The creatures of 'Avatar' were 15 years in the making


In 1994, director James Cameron and his friend Stan Winston -- who worked together on "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" -- became officers of the fledgling Digital Domain, a year-old special effects house based in Venice, Calif. That was the curious genesis of "Avatar."

"I figured the best way to drive the company," Cameron says, "was to make a movie that would push them hard."

The movie he came up with not only pushed everyone hard (though not Digital Domain, which wasn't ultimately part of the production); it also tested the limits of filmmaking. With a cost estimated anywhere from $200 million-$350 million, including research and development, it will finally be released Dec. 18.

It is an enormous risk for Fox, the company that has bankrolled it with help from Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Media. It is an even bigger risk for Cameron, whose reputation may sink or swim with this, his first feature since 1997's "Titanic." But risk was the last thing he thought of when the movie began to percolate in his mind.

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He wanted a picture as big as the epics of his youth, like "The Man Who Would Be King" or "Lawrence of Arabia," and one that dealt with a similar clash of cultures. "A person comes in contact with a different culture and has to make changes," Cameron explains. "He must change his perceptions, learn how to assimilate and prove himself within that new world."

He also wanted a film that would push movies to the next level, just as Cameron had done pushed boundaries in exploring the deepest oceans for documentaries, and in developing a new generation of 3D cameras, the Fusion system.

Cameron wrote a treatment to encapsulate his idea, but his dreams crashed to the ground when he learned that the technological tools to deliver it had not yet been developed and when preliminary cost projections made the film prohibitive.

"They pushed back a little at (Digital Domain) when they read my treatment," he says. "I set 'Avatar' aside until I saw some glimmer out there that the tech­nology for performance capture and humanoid facial animation was reaching a more mature level."

It was not until 2002, when he saw Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," that he realized such facial animation was plausible. But the new technology was still just the beginning of a multiyear process.

At the time, Cameron was developing "Battle Angel," about a female cyborg. In April 2005, he and producer Jon Landau went to see Fox chairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos and "told the studio that all the CG and performance capture we were looking at for 'Battle Angel' would apply to 'Avatar' as well," Cameron says. "So I pitched the idea: We would set up a facility, figure out how to do this and amortize our research and development costs over both movies, which is still the game plan."

James Cameron, left, with Sam Worthington on the "Avatar" set.
Before any of the cast was in place, before a budget was done, Cameron and his team looked at the realm of the possible, so that technology could become "an enabling factor" in Landau's words, and not a hindrance. Toward that end, Landau and Cameron brought in Giant Studios, which had a proprietary motion capture system that would allow Cameron to direct CGI characters in real time. (Until then, live action was shot separately and married to the CG later.) They also hired Rob Legato, who had developed an early concept for virtual production for Martin Scorsese's "Aviator." In addition to CGI development, a design group worked on the creatures and characters for what was then known only as Project 880.

Word was beginning to filter about a magical new feature from the elusive director, but Project 880 remained under wraps.

One of the few places to hear about it was George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, which Cameron and Landau asked to do the visual effects for the tests that would produce a four-and-a-half minute sequence, with 37 seconds at a finished level. All this, they took to Fox, waiting to see if the studio would commit to making the film.

In all likelihood, Cameron could have raised the money elsewhere. But Fox had done wonders with "Titanic" and the power of its distribution mechanism would be a big plus.

"The studio does its due diligence on a project of this size, especially as groundbreaking as it was going to be," Cameron notes. "It took us a lot of hand-holding and proving to them that it was going to be OK. My job was to talk them through it, help them understand what we were doing. We went step by step."

Still, he admits, "It was ages before they greenlit the picture -- at least a year and a half after we'd been working on it."

Fox finally said yes, and Cameron could move onto the next stage: Figuring out who would do the visual effects that would come to fill 117 minutes of the 170-minute movie.

After getting bids from ILM and others, Cameron and Landau chose WETA, the New Zealand company partly owned by director Peter Jackson. WETA's bid was helped by a 15% rebate offered by New Zealand, but that wasn't the main factor.

"We just had a sense they knew how to do this," Cameron says. "And they weren't a big, jaded outfit."

The Wellington facility offered not just visual effects but also the WETA Workshop, which created physical props and prosthetics, and a complete studio support system. For the New Zealanders, getting Cameron would be a big catch, and they wanted to prepare. Above all, they wanted to offer him an extra technological marvel that would induce him to sign with them.

"We knew we could do the body capture in real time, but what if you could see the characters' facial performance in real time as well?" says Joe Letteri, visual effects supervisor at WETA. "Everyone thought that was a crazy goal, but we knew Jim was coming. So we did this intensive, six-week effort to see if we could (make it work). And when he got here, we had it working."

Cameron not only gave WETA the greenlight for FX, but he also decided to do all the live-action scenes on its soundstages. Those scenes would be shot first, with the non-live-action shoot done at the old Howard Hughes airplane hangar-turned-studio in Playa del Rey, Calif.

In addition to Winston's team, Cameron hired production designer Rick Carter, who had worked with Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Carter in turn brought Rob Stromberg onboard as co-production designer.

The designers passed dozens of sketches to WETA of characters, plants, vegetation, houses, vehicles, floating mountains and more. "We together created a complete ecosystem for a planet that was not just beautiful but had an internal nervous system essentially," Carter says.

Previously, to make each plant move, an artist would manipulate it frame by frame, but that would be impossible with about 500 different types of plants, so WETA adapted a technique from "Lord of the Rings," using a "crowd pipeline" based on MASSIVE (Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment) software that in the past had been used to generate an army of realistic soldiers. Here, it gave each plant its own life.

To light all this, WETA -- which began work in January 2007 and only ended the week before Thanksgiving -- adapted a program based on "spherical harmonics," a mathematical system used in computing that allows you to have a multidimensional view of an object. It had been used in video games but required an enormous amount of "rendering" by high-end computers; indeed, insiders estimate each frame took 20 hours of computing.

Cameron says WETA has the largest computer "farm" in the world. It ran continuously for three years for "Avatar," as the staff in Wellington grew to nearly 900, even with ILM in San Francisco doing a few extra shots.

About 95% of the visual effects were done by WETA. They taxed the company to its limits. "The first year, we worked five days a week," says WETA visual effects supervisor Eric Saindon. "The second year, six days. This year, it has been pretty close to seven days a week."

Meanwhile, Cameron turned to casting the 40 primary parts in his movie.

The first major role cast was Neytiri, the native girl on the planet Pandora who first encounters the human hero turned into an avatar. Zoe Saldana, cast before she played Uhura in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek," flew from her home in New York to Los Angeles to meet with Cameron. "I was so nervous," she recalls, "but the moment I met him, he just has this way of making you feel really relaxed."

Cameron and Landau peppered her with questions. "He kept observing me," Saldana says, "and then he would look at Jon like, 'Oh my God! She's so Neytiri,' as if I wasn't in the room -- and I'd go, 'OK ... ' "

Cameron wanted Saldana to prepare for her very physical role and she went all out. For six months she studied martial arts, archery, horseback riding and more. At the suggestion of Cameron and stunt coordinator Garrett Warren, she also studied Wu Shu, a basic form of Chinese kung fu. "It needed to be very graceful in the way they moved, fought, kicked and everything," Saldana explains, "without aiming to look combative."

To make this all work better for Cameron, Saldana moved to L.A., where she participated in casting sessions and tests of the cameras and 3D systems. "We needed to establish a way this culture, this species, moved, walked, turned and expressed themselves," she says. "Their physicality was different. They had a tail and a much longer torso."

While Saldana briefly went to New Zealand for the live-action shoot, most of her work was in The Volume, the giant stage in Playa del Rey. "As actors, half the time we feel like kind of a puppet -- especially women," she says. "You're just here to look sexy, to say this line and make it look good. So to work with a director who has such respect for how you think (meant) a new level of awareness. He protects the actors: 'This is your sandbox and nobody is allowed to enter or f*** with that.' You just feel amazing."

One of the few recognizable names in the cast, Sigourney Weaver, who first worked with Cameron on "Aliens" in 1986, was among the last to be cast, in late 2006. "The character's name originally was Grace Shipley (a play on 'Aliens' ' Ellen Ripley)," Landau says. "Once we cast Sigourney, Jim felt 'We've got to change that,' so we made her Grace Augustine."

For the central role of Jake, Cameron saw hundreds of actors before picking Sam Worthington, an Australian with few credits. His inexperience both delighted and frustrated the director. "No two takes in a row would be the same," Cameron says. "That's great because it's exploratory and you find really cool stuff, but it doesn't work as well photographically where you've got to have some predictability from take to take. He learned there had to be a discipline to the randomness."

Cameron found Weaver as "disciplined" an actor as ever. "I learned on 'Aliens' it was best to leave Sigourney's close-ups until last, if she was in a group scene," he says, "because she just continues to improve and hone what she is doing."

Maybe Cameron has learned about working with actors, too.

"When we came to sensitive scenes, there was a lot of conversation between Sam (Worthington), Jim and I," Saldana says. "Jim kept Sam and I isolated at those times, away from loud conversations. There was a lot of silence at times because there were a lot of mental processes that we needed to go through."

When tension mounted, the actors and the director had a nearby punching bag. "I would sometimes go and just punch away," Saldana says. "There were times I didn't know what the f*** to do. It made me frustrated, so we would find a way to channel that. Sometimes we would get the bows (and arrows) and just shoot away. And there were definitely a lot of kicks on that punching bag between the stunt team, Jim and myself. Sam, not so much -- he was doing his own process."

So, in the end, was Cameron.

That process will finally end when the film comes out on about 5,500 screens, an estimated 3,500 of them 3D. Whether the movie can generate the boxoffice Fox anticipates remains to be seen, but its impact has already been felt on the business as a whole, just as Cameron wanted.

"He is very close to taking the whole industry and saying, 'Here is what we can do, where we can go,' " Carter says. "Nobody who works on a Jim Cameron movie has a clear idea of where it's going. They just have to have faith, because he's going to push it as far as possible."