The Avatar: Mind-Blowing Visuals, the Behind-the-Scenes Technology, and the Innovation
‘Avatar’, directed by James Cameron, was a fifteen year in the making project that would forever change the cinematic landscape by following the journey of a paraplegic marine who is torn between following orders or fighting for the native people of Pandora as a Human/Na’vi hybrid called an avatar. However, this film is not just about its plot, it holds a place in film history as a significant marker for technical innovation – technology that has been able to bring dreams into reality – all because of this film. This critical four-level analysis of ‘Avatar’ will cover its technical make-up, semiotic analysis, artistic value, and its contribution to culture.
Level One – The Technical Side
James Cameron is a Canadian director famously known for directing worldwide renowned films such as ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Titanic’, and his 2009 film ‘Avatar’ is no exception to his list of visual spectacles. The film effectively manipulates purposeful shots sizes, framing, and unimpeachable filmography. Cameron has managed to not let a single shot go to waste, every shot within ‘Avatar’ has a purpose. Such as when the camera lingers on Jake’s avatar gripping the dirt – a sensation he has not felt in years due to his injury. Or when the pace between shots quickens when he is being chased by alien wildlife – used purposefully to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. Or other times in frantic emotional scenes where the camera goes handheld – and many, many more after that.
‘Avatar’s’ characters have been molded to fit Vladimir Propp’s seven-character personae theory in which there is the hero, the helper, the villain, the false hero, the donor, the dispatcher, and the princess. The hero of ‘Avatar’ is Jake Sully – the character that the audience relates to most – he is clearly the hero because of his moral dilemma, sympathetic backstory, and main orientation within the narrative. The helper – who gives the hero knowledge and support in critical moments is Dr. Norm Spellman. Not only does he fight alongside the Na’vi as an Avatar, but he also appears in critical moments, for example: He was the one that told Jake that the company was coming to destroy the home tree and also detailed Jake’s rescue during the climax.
The villain of the film is Selfridge who is the driving force behind the company’s antagonistic motives with the intent of mining the mineral regardless of the effects on the Na’vi. The company that his character is representative of is also the false hero of the film. They were promising to help the Na’vi people but really wanted their land to exploit the natural resources. The company used and manipulated Jake to find out their vulnerabilities, so they could destroy their literal connection to the planet by getting rid of the heat of the connection – the home tree. The dispatcher is Colonel Quaritch, as he is head of the company’s security detail and is the one that dispatches Jake on his mission and manipulates him to spy on the Na’vi. The Donor of the film is Jake’s mentor Dr. Grace Augustine. Exobiologist and head of the Avatar program, she provides the hero with the with the necessary technology and is also an advocate for peaceful relations with the Na’vi. However, after she is used unknowingly by the company she is killed. And finally, the princess. The female Na’vi Neytiri, the daughter of the leader, is Jake’s love interest and is what he seeks to save. She also fights by his side and he aims to protect her at all costs.
The film follows the same structure as most other films - formulated but effective – the climax mountain. In the orientation the audience is introduced to the extra-terrestrial world of Pandora – a mystical, primal planet filled with mysterious flora and fauna. In this orientation, the audience is also introduced to the main characters of the film. The first turning point of the film is the disturbance in which it is revealed that the human colony is split between two sides – nature-loving scientists and the money-grubbing company. When asked to spy on the Na’vi Jake must choose which side of the pre-existing conflict he will align with. Jake is then thrown into an unfamiliar situation, lost and fending for himself in the Pandora wilderness until he is rescued by the Na’vi female, Neytiri. In the second act of the film, Jake is thrown in the middle of the central conflict and begins to go against the directives from the colonel and the company while also being antagonized by the humans and the Na’vi. The central conflict of the film is the opposition between the Na’vi and the company’s mercenaries. The turning point and climax of this act is the destruction of the Na’vi’s home tree thus ensuring the third act’s final showdown and resolution. In the final showdown, the Na’vi goes to war with the humans and the planet itself fights back. In the resolution of the film, the humans are sent away with the exception of the Avatar team and Jake transfers his conscience into his Avatar.
The editing pace of the film keeps the audience in sync with the narrative by using slower cuts during scenes between the climax which uses quick and suspenseful cuts to keep the flow.
Level 2 - The deeper meaning
‘Avatar’ has many symbols throughout its duration, some more obvious than others. One of the subtler symbols is in the character of Grace. She wears un-authoritative clothing in a military environment which sets her apart as the approachable and motherly figure which is representative of her character where she is a scientist and teacher to the Na’vi children as well as her role as Jake’s mentor. A subconscious symbol within the film is the Avatar Program. It parallels with ideas of Hinduism and reincarnation of the soul. Hindu gods such as Krishna and Rama are both depicted with blue skin and markings and an Avatar was an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods taking flesh form – a direct link to the film. The film uses signs to convey meaning through names, the most obvious of them is Unobtanium which was the mineral the company was trying to exploit. And suggested by its name un-obtanium, it is ultimately unobtainable to the humans and their villainous goals. The other sign is the planet's name – Pandora. This is directly signing to the story of Pandora’s box. In Greek mythology, Pandora’s box is an artifact in which once opened entails complicated problems. Directly linked to the film by theme of essentially not opening “the box” and leaving the planet alone, the humans have started a series of problems which is ultimately their downfall. Another significant sign is the representation of the Na’vi’s connection to the land. This is signed by the Na’vi having a special braid which connects to the planet’s flora and fauna – a literal connection to the land. This aligns with the Native American culture of giving back to the land and the parallel theme of Native American oppression in colloquial America which is also symbolised in the film through the disequilibrium between the humans and the Na’vi who represent the Native Americans. The company wants to get rid of them because they are sitting on top of the biggest vein of unobtanium and by removing them it would make it easier and get rid of the problem. It echoes what happened to the native Americans and the displacement and removal from their land which is directly what the movie is trying to reflect. The film is also a sign as an environmental parable. It is a broader and less politicised metaphor which at the time was a relevant issue called the climate crisis – destroying nature as humanity and our ability to preserve it – however, this metaphor is applied to us here in 2019 more than it ever did before.
Discourses, Binary Oppositions, Commutation
‘Avatar’ did not necessarily open up any new debates but was a representation of the discourses in media at the time. The political respect for the Native Americans and the rate at which the environment was being damaged. It also dealt with the discourse of the Iraq war and it was openly debated whether Cameron took a stand again the Americans in the war. ‘Avatar’ was also accused of using “villainous American characters to misrepresent facets of militarism, capitalism, and imperialism”.
There are a few binary oppositions within the film, this is best represented through the characters of Grace and the colonel. Grace is a nature-loving scientist who seeks to genuinely help the Na’vi people and harmlessly study the planet whereas the Colonel is fiercely loyal to his military code and has a profound disregard for the Na’vi people and Grace’s work. He will stop at nothing to complete his mission from the company. This dynamic affected the film. Another binary opposition is the contrast between places. The human military base is a cold, harsh and a militarized environment whilst Pandora’s flora is colorful, mystical, and is welcoming to the Na’vi people. The contrast between the places is rather stark and is obvious to the audience.
Level Three – Artistic Value
There’s no doubt about it, ‘Avatar’ is more than just a paving stone when it comes to the technical innovation that was required to make this film. Only 25% of the movie used traditional live performances and the remaining 75% was made entirely with 3D cameras that had to be specifically invented for this film. So much so, that when Cameron initially wanted to start filming in the late 90s he decided that the technology was not yet advanced enough to accommodate his vision – thereby delaying its production for a further 10 years. The technology was first used in Cameron’s 2002 film ‘Lord of the Rings’ but still required an actor on a traditional set. The animators had to use his motions to animate the character afterward whereas in ‘Avatar’ the physical movements of the actors and their fictional surroundings were brought to life instantaneously through motion-capture technology, ahead rig for facial capture, and the Simulcam which let Cameron see the actual CG environment they were shooting in before post-production. This technology today is something we can expect from any film that uses a complex CGI character – so much so that we don’t even think twice about it. Take hulk for example, or even modern-day video games – all made possible because of this film.
Can ‘Avatar’ be considered a piece of art? Certainly. The wide range of CG visuals is so impressive and stunning that it is more than just visually pleasing. It’s a visual experience. Audiences didn’t just turn up to be engaged in the story, they came to witness the 3D spectacle and the colorful and fantastical world of Pandora.
This film was not unpredictable because of its narrative, themes, or discourses but was unpredictable in its visuals which was its main selling point. Audiences turned up to see this film in 3D and the new technology that was invented for the film had never been seen on screen before. Audiences were expecting a visual joyride, but they were unprepared for a movie that was designed to be seen in 3D. The CGI managed to close the distance between science fiction and real life. Cameron wanted the audience to be immersed in his fictional world, to think and experience it as a reality they were invested in. And from my personal experience of seeing this film in the 3D cinema, the CGI and fictional environment was so stunning that it made the audience’s jaw drop.
Complexity is shown through Cameron’s ability to use every single shot purposefully and has a deeper meaning to it. Another complexity is the narrative. The film switches between the storyline of the humans and the Na’vi while centering on Jake and plot progression while not confusing the audience – at any one time, the audience knows what is going on as has the knowledge to piece together the film.
Level Four – Contribution to Culture
The curious case of ‘Avatar’ is a well-known one. It is a film that almost everyone has seen but when you ask them to recall the story, most of them will have forgotten what it was about. ‘Avatar’ did not have a big impact on culture except for a minority who formed a fanbase. However, it did manage to leave a lasting impact on the film industry and the science fiction genre. The technology that was invented for the film became widely used throughout cinema and as every year went by the CGI in film and motion capture abilities would continue to improve to the point where filmmakers could successfully use a CGI character in a film and no one could tell the difference. ‘Rouge One’ is exceptionally good at this with the resurrection of Peter Cushing.
With the release of ‘Avatar’ and it’s CGI, audiences' expectations heightened for future films. They saw what could be done and wanted more. So as the years went on the quality of CGI has improved even more than it was in 2009.
The film had a budget of 237 million and 150 of that was purely marketing. It used Facebook, Twitter, and myspace to promote the film on a social media following but they also used online interactive experiences to get the word out as well as cut deals with popular brands and TV shows. Promoting online and through social media platforms was nothing new back in 2009 but it was just beginning to gain popularity and become mainstream. Postage stamps and a video game were even made. The film’s extensive marketing was what helped it reach 2.79 billion in the box offices. It remained as the box office world record for 10 years but finally lost it place to ‘Avenger: Endgame’ in 2019.
Avatar’s narrative is textbook strong in a good way, but truly it’s a film you watch for its mind-blowing visuals, the behind-the-scenes technology, and the innovation that this film ensured. Because ultimately this film was an important milestone in the industry which forever changed the audience’s mind on what was possible and what the exciting future of film could become.
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