James Cameron’s Avatar was successful by almost any metric. It became the highest-grossing movie of all time, received rave reviews, and was nominated for a whopping nine Academy Awards. As many have noted, while Avatar’s story is compelling, it is its groundbreaking visuals that set it apart from other blockbusters. So how did James Cameron and his team create the vibrant, expansive world of Pandora? In this article, we’ll look at Cameron’s game-changing approach to filming Avatar and how he raised the bar for the film’s much-anticipated follow-up Avatar: The Way Of Water.
Watch: Filming Avatar & Avatar 2 — Behind the Scenes
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Avatar aimed high
Avatar had a long gestation period. James Cameron first wrote a treatment for the story way back in 1994, before he had even made Titanic. As he was working on Titanic, he announced that filming Avatar would be his next film.
Of course, Titanic did pretty well for itself (it became the highest grossing film of all time). And it seemed Cameron was well on his way to getting all the money he needed to create his saga set on Pandora. But it quickly became clear to the writer/director that money wasn’t going to be his limitation.
Cameron was supposed to begin filming Avatar in 1997. But he decided to postpone when he realized that the technology just wasn’t there in order to do his vision justice. Instead, he focused on making documentaries and developing the hardware he would need to make his dream project.
Finally, in 2005, Cameron felt the technology was ready, and that he could begin Avatar’s production. The only question now was whether he could convince studios the same. Fox gave Cameron $10 million to shoot a test scene, so that they could see if he really could pull it off.
Watch the footage from this test scene below.
Cameron did just that, and eventually was granted one of the largest film budgets of all time to realize the world of Pandora. He enlisted experts from fields as varied as linguistics to plant physiology to build out the universe he had in his head.
So now that he had the money, what did it go to?
Avatar’s new approach to virtual filming
No film had attempted to create quite such a photorealistic world on the scale that James Cameron did on Avatar. Cameron explained that he wanted the film to be “a true hybrid– a full live-action shoot, with CG characters in CG and live environments.” The goal, he said, was that “at the end of the day the audience has no idea which they’re looking at.”
In order to pull this off, Cameron teamed up with Weta Digital, the pioneering digital effects company founded by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. With Weta, and virtual-production supervisor Glenn Derry, Cameron did nothing short of inventing a new way to film.
Glenn Derry and the effects team created a virtual reality camera that allowed Cameron to see how actors were interacting with digital scenery in real time. The “camera” had no lens, just an LCD screen and markers which read its position in relation to the actors. Thus, actors were recorded in 360 degrees, with no idea of where the camera would eventually be placed in post.
As Cameron put it, “If I want to fly through space, or change my perspective, I can.” Filming Avatar with this setup was crucial to the production process because of just how much of the movie was going to be created digitally. According to some reports, only about 25% of the film utilized traditional live action sets.
The rest was shot on a motion capture stage, where actors would wear suits with markers that reflected infrared light back at stationary cameras. Filming Avatar, there were 120 of these cameras set up around the stage, in order to capture every intricacy of an actor’s movement.
In sum, Weta digital created over 800 computer-generated characters, as well as 1,800 visual effects shots which boasted detailed CG settings.
In order to give actors greater freedom to explore the space, Cameron’s team built a motion capture stage that was six-times bigger than anything Weta had used before.
This actor-oriented approach takes us to our next section.
Avatar & performance capture
Anytime James Cameron is discussing filming Avatar, he emphasizes one phrase: performance capture. To Cameron, the term “motion capture” minimizes the work an actor is actually doing when on a digital set. This is a conversation still being had in Hollywood as mo-cap actors like Andy Serkis are snubbed for acting awards.
“This is not an animated film,” Cameron has said time and time again. “Every piece of performance is by the actor.”
But without a traditional camera, how did Cameron capture the nuances of an actor’s performance?
Again, Cameron and his team had to innovate. To get the details of an actor’s facial expressions, the Avatar crew got up close and personal. Each actor wore a small camera which was mounted to their helmet and directed at their face.
One might think having a camera placed inches from your face might be kind of… distracting. But Cameron maintains that this technique actually gives an actor more freedom than previous methods.
“This technique eliminates hours in the makeup chair, and various other discomforts, for the actors,” Cameron argued. “Previously, actors needed to have hundreds of tiny spherical markers glued to their faces, and they couldn't touch their own faces throughout the shooting day as a result. With the new system, a lightweight head-rig can be donned minutes before shooting.”
The footage from these face cams were paired with a software custom-built by Weta Digital, which tracked the muscles in an actor’s face. This data then built out an animated version of the performer’s expressions.
Filming Avatar in 3D
The other crucial visual element of the film is 3D. Avatar prompted a massive revitalization of 3D filmmaking, which had for decades been disregarded as a tacky novelty.
James Cameron is insistent that when 3D is done right, it can provide an immersive experience that is the future of cinema. So what does “doing 3D right” look like?
Well, first in foremost, it means shooting in 3D. As opposed to retroactively adding a third dimension in post (a technique which became very popular after Avatar's success). Cameron and his team shot the live action sequences with his own Fusion 3D camera.
The Fusion 3D is a rig which used two Sony F950 cameras, one which shot for the left eye and one which shot for the right. In order to pull this off, the rig has one camera mounted horizontally and the other mounted vertically. Both cameras shot through a beam splitter, so that they would be shooting images from the proximity of two human eyes.
As excited as Cameron was for the 3D advancements he oversaw on Avatar, he was disappointed with the majority of 3D films that followed in its wake. According to Cameron, studio greed compromised the technology and made it look like a cheap, money-making scheme.
Cameron claims that’s the reason that the 3D fad in the early 2010s irked audiences and eventually died out. With Avatar: The Way Of Water, he’s hoping to correct the record once more, releasing the project in 3D.
Speaking of The Way Of Water…
Where Was Avatar Filmed?
Avatar 2 filming underwater
James Cameron isn’t resting on his laurels when it comes to Avatar’s hotly anticipated sequel, The Way of Water. By all accounts, the writer/director is once more pushing film technology forward in order to realize his vision.
As you might be able to tell by its title, much of the sequel is shot underwater, which provides a whole host of complications. For example, how does one shoot in 3D underwater?
Shooting underwater means cumbersome camera rigs which often cause distortion on the image because the camera has to shoot through ports on the housing. To solve this, Cameron tapped DP and camera tech guru Pawel Achtel, who developed a 3D underwater camera that had never been used before on a feature film.
Achtel’s rig, called the DeepX 3D, works similarly to the Fusion 3D rig in that it also comprises two cameras and a beam splitter. But crucially, Achtel uses Nikonos submersible lenses, which can be used underwater without housing. Bye bye distortion.
But the camera rig was only the first hurdle posed by the underwater filming. The team also had to figure out how to shoot motion capture (or, rather, performance capture – sorry, James) underwater.
Shooting mocap underwater presents a multitude of difficulties. First, light interacts with water in a way that messes with the markers. The reflections created false markers that disrupted the performance capture cameras.
In order to solve this problem, the surface of the 900,000 gallon tank was covered in white balls, which would eliminate light reflections while also allowing actors and crew members to surface unencumbered.
Second, the facial performance capture camera means that actors can’t use scuba gear – you know, the way they can breathe. Says Cameron, “Scuba bubbles would create too much noise in our performance capture system.”
The solution here was less of a technological advancement and more of a physiological endurance test. The actors just had to hold their breath.
Cameron hired underwater specialists, including underwater gymnasts and world champion free-diver Kirk Krach, to teach the cast how to hold their breath for prolonged periods of time. Kate Winslet, for example, trained so that she could hold her breath for over seven minutes.
All of this is unheard of because, usually, films which take place underwater —especially ones that require a lot of CGI — are shot dry-for-wet, which means they aren’t actually shot underwater.
When asked why he wouldn’t just do that, like Aquaman or the live-action Little Mermaid have, Cameron’s response was simple: “Oh, I don’t know, maybe that it looks good? Come on!”
In the end, like its predecessor, Avatar: The Way of Water is a big gamble. As Cameron himself has said of the film, “If Avatar hadn't made so much damn money, we'd never do this— because it’s kind of crazy.”
Making of Titanic
James Cameron wasn’t given one of the biggest budgets of all time just on good will– he had a big roster of hits to back up his big ideas. One of the biggest of those hits is Titanic. Check out our analysis of how Cameron created the blockbuster.