Well....Is It Animation?
Ask the animators at WETA, and they'll tell you that the avatars and Na'vi are animated. Ask director Jim Cameron, and he'll say the characters were performed by the actors. The truth is that both are right. It took great animation skill to ensure that the characters performed exactly as the actors did. But at the same time, no liberties were taken with those performances. They were not embellished or exaggerated. The animators sought to be utterly truthful to the actors' work, doing no more and certainly no less than what Sam, Zoë or Sigourney had done in the Volume. Of course the animators added a little bit, with the movement of the tails and ears, which the actors could not do themselves. But even here, the goal was to stay consistent with the emotions created by the actors during the original capture. So when Neytiri's tail lashes and her ears lower in fury, they are merely further expressing the anger created by Zoë Saldana in the moment of acting the scene.
"Actors ask me if we're trying to replace them," says Cameron, "On the contrary, we're trying to empower them, to give them new methods to express themselves and to create characters, without limitation. I don't want to replace actors; I love working with actors. It's what I do, as a director. What we're trying to replace is the five hours in the makeup chair, which is how you used to create characters like aliens, werewolves, witches, demons and so on. Now you can be whoever or whatever you want, at any age, even change gender, and without the time and discomfort of complex makeup."
Saldana trained for months to create a physical reality for her character, so that she could fully express Neytiri's natural athletic grace. She knew that this was not just a voice performance for a typical animated film, but instead a "total performance," and that every nuance of her facial expressiveness and her body movement would be captured.
Cameron and the actors worked together in the Volume for over a year, on and off. It was every bit as intense a working relationship as on a photographic film set, except that there were no lights, cameras or dolly track. It was pure acting. And this allowed everyone to really focus on performance, and the emotional truth of each moment, without all the distractions of photography. Director and actors alike were enthralled by the process, and enjoyed the rapport and focus that performance capture allowed. But it was not until Cameron and his cast saw the first finished scenes coming back from WETA that they completely realized how revolutionary this movie was going to be. Neytiri, Jake and Grace were alive.
With AVATAR it was critical to achieve an absolute authenticity of performance for all the many characters. AVATAR's CG characters would be, says Landau, "real, soulful and emotional." Adds Cameron: "Every nuance and bit of performance was created by the actors, who do all the things you see their CG characters do in the film, down to the slightest hand gesture. These characters ARE precisely and only what the actors created."
AVATAR goes a step farther, by placing these photorealistic characters into a world that is also computer generated but seems completely real. Every plant, every tree, every rock is created and rendered in the computers of WETA Digital, in New Zealand. Significant breakthroughs in lighting, shading and rendering allowed WETA to create a photo-real world which was alien in its details, but which strikes the eye as completely natural. Over a Petabyte (one thousand terabytes) of digital storage was required by WETA for all the CG "assets" of the film... all the myriad plants and animals, insects, rocks, mountains and clouds. To put this in perspective, "Titanic" required 2 terabytes to create (and sink) the ship and its thousands of passengers, about 1/500th the amount used for AVATAR.
In addition to all this complexity, AVATAR was made in stereoscopic 3D. So not only did WETA need to work in 3D in creating their CG scenes (as did the other visual effects vendors such as ILM), but the live action scenes would need to be shot in 3D as well. For this Cameron used the Fusion Camera System, which he had co-developed with Vince Pace. It took seven years of development to create the Fusion system, which is the world's most advanced stereoscopic camera system. The cameras performed flawlessly on the set of AVATAR, allowing the live action scenes to merge smoothly with the CG scenes into a unified whole.
Because of the many layers of technology developed specifically for this project, AVATAR was by far the most challenging of all of Cameron's films to date. The filmmakers found themselves in uncharted territory, figuring out the answers as they went along. Eighteen months were spent developing the performance capture "pipeline" before a single scene was captured with the cast. "I've always tried to push the envelope," Cameron points out, "But this time it pushed back. So we had to push harder. I liken the experience of making AVATAR to jumping off a cliff and knitting the parachute on the way down."
But these revolutionary technologies are just tools in the filmmaker's "toolbox," and are always in the service of the story, emotion and characters. Says producer Jon Landau: "Ultimately, the audience's reaction to AVATAR is not going to be about the technology; it's going to be about the characters and story Jim created. The technology allows Jim to tell a story that otherwise couldn't be told." Adds Cameron: "It always boils down to this question: Is it a good story? Ultimately the discussion is going to be about the characters - alien and human - and their journeys."
Landau compares Cameron's use of these groundbreaking tools in AVATAR to the way he used then-cutting-edge advances in his Best Picture Oscar-winning "Titanic." "On 'Titanic' Jim used visual effects to make people feel like a part of history; on AVATAR, he is using new technology to transport people into the future to another world." Cameron notes, "The technology is at such a high level that it disappears, leaving only the magic... the feeling that you're really there, and that the story, the characters, the emotions are real."
Since all the action of AVATAR takes place on Pandora, whether within the human base at Hell's Gate or out in the wilds of the rainforest, every single thing that went before the cameras or was rendered in CG had to be designed from scratch. In parallel with the technology development, the design process took two years before shooting began. The filmmakers enlisted a team of world-class artists to design every character, creature, plant, costume, weapon, vehicle, and environment in AVATAR. They created not one culture, but two: the highly technological human colony with all its vehicles and weapons, and the Na'vi society.
As he did with the characters, Cameron created Pandora to be recognizable without losing its exotic, never-before-experienced qualities. It is a world that merges the classic and familiar. "We wanted to remove the creatures and flora from being Earth-like, just enough to remind you that you're on another world, but at the same time, you'd find them accessible," says Cameron. Trees measuring over one thousand feet and mountains that somehow float, are among the landmarks that inspire awe for their sheer imagination and scope - but whose designs stem from structures familiar to everyone.
"James Cameron didn't just create and make a motion picture set on a distant world; it was if he had actually traveled there, taken copious notes, then returned and put every detail he absorbed on paper, and then on film." says production designer Rick Carter.
That was the impression the world renowned filmmaker left on his department heads, cast, and just about everyone who worked on AVATAR. Collaborating with many of the industry's top artists, Cameron oversaw the conceptual art, virtual sets, and practical sets. He scrutinized very design detail of AVATAR - each creature, blade of grass, tree, mountain, cloud, vehicle, and costume.
"I think Jim finished AVATAR a long time ago in his mind," says co-production designer Robert Stromberg, who oversaw much of the design of Pandora. "He brought it to us to recreate." Rick Carter adds, "It was tough to keep up with Jim because he was presenting a world he had seen, and not just invented. He had seen it and was reporting back to us. Jim would explain his design ideas in such detail that you would think these fictional animals really existed. That's how much thought he put into each and every animal and insect. He knows what they eat, how they sleep, and how they interact with one another."
Cameron, Stromberg, Carter, and their teams would regularly pose a key question - "Would that [design] work?" The filmmakers' goal was to have audiences suspend their belief, and recognize and relate to what they were seeing on screen.
Jake arrives at the human military and scientific base, Hell's Gate, a scar carved by the hand of man in the middle of this virgin world. As Jake soon discovers, the rainforest outside Hell's Gate is rich with exotic flora and fauna, as well as vicious wildlife. Pandora is, as Cameron describes, "the Garden of Eden with teeth and claws."
There are many Na'vi clans scattered around Pandora, but the one Jake comes to know is the Omaticaya Clan, who have lived inside of the 1000 foot tall Hometree for 10,000 years. The Omaticaya clan uses the different tiers of the tree's interior structure as their village. The social hierarchy of the Omaticaya is clearly defined, with Eytukan, the "Olo'eyctan" or clan leader, at the top. Eytukan turns out to be Neytiri's father, and her mother Mo'at, shares power as the clan's "Tsahik" or shaman. Tus'tey, a strong and proud young hunter, is next in line for the position of Olo'eyctan, and is promised to Neytiri in an arranged marriage.
Pandora's many wonders include the world's neural network, through which all its plant and animal life are connected. Akin to a human nervous system, this network enables all life on Pandora to function as a single harmonious system. The center of this network - and the moon's heart and brain -is a massive, gnarled and ancient willow tree that is the Na'vi epicenter, an extension of their lifeblood, and a place of regeneration and knowledge. This "Tree of Souls" is situated at the center of Pandora's most powerful magnetic field, the Flux Vortex. Eons ago the invisible field created the unusual geological formations of arches that form rainbows of stone, above a deep caldera, with the Tree of Souls at its center.
Living amidst these incredible environments are myriad creatures, some of which were created by AVATAR's in-house creature design team under Neville Page, with the others designed by John Rosengrant's team at Stan Winston Studios. The most fearsome of Pandoran creatures is the Thanator. "The Thanator could eat a T-Rex and have the Alien for dessert," says the filmmaker. "It's the panther from hell." Then there are the Viperwolves, which Cameron describes as "hairless with shiny skin that looks like overlapped armor. Most disturbing are its paws, which are like leathery hands."
A winged creature known as the Banshee is a key figure in Jake's journey; in a Na'vi rite of passage, Jake must dominate and ride a banshee to assume a rightful position in the clan community. The test's stakes are further heightened by the fact that the banshee that most wants to kill him is the "chosen one" he must capture.
Pandora's Direhorses, as the name suggests, resemble in some ways terrestrial horses - but with several important flourishes as conceived and designed by Stan Winston Studios and Cameron, the latter describing the animal as a "six-legged alien Clydesdale with moth-like antennae."
Pandora's diverse menagerie also includes the deer-like Hexapede; the ferocious Hammerhead Titanothere, a rhinoceros-like herbivore with a bad attitude and a head like a sledgehammer; and the Leonopteryx, a the king predator of the sky, striped scarlet, yellow and black, with an 80-foot wingspan. A smaller and gentler Pandoran species is the jellyfish-like Woodsprite, which waves silky tendrils to move gracefully through the night air. Called Atokirina by the Na'vi, they are actually seeds of the sacred Utraya Mokri "Tree of Voices," and thus an important part of the "soul" of the rainforest. When they land upon Jake, Neytiri interprets this as an important sign, and things take an unexpected turn.
Academy Award winner Richard Taylor and his team at WETA Workshop designed props and weapons for both the Na'vi and the heavily armed RDA. While renowned artist TyRuben Ellingson designed many of the vehicles used by the military forces based at Hell's Gate -and which figure prominently in the an epic third-act battle pitting machine against banshee, and hardened soldier against Na'vi warrior.
The AMP Suit ("AMP" is an acronym for "Amplified Mobility Platform") "amplifies" the movements of its human operator. The AMP Suits and their soldier occupants are transported by what is perhaps the RDA's deadliest aircraft - the C-21 Dragon Gunship. This giant rotorcraft resembles a predatory insect and has multiple canopies. Almost as destructive is the AT-99 Scorpion Gunship, a high speed, highly maneuverable military attack aircraft. And on a world with no landing strips, these tilt-rotor aircraft have the important capability of vertical takeoffs and landings. While the military aerial vehicles in AVATAR are futuristic rotorcraft, they were intended to seem as familiar as the Huey gunships of the Vietnam era, to ground the audience in a strong sense of reality.
AVATAR's largest vehicle, over a kilometer in length, is the ISV Venture Star, an interstellar ship that transports RDA personnel - including Jake -to Pandora. Its antimatter engines propel it to seven tenths the speed of light, but the voyage to Pandora still takes almost six years, during which time the passengers are frozen in cryogenic suspended animation. To reach the planet's surface from orbit, the newcomers board the Valkyrie TAV (Trans-Atmospheric Vehicle), a distant descendant of the space shuttle.
The costume designs by Mayes C. Rubeo and Deborah L. Scott provide yet another gateway into the Na'vi culture. Although many of the costumes and accessories are worn by CG creations, the items were created practically, to best communicate the subtleties of the costume textures, the weaving styles, and the translucency of the jewelry. Practicality and comfort define the Na'vi clothing, reflecting the grace and beauty of Pandora's indigenous people.
AVATAR's post-production process, like almost everything else about the film, was decidedly atypical. On most films, editing begins in post-production, but on AVATAR, Cameron and fellow editors Stephen Rivkin, A.C.E. and John Refoua, A.C.E. began cutting initial captured sequences during pre-production. The editors and their Avids were a regular presence on set during production, delivering to WETA sequences on a monthly basis. "Before we ever shot a frame of live action film, we had probably delivered seventy minutes of edited footage to WETA," says Landau.
A key part of the post-production period was composer James Horner's score, which combines classic symphonic elements that propel the film's epic action, with sounds that transport us to another world; the latter includes vocalists singing in the film's Na'vi language, as well as unusual acoustic and electronic instrumentalists.
Movie fans and music watchers have eagerly anticipated this new Cameron-Horner collaboration; Horner's work on 1986's "Aliens," yielded one of the cinema's finest action film scores, and 1997's "Titanic" made movie and soundtrack history. For AVATAR Horner reunited with "My Heart Will Go On" collaborator Simon Franglen to create a new song. "I See You" is sung by international sensation Leon Lewis, and can be heard in the end credits of the film. The song expresses the Na'vi idea of "seeing," when a person understands with their heart and spirit, not just with their mind.
As he entered the final stages of AVATAR, Cameron was eager to share his vision with the world. He previewed extended scenes at key domestic and international exhibitor gatherings, and at the massive Comic-Con pop culture enclave. Pleased with the response to these early looks, Cameron continued to fine-tune the editing and review the finished or near-finished visual effects work coming in daily from WETA Digital and the other visual effects vendors (including ILM, Framestore, Prime Focus, Hybride and hy*drau"lx), all to make AVATAR a one-of-a-kind experience for moviegoers. "Jim doesn't make movies for himself," says Jon Landau. "He makes them for the audience." Adds Cameron: "I really want audiences to have a completely satisfying cinematic experience. And I hope audiences will walk out of the theater saying, 'I didn't see a movie; I experienced a movie.'"
See Also: An Early Look Into The World Of Avatar