12 December 2009

From daydreaming to Avatar

I just read an article in Wired called Second Coming, which tells the story of how James Cameron's new movie Avatar came to be. It covers daydreaming about it in 1977 all the way to today (the movie comes out next Friday 18th). The article explains why Cameron seemed to disappear completely after Titanic came out (we haven't seen anything from him in 12 years): he wanted the alien world and its characters to be so realistic that he actually waited for technology to catch up with his visions. Hardware was also behind – a camera that excelled in shooting in both 2D and 3D filming didn't exist yet. He flew all the way to Tokyo with a partner to pitch a new camera technology of this caliber to Sony, and they agreed to produce it. Then he had to convince the movie theatre industry to upgrade theatres all over the country to support screening this new filming technology. It goes on and on, and ends with Fox giving Cameron $250 million for the project. My favorite parts were on the last page, and talked about the excruciating detail that went into dreaming up this fantasy planet called Pandora:
He started by hiring USC linguistic expert Paul Frommer to invent an entirely new language for the Na’vi, the blue-skinned natives of Pandora. Frommer came on board in August 2005 and began by asking Cameron what he wanted the language to sound like? Did he want clicks and guttural sounds or something involving varying tones? To narrow the options, Frommer turned on a microphone and recorded a handful of samples for Cameron.

The director liked ejective consonants, a popping utterance that vaguely resembles choking. Frommer locked down a “sound palette” and started developing the language’s basic grammatical structure. Cameron had opinions on whether the modifier in a compound word should come first or last (first) and helped establish a rule regarding the nature of nouns. It took months to create the grammar alone. “He’s a very intense guy,” Frommer says. “He didn’t just tell me to build a language from scratch. He actually wanted to discuss points of grammar.”
Amazing. Check out this mini "making-of" clip:

Here's some stuff about the planet's plant ecosystem:
[...] Cameron hired Jodie Holt, chair of UC Riverside’s botany and plant sciences department, to write detailed scientific descriptions of dozens of plants he had created. She spent five weeks explaining how the flora of Pandora could glow with bioluminescence and have magnetic properties. When she was done, Cameron helped arrange the entries into a formal taxonomy.
WOW. I would love to hang out with someone with such an insane imagination and tenacious attention to detail. This is just the tip of the iceberg, too – Cameron even had Pandora's atmospheric density calculated. Are you going to see this movie? I'm not that big on this type of science fiction, but I might have to be now.
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