Meet The Geniuses Behind James Cameron’s Avatar

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It’s easy to refer to Avatar as “James Cameron’s Avatar” – After all, he wrote, directed and produced it, as well as came up with some of the ideas behind many of the technical advances involved in actually making the whole thing. To promote the new Blu-Ray Special Edition release of the movie (released today), however, Cameron stepped aside and let some of the other people responsible for the creation of Pandora take the chance to talk about their work for a change.

At the beginning of last month’s “Avatar Day,” Cameron and producer Jon Landau talked about how they thought that “the purpose of the Special Edition was to celebrate the team behind the effort – what it took [to make Avatar] in terms of the artistry.” While it was fair to say that Avatar represented a significant amount of new technology created to make Pandora, the Na’vi and the future Earth (Not really seen in the versions released to date, but very visible in the new opening available on the Special Edition) convincing, Cameron said that “behind the technology, behind the magic, it’s the people” that made the movie work. Therefore, a day in which journalists got to meet some of those people, and see some of that technology in action. (More on Techland: How the Amazon Rainforest Made Avatar 2 a Priority)

As the day went on, one thing became very clear – Avatar was an incredibly collaborative movie, with designers and visual effects supervisors involved from the very beginning, even before the script was finished. “We were actually here in the beginning, not just the end,” said WETA Digital’s Stephen Rosenbaum, something that concept artist and lead creature designer Neville Page echoed: “When I started in May 2005, there was no script.” Fellow creature designer John Rosengrant added, “Most of the ideas [for the creatures] were fully formed. Our journey together was bringing [Cameron’s] vision to the screen.”

Part of that vision was very basic, according to everyone: the need for it to look cool. Page, again: “Jim would tell u, you’re thinking about this too hard. Just make it look cool.” Cameron himself agreed, saying, “We would try to design stuff that looks cool, but then we’d try and rationalize it.” Supervising Visual Art Director Yuri Bartoli pointed out that the rationalization could only go so far, however: “If you have a good reason [for something to look a particular way] but it doesn’t look cool, you’re still out of luck.” Bartoli worked with Art Director Robert Stromberg to walk that fine line, and they talked about the process of creating a whole new world, with designers coming up with as many as 20 new designs a day for a year to allow Cameron and the team to pick the best work. “We started making plants, and they were like the [visual] alphabet,” Stromberg explained, “Once we had enough letters, we made Pandora… It’s not just creating things, [the designs] also play a more psychological role.” (More on Techland: Origins: What Influences James Cameron)

It wasn’t just the visuals that involved much more work than was initially obvious. Paul Frommer was the movie’s Alien Language Creator, and the man who created more than 14,000 words – as well as rules for the grammar and sounds allowed (There are no “B” sounds or “D” sounds, for example; “It’s just as important to know what sounds to exclude in a language [as which to include],” he explained) – for the Na’vi in the movie, and he talked excitedly about the spread of the language after the movie was released, having just visited what he called “the First International Invitational Na’vi Conversational,” a convention devoted to the promotion of the language. Also present was Jodie Holt, the movie’s Botantical Consultant, who went from initially being hired to consult with Sigourney Weaver on her character’s career to writing a concordance on Pandora’s plantlife. “Most of what I wrote was real science about fake plants,” she said, adding “I had a good time making up latin names” (Her favorite thing about the movie? “Botanists are now cool. It’s been huge!” she laughed).

Along with demonstrations of the movie’s motion capture suits, 3D cameras – It’s genuinely difficult to describe how strange it is to see yourself on a television screen in 3D – and editing process (The movie’s motion capture material was shot and edited before animation with specially created handheld cameras that allowed Cameron to see what the virtual environment would look like later, allowing for freedom in initial shooting. “We want it to be more like live action so you can evaluate on the go,” said Motion Capture Supervisor Matt Madden), the entire day easily demonstrated how important all of the people who worked on Avatar were to the final result. Cameron may have had the initial idea, but he needed everyone else to get to the end result, even if it was – in some cases – because no-one had invented a way to get there yet (Editor Stephen Rivkin joked, “Jim set the bar, and everyone was in over their head”). “The genius was these guys,” said Cameron at one point during the day, and everything on screen backs that up.

More On Techland:

Avatar 2 And 3 Confirmed For 2014, 2015

New Avatar En Route Soon, Just Not In Movie Theaters

Cameron Talks Avatar Director’s Cut, Underwater Sequel(s), 3D Titanic