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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The world of "Avatar" germinated in the brain of writer and director James Cameron about 15 years ago. Now, it's on screens in eye-popping 3-D - the bioluminescent jungles of the moon Pandora with its indigenous population, the blue, 10-foot-tall Na'vi.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AVATAR")

SAM WORTHINGTON: (As Jake Sully) Na'vi.

ZOE SALDANA: (as Neyriti) Na'vi.

WORTHINGTON: (as Jake Sully) Na'vi.

SALDANA: (as Neyriti) Na'vi.

WORTHINGTON: (as Jake Sully) Na'vi.

BLOCK: "Avatar" is a live-action film using revolutionary computer-generated, or CG, technology. The team developed head-rig cameras for the actors to record nuances of facial expression that were then digitally transformed.

James Cameron shot the movie on a vast, gray performance-capture stage, called "the volume."

JAMES CAMERON: So visualize a warehouse space - it was actually a place where Howard Hughes worked on the Spruce Goose - but it's maybe 120 feet long by 80 feet wide. And within that is a smaller space that's lined out on the floor, which defines the perimeter of the volume with a red line. And when you step over that red line, you're stepping into a space that's scanned by 120 or 130 cameras that are overhead, on a pipe grid. And they photograph these markers that are on the actors' bodies. And that becomes a computer-generated character.

Then, that character gets exported to another program, called MotionBuilder - and this is all happening in the space of a few milliseconds - and in MotionBuilder, it puts that character into an environment. So in a sense, you're creating a kind of live video game of the performance of the scene.

BLOCK: There's a scene in the movie where Zoe Saldana's character, Neytiri, is teaching the avatar of Jake Sully how to ride a banshee - these giant, flying lizards. Let's take a listen here.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AVATAR")

SALDANA: (as Neytiri) To become (unintelligible) hunter, you must choose your own (unintelligible), and he must choose you.

WORTHINGTON: (as Jake Sully) When?

SALDANA: (as Neytiri) When you are ready.

BLOCK: And off she goes, on that banshee.

CAMERON: And off she goes.

BLOCK: Now, what's she actually doing when she's on that stage in this volume that you're describing? Is she actually riding on something?

CAMERON: Right. Well, there were a couple of things there. When she jumped onto the back of the creature, believe it or not, she was actually jumping onto the back of a really big stunt guy - like, a 280-pound linebacker stunt guy. The object there was to have her land onto an organically moving platform, if you will. And then as she flies, we put her on a different rig, which is the banshee flying rig, which is basically a big fiberglass banshee on a two-axis gimbal. That was moved around by stunt guys. Now, it's not moving through space. It's just sort of rotating in place.

BLOCK: With a film like "Avatar," how do you gin up an emotional performance from one of your actors if they're - you know, on this barren, gray, huge, hangar-like stage with no real visual cues about this world that you have in your head?

CAMERON: Well, my challenge as director is to make it as real for them as possible, and their challenge as an actor is to imbue it with a sense of emotional veracity because, you know, actors don't - they don't really rely on the set that much anyway because even in a live-action set, they look up and they mostly see some grip standing on a ladder with these - you know, and a bunch of bright lights and a bunch of, you know, stands and flags, and that sort of thing. So usually by the time a shot is lit, you can barely see the set from standing where the actors are.

So they don't really feed much from that. What they feed from, in terms of inspiring their performance moment, is the other actors. And so, you know, we found it to be this very kind of pure and very focused work.

BLOCK: You did, though, before you started shooting, you sent the cast to Hawaii, to the rainforest. Why did you do that?

CAMERON: Well, I figured if they're going to work in this austere, gray space, they need something to feed their sense of where they were so they could create a reality, you know? So the concept being, you know, we'll go out into the rainforest, and if it rains, it rains, whatever; and you'll be in some sort of rough version of your tribal wardrobe and then just, you know, kind of hunker down and do a scene right there, in the middle of the jungle. We surprised a few hikers, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Yeah, I bet you did.

CAMERON: ...with, you know, Sam, you know, running around in a loincloth, you know, with a bow and arrow. And...

BLOCK: This is Sam Worthington, the main character.

CAMERON: Sam Worthington, right. Exactly.

BLOCK: What were some of the flaws in other CGI, computer generated imagery films that you saw that you were trying to improve here? What do you think you were trying to do to make it better?

CAMERON: Honestly, I just didn't think they were doing it right. They weren't getting any information from how the eyes are moving. They weren't seeing how the tongue and the lips and the teeth were interacting with each other to form syllables and sounds.

And so by uncoupling the facial capture from the body capture, which is what we did on "Avatar," and using this head-rig or this image-based system, we really got every bit of detail that was needed to reproduce the actors' performance later in the CG character, and I mean down to every tiny amount of tension around the mouth or around the eyes, every blink, every tiny dart, and that all translated exactly to the final characters, which gave a real sense of truth and life to these characters.

BLOCK: It seems like another way that you were trying to sort of capture reality in this incredibly imaginative, fantastic world, is by naming things.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: And I've been looking through a companion book, where every plant, every creature is named. It has a Latin name, it has a name in Na'vi. There's this giant panther called a thanator. And I was looking - its Na'vi name is - how do you say this?

CAMERON: The name I gave it was palulukan.

BLOCK: And it means?

CAMERON: Dry-mouthed bringer of fear.

BLOCK: You know that off the top of your head.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CAMERON: Yeah.

BLOCK: Now, was this...

CAMERON: That's how geeky this is, you know.

BLOCK: Yeah. Well, is that you as a geek? Were you coming up with those names?

CAMERON: Sometimes. I basically surrounded myself by geeks who fed off the same kind of sense of fun of creating a world and some - you know, with a certain level of reality in the way that a novelist like J.R.R. Tolkien would create the world, create the language of the world like Elvish, and I'd always wanted to do that. And it was fun. So, you know, we had an ethnomusicologist and a botanist and an astrophysicist and everybody all sitting around a table for - and it was like a three- or four-day session to come up with all of the Latin names.

I mean, everybody broke apart and did their work separately and came back. It was like generating this giant sort of NASA report.

BLOCK: Do you have a favorite creature or plant from the movie?

CAMERON: I guess I like the banshees the best. The one I had the most direct design input on was the thanator, where I designed its head and upper body. But we had a creature design team, and you know, we broke it up so that, you know, different groups were working on different creatures.

BLOCK: You mentioned that you had drawn, designed, the thanator, the dry- mouthed bringer of fear. Has anybody ever called you the dry-mouthed bringer of fear?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CAMERON: Probably. Not really. I think - you know, there's the legend, and there's the facts. And if the facts don't fit the legend, they print the legend. And so, of course, you know, I had this kind of fire-breathing persona that was mostly created by journalists.

You know, in reality, on the set, I'm pretty crisp, pretty focused, and I don't think I necessarily inspire fear. What I like to inspire is people doing their - you know, bringing their best game, you know, whether it's the actors, whether it's the design artists or the computer artists that have to finally realize these images.

BLOCK: Well, James Cameron, thank you very much for talking with us.

CAMERON: It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: James Cameron, the director of "Avatar." And if you're wondering whether he might go back and update his old movies like "Aliens" or "Terminator" with all this fancy new technology, you can hear what he thinks about that at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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