The Birth of Pandora and the Na'vi - The Making of Avatar
It is said that the human mind is the only thing known in existence that can be compared to the vastness of the Universe. It is, like the Universe herself, infinite in its capacity. In your mind, you can be everything, everywhere, all at once.
Imagine a moon, with its flora just as alive as its fauna - breathing, a beating heart, and capable of feeling joy and agony. Not too hard, right? But would it be just as easy to materialise it into reality, onto the big screen? Let alone without losing the tiniest of details in translation? It would certainly take an extraordinarily genius mind, if not an outright prodigy, to turn this dream into reality.
Today we talk about Avatar, James Cameron’s groundbreaking masterpiece that has revolutionised the entirety of cinema since its release, and continues to be a prototype of its kind, a decade after technology has far surpassed its capabilities and limitations. From its narration to its cinematography, Avatar left the world jaw-dropped with visuals, quite literally, otherworldly.
Released in 2009, the sci-fi is based some time in the mid 22nd century when humans have begun to colonise another moon - Pandora, to mine and exploit her resources. It is a war between ecosystems, between civilisations, between man and the native Na’vi. Ethics collide, almost as if imploding within a ribcage, with both the real and the genetically engineered Na’vi manipulating the diaspora of the moon for polar reasons.
The conceptualisation of Avatar began way back in 1994 when director James Cameron wrote an 80 page treatment for the film. However, the technology in the late twentieth century was simply not advanced enough to deliver the vision of the project. With no room for compromise, the screenplay of the film and the fictional universe of the Alpha Centauri did not begin to be worked on until 2006.
Where did Cameron draw inspiration for Avatar from?
“Every single science fiction book I read as a kid.” Simple as that!
“With Avatar, I thought, forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mould, like John Carter of Mars - a soldier goes to Mars.” - James Cameron
But Avatar is not merely an action adventure, it is a journey of self discovery, a lesson in culture, through imperialism and deep ecology.
Avatar has been inspired by many films, as well as genres, across continents and cultures. This diversity is irrefutably evident in the storytelling of the film. Cameron has recognised in interviews that the inspiration for the plot comes, in part, from fictional pieces like At Play in the Fields of the Lord and The Emerald Forest; and has compared the concept of an Avatar, (which he has said to be “an incarnation of on the Hindu gods in flesh form”) to the Japanese cyberpunk manga/anime Ghost in the Shell, speaking of man’s intelligence remotely controlling another body. He has also sincerely acknowledged the influence of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke on the ecosystem of Pandora. We see it, and it is beautiful!
The process behind bringing this concept to fruition was a decade long heartbeat, with irregular pulse, doubts and uncertainties every step of the way. Nonetheless, the film fumbled not once in its determination and execution. Let’s have a look at the journey of this magnificent treat.
The birth of Pandora and the Na’vi
Pandora exists beyond the world we know of, beyond anything we can fathom. The integrity of this fact had to be maintained down to every single leaf. The making of Avatar was a project that could afford no lapse, spare no mistake - failing which, its unwavering position at the top of the charts would have been a little more vulnerable to competition through the years. This conviction alone has yielded Avatar the title of the highest grossing film in history.
Watch here the mesmerising cinematography and graphics of Avatar
Let’s have a look at the theatrics of the film and understand the process a little better.
Cameron spent about a decade carefully engineering the equipment that would turn his dream into reality. His reality, in turn, would be a dream to millions someday, and the irony could not be any sweeter!
He co-developed the Fusion 3D camera system alongside Vince Pace, and a revolutionary device called the SimulCam to capture the unyielding visuals of Pandora and its Na’vi.
The aforementioned 3D Fusion Camera System is a rig that can support multiple cameras. For Avatar, the production used three Sony models -
Sony CineAlta HDC-F950, with Fujinon Lenses - for primary acquisition of the shots,
Sony CineAlta HDC-1500, with Fujinon Lenses - to capture 60-fps high-speed shots during the live-action sequences, and
Sony CineAlta F23, with Fujinon Lenses - to shoot other specifically detailed shots.
The Fujinon lenses used were
Fujinon hA16x6.3BE (6.3 - 101mm) and
A special HA5x7B-W50 (7 - 35mm) model developed especially for the film.
All of these cameras had 2/3” HD chips, enabling them to record images onto the HDCam-SR tape; but on the set of Avatar, they also recorded to the Codex digital recorders which were capable of synchronised simultaneous playback, allowing the crew to preview 3D scenes in the location itself.
The traditional comparative configuration, being a little too gawky and impractical for the Steadicam work, was divided by a beam-splitter into a horizontally oriented camera and above that, a perpendicularly oriented camera - forming an inverted “L”. To maintain the equilibrium when the camera shifted convergence or the interocular distance, a servomechanism with a counterweight was employed.
Cameron indulged primarily in two main devices to make Pandora a reality -
1. A handheld virtual camera that essentially serves as a monitor with controls, the positions of which are tracked in space. Through this camera, Cameron could see on the screen humans (wearing the motion capture suit) as Na’vi!
2. The SimulCam, a live–action camera with composition reflectors that can superimpose CGI onto the live-action, rendering immediate playback - this granted the filmmakers and the actors the privilege to interact directly with their Na’vi counterparts, making it easier for them to envision the concept with more clarity.
Because of these incredibly resourceful inventions, only about a fourth of the film was shot in the traditional, live performance action, not beyond the four walls of the set; while the rest was executed in an entirely computer-generated world.
Once the live-action take was shot, the CGI superimposed, and the clip edited, it was sent to Weta for them to work on it and finalise the cut. This clip was what was called a “template”.
No significant iteration was asked of Weta to provide, but only concise instructions on the enhancement of certain elements into higher resolution.
Keeping aside the cinematography and the technicalities of the film, let us not forget the human and ethical efforts that went into the realisation of Avatar, which were just as critical to the project, if not slightly more - the training of the actors, and the understanding of nature and instincts,
Each actor, the protagonists as well as the supporting cast had a rigorous training regimen unique to their character. Many actors, who played characters from military backgrounds even underwent military training, until they were sufficiently adept in weaponry and combat. Horse riding, archery, movement training for the Na’vi, helicopter piloting were activities the cast was given unforgiving training in. Lacking even merely in their training would cost them the seamless coalition of the people of Earth and the Na’vi of Pandora.
Cameron even studied the behaviour of wild animals, especially the feline ones, since the characteristics and aptitude of the Na’vi are very evidently similar to those of wild cats!
The bioluminescence of Pandora and the Na’vi
Another facet that makes the fictional world of Pandora more distinct, and feel more, in an amusing irony, real, is the lighting of the film. Mauro Fiore, has beautifully and calculatedly pulled the strings of this element to paint a masterpiece on the canvas unlike any other.
The plant life of Pandora as well as the Na’vi both emit light - this is called bioluminescence; and is the direct result of the method of cinematography used to balance and exploit the lighting to be more interactive. The entire concept of bioluminescence had to be employed because the lighting played an immensely crucial role in seamlessly merging the live-action sequences with their corresponding CGI.
Fiore realised they could use reflective paints and materials that would react to ultraviolet light in a way that differentiated them in the post-production. However, the green screen was an integral part of the filming, making it a bit of a hassle, if not about impossible, for the crew to effectively cover these lights. For this, Fiore cut strips of green screen and suspended them from the ceiling like curtains, hiding the lights. Upon the superimposition of the CGI, the ceiling and the strips together formed one single image!
Apart from the element of bioluminescence, an impressive amount of lighting is produced artificially. For many outdoor scenes, Fiore had to be aware of the position of the sun, and later add the light and shadow in the post-production. In fact, one of the night scenes was shot in complete daylight. This may have seemed bizarre to Fiore in the beginning, but he understood that this meant they had absolute control over the lighting while editing.
Fiore’s gifted manipulation of lighting was also flawlessly employed for movement. In the case of moving vehicles, which were not really moving, it was the rapid play of artificial light and shadow that made it so immersive.
The deliberate lighting throughout the movie has added more depth to the atmospherics, making Pandora seem as real as Earth itself.
The symphony of the Na’vi
James Horner, one of the most brilliantly gifted music composers to have ever lived, collaborated with Cameron, yet again, after Aliens (1986) and Titanic (1997), for Avatar - contributing remarkably to its success. What Horner looked for in a movie is precisely how his process worked. He understood perfectly the intimacy between film and music, and the symbiotic relationship they share. This helped him compose music for films that reflected perfectly the essence of the respective film.
One of the most complicated elements of filming Avatar was music. How do you give rhythm and music to an entire galaxy that does not exist, a world created but in theory, from its language to its culture, from its flora and fauna to its atmosphere?
What music composer James Horner had to do was to orchestrate a perfectly balanced concoction of indigenous, traditional scores and scores the human mind had never comprehended, music that would feel like home and ethereal at the same time. For this, Horner even brought to the studio an ethnic musicologist and started to collect and sample sounds from around the globe - this also involved, vastly, the sound of ethnic instruments across cultures, and sounds of wild animals.
The music for Avatar had to be composed before the film was shot since the actors relied on motion capture for the cuts and sequences. To harmonise the extraterrestrial, futuristic na’vi world with the familiarity of the human world, Horner manipulated the traditional scores digitally, giving them a spectral characteristic, lingering in varying degrees between human and unlike anything one has heard before.
“There were a lot of vocal sounds I took from various places. These were odd vocal sounds that I would manipulate digitally and there were interesting flutes, for instance, from South America and Finland that I wanted to be more abstract. I also have instruments invented from scratch. They were programmed. It’s a very pretty fusion of different worlds that gives the place itself a quality that is magical.” - James Horner on altering instruments
He even went so far as to study the language of the Na’vi, its consonants and syllables, to design music that was true to the language, to Pandora and its civilisation.
Watch this video to understand a little more in detail the technicalities involved in composing the scores for the film
With a decade-long calendar of conceptualisation and performance, improvisation and iterations, Avatar proved to be a success in not only Hollywood but cinema worldwide, etching its name with pride and conviction among pieces of art that can never be imitated with the same ingenuity again.
However, the foothold Avatar has had on the charts now makes us question, “Will The Way of Water live up to its legacy?”
Challenges faced and overcome
What can we expect from The Way of Water?
In 2009, Cameron had expanded radically the horizon of cinematography with motion capture, and in 2022, he has once again returned to claim the same pedestal for a whole different ecosystem altogether - the underwater.
We all know Cameron not only as a genius filmmaker but also as a climate activist, who has diverted a handsome portion of his career towards highlighting the socio-economic threats to (and by) humanity through his films; and Way of Water is no exception to his intentions.
The making of the sequel had more challenges than what they had overcome. With more than half of the sequences of the three hour long film shot underwater, perfect execution of these shots was of paramount importance. All of the underwater shots were shot, quite literally, underwater, with actors diving and performing in a pool of 900,000 gallons of water! Cameron’s contribution to Sanctum (2011) as an executive producer proved to be resourceful in the making of The Way of Water.
The actors were trained for months to shoot underwater, and were even given jetpacks to facilitate the movement and speed of the Na’vi, despite the pressure of water!
Now, the underwater motion capture cameras could not capture the performance of the actors because the motion trackers on their suits were small, white, reflective beads. What did they do about it? They filled the surface of the water with more white beads to eliminate reflection. Genius, right?
But now the cameras could not differentiate and capture their movements at all. What did they do about it? Infrared cameras! Easy!
About the cameras?
Because of the pressure of the water, controlling the camera was a finicky ordeal, and one which required servos to keep the process in check. For this very reason, they switched to the DeepX 3D Underwater Beam Splitter designed by Pawel Achtel. This rig employs submersible Nikonos Lenses engineered specifically to be used underwater, and weighs a mere 30kgs, making movement underwater easier.
To obviate the bubbles forming underwater, rendering distortions and chromatic aberrations in the shoes, celluloid film was used to reduce surface pressure of the water!
This is how every nuance of the film has been taken care of, and every intricacy carefully given life to. All of this, together with what the filming of the first part taught the crew, has once again, given the world a visual masterpiece unlike any other!
Stills from Avatar: The Way of Water
Tout ensemble, Avatar is a cultural reset, that has boldly and relentlessly challenged every limitation in filmmaking, and overcome it with not just an answer but also by setting several benchmarks and milestones for filmmakers - for decades to come, despite technology now far surpassing its potential.
With Avatar: The Way of Water around the corner, our appreciation for Avatar has rekindled, and the world is, once again, desperately looking forward to what the Na’vi have been up to in Pandora 13 human years after Sully decided to stay back!