel with the technology development, the design process took two years before shooting began. The filmmakers enlisted a team of world-class artists to design every character, creature, plant, costume, weapon, vehicle and environment in “Avatar.” They created not one culture, but two: the highly technological human colony with all its vehicles and weapons, and the Na’vi society.
As he did with the characters, Cameron created Pandora to be recognizable without losing its exotic, never-before-experienced qualities. It is a world that merges the classic and familiar. “We wanted to remove the creatures and flora from being Earth-like, just enough to remind you that you’re on another world, but at the same time, you’d find them accessible,” says Cameron. Trees measuring more than 1,000 feet and mountains that somehow float are among the landmarks that inspire awe for their sheer imagination and scope but whose designs stem from structures familiar to everyone.
“James Cameron didn’t just create and make a motion picture set on a distant world; it was if he had actually traveled there, taken copious notes, then returned and put every detail he absorbed on paper and then on film,” says production designer Rick Carter.
That was the impression the world-renowned filmmaker left on his department heads, cast and just about everyone who worked on “Avatar.” Collaborating with many of the industry’s top artists, Cameron oversaw the conceptual art, virtual sets and practical sets. He scrutinized very design detail of “Avatar”—each creature, blade of grass, tree, mountain, cloud, vehicle and costume.
“I think Jim finished ‘Avatar’ a long time ago in his mind,” says co-production designer Robert Stromberg, who oversaw much of the design of Pandora. “He brought it to us to recreate.” Rick Carter adds, “It was tough to keep up with Jim because he was presenting a world he had seen and not just invented. He had seen it and was reporting back to us. Jim would explain his design ideas in such detail that you would think these fictional animals really existed. That’s how much thought he put into each and every animal and insect. He knows what they eat, how they sleep and how they interact with one another.”
Cameron, Stromberg, Carter and their teams would regularly pose a key question: “Would that [design] work?” The filmmakers’ goal was to have audiences suspend their belief and recognize and relate to what they were seeing on screen.
Jake arrives at the human military and scientific base, Hell’s Gate, a scar carved by the hand of man in the middle of this virgin world. As Jake soon discovers, the rainforest outside Hell’s Gate is rich with exotic flora and fauna, as well as vicious wildlife. Pandora is, as Cameron describes, “the Garden of Eden with teeth and claws.”
There are many Na’vi clans scattered around Pandora, but the one Jake comes to know is the Omaticaya Clan, who have lived inside of the 1,000-foot tall Hometree for 10,000 years. The Omaticaya clan uses the different tiers of the tree’s interior structure as their village. The social hierarchy of the Omaticaya is clearly defined, with Eytukan, the “Olo’eyctan” or clan leader, at the top. Eytukan turns out to be Neytiri’s father, and her mother, Mo’at, shares power as the clan’s “Tsahik” or shaman. Tus’tey, a strong and proud young hunter, is next in line for the position of Olo’eyctan, and is promised to Neytiri in an arranged marriage.
Pandora’s many wonders include the world’s neural network, through which all its plant and animal life are connected. Akin to a human nervous system, this network enables all life on Pandora to function as a single harmonious system. The center of this network—and the moon’s heart and brain—is a massive, gnarled and ancient willow tree that is the Na’vi epicenter, an extension of their lifeblood and a place of regeneration and knowledge. This “Tree of Souls” is situated at the center of Pandora’s most powerful magnetic field, the Flux Vortex. Eons ago, the invisible field created the unusual geological formations of arches that form rainbows of stone, above a deep caldera, with the Tree of Souls at its center.
Living amid these incredible environments are myriad creatures, some of which were created by “Avatar”’s in-house creature design team under Neville Page, with the others designed by John Rosengrant’s team at Stan Winston Studios. The most fearsome of Pandoran creatures is the Thanator. “The Thanator could eat a T-Rex and have the Alien for dessert,” says the filmmaker. “It’s the panther from hell.” Then there are the Viperwolves, which Cameron describes as “hairless with shiny skin that looks like overlapped armor. Most disturbing are its paws, which are like leathery hands.”
A winged creature known as the Banshee is a key figure in Jake’s journey; in a Na’vi rite of passage, Jake must dominate and ride a banshee to assume a rightful position in the clan community. The test’s stakes are further heightened by the fact that the banshee that most wants to kill him is the “chosen one” he must capture.
Pandora’s Direhorses, as the name suggests, resemble in some ways terrestrial horses—but with several important flourishes as conceived and designed by Stan Winston Studios and Cameron, the latter describing the animal as a “six-legged alien Clydesdale with moth-like antennae.”
Pandora’s diverse menagerie also includes the deer-like Hexapede; the ferocious Hammerhead Titanothere, a rhinoceros-like herbivore with a bad attitude and a head like a sledgehammer; and the Leonopteryx, the king predator of the sky, with scarlet, yellow and black stripes and an 80-foot wingspan. A smaller and gentler Pandoran species is the jellyfish-like Woodsprite, which waves silky tendrils to move gracefully through the night air. Called Atokirina by the Na’vi, they are actually seeds of the sacred Utraya Mokri “Tree of Voices,” and thus an important part of the “soul” of the rainforest. When they land upon Jake, Neytiri interprets this as an important sign, and things take an unexpected turn.
Academy Award®-winner Richard Taylor and his team at WETA Workshop designed props and weapons for both the Na’vi and the heavily armed RDA. Renowned artist TyRuben Ellingson designed many of the vehicles used by the military forces based at Hell’s Gate, which figure prominently in an epic third act battle pitting machine against banshee, and hardened soldier against Na’vi warrior.
The AMP Suit (“AMP” is an acronym for “Amplified Mobility Platform”) “amplifies” the movements of its human operator. The AMP Suits and their soldier occupants are transported by what is perhaps the RDA’s deadliest aircraft—the C-21 Dragon Gunship. This giant rotorcraft resembles a predatory insect and has multiple canopies. Almost as destructive is the AT-99 Scorpion Gunship, a high speed, highly maneuverable military attack aircraft. And on a world with no landing strips, these tilt-rotor aircraft have the important capability of vertical takeoffs and landings. Although the military aerial vehicles in “Avatar” are futuristic rotorcraft, they were intended to seem as familiar as the Huey gunships of the Vietnam era to ground the audience in a strong sense of reality.
“Avatar”’s largest vehicle, more than a kilometer in length, is the ISV Venture Star, an interstellar ship that transports RDA personnel—including Jake—to Pandora. Its antimatter engines propel it to 7/10ths the speed of light, but the voyage to Pandora still takes almost six years, during which time the passengers are frozen in cryogenic suspended animation. To reach the planet’s surface from orbit, the newcomers board the Valkyrie TAV (Trans-Atmospheric Vehicle), a distant descendant of the space shuttle.
The costume designs by Mayes C. Rubeo and Deborah L. Scott provide yet another gateway into the Na’vi culture. Although many of the costumes and accessories are worn by CG creations, the items were created practically to best communicate the subtleties of the costume textures, the weaving styles and the translucency of the jewelry. Practicality and comfort define the Na’vi clothing, reflecting the grace and beauty of Pandora’s indigenous people.
The work of director of photography Mauro Fiore, ASC was focused on creating the gritty look of the industrial complex at Hell’s Gate. “What they were capturing in performance capture and what I was creating in the live-action sequences needed to cohesively exist in one movie,” says Fiore, who also shot “The Kingdom” and “Smokin’ Aces,” among other titles, prior to his work on “Avatar.” Fiore embraced the 3D Fusion camera system, and after extensive testing, tackled the live-action shooting with style and precision. The resulting images blend seamlessly with the CG created by WETA Digital and ILM.
Most of “Avatar”’s live-action scenes were shot in Wellington, New Zealand, where enormous sets were erected. This endeavor was an incredible undertaking; the production created a huge sub-structure of more than 150 contractors to build the sets. The practical sets included the Link Room, which houses the sarcophagus-like link that transports the humans’ consciousness into the avatar bodies; the Bio-Lab, a science facility and home to the amnio tanks that house the avatar bodies that have grown to adulthood during their six-year journey from Earth to Pandora; the Ops Center, which is the central nervous system of the Hell’s Gate base; and the Armor Bay military stronghold, which houses the AMP Suits and choppers.
In all of “Avatar”’s environments, Cameron creates an immersive experience in which audiences will feel like they’re alongside the characters on their adventures. He and Landau have long been champions of 3D cinema and have worked tirelessly to use that format to enhance film’s immersive qualities. But they note that they intend “Avatar” to also be an immersive experience in 2D. “Jim and I have been sharing our passion for 3D with distribution, exhibition and worldwide audiences,” says Landau. “We feel a 3D renaissance is finally here. We live our lives in 3D, so why not experience movies that same way. That being said, in either 2D or 3D, you will feel like you’ve been to a distant world and walked among its inhabitants.”
Many 3D films of an earlier era used the format as a “gag” or effect unto itself—throwing objects at audiences or arranging characters or props that would appear to come out of the screen and into the theater. For Cameron, 3D is a window into a world, where the format, instead of calling attention to itself, disappears into the narrative.
As he was developing “Avatar,” Cameron set to work on a new digital 3D camera system, which he developed with partner Vince Pace of Pace Technologies, using Sony and Fujinon HD technology. But before “Avatar” became a reality, Cameron’s goal with the new digital 3D camera was to bring back the experience of deep ocean exploration with unprecedented clarity to a global audience. His historic exploration of the inside of the Titanic was the subject of Cameron’s 3D IMAX film, “Ghosts of the Abyss,” followed by “Aliens of the Deep.”
Cameron’s experiences on these films not only advanced his vision for “Avatar”’s three-dimensional presentation, they also informed one of the film’s signature design and lighting elements: At the bottom of the ocean, Cameron had witnessed a phenomenon in which certain life forms literally glowed with an almost otherworldly light amid the relentless gloom. Cameron applied this “bioluminescence” to Pandora’s environment, which comes to life at night via this affecting radiance.
“Avatar”’s post-production process, like almost everything else about the film, was decidedly atypical. On most films, editing begins in post-production, but on “Avatar,” Cameron and fellow editors Stephen Rivkin, A.C.E. and John Refoua, A.C.E. began cutting initial captured sequences during pre-production. The editors and their Avids were a regular presence on set during production, delivering sequences to WETA monthly. “Before we ever shot a frame of live-action film, we had probably delivered 70 minutes of edited footage to WETA,” says Landau.
A key part of the post-production period was composer James Horner’s score, which combines classic symphonic elements that propel the film’s epic action with sounds that transport us to another world; the latter includes vocalists singing in the film’s Na’vi language, as well as unusual acoustic and electronic instrumentalists.
Movie fans and music watchers eagerly anticipated Cameron-Horner’s “Avatar” collaboration; Horner’s work on 1986’s “Aliens,” yielded one of the cinema’s finest action film scores, and 1997’s “Titanic” made movie and soundtrack history. For “Avatar,” Horner reunited with “My Heart Will Go On” collaborator Simon Franglen to create a new song. “I See You” is sung by international sensation Leon Lewis and can be heard in the end credits of the film. The song expresses the Na’vi idea of “seeing,” when a person understands with their heart and spirit, not just with their mind.
As he entered the final stages of “Avatar,” Cameron was eager to share his vision with the world. He previewed extended scenes at key domestic and international exhibitor gatherings, and at San Diego’s massive pop culture enclave, Comic-Con International. Pleased with the response to these early looks, Cameron continued to fine-tune the editing and review the finished or near-finished visual effects work coming in daily from WETA Digital and the other visual effects vendors (including ILM, Framestore, Prime Focus, Hybride and hy*drau”lx), all to make “Avatar” a one-of-a-kind experience for moviegoers.
“Jim doesn’t make movies for himself,” says Jon Landau. “He makes them for the audience.” Adds Cameron: “I really want audiences to have a completely satisfying cinematic experience. And I hope audiences will walk out of the theater saying, ‘I didn’t see a movie; I experienced a movie.’”