How To Make An Avatar

Will James Cameron’s 3D epic win us over?

The director of some of the most expensive films ever made – Titanic, True Lies, T2 – can never be accused of doing things by half. If he can’t change the film-making wheel with each project then he won’t pick up a camera, so it’s no real surprise that it’s taken him so long to create Avatar. He had to wait twelve years for the necessary technology to become available so he could finally put his vision up on screen.
If you’ve been living up under a rock for the last couple of years then you probably won’t know what all the fuss is about. What’s an ‘avatar’ and what makes the film so different from similar sci-fi spectacles produced by Hollywood each summer? Basically an avatar is computer-speak for the image you choose to represent yourself with online (in Hindu mythology it also meant the new incarnation of a deity. Could there a link?). The story of Avatar concerns a paralysed marine named Jake Sully, played by Terminator Salvation star Sam Worthington, who volunteers to be sent to the planet of Pandora in a new fully-functional alien body, aka an avatar.

Using the Reality Camera System he pioneered specifically for the film, Cameron recorded Worthington and the other actor’s movements via motion capture and moulded their performances to the CGI bodies of 10ft tall aliens the Na’vi. The Na’vi live on the jungle planet of Pandora and though they aren’t technologically advanced, they are skilled warriors and fight back when humans and their machines arrive to mine Pandora’s precious minerals.

Filmed largely against green-screen on a performance-capture stage known as The Volume, few things were built other than a small number of sets and props for the actors to handle, so a big chunk of the $237 million budget went on creating the lavish landscapes of Pandora inside a computer. Avatar is a big special effects movie but Cameron has said that the film will be composed of 60% CGI and 40% live action and the production will also make use of old techniques like miniatures to keep people guessing.

“This film is a true hybrid – a full live-action shoot, with CG characters in CG and live environments,” Cameron told the New York Times. “Ideally at the end of the of day the audience has no idea which [technology] they’re looking at.” By using his in-house Virtual Camera technology Cameron could watch his actors performing through a monitor with their CG characters and CG background relayed in real time. In essence it became no different to directing a live action film since he was able to see the finished composition live on set.

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