Avatar: James Cameron on its Making

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“Avatar” is the most challenging film I’ve ever made,” says writer-director James Cameron. And that is a declaration with resonance, given Cameron’s name as a popular storyteller: his “Titanic,” “The Terminator,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Aliens,” “True Lies,” and “The Abyss” were groundbreaking films that mixed spectacle, compelling narratives and characters, and technical wizardry resolutely in service of story and emotion.

The central figure of “Avatar” is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a relatable everyman who unexpectedly rises to become a hero, as events draw him deeper into a clash of civilizations, between the Earth corporations bent on “developing” Pandora and the indigenous Na’vi. Jake is a former Marine who places honor and duty above all, but he must eventually choose between his personal honor, in defense of what is right, and his supposed duty to those who have tasked him with his mission.

“I wanted to create a familiar type of adventure in an unfamiliar environment, ” Cameron explains, “by setting the classic tale of a newcomer to a foreign land and culture on an alien planet. The story is by design classic in its broad strokes, but we have plenty of twists and turns in store for the audience. I’ve 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.”

“Avatar” takes place on Pandora, a moon with an Earthlike 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 twenty second 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 to be 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 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.

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, and in addition 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. And 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. Though 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 which 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 of 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. So 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 Zoë Saldana, 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 actor’s 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,” and the utterly real-seeming 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 character as they appear on the screen. WETA assured him that their team of world-class animators would make it their mission to convey one hundred percent of the actors’ performances to their Na’vi or avatar characters. This involved insuring that highly accurate data be recorded at the moment the scene was performed, and it also required over 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.