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The creatures of 'Avatar' were 15 years in the making

By Alex Ben Block
Dec 10, 2009, 03:57 PM ET

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In 1994, director James Cameron and his friend Stan Winston -- who worked together on "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" -- became officers of the fledgling Digital Domain, ayear-old special effects house based in Venice, Calif. That was the curious genesis of "Avatar."

"I figured the best way to drive the company," Cameron says, "was to make a movie that would push them hard."

The movie he came up with not only pushed everyone hard (though not Digital Domain, which wasn't ultimately part of the production); it also tested the limits of filmmaking. With a costestimated anywhere from $200 million-$350 million, including research and development, it will finally be released Dec. 18.

It is an enormous risk for Fox, the company that has bankrolled it with help from Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Media. It is an even bigger risk for Cameron, whose reputation may sink or swim with this, his first feature since 1997's "Titanic." But risk was the lastthing he thought of when the movie began to percolate in his mind.

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He wanted a picture as big as the epics of his youth, like "The Man Who Would Be King" or "Lawrence of Arabia," and one that dealt with a similar clash of cultures. "A person comes in contact with a different culture and has to make changes,"Cameron explains. "He must change his perceptions, learn how to assimilate and prove himself within that new world."

He also wanted a film that would push movies to the next level, just as Cameron had done pushed boundaries in exploring the deepest oceans for documentaries, and in developing a new generation of 3D cameras, the Fusion system.

Cameron wrote a treatment to encapsulate his idea,but his dreams crashed to the ground when he learned that the technological tools to deliver it had not yet been developed and when preliminary cost projections made the film prohibitive.

"They pushed back a little at (Digital Domain) when they read my treatment," he says. "I set 'Avatar' aside until I saw some glimmer out there that the technology for performance capture and humanoid facialanimation was reaching a more mature level."

It was not until 2002, when he saw Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," that he realized such facial animation was plausible. But the new technology was still just the beginning of a multiyear process.

At the time, Cameron was developing "Battle Angel," about a female cyborg. In April 2005, he and producer Jon Landau went to see Foxchairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos and "told the studio that all the CG and performance capture we were looking at for 'Battle Angel' would apply to 'Avatar' as well," Cameron says. "So I pitched the idea: We would set up a facility, figure out how to do this and amortize our research and development costs over both movies, which is still the game plan."

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|James Cameron, left, with Sam Worthington on the "Avatar" set. | |

Before any of the cast was in place, before a budget was done, Cameron and his team looked at the realm of the possible, so that technology could become "an enabling factor" in Landau'swords, and not a hindrance. Toward that end, Landau and Cameron brought in Giant Studios, which had a proprietary motion capture system that would allow Cameron to direct CGI characters in real time. (Until then, live action was shot separately and married to the CG later.) They also hired Rob Legato, who had developed an early concept for virtual production for Martin Scorsese's "Aviator." In...