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James Cameron’s Intricate Insanity on Display at ‘Avatar: The Exhibition’

Written by on February 26, 2013 

We recently visited the East Coast premiere of James Cameron and 20th Century Fox’s Avatar: The Exhibition at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, where one can learn more about the technology that made the film and see how biology from our own world influenced the world of Pandora. Check out our experience below, followed by a video captured of the exhibition.

Most of us have built our own universes at one point or another. As a kid, my brother and I made a home movie called Lego City. We used my dad’s camera and basically just did a puppet show with Lego men. The Muppet Movie it was not, but we did have a great time and, for a few moments at least, it felt like we had built our own little world.

This world building, albeit on a massive scale, was the burden James Cameron put on himself and his crew when he set out to make Avatar. By now, you’re probably sick of hearing about all the new technology that was developed for the film, and the years of research that went into the animals and Navi and so on. Believe me, I thought I was too.

The truth is, you can read trade articles and film blogs until you’re blue in the face (*ahem*), but there’s something special about seeing the work unfold before your eyes. Avatar: The Exhibition is basically a 4,000 square foot explanation of how science helped build the most successful movie of all time. It is also a grand testament to the vision (and borderline insanity) of James Cameron.

What’s unique about the exhibits at Liberty Science Center (LSC) is their commitment to interactive education. No one walks into the LSC expecting a conventional museum experience, and the Avatar exhibit does not disappoint. Among the more conventional props encased in glass and information plaques, there is also a smart board (see the video below at the 2:42 mark) where visitors can place a small tile down and see how the plants and animals in Avatar went from concept, to 3D model, to film. On the other side of the exhibit, a live performance capture studio (10:05) lets people “perform” a scene from Avatar and then share the video on YouTube. On that same side, visitors can pick up a “virtual camera” (12:36) and reshoot one of three scenes from the movie. The quality obviously isn’t comparable to the film itself, but it is still a lot of fun.

As someone who considers themselves more informed than your average moviegoer, I found my experience at the exhibit to be quite different from other writers. Many have shared similar sentiments about how awesome it is, but few have addressed how painstakingly difficult it must have been to accomplish all this work under a director notorious for doing things his way or else.

To the layman, all of the details that went into building Avatar will seem impressive, but they’ll never come close to understanding the sweat and tears that went into it. If my dad were to walk through the exhibit, he would certainly be surprised by all of the work that went into the movie, but he would probably leave thinking that’s how most movies are made these days. This is, after all, the world post-Lord of the Rings. Giant special effects are no longer the exception, they are the rule. He wouldn’t think much of the budget, or the inside stories about working with “MIJ” Cameron, or the development of the virtual camera (11:49). For the average patron (or Avatar fan) the exhibit offers an awesome “behind the curtain” look at the biggest movie of all time and certainly confirms that the film is an amazing technological achievement. Of course, that’s only half the story.

Walking through the exhibit I immediately started thinking of all the dollars it took to put the film together. It happened almost subconsciously. With each new tidbit of information I learned, the dollar signs started adding up in my head. No wonder the true cost of Avatar is unreleased to this day. Standing in front of a “scale” Navi backpack (5:00) and the head-dresses that were first hand crafted by a designer (7:00), and then built again digitally it’s easy to see where the alleged nearly $300 million budget went.

A few thousand dollars for each prop study, or for a makeup artist to mock up a bust of the Navi (6:06), and then much more for a team of graphic designers to come up with dozens of plants and animals, and then three times that much for 3D animators to put it all together — the list goes on and on, and the longer I played this game, the closer the price tag went towards frightening estimations.

There’s one part of the exhibit where people can design their own Avatar plant (3:46). It’s really quite wonderful, but all I could think about was Cameron’s notorious ego and deafening creative control. How many times did he make his team redraw the floating wood sprites (2:20)?  What sort of hell did he put his linguistics team through as he was inventing a new language (8:18)? How many times did poor Zoe Saldana have to cry?

These are the types of questions I didn’t even consider the first time I watched Avatar. If I did, they were probably forgotten while the 3D explosions and Stephen Lang’s line delivery were blowing me away. The real value of this exhibit is that it lets people revisit and meditate on what must have been one of the craziest film projects ever successfully completed.

For the average fan it’s an affirmation of how influential and special Avatar really was. For the wannabe filmmaker, or anyone who aims to make films of this caliber, it is a must see look at how a crazy man built a landmark science fiction film. Either way, James Cameron and his movies will never feel the same.

Check out more information on the exhibit, running through May 19th, on the official site.

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