The Crazy Tech Behind James Cameron’s Avatar

Published 7 years ago by , Updated September 12th, 2013 at 10:36 pm,

avatar poster1 The Crazy Tech Behind James Camerons AvatarIf you haven’t heard, James Cameron’s upcoming sci-fi epic, Avatar, is a movie that is being filmed in photo-realistic, “stereoscopic 3D,” which mixes live-action and CGI imagery in a seamless blend.

We here at Screen Rant felt it was high time we helped get heads wrapped around the future of movie technology that Cameron is ushering in with Avatar – just as he ushered in the era of CGI with Terminator 2. And, in the spirit of sharing, we’ve come up with a layman’s dossier to help make you sound like a tech-wiz when describing Avatar‘s innovative techniques around the water cooler. (You can thank us later.)


Avatar will reportedly be 60% CGI imagery, with a majority of the CG character animation filmed with revolutionary new motion-capture techniques using live actors. The other 40% of film will be live-action imagery, relying on more traditional (but no less spectacular) Cameron-brand visual F/X. The live action sequences were shot on location in New Zealand last Fall/Winter, using the same Fusion 3-D camera system that Cameron helped pioneer for his IMAX feature Ghost of the Abyss in 2003, and which has gone on to make live-action digital 3D fare like Journey to the Center of the Earth possible (much to our shared regret).


To bring his CG characters to life in the most realistic sense, Cameron has reportedly redefined the way motion capture (or “performance capture”) sequences are filmed. His actors wear special bodysuits and head rigs equipped with a standard definition camera that takes constant images of their faces. That data is then transmitted to another camera creating a real-time image of the live actor “wearing” their CGI costume.

“The way we developed the performance capture workflow on ‘Avatar’ is we have our virtual camera, which allows me to, in real time, hold a camera — it’s really a monitor — in my hands and point it at the actors and see them as their CG characters,” Cameron said… “It’s this amazing ability to quickly conjure scenes and images and great fantasyscapes that is very visual…When you are doing performance capture, creatively it’s very daunting. It’s very hard to imagine what it will look like. But if you can see it, if you can have a virtual image of what is it going to be like, then you are there.”

Pretty sick. Makes you wonder if George Lucas had this technology available while filming the Star Wars prequels would we have had to suffer the likes of Jar-Jar Binks? (Really, could any decent human being have given such an obnoxious performance?)

Another new motion capture technique being employed by Avatar is what Cameron and company call “Facial Performance Replacement” (FPR). Basically, FPR allows Cameron to digitally re-work an actor’s facial movements. Lines of dialogue that get changed after principal photography on a scene can still be seamlessly implemented into the finished scene, without the actors having to re-don their body suits and head rigs for another take.

avatar poster1 The Crazy Tech Behind James Camerons Avatar


For Avatar, Cameron wants to further blur the line between live-action imagery and CGI imagery. To that end, he’s come up with something called “Simulcam”–a revolutionary new camera able to superimpose CGI images, over live images being filmed in real-time.

“We turned the set on the soundstage into a capture volume and turned the physical camera into a capture virtual camera, so we were able to integrate CG characters and environments into our live action.” [Cameron said...] “We have people in flying vehicles, and I can see what is outside the window, fed in, in real time.”

Wow, just imagine: movies where the interplay between what is real and what is digital is virtually indistinguishable; CGI environments that truly feel “alive,” rather than hollow, empty, green-screen stages with live actors running around trying in vain to act like they’re immersed in some fantastic world (*cough* Star Wars prequels *cough*).

In addition to inventing a few new filming techniques for Avatar, Cameron hopes the film will have additional impact on the movie business: getting more old films re-mastered and re-released in digital 3D. (Using Cameron-brand conversion technique$, no doubt.)

“The real question is “Where does all this go?” Cameron said. “Are we looking at a situation maybe 10-15 years out where most laptops are sold with 3D stereoscopic screens, most monitors are stereo compatible, most DVD players can run stereo content? … I can see this becoming much more pervasive that we are thinking now.”

At this point, who knows which fork in the road technology will ultimately travel down. But I can’t lie: seeing movies in their full HD, 3D, digital glory from the comfort of my own couch does not upset me. Bring it on, Mr. Cameron, bring it on

Does this new tech make you just a tad more interested in Avatar? Or do you need to see that first trailer drop before the you’ll start getting as jittery and excited as me?

Avatar is slated for a December 18, 2009 release. It’s being directed by James Cameron (duh).

Source: Hollywood Reporter

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  1. After reading all this I find it very difficult to wait such a long time for this film :(

  2. Yeah, I’m trying not to think about it too much. Knowing Cameron it’s going to end up blowing the audience through the back of the theater with how cool it is.

    We ARE talking about the man who directed my all time favorite film: “Aliens.” And yes, dammit, I actually enjoyed “Titanic.”

    Sue me. :-)


  3. Look at it this way Rob, you have plenty of time to get a custom pair of 3-D glasses made! The ones Cameron are wearing look very uncomfortable. :)

  4. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying Titanic. We’re not talking about ET here. ET is overrated to me. But this is Cameron we’re talking about. He is definitely going to blow our minds.

  5. I am a fan of Mr Cameron and the tech sounds fascinating but I still have no idea what the basic plot of Avatar is .
    can someone enlighten me please ?

  6. James Cameron = mental . I think the man has been eaten by his own ego.

  7. Wow. This does make me interested in seeing this movie.

    Now, what’s the plot?!?

  8. Great for the director and cinematographer, though unless I’ve misunderstood this the actors themselves aren’t getting any of this live feed, so aren’t they still going to be running around trying to keep an eyeline with a tennis ball on the end of a broom handle? Seems like a step forward rather than a revolution.

  9. Well TBD, I guess it helps the actors in the sense that after a scene with the broomstick or tennis ball they’re acting against, they can immediately watch the take back on the screen in full CGI and get a good picture of it in their heads. I’m also sure that before he’s done, Cameron will find a way to make digital 3D images visible on the green-screen stage so that actors can act “within the environment” in real-time. Call it a hunch.

  10. Actually that does make a great deal of sense: being able to rehearse a scene involving a lot of CGI, instantly being able to watch it all through, then doing a proper take with that in mind. Good point!

  11. @Zipper

    You can find as much as is known about the plot on our Avatar movie page.

  12. The story??, this movie is all about technology.

    They said the same thing about “Final Fantasy, the Spirits Within”… (Its a new revolution).

    (IMO) this film is alot like FF, its more of a demo film to sell technology.

    (I will totally avoid this film)

    I for one avoid 3D films, I guess I’m old fashioned, I have no desire to see 3D take over. I sincerly hope I’m dead before every film is 3D and tv in your home is 3D,

  13. Yeah, but Cameron’s a great director. George Lucas’ Star Wars I, II and III were all about technology, but he can’t direct (or cast actors) worth a damn.

    At least with Cameron you’re likely to get a compelling story from good performances.


  14. You’d be surprised Vic how many ppl WONT work with him in this town,,,
    He’s trying to make a big comeback with this film ,,,
    I’ll say this, his timing is good, as next year will be a big year for 3D films. Some say 2009 will be the make or break year for 3D,,,
    (I’ll have to read your review as I have no interest in this)

    Something tells me 2009 will be a big year and it won’t be because of Avitar or 3D,,,

  15. Oops

  16. Sorry to dig up yet another old story, but like I’ve said, I’m new here so I’m trying to read up on everything that I’ve missed.

    Anyway, 790, you are kind of overstating the significance of that fact of Cameron’s. Everyone has ALWAYS hated to work with James Cameron. That’s because he such an uncompromising hard-head. But that hasn’t stopped him from making some insanely good movies before.

    I won’t even patronize you people by listing his movies as if you don’t already know what “insanely good” movies I’m referring to.

    Sometimes being hard-headed and uncompromising can make actors resent you, but if you’re good enough, you’ll get them to do the scene right anyhow. And it seems Cameron is good enough. Sometimes being a “nice guy” is not conducive to getting great performances in a compelling film. Some of the greatest parts in the greatest films are simply not easy parts to play and some actors might not be able to handle the stress or proactively put in the effort themselves without a drill sergeant of a director like James Cameron giving them an incentive to.

    And you can clearly see the difference the director can make on the performance of actors. Arnold is not exactly an academy award winning actor to say the least. And lamen might think that playing a robot is easy. Good example is how Kristanna Loken seemed to think that all you had to do is scrunch your lips and walk real stiff everywhere to play a convincing Terminator. But after seeing this compared to the Terminator performance by Arnold in the first two films, you realize, there might be more to it. Maybe you can’t pinpoint what it is exactly, but you notice the difference.

    And to drive this point home, compare Arnold’s performance as the Terminator from T1 and T2 with his performance in T3. Same actor, same role, but big difference in how convincing the acting was. And you thought all he had to do was act like he wasn’t human…

    In T2, Arnold delivered his lines in a manner that seemed overly proper, making it kind of not typical of human speech, but it was not overly stereotypical robotic speech. In T3, he delivered his lines like the stereotypically corny “Danger danger, danger Will Robinson” robotic manner. It is almost a shame that he cannot bring himself to act well without the guidance of a good director, but it appears that is the case. Or maybe he just didn’t have his heart in the performance, which is another likely possibility. But if this was the case, and Mastow was just too “nice” to drive it home to him that he needs to do it better, then ultimately it becomes an example of how a weak “nice guy” director can ruin the performances in a film. Cameron would have been tougher (although all the time hoping Arnold won’t beat his ass) on him to get the scene and the dialog right…

    I can’t think of any other good example of where a certain actor plays the same character in different ways, the only other time this happens under different direction is Sigourney Weaver in the Aliens movies. Now I’ve seen Alien 3 and 4 maybe a few times, but don’t remember too much about them, so I can’t specifically point out if her performance was actually worse in the other movies compared to Aliens under Cameron’s watch, but I’ve seen her in other movies and while she’s always been a “good” actress, I think she displayed an intensity level in Aliens that you probably wouldn’t see anywhere else. She was great in Alien too, but Ridley Scott is no hack either…

    I don’t know, I highly doubt that Cameron being hard to work with will have any negative effect on his ability to make great films and I doubt Cameron will allow this film to end up just being a technology display.

    Comparing this film that James Cameron has spent years on to Final Fantasy is pretty ridiculous in my opinion, but I guess we won’t know the whole picture until we at least see some footage from it.

    But man,I was hoping it would be the beginning of 2009, but it is toward the end. I almost wish it was possible to just freeze me until it comes out so I can see it immediately… This will be the hardest 13 months EVER…

    At least hopefully by March I will have Operation Flashpoint 2 to keep me entertained…

  17. @Vic

    About Aliens being your favorite movie, mine is Terminator 2, also Cameron, and Aliens is probably 2nd place. It’s hard for me to pick a top list of all time, but I know Aliens is right up there.

    This much I can tell you. That first action scene in Aliens where the Marines first encounter the Aliens and are getting slaughtered and Ripley had to drive that APC to go rescue them, that has got to be one of THE best action scenes EVER made. I am on the edge of my seat EVERYTIME I see that scene, lol.

  18. I have no disire to ingage you in discussion Ken J,,,

    Your a Cameron lover and that’s cool,,, rock on.

  19. Um, thanks?

    I was just stating my opinion that I doubt this will just be a display of technology and will have any similarity to FF and explaining why I think so. So wasn’t really expecting much of an argument from an opinion. But ok.

  20. 790, to what are you refering to(if anything) with “Something tells me 2009 will be a big year and it won’t be because of Avitar or 3D,,,”. I’m curious…

  21. @Jone
    Things are picking up speed,,,

    A lot can happen in the meantime, and will.

    Read between my lines.

  22. 790,
    i just thought you had something in your sleeve and wasn’t revealing, know what i’m saying… This because considering something big is coming and not because of Avatar which, beign a Cameron fan or not, is probably one of the major, if not “the major”, step forward in movie making techiques and technology in the last decade or more. I live in Portugal, which, generalizing, is by no means a country with a great cinema culture, and myself beign an enormous movie buff and cinephile, i’ve been following this project for at least 3 1/2 years now, even when James Cameron was going to direct Battle Angel first and then Avatar, always updating and reading a lot of information about it. I also have no interest in raising a discussion and i respect your position, what i mean is that i do think that this will be a big revolution and a big phenomenon, like Aliens or T2 or Titanic were(even though i don’t like this kind of comparisons, cause for me each movie has its own value and life and i feel that comparing films is most of the times a mistake). Well, i won’t bother you anymore and let’s wait to see what Avatar and J.Cameron reserves us.:)

    P.S. I also think a lot of great things are coming meanwhile.:)

  23. Its no prob Jone,,,
    (Hey Portugal !!)

    I sometimes let my world opinions slip into my opinions on movies and new tech.
    I can say this, 3D is about to become more integrated into films and more and more theaters are going to get upgrades in that area…

    I don’t mind answering any questions from anyone, sometimes I just come off like a total jerk,,, its nothing personal,,,
    I’m just generally angry around elections. 8-)

  24. I just hope Cameron doesn’t run away with this whole environment stuff. We all know he’s a bit of a hippy, but so far he hasn’t turned any of his movies into political rants, so let’s hope he doesn’t start now…

  25. I think we can expect some cool stuff with a great story, he is one of the rare directors who hasn’t fallen into pop corn crap or overdone oscar nominee publicity.

    A great man who’s very passionate about his craft and substance there is in his films.

  26. Avatar was fantastic on a few levels and is worth seeing by every human alive on the earth. What CGI is still terrible at is when human forms jump. The act of jumping looks terrible in CGI and continues to look awful even in Avatar. I am unsure what the technical issue is with jumping and why it look so cartoon like.

  27. Cameron has saved the theater business, well for me anyway. My home theater produces an image far superior to most local theaters. Since I built it I have gone to less than one movie per year. But if 3D can deliver something I can not get at home, I am there. It will take years to get 3D adopted in the home. Americans are painfully slow at adopting new technology. It has been over 10 years to get America to buy into HD tv! The majority of the public still does not understand why Bluray is better than DVD! First you have to convince them to get an HD display, Hd programming, then Bluray then 3d? Sounds like a LOOOONG road to me. Wake up people, we are living in the most marvelous time for home entertainment. Get the best you can afford!

  28. AVATAR is my kind of film. Word for word, ation for ation, If I made a film it would be exacly like that. WE NEED A LOT MORE FILMS LIKE THIS!!!!!