A few weeks ago, Fox Home Entertainment invited Cinematical to join the ranks of a small army of domestic and international media for a press day to promote the release of the 'Avatar Extended Collector's Edition.' While the initial home video version of James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster hardly snuck into stores upon its release in April, Fox went all out for this new bells-and-whistles, three-disc set, not only enlisting Cameron and producer Jon Landau for an introduction and a q&a session, but assembling participants from various creative teams on the film to discuss their participation in the making of 'Avatar.'
Not only did the daylong event offer a virtually unprecedented look inside the process of making any movie, much less Cameron's groundbreaker, it set the stage for the comprehensive bonus content that fills out discs two and three of the immersive, expansive, and perhaps exhaustive 'Extended Collector's Edition,' which is available today.
Cinematical already reported the breaking news from the press day, in particular Cameron's just-specific-enough-to-be-provocative comments about 'Avatar 2' and '3.' But in all honesty, the short, intimate sessions hosted by members of the production provided some real highlights, if not full-fledged revelations about the film. For example, the editing process usually occurs after all shooting has finished, but one of the film's editors, Stephen Rivkin revealed that he and partner John Refoua assembled a rough cut specifically to help Cameron figure out how he wanted to direct the final shots.
The entire film was first shot from multiple angles with reference cameras, which captured the performances of the actors in each scene. "Jim asked us to imagine how it might be put together," Rivkin explained. "Where would you go to a close-up? Where would you go to a medium shot? From that we get a sense of a scene and then Jim says, yes, those are the performances, and we prepare those takes to send them to our internal lab." Because the film was created digitally, that footage was then transformed into the lush, botanical landscape of Pandora, and then Cameron goes in and determines how and where the camera will move. "And then, Jim will start to make shots, and these shots become moving, interesting, cinematic shots – and everything is derived from the capture."
If that alone sounds complicated, rest assured that even with the assistance of visual aides, including actual performance-capture footage from the film itself, it took several pointed questions to clarify the way that 'Avatar' was somehow edited before it was even shot. But moving on to the next station, Alien Language Creator Paul Frommer revealed that a clearly-defined Pandoran language and culture provided Cameron and his colleagues with a strong foundation from which to build the story of the film.
Suffice it to say that creating an entirely new language is not easier than it sounds, but Frommer indicated that the linguistics of existing ones made it possible for him to create something unique that also felt just familiar enough to be believable. "The first thing you want to do is nail down what sounds are in the language, and what sounds are not in the language, and it's just as important to figure out which sounds you're going to exclude," Frommer said. "For example, Na'vi doesn't have a B, doesn't have a D, doesn't have a 'gah,' doesn't have a 'cha,' and doesn't have a 'sha.' When you include certain sounds, the language takes on a certain characteristic."
"Then you begin building the words, once you get down the sound system - so it has to be very consistent," he insisted. "But it has to be in accordance with universals of language, because one of the premises of the movie is that humans can learn this language, so it had to be a human-like language." Just for added measure, Frommer taught us a few important phrases in Na'vi, including "I love you" ("nga yawne lu oer") and the film's iconic refrain "I see you" ("oel ngati kameie"); unfortunately, however, he declined a request for some choice curse words, indicating that there weren't any in the Na'vi language – at least not that were used in the first film.
"I played off of the dialogue that I was given, and if a concept was in the dialogue, then I constructed a word that would match that concept," Frommer said. "There are certain things that are still indeterminate because we haven't nailed them down, but there are certain concepts in the language that are had to translate, such as this neural connection, which has a lot of different ramifications. One word might require three or four sentences in English."
Based upon almost every demonstration or interview given by members of Cameron's team, every part of the process of putting together 'Avatar' was unusual, challenging, counterintuitive, or just contrary to the normal way we've come to expect movies to be made. Despite this jumble of re-prioritization, reinvention, and quite frankly, invention, Lead Creature Designer Neville Page said that Cameron gave his collaborators a pretty specific template from which to develop and build the creatures, characters and objects that would eventually populate Pandora. "When I started, there were four of us, myself Jordu Schell, Yuri Bartoli and Wayne Barlowe," Page remembered. "We started at the beginning of May in 2005, and there was no script. We only had [Jim's] scriptment, which was a pretty thorough treatment, and it was really well-defined in terms of the beats and the things that we would be designing."
He said that even without their efforts, Cameron already conceived several of the indigenous creatures of Pandora, but Page and his colleagues gave them additional dimensionality. "There was something called a leonopteryx, something called a banshee, something called a manticore, which became a thanator, and they were pretty well described," he revealed. "There was one bug called a hellfire wasp, and I refer to that one because that was one that Jim didn't have a specific vision for. But it was called a hellfire wasp, so you can kind of imagine what it would look like], and that was the first illustration that I did that was more photo real. And that set a tone for some of the creatures to feel viable."
Longtime fans of Cameron's films will notice recurrent visual and conceptual motifs in his films, including the look of much of the technology. Page said that he and his crew made only one deliberate reference to something from Cameron's earlier work, but given the completeness of the writer-director's vision, there are bound to be some other overlaps between 'Avatar' and its predecessors. "I think that Jim's aesthetic tastes dictate that you will see a lot of similarities," Page observed. "There's a vibe that always comes through with Jim's stuff, like if you look at the cockpit of this, it feels like the drop ship from 'Aliens.' There's a throughline, but I don't think anything's exact. But because I first started out working for Stan Winston 24 or 25 years ago, and we did do 'Aliens' and 'The Terminator,' there's an homage to 'Aliens' that the seat in [the robot walker] is the one from Ripley's power loader."
Page encouraged us to publicize his little in-joke just to see who picked up on it during subsequent viewings of the film. Meanwhile, Cameron also re-enlisted his 'Titanic' and 'Aliens' collaborator James Horner to once again provide a musical backdrop for his film, but he suggested that any similarities between the score for 'Avatar' and its predecessors was due more to his own artistic interests than any mandates handed down by the director. "I try and approach each score completely differently, but obviously I have a certain style and certain things mean something to me," Horner said. "So the person that I'm working for doesn't trigger anything, but I know their tolerance level, so I'll be able to get away with stuff with certain directors who will let me be more adventurous than other directors who are much more conservative."
Horner indicated that the biggest challenge he faced was protecting the structure of his various musical pieces as 'Avatar' fluctuated in length during the final editorial process. "I had total freedom to come up with the themes, but what would happen is editorially things would change," he said. "My lovely themes that were designed to go over a certain stretch of film would have to be manicured into maybe not such lovely lengths, and I'd have to sort of skillfully rejigger it to work for me even though they weren't perhaps as good as they were originally. That's a common problem in film, and as the film was edited, that happened quite a lot. But I was given total freedom in terms of thematic writing."
After experiencing all of the aspects of production on display, we stopped at a station entitled "Amazon Watch," where spokespeople for the namesake company discussed the impact of the film from a cultural standpoint. Specifically, 'Avatar' inspired Amazon Watch Executive Director Atossa Soltani to reach out to Cameron and see if he would lend his name to their cause, which means to protect indigenous peoples and dwindling rainforests from industrialization. The fruit of their collaboration appears on Disc Two of the Extended Collector's Edition, via a documentary entitled "A Message From Pandora," in which Cameron visits the rainforests and helps bring awareness to the epidemic levels of deforestation and displacement that is happening in the Amazon regions of Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia.
Soltani said, "I saw the movie in December as soon as it came out, and I was just blown away. That night I crafted a letter to Cameron saying this represents our fight, and can you team up with us?" Her initial enthusiasm notwithstanding, she said it was actually a brief conversation with Cameron in person several months later that led him to get involved. "I never sent the letter until months later, when a number of organizations wrote him a letter saying, 'we congratulate you on this movie and we really want to team up with you, because you've told the story of what many of us work on with indigenous issues.' There was a benefit on the Fox lot, and I got to tell him personally rather than giving him a letter, and he said yes."
Perhaps obviously, the new 'Avatar' Blu-ray offers more in-depth and specific exploration of all of these components of the film's production and impact. But as dry as behind-the-scenes conversations can sometimes be at press events like these, Fox's in-person presentation of the many different aspects of 'Avatar' that were truly unique or even revolutionary only further stoked our interest in immersing ourselves in the new box set. And given the amount of content on the three-disc set, even if you don't feel compelled to join Cameron and Amazon Watch in their efforts to save the world, at the very least you'll probably have enough stuff to sit through until the next installment of 'Avatar' comes out.