The Not-So-Brief History of James Cameron's Avatar

December 17, 2009  |  2:30pm

The marketing campaign for James Cameron’s Avatar is moving at a furious pace, now that we’re only one day away from the long-anticipated release. Of course, we’re definitely guilty of adding to that hype here at Paste, but the court intrigue surrounding a movie 14 years and half a billion dollars in the making is pure catnip to movie lovers. Positive buzz aside, there’s a pretty fascinating backstory behind Cameron’s promises to forever change the face of cinema. So come with us on a journey, dear reader, as we recount the story Avatar.

Cameron first wrote the script for Avatar in 1994, claiming inspiration from the science-fiction books he read as a kid. And in 1996, he announced the movie, claiming that after he finished Titanic, he would begin filming. Cameron went through various script drafts and work agreements with production companies for the next decade. Actual production on the movie didn’t begin until February of 2007.

The production delays were due to the fact that the technology needed to bring Cameron’s vision for Avatar to the screen simply didn’t exist in the mid-’90s. It was only after the movie’s production team created the much-touted Reality Camera System that filming began. The RCS combined two HD-film cameras in a single unit to create the sense of depth perception needed for a true 3-D movie; in effect it simulates real, human sight.

The other major piece in this puzzle was the creation of the virtual-camera system. This system allows a camera to interact in real-time with a motion-capture system, letting a director observe how an actor’s computer-generated counterpart will appear in the film. Cameron described it to the New York Times as a “big, powerful game engine. If I want to fly through space, or change my perspective, I can. I can turn the whole scene into a living miniature and go through it on a 50 to 1 scale.”

With all that jargon and cash flying around, the movie naturally accumulated tremendous hype. Avatar’s first teaser trailer made its way to the internet in August, and we finally got our first look at how Cameron’s vision would actually play out onscreen:

The reaction was lukewarm, to put it mildly. The whole thing looked well-polished, sure, but this trailer was just terrible. Was this the best Cameron could do with total creative control, half a billion dollars and the most technologically advanced film equipment in cinema at his disposal? How could the director of some of the greatest sci-fi movies ever put to celluloid have failed this spectacularly? The film’s critics were seemingly vindicated; by all accounts Avatar was the big, expensive (and apparently Yes-inspired) boondoggle they expected it to be.

All of this was before anyone had actually, you know, seen the movie.

And in what must have been a real nadir in Cameron’s career, South Park executed a brilliant bit of cultural cross-polination. The show lampooned Avatar’s retelling of the Pocahontas story as analogous of Eric Cartman’s Dances With Smurfs:

But then a second, much-improved theatrical trailer came out. The dialogue was still pretty hamfisted, and Michelle Rodriguez is still a one-note character actor to rival even John Cusack and Michael Cera, but this trailer at least made it look like there was the heart of a true-blue sci-fi epic pulsing underneath all that World Of Warcraft-esque art direction:

And so, here we are. After Avatar’s debut in London last week, initial reviews began to filter in. Not only were they positive, but they indicated the movie was worthy of the tremendous hyperbole heaped on it. In fact, Paste liked it so much that we updated the Best Films of 2009 list published in our December/January issue (on newsstands now) to include Avatar in the number-one spot. So when you go to the movies tomorrow, remember as you watch the CG spectacle unfolding in front of your 3-D glasses that there’s a back story to this movie even more epic than an all-out war between humans and smurfs.

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