weather icon 30 °

2nd look: 'Avatar'

Going to see the blockbuster again? Watch for these highlights.

Last Updated: 8:26 AM, January 31, 2010

Posted: 1:05 AM, January 31, 2010

Last week, James Cameron’s “Avatar” became history’s highest grossing film — passing the $1.84 billion in global sales achieved by his earlier blockbuster “Titanic.” Its success is largely due to the amazingly realistic visual effects Cameron and his team labored over, which have inspired repeat customers. When seen in 3-D Pandora is a marvel of texture and color that rewards multiple viewings. Whether it’s your first or fifth trip to this exotic moon, here are some of the film’s most stunning moments. Keep both eyes open and you’ll catch details you haven’t seen before.

20th Century Fox Licensing/MerchMONSTER OR MACHINE? Cameron borrowed from Formula 1 designs.
20th Century Fox Licensing/Merch
MONSTER OR MACHINE? Cameron borrowed from Formula 1 designs.


CGI effects have never before captured the nuance of emotion in a human face as they have with the lanky blue Na’vi. Cameron sought a sophisticated and sleek, yet recognizable look to his creatures, who were partly inspired by photos he supplied of gorgeous women, including Mary J. Blige.

Then filmmakers were tasked with the extraordinary challenge of bringing the faces to life in CGI.

“The idiosyncrasies of how people’s faces work — the order in which their muscles flair — that varies from person to person,” says Richard Baneham, the film’s animation supervisor. “So for Zoe [Saldana, who played the Na’vi beauty Neytiri], our main goal was to [capture] her performance, to do everything in our power to get her idiosyncrasies, and to really delve into the specific sequence of muscles flaring in her face and in what order. We armed the animators with the toolset to bring that to life.”

When the actors playing Na’vi donned motion-capture suits, they were filmed on all sides by as many as eight HD cameras, providing animators with the data needed to realistically render movement. Most importantly, this gave their eyes a very human vibrancy, solving a long-running CGI problem, and making the love story between the characters played by Sam Worthington and Saldana especially resonant.


If the fierce, hinged-jawed banshees with razor-sharp teeth seem especially sleek, it’s because they were actually modeled after Formula 1 race cars. Cameron wanted aerodynamic monsters, and some of the early designs that were modeled on the cars even turned out to be too wild to use. There is irony here in that the auto design world takes its inspiration from the animal kingdom. As “Avatar” designer Neville Page told the Io9 Web site, “In the automotive world, lines on a car are referred to as bone lines, in the sense of bones having specific ridges and edges.”


Pandora is awash with lush 3-D greenery that was completely computer-generated — which Baneham says is “an amazing breakthrough” — using a process called global illumination.

“[The animators] take into consideration not only how an object accepts light, but how it omits light based on its own transparency,” he says. “So everything in the scene became a reflection of light, which is how real light works. When you see a shot with the aliens in the forest, that shot has no photographic elements.”


Even on big-budget CGI films, explosions are usually a combination of live action and digital elements. For “Avatar,” Industrial Light & Magic invented a brand-new process for completely computer-generating explosions. Armed with the knowledge that explosions behaved like liquids in motion, they adapted previous water-related effects (as from the film “Poseidon”) and applied them to tremendous waves of fire.


As the film concludes, a human character has physical contact with a Na’vi — a landmark achievement for animation.

“There’s a moment at the end of the movie when Jake is picked up by Neytiri, and we finally see Jake as a human and Neytiri as a Na’vi, and they interact. That you have a live action character and a CG character actually touching is a huge deal,” says Baneham. “We were invested to the point where the right amount of shadow was cast, including the right amount of bounce light from the human character reacting on the Na’vi’s skin.”


The Amplified Mobility Platform suits, massive robotic vehicles that act like wearable tanks and allow soldiers to stamp around like large metal giants, are similar to devices the Army has been developing for decades under a program called the Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation program. The latest generation is the Sarcos XOS, a 150-pound rig that allows the wearer to lift heavy loads repeatedly, and run or leap with ease.


Perhaps the film’s greatest 3-D effect is that almost immediately after it starts, you forget about the clunky 3-D glasses, and settle into James Cameron’s world as if it’s right there in front of you.

“We consciously tried to not make people look at effects,” says Baneham. “That’s [my favorite effect] — the unconscious feeling of being transported somewhere else.”

Comments (0)

You must be logged in to leave comments. Login ι Register


Today in Pictures
  • My night with a prosti-dude
    My night with a prosti-dude
  • 82nd Academy Awards - Actress Nominees
    82nd Academy Awards - Actress Nominees
  • 82nd Academy Awards - Actor Nominees
    82nd Academy Awards - Actor Nominees
  • 52nd annual Grammy Awards show
    52nd annual Grammy Awards show
  • Red-carpet arrivals at the Grammys
    Red-carpet arrivals at the Grammys

Click on Each Photo