Avatar – James Cameron’s visionary tale returns

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.

“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 in 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.” 

He is currently in post-production on Avatar: The Way of Water, which opens in cinemas December 16, 2022. Cameron is currently “living in Pandora” as he works on the ‘Avatar’ sequels. “I’m deep into it and I’m living in Pandora right now…The characters talk and it’s writing itself. I’m almost there right now. It’s building fast. When you live in a special world like Pandora, you have to live in that world,” says Cameron, who moved to a new property in New Zealand to develop ‘Avatar 2’ and ‘Avatar 3,’ the sequels to ‘Avatar’.

Director and Writer James Cameron behind the scenes of Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

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 theatres in North America, plus an additional 17,222 around the globe. Wowing critics and audiences alike, Avatar would go on to become the most successful film of all time, grossing 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.

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

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 have 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 applies. 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.

Jake Sully (voiced by Sam Worthington) riding the Great Leonopteryx Toruk in Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

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.

(L-R): Jake Sully (voiced by Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana) in Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

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 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.”

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.

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.”

(L-R): Director and Writer James Cameron behind the scenes of Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. Photo by Zack Fellman. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

JAMES CAMERON (Director, Writer, Producer, Editor) is an acclaimed filmmaker and explorer. As director, writer and producer, he is responsible for some of the most memorable films of the past three decades: “The Terminator,” “Aliens,” “The Abyss,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “True Lies,” “Titanic” and “Avatar.” 

“Avatar” is the highest-grossing film in history with more than $2.8 billion in global box office, beating the previous record holder, Cameron’s own film “Titanic,” which held that record for 12 years. Cameron’s films have also earned numerous nominations and awards, most notably “Titanic”’s 14 Academy Award® nominations (a record) and 11 Oscars® (also a record), including Cameron’s own three Oscars® for Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Editing. Both “Titanic” and “Avatar” won the Golden Globe® for Best Director and Best Picture. “Avatar” was nominated for nine Academy Awards® and won three.

Over the last 17 years, Cameron developed cutting-edge 3D camera systems for movies and documentaries, as well as for broadcast sports and special events. He was at the vanguard of the 3D renaissance that has transformed the movie industry in recent years. He also developed unprecedented deep ocean exploration vehicles, lighting and 3D camera equipment. Most recently, Cameron led his eighth deep ocean expedition to some of the deepest trenches in the world. On March 26, 2012, he set the world’s solo deep diving record of 35,787’ in the Challenger Deep in a vehicle of his own design. 

Cameron is a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, and recipient of their most prestigious award, the Hubbard Medal, as well as the Explorer’s Club medal for Explorer of the Year.

Cameron is also passionately involved in sustainability issues, having founded the Avatar Alliance Foundation to take action on climate change, energy policy, deforestation, indigenous rights, ocean conservation and sustainable agriculture. His production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, installed a one-megawatt solar array on the roofs of their soundstages at Manhattan Beach Studios to generate all the power for the “Avatar” sequels. James and Suzy Amis Cameron, both environmental vegans, founded the Plant Power Taskforce to promote awareness of the impact of animal agriculture on the environment and climate.

He is currently in post-production on “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which opens in theaters December 16, 2022.