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'Avatar': FX's 'Creating the World of Pandora' special got me thinking...

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Last night, FX aired a 30-minute special called Avatar: Creating the World of Pandora. For those of you who know all about Avatar‘s groundbreaking production (and I’m guessing that’s a lot of you), this mini-documentary didn’t offer many new insights. However, for those who still have no idea how James Cameron created the awesome 3-D spectacle that is Pandora, the TV special would rapidly get those moviegoers up to speed. The program began with Cameron making a speech to his crew on the first day of production in 2007, and even then he was giving the same spiel about how he initially developed Avatar in 1995, but had to wait for the technology to catch up with his vision.

From that starting point, the special bolted from one phase of the production to the next. During the “Casting” segment, we briefly got to see the initial screen tests from Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, and we learned about the exhaustive training the latter had to endure during to “become” a Na’vi (e.g. archery instruction, horseback-riding training, dialect lessons). The program reinforced the idea that Saldana and her costars weren’t merely “voice actors.” Instead, their whole performance — body movements, facial expressions, and so forth — was the basis for what eventually became digital characters. The cast also trekked through the rainforests of Hawaii to get an idea of what it would feel like to step foot on Pandora.

The “Performance Capture” chapter of the show discussed the Virtual Camera designed specifically for Avatar, which allowed Cameron to move around an L.A. warehouse and see real-time CG renderings of his characters and landscapes. Simply by manipulating the Virtual Camera, Cameron could map out the camera movements he wanted in Pandora as if he were really there with an actual camera. Then there was the 3-D Fusion Camera, which Cameron used to shoot all of the live-action scenes. And just when you thought you’ve seen all the revolutionary cameras your noggin can handle, Cameron started talking about the Simul-Cam, which integrated the two aforementioned cameras to allow him to view various CG creatures on his screen while shooting a live-action scene. It gives me a headache just thinking about the complexity of this technology.

On a side note, during Friday night’s Critics’ Choice Awards, Avatar swept nearly all of the art and technical awards, winning Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing, Visual Effects, and Sound. The last three awards all make perfect sense to me. However, when you start discussing categories such as Cinematography, Art Direction, and Make-Up (which Avatar lost to District 9), these things start getting tougher to determine. Should there be a distinction between building actual sets and designing virtual sets in a computer? One could argue that the make-up for the Na’vi was excellent, but should that be considered as make-up or as a visual effect? And how do you judge the cinematography for a movie in which most of the shots occurred in a virtual setting?

These are questions that the Academy Awards will have to deal with this year and increasingly in the near future. In my view, cinematography and make-up should be reserved for live-action films, but I have no problem honoring Avatar‘s art direction, especially since so many of the sets for live-action films are created via CGI anyway (see last year’s winner, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). It’s a fuzzy line, though, and I could easily see my opinion changing a few years down the road.

What about you, PopWatchers? Should Avatar be considered for every tech award a predominantly live-action film would be eligible for? And who here can’t wait to see a full-length documentary — not just a 30-minute special — about the making of Avatar?

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