is for Zoe
Zoe Saldana, who was part of why Star Trek rocked, had been working with James Cameron for a while before JJ Abrams recruited her for Starfleet.
“Jim wrote this amazing story out of nothing, it has an amazing message,” enthuses the actress.
“And the technology that he's using is so ahead of his time that's why it took so long to shoot it.
“But it's going to be so worth it. It was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had.”
is for Years
14 of them to be exact. Fourteen years ago is when all those fragments and inspirations finally coalesced into Cameron’s brain-pool and he pumped out the first treatment for the movie.
It was a little long…
“I had to rework to make it possible,” he says.
“My treatment was so expansive and novelistic that it needed to be necked down just to make it something that could be done on the screen.
“This film is done on an epic scale, but it's done within the parameters of a Hollywood movie. What I found is that instead a script I had written the outline of a novel, and it was just too much story, too much back-story, too many secondary characters.
“But better to weed it out later and not miss an idea.”
Oh, and Avatar itself has taken four years of shooting and post-production…
is for Xeno Genesis
Some of Avatar’s details have been bubbling in Cameron’s mind for decades.
“This thing has been generating in fragments, for a long time, ever since the mid-‘70s, when I first started my hand at screenwriting.
“I was creating stories with spacecrafts and other worlds and some of these creatures actually are distant descendants through a long Darwinian process of the creatures that I was creating then.
“I wrote a script called Xeno Genesis in ‘76 or ‘77. It never got made (though Cameron did base a short film on it), but it had a bioluminescent force in it.
I don't even remember the transition point from being a fan, a reader of science fiction and an artist drawing spacecraft and aliens to actually putting them into scenes.”
is for Weaver
Sigourney Weaver is back on deck with her Aliens director and seemingly delighted to be collaborating once again.
She’s playing Dr Grace Augustine, a scientist with a mission to safeguard Pandora and its denizens.
“Pandora is an amazing planet that has 1,000 foot trees and floating mountains and creatures both beautiful and deadly,” Weaver gushed at Comic-Con.
“Grace loves Pandora with all her heart and hopes she can protect the people of Pandora, the Na’vi, against the humans.”
And Augustine is so dedicated that she rarely takes care of herself – chain-smoking, skipping sleep and generally letting her human body decay, while exploring the planet’s trees in her youthful, energetic avatar form.
is for Video game
Jim Cameron unveiled the Avatar tie-in game earlier this year at E3, and announced that the gang from Ubisoft had won the contract because they wanted to push the world of the movie further.
“The guys from Ubisoft walked in with a pitch for a game whose themes beautifully mirrored those of the movie. “They were totally inside the head of the film.”
And while some films deliver a few CG elements to the games company to help with creating graphics, Cameron’s production handed over every piece of data needed to keep the game looking cool and feeling right.
Plus, the designers were able to brainstorm some vehicles that don’t crop up in the movie, which will make the console experience that much more rewarding. Apparently…
is for Uncanny valley
With any CG animation based around human – and even humanoid – characters, our brains take a natural, instinctive dislike to anything spawned from a graphics package that tries to look or act human.
It’s known as the “uncanny valley” and while Cameron admits it’s still impossible to avoid completely, he’s happy with his crew’s progress.
“A given frame on Avatar might take up to 50-100 hours to render, and we multiply that by two. So that’s per frame, per process. We have a massive render farm to do the work.“
Maybe one in 10 shots slips back into the valley, but at that point the narrative is propelling you along and the sense of realism.”
is for Technology
It comes as no surprise that Cameron had to drive his team to invent a lot of the techniques that they ended up using for the movie.
“We spent a lot of time on the character design, and we based them closely on the actors. We found out that, in our very early testing, going back almost four years with this, the closer the architecture of the face was to the actor playing the character, the better the performance translated.
“In other words, it didn't have to be interpreted by Key Frame Animation. So, we actually cast this film looking at and making sure it was a face that we wanted.”
is for Sam Worthington
He acted the rest of the cast (and the robots) off the screen in Terminator Salvation. But Avatar should be his real showcase.
“Sam is able to create a character that allows you to walk in his shoes,” Cameron has said of his leading man.
“He’s so good at communication his emotions without appearing to do anything.
"It was a very challenging film for him, because he plays part of it as his human self, and part of it through his Avatar – a fleshy character, but played entirely through performance capture.”
is for Reality
With so much of the movie’s world existing primarily as ones and zeroes in a computer’s brain, it’s tough not to focus on the technological accomplishments.
Despite his self-proclaimed love of pushing the CG/3D boundaries, Cameron is convinced we’ll all be concentrating on the reality of the story, not the near-photo-reality of the characters.
“The irony with Avatar is that people think of it as a 3D film and that's what the discussion is, but I think when they see it, the whole 3D discussion is going to go away.
“I think the discussion is going to be about the fact that you've got synthetic characters that are so true to what the actors did in terms of the performances that they actually have a soul, they have an emotional reality, and they have life.
“I think that's going to be the story of this world that took us four years to create, and all its detail - the creatures, environments, and the reality of all these fantasy characters that don't seem like fantasy at all.”
is for Questions
Even if you’re James Cameron, the man behind the most successful film of all time, you’re going to face some questions if the studio is going to release a $200 plus budget for an idea you’re still trying to prove can work.
“The studio guys, God love them, signed up to write a big check for this movie, and they've backed our play 100%, all the way down the line, thick or thin,” chuckles the director.
“But, at the beginning, they would ask questions like, ‘Do they need to be blue? Do they need to have a tail?’ I thought, ‘Well, yeah, of course they do.’”
is for Pandora
The world that’s home to the Na’vi and under threat from humanity as we aim to colonise and strip-mine the place.
Which would be a shame, since it’s a beautiful world.
“Pandora is Earth like, it has lush rainforests filled with incredible life forms like 1,000 foot tall trees, a myriad of creatures, some of which are quite beautiful, some of which are quite terrifying,” is Cameron’s description.
is for Original Story
In this time of remakes, retreads, reboots and re-imagining, not to mention the seemingly endless cycle of movies based on everything from toys to kids’ books, it’s nice to see someone coming out with a truly original tale.
Okay, so Avatar is archetypal and blends lots of ingredients from sci-fi in general and Cameron’s back catalogue in particular, but we’re hoping for a fresh stew after he’s done cooking the pic.
“The story is really designed for everybody because it's a classic tale,” says the writer/director.
“It's not a timely story, in the sense that The Matrix was a very timely story. It needed to evolve out of the cyber punk era and what was happening, with the way that the Internet was changing human consciousness, globally. This story could've been written in the ‘30s.”
is for Navi
The alien natives of Pandora are quite a sight to see being that they’re all 10-foot-tall and impossibly beautiful.
“We have this indigenous population of humanoid beings who are living at a relatively Neolithic level; they hunt with bows and arrows,” is how Cameron defines them.
“They live very closely and harmoniously with their environment, but they are also quite threatening to the humans who are trying to colonize and mine and exploit this planet.”
And thanks to their better qualities, it’s not just a simple conflict between man and ETs…
“It’s easy to look at it as a war between the humans and Na’vi, but it’s really not,” says Cameron.
“The Na’vi represent what we’d like to be or aspire to be, and the humans in the film represent what we know to be that part of ourselves that are trashing our world and potentially hurting our future.”
is for Marketing
Avatar has been hidden behind a wall of secrecy for years now, but with the film’s December 18th release date now just a few months away, the promotional tidal wave is on its way.
Comic-Con saw displays of action figures and other toys based on the film, and Avatar Day will see the release of more figures and other tie-ins, plus lenticular posters that will show shifting imagery.
Now that at least some of Avatar has been shown to the public, get ready for a deluge…
is for Lang
Stephen Lang. He’s most recently been seen in Public Enemies and he impressed the Comic-Con crowd by taking the stage as Colonel Quarles, head of the human military presence on Pandora.
After ordered everyone to listen up, he explained the problem from our side of things as only a soldier can:
“The Na’vi are impeding our mission on this miserable planet.
“They’re 10 foot-tall, quick, stealthy, blue as a baboon’s butt and lethally dangerous. Their technology is primitive. My people have state-of-the-art weapons and aircraft.
“It’s been coming to a head for a while and I can tell you it’s not going to end pretty.”
is for Kick-ass training schedule
For her role as Neytiri, the Na’vi that Sam Worthington’s Jake falls in love with, Zoe Saldana had the longest, toughest schedule.
Though she has dance training and was already in good shape, her work on Avatar required a 7-day-a-week preparation schedule that included dialect training, archery, weight lifting and horse riding.
is for Journey
No, not the group – there will be no chorus of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ over the end credits.
As Cameron makes clear: “The story is told very much from character.
“You go on Jake’s journey with him. It actually starts quite small. It starts close to him, in his apartment with him, and it just expands and expands in scope as it goes along.”
is for Innovation
Even though 3D has been around since the 1950s, it hasn’t really flourished on cinema screens, until recently. And even now its success is not assured.
Cameron is aiming to change all that.
“3D is going to be a lot like colour was,” is his reasoning.
“It was initially introduced on the biggest movies, and it gradually spread ultimately over a 25- to 30-year period to the point where you couldn't make a black-and-white movie without the permission of the studio.
“I think the acceptance is really accelerating now that it's market-driven. Audiences love it and the quality of the 3D is so much higher than it's ever been in the past - in terms of the acquisition technology like our fusion camera system, in terms of how animators are using it, and in terms of the projection technology.”
is for Hells Gate
The audience at Comic-Con learned a few new things about humanity’s disruptive presence on the planet Pandora.
The military compound, commanded by Colonel Quarles (Stephen Lang) is home to the massive power suits that the armed forces are using to battle the peaceful – but aggressive when provoked – Na’vi.
Cameron has promised we’ll get a full tour of the base in the film, which has been built on a combination of real and virtual sets.
is for Geek
Not just those of us champing at the bit to see the finished product (or indeed just some footage based on the server-crashing reaction to Avatar Day’s ticket launch around the world), but the man behind the movie himself.
“I'm kind of a techno geek. I like the engineering,” explains the man who brought the world Aliens, The Terminator and The Abyss.
“I like the challenge of complex solutions for problems that have not been solved in the past.
“That kind of gets me out of bed in the morning, but that's only one part of it. The other part of it is, I got cool characters, I got a great story and I got a world that I want to show.”
is for Follow-ups
Will there be sequels? A lot will depend on how the movie performs, but Cameron is already considering ideas.
“I gave the game designers a lot of latitude, and created some boundaries for areas that I didn’t want to go, if not to protect the movie, then to protect the sequel possibilities… Some of the ideas they came up with, I thought if I couldn’t fit them into this film, I’d fit them into sequels.”
And when he’s asked more bluntly about whether this could launch a franchise?
“Absolutely. Are you kidding? How else are we going to pay for all of this?”
is for Edgar Rice Burroughs
The man who created Tarzan – and, more appropriately, John Carter Of Mars – was a big inspiration in the formative years of young Jim Cameron.
“My inspiration is every single science fiction book I read as a kid. And a few that weren't science fiction. “The Edgar Rice Burroughs books, H. Rider Haggard — the manly, jungle adventure writers.
I wanted to do an old-fashioned jungle adventure, just set it on another planet, and play by those rules.”
is for Digital Domain
Back in the mid-90s, Cameron held a controlling interest in the Los Angeles based effects house, which worked on Titanic (above).
In true JC style, he wanted to challenge them. So Avatar was born.
“In the mid-90s we were really good at 2D composite, but lagging behind in 3-D,” admits the writer/director. “I decided to write a story that would push the art of CG.
“They looked at it and said, 'we can’t do that'. I put the treatment in the drawer. It’s timelier than ever because of us being at war and the environment crisis.
“It was also a damn good read. I went back to it and said we could do this now. The second Lord Of The Rings movie had been done. Gollum was looking pretty good.”
is for Cameron
That’s James Cameron, in case you were wondering.
The man without whom Avatar would not even exist took some time out to work on other things after sinking the Titanic and making a mint.
But in his own way, he was always preparing for his dream project.
“I disappeared. I was just doing the shit I wanted to do,” he says.
“And I could afford to do it after Titanic. I did six deep-ocean expeditions because I could afford to do them, and at the time it looked like a master plan, trying to work with 3-D technology, we did a ton of 3-D shooting, some of it in very rough conditions.
“So in a funny way, when I started the live-action shoot on Avatar I knew exactly what to do.”
is for Barlowe
That would be Wayne D Barlowe, a concept artist and creature designer who has worked on the likes of Hellboy (including helping to bring Abe Sapien to life), Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban and Galaxy Quest.
“The first person I hired was Wayne Barlowe,” says James Cameron.
“And Wayne designs the trippiest aliens out there. But we had to rein back, because it’s also a love story. So there were narrative considerations.”
A is for Avatar
So what does the term stand for exactly?
Put basically, the "avatars" of the movie are genetically tinkered hybrids that blend human DNA with that of the Na’vi from Pandora.
Controlled by means of a mental link, they’re the means for humans to live and interact in the oxygen-challenged atmosphere of the world without needing the usual heavy mech suits.
Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully – a paralysed marine – ends up being chosen to control one – and his journey is just beginning…