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David Poland

By David Poland

The Science Of Avatar

It was a rather fascinating evening at the California Institute of Technology, as Jim Cameron and three scientists discussed the science, fictional and factual, behind Avatar. What was most interesting was how completely comfortable Cameron was having these conversations. He knew his stuff.
There was a lot of discussion about the thickness of the atmosphere on Pandora, the acid rain that might explain why none of the animals had fur, the nature of the glow and what it did and didn’t mean to Cameron, and the volcanos that the scientists though must have been on Pandora… Cameron’s response… “They just fell off of the To Do list… we had art with them there.”
Asked whether the Alien or a Na’vi would win a fight, Cameron’s answer was, “Sigourney (Weaver) would win.”
How the animals breath through their bodies… the blue color of the Na’Vi was pigment, not blood, blood was red allowing pink lips and mouth, etc… how excited the scientists were to both see masks when the fatigued men land on Pandora and when it turned out that Grace Augustine was a “good guy,” not a “bag guy,” which is what they are used to seeing scientists portrayed as…
Lots of discussion about diving, with Cameron saying he has spent over 3000 submerged hours, more than have of that in a scuba suit.
it was a fascinating night. I would expect it on the Gen-2 DVD set. (i still haven’t seen this Blu-ray release, though the clips from it, played on a PS3, looked pretty great in the theater.)
And had they been doing this kind of event back in late January, Avatar might have the Best Picture Oscar on top of its $2.75 billion dollars. It was just the right tone… scientists getting excited about how smart the film was on their level… Jim relaxed and clearly knowing every tiny detail of his film…
Oh well.

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21 Responses to “The Science Of Avatar”

  1. Foamy Squirrel says:

    Stop making me sorry that I’m not in LA. I went to university on biology and physics scholarships and would have loved this. :-/

  2. sashastone says:

    One can have an in-depth conversation about Avatar and technology. Not so much about Avatar and science. And there is still no way it would have won Best Picture. It wasn’t even a close race. Whatever Avatar is definitely deserves to be called revolutionary. But I’m not sure whatever that is can be called cinema. I’m sure it can be – but I don’t think actors and many who work in Hollywood want that replacing what they do any time soon.
    The only film that threatened The Hurt Locker in any real way was Precious, as it turned out.
    The science guys I read all loved Avatar but most of it is done to please an audience, not to be true to the laws of nature and science.
    So I wouldn’t even try to fit that foot into that shoe. Let it be what it is: great entertainment and a hell of a bang of a bang for your buck.

  3. David Poland says:

    Did I miss the part where The Academy handed you the voting results, Sasha?

  4. The Pope says:

    “I’m not sure whatever that is can be called cinema.”
    Just remember Sasha that very similar things were said when cinema began its transition to sound. It is cinema, beginning, middle and last.
    On a separate note, thanks very much David for the Walter Murch link. Great fun to listen to someone who can so cogently relate film to other art forms. Jack Cardiff springs to mind as another one capable of it.

  5. David Poland says:

    I traveled with my camera to EbertFest, really really hoping to get Murch to sit down for 30… but alas, he was volcano’ed from showing up.
    It’s Ray Pride’s link, btw.

  6. sashastone says:

    If it had been close, Avatar would have won either one or both of the sound awards. I think you were predicting THL to win there but trust me, if the movie was close to winning BP it would have done a hell of a lot better in other awards.
    The Pope – replacing actors with performance capture, 3-D and such an impossibly budget is not like sound or talkies or color or anything like that. It is creating, in essence, an amusement park ride — I know it’s more than that. But this is how I think much of the community sees it – as something other than what they’re used to and what they want.
    As for me, I loved it – saw it five times. I still think Hurt Locker was better and deserved BP.

  7. jeffmcm says:

    Well said, Sasha, I’d just disagree with you on this point – Avatar is cinema. It’s just not good cinema.

  8. The Pope says:

    I think Avatar is what art critic, Robert Hughes would categorise as “The Shock of the New.” We are amazed that what Cameraon did was even possible and as a result, people are shocked (if not awed) into considering it the second coming. But of a sort of cinema, spectacle a la C.B. DeMille, it is as you say, Jeff, cinema. Soon we will all look back and cringe at the gaping flaws in its storytelling (some of us have done so already). But in Cameron’s defence, no one goes to Wagner’s operas for the stories. They go for the spectacular tunes. If not those crazy castles Ludwig built for him.
    And Sasha, I agree with you: Hurt Locker was (much) better and deserved BP.

  9. David Poland says:

    It’s always amusing when people chose the stats they like and ignore the ones they don’t in pursuit of satisfying their idea of what’s right.
    Nothing about how wrong your choice to assume something like what came in 2nd for Best Picture has anything to do with what anyone “deserved.” The history of the Oscars has only occasional connection to what was “deserved.”
    Of course, you know this. You just choose to ignore it in this case, so you can make a case that suits your personal hypothesis. It happens. Often.

  10. jeffmcm says:

    Pot/kettle, DP.

  11. David Poland says:

    What a surprise, J-Mc.
    When you actually have specifics, please cough them up. Until then, just keep walking by in the rainbow wig and the 3:16 poster.

  12. DP FTW!
    I just snarfed diet coke when I read that!

  13. aris says:

    Not sure about the science of the film, but I must mention that I watched Avatar for a second time yesterday, on my little personal monitor on DELTA. No headphones, couldn’t be bothered, didnt need it for this film. However, I must say, I enjoyed it MORE than I did watching it maxi-super-dark 3D in the theaters. I actually noticed so many more little things, colors, textures, what-have-yous, than the distraction the distraction the 3D glasses (full f-stop darkness, scratches, annoying pain behind my ear, constant checking of what was on the screen without glasses) afforded. Just saying.

  14. Eric says:

    I read about the extended “Project 880” scriptment that one of the fan sites published awhile back, and it sounded pretty interesting. I can’t judge the science but it’s at least clear that Cameron put a lot of thought into the it. Hoping video of this event ends up available somewhere.

  15. Kim Voynar says:

    Me too, only it was a tea latte, not a diet coke. Criminy.
    Although honestly, amusing though it is when an interesting post like this digresses into snark in the comments, I wish there was a video of the full discussion between Cameron and the scientists … it sounds fascinating, and I wish I’d been there.
    Missing cool things like that almost makes me wish I lived in LA. Not quite, but almost.

  16. jeffmcm says:

    That DP comment directed to me doesn’t fully make sense, beyond the obvious intention to insult. I certainly am not posting just for the sake of spectacle (along the lines of IO or Lex). And I didn’t go into detail because (a) I thought it was obvious, and (b) I really need to learn that DP will never, ever, ever change his behavior for any reason whatsoever, no matter how much well-reasoned explanation I might provide, so why bother?
    Anyways, it did sound like an interesting event, but at the same time like something of a sop to Cameron’s ego – I mean, it’s basically the same as somebody writing a technical manual on the inner workings of the starship Enterprise and making up details on the structure of dilithium crystals – it might be sort of interesting, but it’s still fiction.

  17. Foamy Squirrel says:

    Eh… not exactly. The science of what life on other planets would look like is something that’s of frequent discussion in the scientific (and philosophical) community. For example, if it turns out that alien life has a similar DNA/RNA/Protein system then that would imply some kind of thermodynamic “blueprint” that all forms of life should follow.
    (By way of context – DNA has no other function than to reproduce itself. Protein has many functions, but is incapable of reproducing itself. RNA is the stuff that “reads” DNA and then creates the protein. The idea that these systems evolved both simultaneously and independently is one of the many “WTF?!?!?” things about life on Earth.)
    The mechanics of interstellar travel is also a matter of frequent debate, but the vast majority of sci-fi tends to handwave the subtleties of Newtonian and quantum physics away. Ironically, despite advances in understanding the physics, probably the closest depictions were 45 years ago around the time of the Apollo moon program. (And, no, Star Trek doesn’t count)

  18. Telemachos says:

    AVATAR is essentially space-fantasy and Cameron has described it as such. But at the same time, it’s always fun when someone makes a real effort to create a believable world that, for the most part, doesn’t wildly contradict known science and has lots of details that show the creators have thought things through (and had fun doing so).
    The interstellar ship used in AVATAR, for example, is considered one of the most realistic examples of a possible future ship, given current scientific thought: (warning: extremely geeky tech explanation)
    It’s a real joy listening to Cameron talk in general about science and exploration, regardless of whether or not you like his movies.

  19. christian says:

    What gives Cameron an edge to me is that guy was actually intimately involved in the science of operating submarines underwater, etc. His unique perspective completely infused Pandora with its own oceanic surreality.

  20. LexG says:


  21. The Big Perm says:

    So i FINALLY saw Avatar. I can’t believe that Cameron was so one the nose the actually cast Wes Studi as the leader of the Indians, I mean aliens.
    That is all.

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