James Cameron’s Avatar blew theater goers' minds when it was first released almost 13 years ago. The Oscar-winning film revolutionized the way visual effects and motion capture were used to create the immersive planet of Pandora at the heart of the blockbuster. However, while the final movie showed the Na’vi’s home in all of its glory, it's fair to say it required a bit of imagination for the stars making it.
"Well, when I first read it, there are things like floating mountains, there are things like Thanators, there are things when I have no idea what this man's talking about," Jake Sully star Sam Worthington recalls at a recent press conference. "And least of all, I had no idea how we're gonna do this."
The "how" came later when the actors were invited onto a motion capture stage called the "Volume". Behind-the-scenes featurettes on the movie, like the one Avatar shared below, reveal this as a huge sound stage with actors in special suits, foam landing pads, and ball pits all substituting for the world of Pandora.
"My biggest memory is when you're in that Volume was the sense of play," Worthington recalls. "That's how we did this thing. It was Jim every day saying, 'Look, I'm gonna build something and create something that will translate to be the floating mountain, and I need you to jump off it. And I'm gonna have guys coming at you, attacking you, and they're gonna symbolize, later on, Viperwolves.' And you just dove in."
It’s an experience echoed by his co-star Zoe Saldana, who played Na’vi local Neytiri. Avatar was one of the actor’s first roles, ahead of her going on to star in Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy, but she agrees what she remembers most about filming the movie was the sense of play.
"Every time I would come into this big, sterile, gray Volume that was freezing all the time, and I'm wearing this onesie, there he was with a camera chasing me around," she recalls. "And I got to play, like Sam is saying. I'm telling you that my imagination was never as infinite as when I was there. The last time I remember that was when I was a child."
Although, not all of the actors struggled to visualize the final movie. "The script that I read of Avatar was so detailed, so rich and dense with description, that it was very novelistic, in fact," Stephen Lang, who plays Colonel Miles Quaritch, says. "It wasn't a conventional screenplay to me. And so that was the movie I always had in my head."
Luckily, this translated into the final film for the actor. "That's the movie I saw up there," Lang adds. "And that's pretty remarkable to me to actually translate what I had read, what I was led to imagine by the writers, and to have it realized up there on the screen."
Similarly, Sigourney Weaver admits her worries about the character didn’t last long as she was thrown into the deep end when she began filming. "My first scene was actually to play Dr. Grace Augustine's avatar," she recalls. "There is a screen over on the side where you can see a roughed-out version of what it will look like in the movie.
"That gave me a thrill, a great sense of relief that maybe this would work. But also, this idea that from this little room, we were gonna be able to create this other world that was so fantastic. The only way you can go to Pandora is by going to the theater and seeing it in 3D. That's the rocket ship – and I got that."
Now a whole new generation of viewers will get to see it like this too as Avatar is re-released in theaters on September 23, 2022. The sequel, The Way of Water, will be released in December. Check out our guide to upcoming movie release dates for the other big films yet to arrive in 2022.