A Behind-the-Scenes Look at How James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ Came to Life

So this week I got a sneak preview at “AVATAR: The Exhibition,” the newest traveling exhibit at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. I am a fan of the James Cameron film and was psyched to see real props and artist reference models as well as learn more about how they developed the world of Pandora and filmed the movie. It’s all fascinating stuff and was truly educational. I even got to act out a scene from the movie on their motion-capture stage and see myself animated as a CGI Na’vi, which was awesome.

Check out my article, which originally appeared on the Jersey City Independent.

Another World: How James Cameron’s “Avatar” Came to Life

Artist models of Neytiri, Jake and Mo'at at 'AVATAR The Exhibition.' Summer Dawn Hortillosa photo

Starting this weekend, traveling to another planet will be as easy as walking into the Liberty Science Center.

“AVATAR: The Exhibition,” LSC’s latest traveling exhibit, will give visitors a behind-the-scenes glance at how the highest grossing film of all time — and James Cameron’s fantastic sci-fi vision of a world called Pandora — came to life.

Exhibit Developer Andrew Prasarn and LSC spokeswoman Mary Meluso gave JCI a sneak preview of the new show. Guests are greeted as they walk into the exhibit by an actual size reproduction of the armored mobile platforms used by human soldiers in the film (each one is 13.5 feet tall and is made with 300 fiberglass pieces mounted in steel). Prasarn says the reproduction, and the models in the movie, were made by the Stan Winston Studio, a company well-known for creating props for science-fiction flicks.

They’ll also see the real bust models (pictured above) of some of the Na’vi, the fictional indigenous people of Pandora, such as deuteragonist Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana), tribe leader Mo’at (C. C. H. Pounder) and the “avatar” Na’vi body of human protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington).

Prasarn says that many elements, like some of the Pandoran wildlife, were meticulously created first through concept sketches (many of which can be viewed on an interactive touch-screen in the exhibit’s mock up of the movie’s link shack research station, seen below) and then through models that served as artist references. “Even when they were making a six-legged creature, they really thought about what muscular system that animal would have and how it would move instead of just sticking six legs on it,” he says.

This touch screen table lets you learn more about the Hallelujah Mountains and other Pandoran curiosities

Other attractions include real props like a human trooper’s rifle, an “exopack atmosphere filtration” system (in short, an oxygen mask that helps humans breathe in the toxic Pandoran atmosphere) and gigantic shoes worn by the larger-than-life Na’vi.

Kids will get a kick out of the interactive parts of the exhibit including a wall of wood sprites that respond to visitors’ movements, a design station that lets them create Pandoran plants inspired by real-life flora much like the filmmakers did and even a multi-player game where they can play bioluminescent aquatic creatures that compete to eat the most fish without getting eaten by larger predators. Guests can also figure out their Na’vi shoe size (the alien creatures are made about 1.6 times larger than humans, so a size 6 human would be about a size 10 Na’vi and a size 10 human would be a size 16.5 Na’vi) and listen to and learn Na’vi phrases (ranging from “Bow and arrow” to “I love you,” to the probably quite useful “You’re standing on my tail!”).

This touch screen table lets you learn more about the Hallelujah Mountains and other Pandoran curiosities

Another part of the exhibit is totally devoted to showing how technology made filming Avatar possible. For example, guests will learn how the actors wore special color-coded suits so cameras could record their movement to be replicated by digital artists. The actors even had special dots applied to strategic locations on their faces by makeup artists so cameras could read their facial expressions.

The motion-capture stage lets you act out scenes from 'Avatar'

Guests will also learn about some of the advanced recording techniques like the Simulcam, which allows directors to see both the actors against green screens and a low-quality mock-up of what the final CGI product will look like at the same time during filming. Another handy tool is a virtual camera, which lets directors manipulate shots within the digital world as if they were operating a real camera. Amateur directors visiting the exhibit can take a shot at using a hand-held monitor similar to Cameron’s virtual camera system to shoot a few iconic scenes from the movie.

Thespians will have fun, too — on a motion-capture stage, guests can act out a scene from Avatar while their movements are recorded by special cameras. Then, they’ll see themselves rendered as animated avatars in a clip of the scene. (See me take a crack at it — I was too focused on following the directions on the floor, though, so expect a very confused-looking Na’vi wandering through the woods!)

“AVATAR: The Exhibition” runs from Saturday, Feb. 16 through May 19 and is included with LSC exhibit admission cost ($16.75 for adults and $12.50 for kids 2 to 12 and seniors). Those who haven’t seen the film (or want to see it again) can catch the flick in 3D at LSC as well. The film will be screened daily from Feb. 16 through Feb. 23 (except on Feb. 21) at 5 pm; tickets are 10 for adults and $8 for kids and seniors. Combination tickets to both exhibit and film can be bought for $23.25 for adults, $18 for kids. For more information, visit LSC’s website. See more pictures on JCI, where this story originally appeared.

On a related note, also opening this weekend at LSC is their Curious George exhibit.

About Summer Dawn Hortillosa

Summer Dawn Hortillosa is a journalist specializing in arts and entertainment. Among other things, she is also an award-winning playwright, director, singer-songwriter and actress. Her work has been seen in The Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal and other publications.
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