James Cameron’s masterpiece Avatar is getting a re-release and, unsurprisingly, it’s arriving in theaters with its own technological upgrade to the 4K High Dynamic Range format. When it was first released in 2009, it introduced audiences to the world of Pandora, an incredible visual spectacle that was unlike anything people had seen in theaters before. It’s not hyperbole to say it changed moviemaking forever. James Cameron can always be counted on to push the boundaries of what’s technically and visually possible in filmmaking. Avatar was just about his most ambitious movie of them all–and it paid off.
Let’s take a look at just how groundbreaking it was, shall we?
Avatar’s Awards & Achievements
Unsurprisingly, Avatar broke records, hit milestones, and garnered a ton of accolades along the way:
- Nominated for 9 Oscars
- Won 3 Oscars (Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Production)
- Nominated for an award 131 times combined
- Won 89 of those awards
- Beat out the previous highest-grossing film of all time, Titanic…which was also James Cameron’s movie
- Biggest original movie of all time at the box office
- Still holds the record for highest 3D and highest IMAX box office totals
Avatar Literally Couldn’t Be Made–Until It Was
Avatar was a true labor of love on the part of James Cameron. He first began developing his idea for the movie all the way back in 1994, but it wasn’t until 15 years later that it actually came together and debuted in theaters. Cameron long had the idea but knew that in order to get it right, he had to wait–technology hadn’t yet caught up with his vision. When he first planned to release it, back in 1999, the special effects he wanted for it were so extensive that they increased the estimated budget by a whopping $400 million. No studio would touch it. It wasn’t until he saw Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in 2002 that Cameron was convinced that mocap and CGI technology had come far enough to begin real work on Avatar.
Along with the technology, there was also the small problem that in order for Cameron’s movie to work, it involved building an entirely fictional world. That included developing the Na’vi language, which was created by Dr. Paul R. Frommer, a renowned linguist. Starting from scratch, he invented a Na’vi language that the actors were able to easily pronounce but that did not sound like any language spoken by humans (though it was heavily based on the Maori language of indigenous New Zealanders).
Avatar Made Other CGI-Heavy Movies Possible
Without Avatar, there would be no Caesar in the Planet of the Apes trilogy. There would be no Hulk in the MCU. No Thanos. No Alita: Battle Angel. Motion capture–or mocap–had been utilized before in film, sometimes quite extensively, such as with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, Cameron and his crew pioneered an entirely new way of doing it, catapulting mocap to the next level that is used today, technology that took him well over a year to develop and perfect.
Though multiple innovations were made by Avatar, the most impressive was how it captured facial mocap. Cameron designed a special skull cap for actors rigged with a small camera about six inches from the actors’ faces with the traditional motion capture markers. As the actor’s face moved, the camera was able to pick up on the most intimate of gestures and changes, immediately recording and transmitting the performance for the animators to use. In this way, the entirety of the actors’ exact physical performances were able to be transferred to their digital counterparts, including the small muscle movements and nuances that had never been captured before. The result was that the performances of the entirely digital Na’vi were as layered and complex as anything audiences had seen from flesh-and-blood actors.
Unsurprisingly, the visual accomplishments of Avatar reinvigorated the 3D format and catapulted the IMAX experience to new heights. That so many other movies in the wake of Avatar rushed to make 3D versions that were far shoddier, by comparison, is a testament to just how incredible the craftsmanship of Avatar was. And it still holds up today. To see Avatar on the big screen is to be transported to Pandora all over again, wondering how it’s possible for a fictional world to look so real. Luckily, we have another chance to revisit it before Avatar: The Way of Water hits theaters in December.