The Story Behind Avatar


Following years of anticipation, bucketloads of hype, several trailers and an entire day dedicated to screening chunks of it, James Cameron's latest is finally about to hit our screens.

Easily the most discussed film of the year, Avatar has been a long time coming, not least because Cameron first got the idea more than a decade ago.

He's had to wait all this time for technology to catch up to his vision of a strange alien world and the war for its precious resources, and has invented a lot of it to push everything from cameras to 3D techniques forward.

So it's the idea time to take a wander back through the long, strange trip that Jake Sully and co have taken to cinemas…

Cameron: From Literature To Cinema

To get to the root of Avatar's genesis, you have to go back. No, back even further than James Cameron's first stab at cranking the film's story out of his pulsing, imagination-stocked brain.

The young JC was a voracious reader, devouring SF literature like a story vacuum. "I spent all my free time in the town library and read an awful lot of science fiction. The line between fantasy and reality blurred," Cameron has said.

"I read so voraciously. It was tonnage. I rode a school bus for an hour each way in high school, so I had two hours a day on the bus and tried to read a book a day.

"I averaged a book every other day, but if I got really interested in something it was propped up behind my math book or my science book all during the day in class."

Eventually, that young, novel-obsessed child would grow up to be a slightly older, film-obsessed wannabe director who would get his cinematic start on B-movies before a fever dream about a killer robot helped launch him on a stellar career.

His love of science fiction would see him sign on to follow up Ridley Scott's groundbreaking Alien, to expose his love of all things submersible with The Abyss, and turn his Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger into a spy trying to juggle work with family life.

Avatar's origins go back even further than his work in the cinema. "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.”

It would all come into play when Cameron, looking to shove the boundaries of sci-fi filmmaking, punched out a "scriptment" - a blend of short script and premise treatment for a tale of humans exploring another world…

Next: The Legendary Scriptment


The Legendary Scriptment

"Welcome to JOSH SULLY'S world.

"It is a century from now, and the population of our tired planet has tripled. Finally, drowning in its own toxic waste, starvation and poverty, the population has topped out at a nice even 20 billion.

"The Earth is dying, covered with a gray mold of human civilization. Even the moon is spiderwebbed with city lights on its dark side.

"Overpopulation, over- development, nuclear terrorism, environmental warfare tactics, radiation leakage from power plants and waste dumps, toxic waste, air pollution, deforestation, pollution and overfishing of the oceans, global warming, ozone depletion, loss of biodiversity through extinction...

"…All of these have combined to make the once green and beautiful planet a terminal cesspool."

That's how Cameron's original scriptment for the film opens. Back then, the lead character was called Josh, but many of the ideas present in the final movie were born from that original screed (so anyone seeking it out online should be aware that spoilers lurk within it).

The ideas for the story draw more from the past than they do from the future: "We’re basically telling the story of the Americas and to a certain extent some of the other areas in the world that were conquered by the British, Dutch and so on.

"But we’re really telling the story of what happens when a technologically superior culture comes into a place with resources that the conquerors want," explains the director.

The story was originally considered as Cameron's next big thing following True Lies.

"I had planned to make this film before Titanic. I wrote the treatment of Avatar in spring 1995. It is a film I’ve always wanted to make. It was just a question of when.

"But it was driven by the maturation of technology. Then I wanted to make the film right after Titanic which would have been around 1998.

"I was told pretty much right away that it wasn’t going to be possible.”

And it wasn't a producer letting him know this - it was Digital Domain, the visual effects house he largely owned that warned even they couldn't pull it off with the mid-nineties' tech.

Of course, the filmmaker is famous for pushing ahead regardless. "The words ‘No’ and ‘That’s impossible’ and phrases like ‘That can’t be done ’ -  that’s the stuff that gives him an erection,” Bill Paxton told The New Yorker this year.

Cameron might have realised that he couldn't make Avatar right there and then. And so he put the scriptment into a draw while he focused on a few other things, like making a little film called Titanic and becoming obsessed with diving deep into the ocean.

But he never forgot Avatar. And the story would surface again, once the tech was ready for it, even if it meant Cameron doing it himself…

Next: Building The Tech


Building The Tech

It's perhaps not that surprising that, like similarly the gadget-happy Robert Zemeckis, Cameron would be one of the earliest proponents of filmmaking capabilities such as 3D.

For many years, 3D had been consigned to the dustin of history, written off as a gimmick best suited to 1950s schlock horror and bad Jaws sequels. But 10 years ago, James Cameron was still thinking about it.

Driven by frustration with current techniques - something he'd experienced first hand while making the Terminator 3D ride for Universal Studios theme parks - Cameron and former Abyss crew member Vince Pace challenged themselves to make something better - quicker, sleeker and easier to use.

Part of his inspiration was a rough plan to shoot a Mars movie that would convince people to restart plans to explore the place (it's another of his big passions).

He even planned to ride into space aboard the shuttle. Before he could take his camera to space, he tested it under the sea, and the results were stunning.

His experiences fueled the likes of Ghosts Of The Abyss, which explored the Titanic wreck in a whole new way.

One thing led to another and Cameron quickly realised that technology was developing in leaps and bounds. Zemeckis' work with performance capture on the likes of Polar Express helped point the way, even though Avatar's creator figured he could make it even better.

“We basically made up a whole vocabulary to go with our new tools that we were creating. I’m not saying that we invented motion capture. We didn’t but the motion capture was just the foundation from which we went onward with the image-based facial performance capture which we did create with the simulcam system.

"It allowed us to take the virtual world and the live action photographic world and put them together.

“So that when I was operating my live action camera, my 3-D camera, when I had it on my shoulders and I was operating a scene with actors, I could actually see the virtual world at the same time in my eye piece which was phenomenal. That was unprecedented.

"We did all this unprecedented stuff but you have to be willing to go through the painful steps of creating those things and going from an idea to a prototype to a production ready tool set in a very rapid timeframe.”

And for all the talk of 3D, Cameron's true aim was capturing a new reality. "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.”

Yes, he was at a point where Avatar could be finally be realised. But would it be his next film? Because there was still some competition…

Next: Between The Angel And The Avatar


Between The Angel And The Avatar

It might seem now like Cameron leapt straight from getting the technology sorted beneath the ocean to dusting off the Avatar scriptment and seeing if it could still work as a film.

In truth, while he did do that, he wasn't just working on Avatar. Nope, he had also purchased the rights to Manga series Battle Angel Alita.

A few years ago, Cameron had decided to develop both projects side by side, shadowing Avatar in the code title Project 880 and dropping hints about Battle Angel.

Both films would employ similar technology, and the development of each would feed the other. Keeping his cards close to his chest (what's new?) Cameron began to drop hints that the Manga adaptation would be next. "We didn't have the new camera system at that time. We'll use it on the feature, which we're in pre-production for right now," he told IGN in 2004. 

"It's called Battle Angel and it's a big science fiction film. The differences are very minor, mostly in terms of usability. The viewer won't see any difference, though."

Now, of course, we all know which of his two possible projects he ended up shoving to the forefront (Battle Angel is still being talked about by Cameron and longtime producer Jon Landau as his next likely project).

But back in 2006, he would tell Ain't It Cool News that the mysterious Project 880 was indeed "a retooled version of Avatar." Admitting that he was annoyed that the scriptment had made its way on to the 'net, Cameron insisted that the final product would be quite different, like adapting a novel.

And given that at least one version of the original scriptment was over 80 pages - which expanded into an actual script would provide fodder for three films, let alone one - it's no surprise that a lot has been cut out (sequels, anyone?)

"I had to rework to make it possible," recalls Cameron. "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.

"It was essentially the longest script, in terms of the amount of time it took me to get a workable draft. The first time I tried, it ended up being more than 200 pages, so I had to go back and throw out big chunks, a lot of ideas went out. But I have to say the essence of all the big ideas stayed and I felt pretty good about that."

The whittled down story finds Jake Sully, a crippled marine, shipping out to the strange alien world of Pandora, where he'd discover the Na'vi, find love with one of them and end up going against his own race to protect them.

Eventually, Avatar would overtake Battle Angel in Cameron's mind as the project that could reach the screen first - though he hasn't stopped development on the Manga piece.

So he had the tools and the concept. But now he needed the cast…

Next: Tracking Down The Na'vi (And Some Humans)


Tracking Down The Na'Vi (And Some Humans)

Technology is a wonderful thing, but it can't quite yet create human performance out of thin air (though we're sure Jim's working on that one too).

No, to bring the characters of Avatar to life, Cameron required some actors.

"We were making a $200 million-plus movie and it's all about the journey of one guy, Jake, and he’s in every scene in the film, from beginning to end. It all hangs on that one piece of casting," says the director.

Cameron saw hundreds of actors, established and unknowns, but he needed someone who fit the role. Then he saw Sam Worthington's audition tape with a scene in which he has one line, "Uh huh."

"Sam had me at 'Uh huh,' " Cameron told the audience at the Australian Film Awards, where he was presenting a gong to his star. "He's an old-school tough guy, and that's what I needed for this film.

“Sam is able to create a character that allows you to walk in his shoes. He’s so good at communicating 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.”

Worthington himself seems to share the feeling - and was excited about working for Cameron. "I just want to work with people of high calibre, whatever kind of genre,” the actor told the LA Times

“I don’t basically go, ‘I want to make a movie of this type’ or ‘I want this genre.’ I look at who’s making it and who’s in it. With Avatar, they tell me Jim Cameron is directing and Sigourney Weaver is in it? Sign me up.”

An even tougher character to pull off was Na'vi Princess Neytiri, the woman whom Jake falls in love with and our link to the culture of Pandora.

But Saldana has similar feelings to Worthington as to why she took the part.

"James Cameron. It's not everyday you get a call like that where, 'James Cameron wants to see you for this role.' You just know that it's going to be amazing.

"It took him 10 years between projects because he works so hard and pays attention to detail. It's undeniably exquisite. That's pretty much what attracted me."

While he was largely focused on relatively unknown actors, Cameron did decide to reach out to one veteran - old pal Sigourney Weaver, who he'd known since Aliens.

"We kept in touch, but not a lot. He was kind enough to give me my star on the Walk of Fame. He came and did that," explains Weaver.

"But you know this is the first movie he's done in 11 years. It is a kind of the culmination of his fascination with science and his concern about the planet.

"And I also think it's a wonderful love story about family and community and the miracle of unspoiled nature. I think it has a lot of details in it from all of his explorations underwater. He really is a man of so many parts, and it's all in the script. So it's very exciting to read it."

With his cast signed on, and months (or even years) of pre-production out of the way, it was time to actually shoot the physical portion…

Next: Getting It Made


Getting It Made

Avatar's shoot was long - a couple of years at least for just the physical aspect of production - and split between regular footage with some green screen work that was shot in New Zealand and work on the performance capture "volume" - a featureless space created in hangars in the Playa del Rey area just south of Los Angeles.

The cast - at least when they were working as Avatars  - were dressed in tight velcro suits with dots all over and cameras attached to their heads.

Cameras around the room also captured footage and uploaded it to computers, which spat out real-time (if basic) versions of the virtual world and characters for Cameron to see even as he captured shots.

The raw cg-enhanced work would then be shipped off to various places, including Digital Domain and Weta digital to be turned into finished shots.

Weta's name is an important one, since the company's stunning work on Lord Of The Rings was an inspiration for Cameron.

"The photo-realism of facial CG for humanoid characters had to improve significantly.

"Peter Jackson forming Weta and doing the Gollum character in the Lord of the Rings films demonstrated to me that technologically, it could be done. We were going quite significantly beyond what Peter had done with Gollum because we have multiple characters based on different actors.

"Gollum was largely a key-frame, even at that time, even though the performance was based on what Andy Serkis has done.

"By key-frame, I mean that animators actually sit there and animate it. I didn’t want it to be animation. I wanted it to be performance.

"I wanted it to be what the actors did.

"If I showed you what Zoe and  had done, you’d see that it’s exactly what the characters do. These aren’t characters by committee. They’re characters that are performed by the actors. Their body and facial performances are captured."

Cameron, of course, brought his legendary eye for perfectionism to every aspect of production, hiring a linguist to develop the Na'vi language and even helping out when the actors needed a little… physical inspiration.

"He'll throw bits of foam at you. If a tree explodes, instead of me going, 'oooeeer', you think what happens when a tree explodes," laughs Worthington.

"There's a shockwave and the tree explodes, so we can't blow up a tree inside the volume, it's dangerous. But you'll have buckets of foam and a group of us on the sidelines and on action they'd throw all the foam at me. And I'm going to react truthfully. It's all about trying to get these absolute truths in an imaginary circumstance.

"What also happens is you get hit with the shockwave, so Jim would go, 'Hhhm, this ain't working. So we'll throw the debris at you and I'll hit you with a big rubber stick.'

"So as you run past him, he'd belt you with a stick and I'll go flying across the room, but when you watch it back and there's an explosion and my blue alien goes flying, it looks like we've been blown up on a real set. "

Once he'd captured every scene he needed, Cameron could turn his attention to approving the visuals and tweaking the film to his satisfaction. And he also faced the challenge of showing it to eager audiences...

Next: The Long Slog And The Comic-Con Challenge


The Long Slog And The Comic-Con Challenge

“In the most important respects as a director, I’m 100 per cent done because the film is shot and edited,” Cameron has said recently.

“My job for the next few months until we deliver at the end of November is more as a visual effects person, working to make sure that the shots look real, that they’re all up to an even standard.”

“In terms of a film’s cut, the studio has seen it. They were pretty happy with it."

"There are whole sections of the film that are actually done. It’s just a question of getting in some of the remaining scenes from what we call template level where it looks like a video game up to the level of photo-realism.

"All the template stuff was turned over to Weta like a year ago or in some cases, six months ago for the shots that will come in last. The process is quite labor intensive. I’m working 14, 16 hours a day but all the major creative decisions have been made.”

But before that ever happened, there was the marking campaign to think about.

The big problem with being such a perfectionist about your work is having to actually give it up for others to see, particularly if you're not sure it's ready.

But James Cameron also realised the advantage of getting bums on seats once the thing is actually released. So, as is his nature, he became very involved in how the thing is marketed.

As early 2009 rolled around, it was decided that the following July's Comic-Con would be the perfect launching point for the first big screening of footage. You've got your core audience and a social networking-equipped horde of fans who love to spread the word if they like a presentation.

"We'd get some direct feedback from knowledgeable fans that don't have to be educated all the way up to understanding the movie. They can sort of look at it and be like, “Pow. I get it," explains Cameron.

"They'll get the references and things like that, too. So I think that feedback can be really valuable. I mean, we were still cutting the picture. The scenes won't change probably but there are other scenes that we were still finalizing the FX on that had to be massaged into place.

"I'm not talking about big cuts but we still had a chance to shape it a little bit, shape the response.

"The other thing is that when you live with something over a total creative arc of, in this case, fourteen years you start to take certain things for granted that you understand so fundamentally.

"But you have to remember people are coming in cold and starting from zero. So I wanted to make sure that I hadn't left anything out in terms of making sure that the story is fully accessible to everybody, not just a fan audience but a wider audience.

"By fan audience I mean someone that knows all the references, knows all the other films, are steeped in the lore, that sort of thing. But a construction worker, somebody's mom, if they go see the movie we have to make a movie for everybody."

While the footage might not have provoked the rapturous reaction as something like New Moon enjoyed (what could), the word was largely positive.

The next test would be trailers. Oh, and Cameron's big Comic-Con announcement that there'd be an "Avatar Day" where thousands of cinemagoers around the world could get a look at some footage...

Next: Trailer Trashed And A Day To Remember


Trailer Trashed And A Day To Remember

With so many films being made from toys or remade from old horror/sci-fi and other movies, Avatar is a refreshing change - a largely original idea. But even James Cameron realised the challenges attached.

"It’s simultaneously one of the great strengths and one of the potential weaknesses. We have no brand value. We have to create that brand value," he explains.

"Avatar means something to that group of fans that know this film is coming, but to the other 99% of the public it’s a nonsense word and we have to hope we can educate them. Well, I shouldn’t say a nonsense word – it doesn’t mean anything specific in terms of a brand association.

"And in fact there may be even a slight negative one because more people know about the Saturday morning cartoon, the anime, than about this particular film. We’ve got to create that brand from scratch.

"On the other hand, ultimately, it is probably the film’s greatest strength in the long run. We’ve had these big, money-making franchise films for a long time, Star Trek and Star Wars, you know, Harry Potter, and there’s a certain sort of comfort factor in that; you know what you’re going to get.

"But there’s no kind of shock of the new that’s possible with that. It’s been a while since something that took us on a journey, something that grabbed us by the lapels and dragged us out the door and took us on a journey of surprise."

One of the first steps was the near simultaneous release of the trailer in cinemas and online, and the Avatar Day event.

Trouble was, the trailer was struck with negative criticism and claims that it looked like a CG 'toon.

Stepping up to the plate in the film's defense was Sam Worthington. "it's not meant to be seen on an Apple Mac. It's built for IMAX. It's built for 3D. That's what  Jim designed it for.

"He's designed it to bring people back to the cinema. It's interesting that he's released that trailer, that Jim's gone and done that, and then the next day shows it in IMAX.

"One extreme to the other. We get the criticism and then we get the rave reviews of what it looks like in its own formula.

"That's obviously going to get people to think and go, 'Damn right! I'm going to go and see this at the cinema!' Jim has always said to me he wants to bring people back to the movies, and he's a smart enough man for that to be tactical."

Fortunately for Cameron, Avatar day certainly helped matters, with the film flying in its natural habitat.

Since then, follow-up trailers have expanded the scope and story of the film and the positive buzz is building.

Now we'll finally get to see the finished product on the big screen...

Next: Avatar Arrives


Avatar Arrives

As the old saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In the case of Avatar's release and possible success, the proof will be in the release and whether it can catch the public's imagination beyond the core sci-fi audience.

But Cameron, don't forget, has been here before. He faced the pressure of following up The Terminator with T2: Judgement Day. And then there was Titanic - bogged down with delays, technical problems, unhappy crew members, awful storm conditions and studio worries.

The director rode all of those out to bring the world a film which is still counted as the most profitable movie of all time.

Avatar brings with it a similar about of expectation. This time, Cameron is following up Titanic 12 years after that film arrived, having spent years on personal research projects, oceanic documentaries and now developing the ability to actually make the thing.

Can lightning strike twice? Can a director who has had one of the most successful films of all time live up to the demand for his latest effort?

Don't bother trying to ask James Cameron - he's probably out building a better lightning conductor…

Avatar strikes our eyes on Thursday 17 December.

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