How Avatar pulled off the award-winning shot that captured the 'spirit of the film'
Each month in the pages of EW, we're chatting with the filmmakers, actors, and others involved in capturing an iconic shot in movie history. This edition of The Shot examines Avatar's not-so-simple sip of water.
While director James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar is full of action, it's the quiet, provocative shot of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) drinking water from a leaf that won 2010's Best Single Visual Effect at the VES Awards. "Going in, it's not the kind of shot that you'd think will stand out," admits Joe Letteri, Avatar's senior visual-effects supervisor. "But we realized that it caught the spirit of the film — showing how these characters understand and live within their environment."
But before they were stuck on a soundstage for filming, Cameron, Saldana, and Sam Worthington went to Hawaii to get the feel of a Pandora-like forest. Recalls Letteri: "This shot was something that Jim staged with Zoe in Hawaii, finding a big leaf and having her drink out of it, so that she'd really have that in her head."
There was no actual leaf when it came time to film; Saldana was in a motion-capture suit as someone poured water directly into her mouth. Letteri says the biggest challenge was perfecting the natural flow from a CG plant to a CG figure, especially since nailing such a small, human act was crucial in selling this world.
"To me, those kinds of moments are really emblematic of what we try to achieve with the characters, the performance, and setting it in this world that we've never seen before," he explains. "Everyone understands drinking, so if we make those moments feel as real as possible, then you have a character that audiences will follow."