is the most challenging film I’ve ever made,” says writer-director James
Cameron . . .
And that is quite a statement coming from the director
of movies such as Titanic, The
Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day,
Aliens, True Lies, and
The Abyss - all of them groundbreaking
films featuring a mix of spectacle, compelling narratives and characters,
and technical wizardry resolutely in service of story and emotion.
Avatar’s central figure, Jake Sully (Sam
Worthington) is a relatable everyman who unexpectedly rises to become a
hero, as events draw him deeper into a clash of civilizations, between the
Earth corporations bent on “developing” Pandora and the indigenous Na’vi.
Jake is a former Marine who places honor and duty above all, but he must
eventually choose between his personal honor, in defense of what is right,
and his supposed duty to those who have tasked him with his mission.
“I wanted to create a familiar type of adventure in an
unfamiliar environment,” Cameron explains, “by setting the classic tale of
a newcomer to a foreign land and culture on an alien planet. The story is
by design classic in its broad strokes, but we have plenty of twists and
turns in store for the audience. I’ve dreamed of creating a film like
this, set on another world of great danger and beauty, since I was a kid
reading pulp science fiction and comic books by the truckload, and sitting
in math class drawing creatures and aliens behind my propped up textbook.
With Avatar, I finally got my chance.”
Avatar takes place on Pandora, a moon with an
Earthlike environment that orbits a gas-giant planet called Polyphemus in
the Alpha Centauri-A star system. At 4.4 light years away, Alpha Centauri
is our nearest stellar neighbor, and when it is discovered that Pandora is
rich in a rare-earth mineral called Unobtainium, the race is on to mine
the new world’s resources. Unobtainium does not exist in our solar system,
but it is the key to solving Earth’s energy crisis in the twenty second
century, so the Resources Development Administration (RDA) is spending
hundreds of billions of dollars to mine the distant world. Our story takes
place in 2154, three decades after a mining colony was established on
Pandora. The encroachment by human activities into the territory of the
indigenous Na’vi has created increasing tension between the two species
and has set them down a path to war.
"Jim finished Avatar a long time ago in his mind. He
brought it to us to recreate . . ."
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.
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
Thanator could eat a T-Rex and have the Alien for dessert. It’s the
panther from hell."