Avatar is a 2009 American science fiction film written and directed by James Cameron, starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang and Sigourney Weaver. The film is set in the mid 2100's, when humans are mining a precious mineral called unobtanium on the planet Pandora. The expansion of the mining colony threatens the local tribe of Na'vi.
Avatar is a state-of-the-art experience that for years to come will define what movies can achieve, not in duplicating our existence but in confecting new ones.
Every filmmaker is something of a visionary, just by virtue of the medium. But Mr. Cameron, who directed the megamelodrama “Titanic” and, more notably, several of the most influential science-fiction films of the past few decades (“The Terminator,” “Aliens” and “The Abyss”), is a filmmaker whose ambitions transcend a single movie or mere stories to embrace cinema as an art, as a social experience and a shamanistic ritual, one still capable of producing the big WOW.
How do you account for the technologies Cameron and co. developed—the 3D cameras, the motion-capture tools, and the virtual production pipeline the director tinkered with for years in order to create the world of Avatar? For the most part, those expenses are not reflected in the $280 million figure. Cameron put up his own money to jumpstart development on some of Avatar’s technologies, and was joined by other investors. They’re already making that money back: The 3D cameras have been licensed for use in other films, including 2008’s Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D and The Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are making their 2011 film, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, using Avatar’s motion-capture tools.
But the supreme joy of Avatar is in its long central portion: a safari through the luscious landscape of Pandora. After all those years on the water (with Titanic) and underwater (with The Abyss and his two documentaries), Cameron has surfaced to put his vision of Pandora on screen. It's an impossible but completely plausible and seductive world that invites your total immersion.
Mr. Cameron has said that he started thinking about the alien universe that became Pandora and its galactic environs in “Avatar” back in the 1970s. He wrote a treatment in 1996, but the technologies he needed to turn his ideas into images didn’t exist until recently. New digital technologies gave him the necessary tools, including performance capture, which translates an actor’s physical movements into a computer-generated image (CGI).
It is impossible not to be fascinated and enthralled by his action-filled 3D vision of adventure and battles in an iridescent jungle on an alien planet, where hideous, dragon-like creatures appear to leap off the screen, flora and fauna wave in the air and a heroic avatar does battle with a pterodactyl-like beast before subduing it and soaring off on its back.“It came from all the science-fiction books I read when I was a kid and it just gestated over time,” he said. “I did a lot of fantasy art and I had drawers full of drawings of creatures, characters, robots, spaceships and all that sort of thing. So for me I was just going back to my roots.”
The 2½-hr. sci-fi epic follows an ex-Marine named Jake Sully as he struggles for survival on an alien moon called Pandora, home to a tall, blue, humanoid species called the Na'vi and to a mysterious resource called unobtainium, which draws humans in a future century to colonize the planet. Jake (Sam Worthington) must inhabit the body of a human-alien hybrid, or avatar, to breathe the noxious air on Pandora. There he falls in love with a Na'vi woman and finds himself at the center of a human-Na'vi battle. The story had been knocking around in Cameron's brain since the 1970s, when, while driving a truck for Southern California's Brea Olinda Unified School District, he began to paint some fanciful scenes that would linger in his mind: flying jellyfish, wood sprites (which he called "dandelion things"), blazingly colorful bioluminescent forests, fan lizards and big-eyed cats.
The digital elements of “Avatar,” he claims, are so believable that, even when they exist alongside human actors, the audience will lose track of what is real and what is not. “This film integrates my life’s achievements,” he told me. “It’s the most complicated stuff anyone’s ever done.” Another time, he said, “If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success.”
The film was shot on the proprietary FUSION digital 3D cameras developed by Cameron in collaboration with Vince Pace, and offers a groundbreaking mix of live-action dramatic performances and computer-generated effects. The revolutionary motion-capture system created for the film allows the facial expressions of actors to be captured as a virtual camera system enables them to see what their computer-generated counterparts will be seeing in the film.
Avatar is a live-action movie, but it couldn't have been made without revolutionary digital technologies. Among other things, Cameron's team developed what they call "head rig" cameras for the actors, to record nuances of facial expression that were later digitally transformed.
And Cameron shot the film on a vast gray performance-capture stage called The Volume.
Wildly different reports have been published, ranging from $230 million (The New Yorker) to nearly $500 million (The New York Times). Avatar’s official budget lies somewhere in between, probably closest to the figure the Los Angeles Times’s John Horn and Claudia Eller cited earlier this month—$280 million for the production, plus marketing costs. “It is the most expensive film we’ve made, but now, having the luxury of hindsight, it is money well spent, so I’m not concerned about it,” James Gianopulos, co-chairman and C.E.O. of Fox Filmed Entertainment, told CNN in early December.
Avatar has sailed past Titanic to become the highest-grossing movie of all time. In just 47 days, Avatar has grossed $601.1 million, while Titanic made $600.8 million in its entire run and took 252 days to cross the $600 million mark.