Avatar Technical Preview: King James returns to the Silver Screen

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Think back to the year 1999. There was no war on terror, hope for Al Gore becoming president still existed, and the mp3 revolution was just dawning through Napster (on dial up internet speeds!). It was this year that James Cameron announced that he was to begin working on his next project after Titanic, called Avatar.

A year went by, an election was stolen, countless countdowns were rebroadcasted to death, and all that was released about Avatar was the simple plot synopsis :“In the future, Jake, a paraplegic war veteran, is brought to another planet, Pandora, which is inhabited by the Na’vi, a humanoid race with their own language and culture. Those from Earth find themselves at odds with each other and the local culture.”

Cameron decided to wait until the technology to bring his vision to total fruition existed; I am pretty sure that if he attempted to create the movie using what was available back then, it would have ended up looking like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzJ0Mn5cTs4

It wasn’t until 2002 when Cameron saw Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, that he felt that the technology was ready to bring his vision to life. Cameron contacted Vincent Pace who he worked with in The Abyss, Titanic, and Aliens of the Deep to develop a new system of recording stereoscopic images (3D for us normal folk), which lead to the development of a system called Fusion 3D which uses a lens that closely resembles the human eye to record information. This technology combined with state of the art Motion Capture technology and a magical array of cameras that allowed James Cameron to manipulate the camera movements live while shooting a scene (when this information gets released in detail in American Cinematographer Magazine I will be sure to break it down for you); which is being hailed as the next big thing since technicolor.

A movie of this size and budget can’t exist without a large beast of marketing and merchandising, and the calm winds that we have had for this film started to pick up in intensity and in the next few months we will be facing category 5 hurricane winds. The first glimpse the public received was a few months ago with a few production stills, building up enthusiasm for the 20 minute comic-con 2009 screening. James and the cast of the film made their rounds on the various panel discussions which with the magic of the internet I will include below:


On August 10th an announcement came out on various internet movie sites (aint-it-cool-news.com, io9.com) announcing that August 21st would be declared Avatar day, and that if you go to the official Avatar web page (which only had the face of one of the Na’vi aliens and a message instructing everyone to stay tuned for more information) on Monday the 17th of August you would be able to register for a special screening of a few scenes of the movie (running about 16 minutes in length). I am not sure if it was part of the hype machine or the studio execs underestimated the public’s hunger to see a glimpse of this movie, but the site went down seconds after the advertised time that the ticket registration went live. Special threads on the Avatar facebook page began to explode in confusion and rage as some poor I.T. guy/girl frantically did whatever internet magic needed to happen to handle the mass amount of traffic that is trying to access their page. Three hours later, the site was up, and people began to register to their local IMAX theater or find out that nothing was available in their area for the screening.

Wave two of the marketing happened two days later when the trailer was released to the public, and for the first time the entire world got to catch a quick glimpse of cinema magic.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXF2nH4Z9sc

In the next few weeks Panasonic will be wheeling around 103″ HDTVs showing clips and the trailer at various public places, and by mid November the toy line should be coming out as well as the video game. When December 18th rolls around, it will be hard to find someone who has not heard of this movie as this Marketing Juggernaut smashes through the walls of every American home like the Kool-Aid man on PCP. Soon audiences of three types will be lining up to see this movie on opening day: The Superfans who have waiting for King James to grace us with another movie, The Zombifans who are going because the tv told them to, and the girlfriends of the other two groups mentioned.

I was lucky enough to live in an area surrounded by IMAX theaters, and easily scored a ticket to the preview. I chose the Seattle Pacific Science Theatre for my preview location and because of all the confusion I arrived to an already formed line an hour before the preview happened. Each theater had two screening times at 6pm and 6:45, people were also in line at this time for the second showing. Time seemed to move quickly, and before I knew it, I was in my seat trying to figure out how to steal my state of the art super 3D glasses that are a huge leap from the old school cardboard ones. The lights dimmed and the entire audience was startled by a six story tall James Cameron explaining what we should expect. No plot or spoilers were to be revealed, and that this was more of a technical demo to show off and give us a lick of frosting off the cake that will be the full movie.

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The best way to describe the next 16 minutes is to relate it to going to a strip club and getting a lap dance from six beautiful women and having them vanish as soon as your man parts start to tingle in a special way. The first scene was a quick glimpse of the Human world which quickly moved to Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington); who plays a soldier who lost the use of his legs and has been confined to a wheel chair and is soon to have his consciousness transferred into a hybrid body of the aliens that live on a planet called Pandora. Eager to walk again in his new body, he clumsily moves around the laboratory in such clarity that you quickly forget you are looking at a computer generated character. The next scenes are composed of beautiful landscapes illuminated in various hues of blue, monsters of different shapes and sizes, and other Na’vi creatures who try to live in harmony with their surroundings. It is very hard to describe what is going on, due to the small glimpses of the movie that do not include any major plot points. From what they showed me, it was very Dances With Wolves like in plot, with the main character joining the natives in which he was sent to kill (at least that is how it felt). In the final scene, Jake must gain control of a winged creature that looks like a cross between a goose and a dragon, which really showed off how the Virtual Camera Technology that Cameron developed will change movies how we know them forever, by seamlessly weaving in, out, and around the action that is taking place.

I really can’t get over the facial expressions and the natural fluid movements of the entirely cg animated sequences. I am also glad to see 3D technology being used to immerse the viewer and not treat them like they are in a cheap ass county fair hunted house ride. As a technical demo, it delivered way more than I anticipated, and I will be working my ass off to get into an advanced screening to be able to review it in it’s entirety. As of right now the hype is totally justified, which is very rare to see in this day and age.

  • lecho guave

    this is good to read, i am beginning to feel like the hype is well deserved. i would love to see followup work, perhaps some background context with how James dealt with technology, or lack thereof, in his other major sci fi epics.

  • A.Misallati

    Dances With Wolves, in space!

    Soo, in the future humans can transfer a conciousness into an alien shell, but can’t fix paralysis?

    I’ll still go to see this, but I wonder what Phillip K. Dick novel this is based on? The Aliens aren’t aliens, they’re time travellers, oooohhhhh.

  • I know, Cameron is always being sued for stealing ideas from people like Ellison and Dick. It still looks pretty fascinating, though.

  • A.Misallati

    I bet at the end; Ripley fights the queen with a power-loader only to have the T-1000 replicate Newt and kill her, preventing the making of Alien 3 & 4 from ever taking place and as the ship crashes on LV426, Michael Biehn gives her the Sapphire necklace to the tune of “My Heart Will Go On”. roll credits. standing ovation.

    I talk a lot of mess but I really love JC and his work. Obviously.

  • I would love for that to be an ending, as long as it includes James’s first movie “Piranha Part Two: The Spawning”, and they have to fight off a few waves of flying fish.

  • oh my bad, just checked IMDB and his first movie is Xenogenesis, which I am now going to have to find on dvd. Here is the synopsis: A woman and an engineered man are sent in a gigantic sentient starship to search space for a place to start a new life cycle. Raj decides to take a look around the ship. He comes across a gigantic robotic cleaner. Combat ensues.