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.

Next: The Legendary Scriptment


"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


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


Next: Getting It Made


"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


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


Like This? Then try...

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter here .

Follow us on Twitter here .

Freelance Journalist

James White is a freelance journalist who has been covering film and TV for over two decades. In that time, James has written for a wide variety of publications including Total Film and SFX. He has also worked for BAFTA and on ODEON's in-cinema magazine.