“Avatar,” the 2009 film directed by James (“Jim”) Cameron redefined sci-fi storytelling in a groundbreaking way. Through the use of advanced computer-generated imagery and motion capture technology, “Avatar” depicts the planet Pandora and its inhabitants known as the Na’vi — blue skinned, four-fingered, intricate beings that share a connection to nature on a spiritual level. The story follows a tale very similar to that of human history with its themes of colonial harm done to the indigenous people of Pandora and the adverse effect of human activities on their environment.
Humans are the main antagonists of the film, and conflict arises when the Na’vi refuse to be antagonized. After its initial release, “Avatar” became the highest-grossing film of all time and the first to garner up to $2.5 billion worldwide. It has since attained over $2.8 billion dollars worldwide, gained a devoted fanbase … and had its sequels delayed a total of eight times.
Cameron — known previously for his work on films like “Titanic” and the “Terminator” franchise — decided there would be four sequels following the film’s success, the first of which was set to premiere in 2014. However, “Avatar 2” was pushed back each year from 2014 to 2020 and then was set to appear in cinemas in 2021. For a good amount of time, all the public was aware of was the constant scheduling conflicts facing both members of the cast and crew over the years. This was believed to be the primary cause of the sequels’ recurring delays, but it is only a small factor in the chain of events.
Although he has five total movies planned, Cameron originally believed the story would play out as a trilogy. Perhaps more interestingly, Cameron has decided to film all of them at the same time. This decision was not made to ensure the films were completed at the same time, nor was it so the films would be released more closely together. Originally, the “Avatar” sequels were slated to premiere two years apart, so the multiple postponements to the production of “Avatar 2” continue to delay the franchise’s final, overall resolution.
Many do not bother to acknowledge the true intricacies of “Avatar” and how its entire production from conception to development are not the kinds of activities that can be carried out like nothing. Cameron admits to having written 1500 pages of notes when he first got the idea for “Avatar.” To bring his vision to life, Cameron had to construct a world of his own. Pandora’s bioluminescent vegetation and the Na’vi people’s culture and language are not things that can be easily translated from Cameron’s imagination; large masses of land were purchased to build the world of Pandora, and real linguistics professors were recruited to create the Na’vi language.
Cameron didn’t go small for the first installment in the franchise, and he surely wasn’t going to for the ones to come. For example, it was revealed that the sequels’ plots will involve underwater activity, so Cameron developed new motion capture technology to allow submerged shooting. More industry-shaking innovation will surely be seen with each release.
Cameron not only insisted on having four different writing teams to build upon the plot of “Avatar,” he also wanted to meet with each to ensure they enhanced his narrative. The team effort that went into telling the story was as extensive as the construction of Pandora. The storytelling is only a piece of the entire vision that would come to life to create what was seen on screen. A little-known fact is that Cameron pitched “Avatar” in its most primordial state to 20th Century Fox, 15 years before its release in 2009. After getting the idea in 1995, Cameron was ready to pursue “Avatar” as a project following the end of the production of “Titanic.” This, of course, was not possible at the time because the technology needed to animate Cameron’s vision did not exist.
Computer-generated imagery was good for many jaw-dropping effects in cinema, but motion capture didn’t exist. The simulated environment and photorealistic versions of the characters were the cake everyone wanted to eat while the motion capture was the icing on top. With the help of Weta Digital — the technology behind the advanced CGI witnessed in “Lord of the Rings” — it was possible for the images to be reconstructed through programming to show emotion. Cameron got to create both caricature and character thus allowing his vision to unfold.
Any lover of cinema familiar with Cameron’s work knows he is a perfectionist. His process does not leave room for anything less than. To surpass his own high standards, Cameron sought out the creation of new technology to capture the aquatic life on Pandora. Cameron, being his most authentic self, tasked his cast and himself to figure out underwater filming. It wasn’t enough to voice-over CGI characters that appeared underwater; complicated motion capture suits were made so the cast members could be fully submerged. A 900,000-gallon tank was used for filming, and the cast had to undergo breath control training so they could spend multiple minutes submerged.
Another challenge faced by the franchise’s production has to do with the production companies involved. In 2009, Avatar was a product of 20th Century Fox and Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, but the former was the main owner. Ten years following the release of “Avatar,” 20th Century Fox was purchased by the Walt Disney Company. This allowed Disney to have Fox, Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm all under one, big blockbuster belt. Thus, the worlds of Pandora, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars” saga are being distributed by the same hand. This means serious competition.
On “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” James Cameron was asked about “Avengers: Endgame” surpassing “Avatar” as the highest-grossing film and if the sequel would aim to “reclaim” its rank. Cameron gave remarks on his primary concern, stating, “It’s good to see the first film still getting such a positive reaction, but I think we need to pray that the theaters are still there for the movies to come in order to maintain that sacred experience of cinema.”
In an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 2020 Austrian World Summit on climate action, Cameron revealed how the COVID-19 pandemic caused yet another obstruction that delayed production for the film franchise. According to Cameron, “Avatar” — one of the first films to resume production — lost four-and-a-half months during quarantine, which caused them to roll back the release date another year. He also revealed that “Avatar 2” is complete while “Avatar 3” is nearly finished. As of now, December 2022 is when we can look forward to receiving this long-awaited continuation of the monumental cinematic masterpiece that is the “Avatar” franchise. Ardent viewers would agree that “Avatar” is not just a movie, it is an experience worth having time and time again while waiting for new installments to come.