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.
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.'"
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Avatar: An IMAX 3D Experience
Concurrently with the film's nationwide release in conventional theatres, Avatar: An IMAX 3D Experience will be released in IMAX theatres beginning December 18, 2009. Avatar has been digitally re-mastered into the unparalleled image and sound quality of The IMAX Experience(r) through proprietary IMAX DMR technology. With crystal clear images, laser-aligned digital sound and maximized field of view, IMAX provides the world's most immersive movie experience.