Avatar Behind the Scenes

Avatar Behind the Scenes


AVATAR takes us to a spectacular world beyond imagination, where a newcomer from Earth embarks on an epic adventure, ultimately fighting to save the alien world he has learned to call home. James Cameron, the Oscar-winning director of "Titanic," first conceived of the film 15 years ago, when the means to realize his vision did not yet exist. Now, after four years of production, AVATAR, a live action film with a new generation of special effects, delivers a fully immersive cinematic experience of a new kind, where the revolutionary technology invented to make the film disappears into the emotion of the characters and the sweep of the story.

We enter the alien world through the eyes of Jake Sully, a former Marine confined to a wheelchair. But despite his broken body, Jake is still a warrior at heart. He is recruited to travel light years to the 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 his avatar form, Jake can walk again. He is given a mission to infiltrate the Na'vi, who have become a major obstacle to mining the precious ore. But a beautiful Na'vi female, Neytiri, saves Jake's life, and this changes everything. Jake is taken in by her clan, and learns to become one of them, which involves many tests and adventures. As Jake's relationship with his reluctant teacher Neytiri deepens, he learns to respect the Na'vi way and finally takes his place among them. Soon he will face the ultimate test as he leads them in an epic battle that will decide the fate of an entire world.


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BEGINNINGS

"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 global renown as a master storyteller: his "Titanic," "The Terminator," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Aliens," "True Lies," and "The Abyss" were groundbreaking films featuring a mix of spectacle, compelling narratives and characters, and technical wizardry resolutely in service of story and emotion.

AVATAR's central figure, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is 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."


WHERE AND WHEN

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.


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, 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.


CAPTURING EMOTION

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. At the same time, actors get a much better feel for their CG character 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," explains Landau. The in-camera CG imagery had only the resolution of a video game; 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." "Long after the actors had gone home, I would still be in the Volume with the virtual camera, shooting coverage on the scene," says Cameron. "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.


CREATING PANDORA

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 over one thousand 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 1000 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 amidst 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, a the king predator of the sky, striped scarlet, yellow and black, with 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. While renowned artist TyRuben Ellingson designed many of the vehicles used by the military forces based at Hell's Gate -and which figure prominently in the 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. While 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, over 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 seven tenths 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.


LIVE ACTION PHOTOGRAPHY

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." 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 over 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 3-D 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 2-D, and the film will play widely in that format.

"Jim and I have been sharing our passion for 3-D with Distribution, Exhibition and worldwide audiences," says Landau. "We feel a 3-D renaissance is finally here. We live our lives in 3-D, so why not experience movies that same way. That being said, in either 2-D or 3-D, you will feel like you've been to a distant world and walked among its inhabitants."

Many 3-D 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, 3-D 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 3-D 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 3-D 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 3-D 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, it 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.


FINISHING UP

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 to WETA sequences on a monthly basis. "Before we ever shot a frame of live action film, we had probably delivered seventy 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 have eagerly anticipated this new Cameron-Horner 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 the massive Comic-Con pop culture enclave. 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.'"


Avatar on DVD plus more background on Avatar
www.femail.com.au/avatar.htm






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