The A-Z Of Avatar

Our extensive guide to the world of James Cameron's latest

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.”

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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…

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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.”

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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.

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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…

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.’”

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