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PLANET BUILDING . . . JAMES CAMERON STYLE
 

“Avatar 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.

“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.
 

 


Next: "The Thanator could eat a T-Rex and have the Alien for dessert. It’s the panther from hell."


 

 



 

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