James Cameron and Jon Landau Host AVATAR Behind The Scenes Day

AVATAR Director James Cameron and Producer Jon Landau recently hosted a behind the scenes look at the making of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful film.

AVATAR Blu-ray Extended Collector's Edition. Image courtesy of FOX Films.

The all day event, held at Beatrice Studios in Marina del Ray, California, was in conjunction with the release of AVATAR’s Blu-Ray Extended Collector’s Edition and designed to give fresh perspective on the global phenomenon.

Welcome to Pandora. *

The Media Day was an opportunity for the invited world press to get a firsthand look at the making of AVATAR, the intricacies of its development, the dedication of the team and the opportunities it has created for James Cameron, Jon Landau and the cast to lend their support, talent, time and voice to global environmental concerns and as Mr. Landau stated other “social reference points.”

Avatar Producer Jon Landau and Director Jim Cameron at the recent AVATAR Behind The Scenes Day. *

Beatrice Studios, for the day, welcomed the press into the wonderful world of Pandora. Stations, representing stop points in the filming process, were set up throughout the complex with each location an aspect of the films elements. During the twenty minutes sessions, the press met with the creative team, had opportunity to view stages of development,  ask questions and were treated to a session with AVATAR Director James Cameron as he discussed elements of the motion capture technology used to transform the talent into the Na’vi tribe.

Cast Photo Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Joel Moore, Michelle Rodriquez. Image courtesy of FOX Films.

The ten stations visited included Character, Creatures & Vehicles with designers Neville Page and John Rosengrant at Station One; Designing The World with Robert Stromberg and Yuri Bartolli and Costume Designer Deborah Scott, Station Two; Virtual Production with Matt Madden, Nolan Murtha, Richie Beneham, Station Four; Virtual “Green Screen” Production led by Glenn Derry and Richie Baneham.

Station Five: A Look Through The Lens with Director of Photography, Vince Pace; Station Six: Visual Effects with Joe Letteri and Stephen Rosenbaum; Station Seven: The Na’vi World with Language Professor Paul Frommer and Botanist Jodie Holt; Station Eight: Make The CutAVATAR Editors John Refoua and Stephen Rivkin; Station Nine: Amazon Watch A Message From Pandora with the Executive Director of Amazon Watch Atossa Soltani and Christian Poirier and Station Ten: The Sounds of Pandora with Composer James Horner.

Scenes from AVATAR's Blu-Ray Extended Collector's Edition. Image courtesy of FOX Films.

AVATAR as the world understands, is breathtaking with its vivid palette, stunning special effects, inviting storyline and of course, the message, the music, the raw emotion, connection to the human spirit and concern over the human condition.  The sessions were designed to allow the press interaction with the unsung heroes of the astoundingly beautiful film.

Our group began the journey into the world of AVATAR with Amazon WatchA Message From Pandora" with Executive Director of Amazon Watch Atossa Soltani and Christian Poirier. Amazon Watch is one of the social reference points that Mr. Landau mentioned in the day’s opening remarks.

AVATAR Director James Cameron with a tribal leader deep in the Amazon during his mission to raise awareness of the environmental concerns facing this region. *

Atossia Soltani, Executive Director of Amazon Watch approached Mr. Cameron during an event at FOX and as the message of Pandora resonated with them they reached out and Mr. Cameron and his wife, Suzy, agreed to lend their voices and whatever their notoriety is worth to stop the encroaching tide of commercialization in the AMAZON.  At present there are approximately sixty dams under consideration to divert the XINGU River and Amazon Watch is fighting the government to end these projects. No one believes, even Amazon Watch, that every dam will be stopped as, the “government moves forward at all costs with this project,” according to Mr. Poirier. The hope is that a percentage will be. One would be a victory.

As we moved throughout the studio it felt very much like a visit to The Museum of Natural History or a Smithsonian traveling exhibition of native Na’vi culture, customs, sounds and costumes much like an ancient civilization or Native American Exhibition. The depth of detail, the appearance of artifact work, and the AVATAR creative team, the curators of this journey, allowed the opportunity to pick their brains, ask the process questions and to find what challenged them in this endeavor. 

AVATAR Composer James Horner with Producer Jon Landau.

At Station Nine we were introduced to The Sounds of Pandora and Composer James Horner. Having had the opportunity to interview AVATAR Producer Jon Landau earlier this year we spoke on his disappointment with the Academy who was not as responsive as they had hoped. The following is a single question excerpt of the interview:*

Scenes from AVATAR's Blu-Ray Extended Collector's Edition. Image courtesy of FOX Films.

Janet Walker: The Academy wasn’t as responsive as I’m sure you hoped. How do you explain that? 
Jon Landau: Well, number one, I just want to be clear my disappointment with the Academy is not about Best Picture, is not about Best Director. It’s about our technical people in sound and in editing that did not win. Because when I look at what they accomplished, they had to create a world of sound. They didn’t just have to take world sounds and make them work in a movie, they had to create a world of sound and make it live up to the visuals that were up there. That to me was the most disappointing. James Horner who write this incredible score. The people responding emotionally to the movie you don’t do that without a score. Not taking anything away from any of the other movies but just the complexity and the level of detail it is really remarkable. So that’s my disappointment. 

Prop placement for AVATAR Day at Beatrice Studios.

My first question to Mr. Horner was from the response of Mr. Landau.

Janet Walker: What were the challenges of creating sounds indigenous to Pandora, creating a whole new world of sound? 
James Horner: A lot of that had to do with Jim’s take. I don’t know how else to put it. I would create sounds that I thought would sound terrific and no one’s ever heard before and Jim would say, ‘my ears to taken by that sound. I’m going to be listening to that sound too much and not to what is going on around.’ Or it’s funny I’d make a sound and even though it was a sound that no one has ever heard before and it was created especially for the film it sounded like something that you might have heard from an Iranian instrument. It’s amazing how many sounds are sounds like instruments from other countries. I would try and find a flute  that sounded lovely and it would sound like a Chinese flute or it would sound like some weird bagpipes from Scandinavians. It was really hard. I ended up making most of the instruments electronically.  That ended up being the most successful.

Janet Walker: When you say you ‘ended up making most of the instruments’ do you mean the physical instruments?
James Horner: The electronic sound. Yes. They were played then through either a wind instrument or a keyboard type or a percussion type. We had to create a whole world of sound that Jim would buy off on.

Janet Walker: How long was the process?
James Horner:  Quite a few years.

Janet Walker: When you got the order when he hired you on what did he tell you?
James Horner: He wanted me to start working on a whole world of native sounds.
Janet Walker: Did Jim say I want you to go somewhere or retreat  just to your own imagination?
James Horner: Just retreat to my own imagination and any time I would try sounds from countries that wouldn’t work because it would sound like those countries. I tried to find really interesting sounds Scandinavian, Arabian herding, sounds things that were really reaching for color.

AVATAR Composer James Horner. *

Onto Character, Creatures & Vehicles with designers Neville Page, Concept Artist Lead Creature Designer and John Rosengrant, Stan Winston Character Design Supervisor.

John Rosengrate (L) Stan Winston Character Design Supervisor and Neville Page, Concept Artists, Lead Creature Designer. *

Janet Walker: What was the single most challenging obstacle you faced in all that you did?
John Rosengrate: I don’t think we thought of it that way. With Jim your working with an artist. My first movie, I worked with Sam Winston for twenty-five years, my first movie was the first TERMINATOR with him. With Jim he’s a great artist, a hands-on artist, and as artists its fantastic for us because we get someone with such a vision that drives you to create and excel and raise that bar. It’s fun. Challenges? I can think building this (pointing to the props) in four months. Those types of challenges. That’s not fun. The deadlines. It’s fun because we enjoy doing it. It gets you through those deadlines and the three o’clock mornings and you kind of forget about that stuff because you enjoy what you’re doing.

The AVATAR Fighter designed by Neville Page and John Rosengrant.

Janet Walker: Was this all your concept or did Jim bring this to you?
John Rosengrate: I would say that Jim brought it to us.  Speaking for myself Jim has been living, eating, breathing, sleeping with this thing for, when I started in 2005, he’d been with it for ten years plus. When you have a pet project that isn’t quite ready because CG isn’t quite there yet. I’m sure he thought about this thing in traffic a lot. So he knew, in terms of what he couldn’t be very specific and articulate, what was inside and what were to extract.  Jim was open to any ideas and he knew how to wrangle the best ones. I like to say I had more ideas in the film but Jim was behind it all. He had sketches that were very detailed of what the Na’vi and the AVATAR looked like. Where we jumped in was when he started casting people and what was really important to us was that the thru line of the actors and actress were carried through into the design so you could recognize them especially if they were an AVATAR so you could see that but it was important for performance and everything and make those things part of the actors. Jim came to us with enormous amount of information.

Janet Walker: What’s your process?
John Rosengrate: The process now is even evolved since this film . .
Neville Page: It evolved during this film.
John Rosengrate: during this. I mean we started out with simply Photoshop and pencil sketch and clay. And then we ended up with 3-D molding program. A lot of what we do now it goes right into generating a 3-D sculpture along with your design. Now you can manipulate and change that almost as quick as you can in Photoshop if your skilled in those programs. Then you end up with an asset that you can build upon you can print out. It interfaces a little better right now. 

John Rosengrate (L) Stan Winston Character Design Supervisor and Neville Page, Concept Artists, Lead Creature Designer. *

Next, Designing The World with Robert Stromberg, Yuri Bartolli and Costume Designer Deborah Scott familiarized our group on how Pandora became a living, breathing, viable planet.

Robert Stromberg, Art Director and Yuri Bartoli, Supervising Virtual Art Director at Beatrice Studios. *

Robert Stromberg: We thought we would go through briefly how Pandora started. It started with a very small core group and it was really just a small team trying to figure out what this place was.  Ultimately, it started with pencil and paper and sketching and doing really fast things to see graphically what this place might look like. [Deadpanning] So, we were only ask to create an entire world, only space and earth and literally down to the texture of the moss on every rock and everything in between.

Costume Design by Deborah Scott. Image courtesy of FOX Films.

The unique thing about this film is that there are no store bought items. Everything in the movie had to be built or designed either physically, digitally, but definitely everything had to be designed and costumed. So, we had an enormous challenge and this is the first film we actually had three art departments. We had a traditional art department, concepts and rendering; we had a virtual art department, taking those concepts and designs and translating those into crude digital sets that would be used to film on and we also had a physical art department down in New Zealand building the real set and drafting, props. So, enormous challenges, lots of people, lots of things.

Yuri Bartoli, Supervising Virtual Art Director and Costume Designer Deborah Scott. *

Yuri Bartoli: I was lucky enough to be on from the beginning to the end and actually step through, except for building props, those art departments.  I started out with Neville, designing creatures environments, plants and things like that. Like Rob said, it was pencil and paper trying to get ideas out as quickly as possible. Jim would come down and draw with us and we would throw out our scientific ideas. With Rob and other good artists we would start developing the reality of it and how that looked and then the transition from that into building actual costumes and props and see how they moved and what they would look like. What the texture would be with Deborah, and then after that I came back in and started building the environment for Jim to shoot camera. It all happened simultaneously. Except for the very beginning when we were doing the sketching.

The organic nature of the production was unique because the technology allowed Jim to make changes on the fly and create what we used to call these designs feedback. We would design something and then we would hand that off to a prop builder or a CG artist and they would sculpt it in the computer or Deborah might build something and then we would send that off to WETA and they would start putting it together and then they would send it back to us.

The Viperwolf, a creature of the AVATAR night. *

Deborah Scott: By the time I came in the project was pretty well established with what the world would be, what the people would be and it would be a little bit sort of a blank space on how the costumes would be accomplished. I think the biggest challenge is really to understand what was going on and these guys are so familiar and things would come up and I think for one of my first characters the only thing that really existed was the cummerbund and it was like ‘You’re going to make the whole costume around that.’ And it was like, ‘Really do I have to?’ So, I asked Jim, ‘Do I have to and he said, ‘Oh my God, the cummerbund of course you have to.’ 

I think my biggest challenge and my biggest contribution was because they really needed to have due to the nature of the design and the complicated piecing and the weaving, the texture, the beading and the feathers, the animation artists needed to have an actual 3-D textured piece to make it look as real as it looks in the movie. They weren’t really able to draw what they needed . . .

Costume Design by Deborah Scott. Image Courtesy of FOX Films.

Robert Stromberg: It’s also about how feathers move and blow in the wind. It’s really hard to animate that stuff. So they needed something physical to look at. . .
Deborah Scott: It’s like their copy and to copy the movement quality and there is a lot of movement and even though the garments are simple, there is a lot of movement in them.

At this point lunch was called and we moved into the second half of an amazing journey that very few will ever have the opportunity to participate or enjoy and honestly, it was so very different than imagined in every way. The afternoon sessions,  including the time with AVATAR Director James Cameron and closing remarks with Jim Cameron and Producer Jon Landau will be featured in a second article.

The best is yet to come . . . The next article will feature our session with James Cameron discussing elements of the motion capture technology. *

AVATAR’s Blu-Ray Extended Collector’s Edition will feature over an hour of new footage, including a totally new beginning. The viewer will see immediately, when the film begins, they’re seeing something new.  AVATAR’s Blu-Ray Extended Collector’s Edition is set for domestic release on November 16, 2010 and Internationally November 17, 2010.

*Jon Landau, AVATAR Producer, Hosts Blu-Ray Release Screening, Splash Magazines April 2010.

Special Thanks to Warren Betts Communications.

Images where noted (*) by Janet Walker courtesy of Puilse Point Productions, Inc. www.pulsepointproductionsinc.com


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