James Cameron disclosed on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien (2009) that he began working on preliminary drafts of his movie as early as the mid 1990s. Because his visual concepts were so avant-garde, the technology required to consummate his vision was not then yet available. Not until 2005 was he able to proceed with viable script scenarios.
The Na'vi language was created entirely from scratch by linguist Dr. Paul R. Frommer. James Cameron hired him to construct a language that the actors could pronounce easily, but did not resemble any single human language. Frommer created about 1,000 words.
To appease 20th Century Fox's fears, and remembering the harrowing experience of Titanic (1997) and its production overruns and costly delays, James Cameron promised to forgo his director's fee if Avatar (2009) flopped.
According to Sam Worthington, he was invited to the casting via a phone call. The person who called told him nothing about the script, nor did they even tell him the director's name. Worthington was disappointed at first, thinking it was "another waste of time."
James Cameron originally planned to have the film completed for release in 1999. At the time, the special effects he wanted increased the budget to $400 million. No studio would fund the film, and it was shelved for eight years.
According to James Cameron, the Na'vi are blue to create a conceptual parallel with traditional Hindu depictions of God (e.g. Vishnu and his later 'avatars' - a Sanskrit word meaning "a manifestation of divinity in bodily form" - such as Rama, Krishna, etc.) but also because Cameron just liked the color blue.
James Cameron wanted an unknown actor to play Jake Sully, because it would give the character a "real" quality. The guy you want to have a beer with, who ultimately becomes the leader that transforms a whole world.
To help the actors prepare for their roles, director James Cameron took the cast and crew to Hawaii, where they spent their days trekking through the forests and jungles and living like tribes (building campfires, eating fish, etc), in order to get a better sense of what it would be like to live and move around in the jungle on Pandora, since there would not be any actual jungle sets to aid and guide the actors and crew. Zoe Saldana even dressed up as a warrior during these journeys, complete with an alien tail symbolic of the one her character has in the movie. These hikes were only done during the daytime, however, as the cast and crew spent their nights at a Four Seasons hotel.
"Unobtainium" is a humorous term used mainly in the aerospace industry. It describes a material that is perfect for an application (but does not exist), is extremely expensive, or violates the laws of physics. Its chemical symbol is Uo. "Unobtainium" is also a general concept term used by sci-fi enthusiasts for any fictional substance that is needed to build a certain device that is crucial to the plot of a sci-fi story. "Unobtainium" is featured in the movie The Core (2003), where the earth-boring vessel called the "Virgil" has a hull made from unobtainium to help it withstand the massive pressures inside the Earth's core. "Unobtainium" is also an anti-gravity element in the online multi-player video game "Skyrates."
The book Grace picks up in the abandoned school is called "The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss. Like the plot of the film, the book is about a mystical forest full of beautiful trees and mystical creatures that are destroyed by man's lust for ever growing industry.
Composer James Horner stated that this was his most difficult film and the biggest challenge of his career. He said in an interview that he worked on the music from 4 AM to 10 PM for a year and a half.
Sigourney Weaver plays a James Cameron persona for her character in this film. Sigourney stated in an interview, "I teased him because to me I'm playing Jim Cameron in the movie as this kind of brilliant, approach-driven, idealistic perfectionist. But that same somebody has a great heart underneath. So I have to say I was always kind of channeling him."
The actors playing the Na'vi had cameras attached to their head so that they filmed close-ups of their faces. Dots painted on their faces allowed motion-capture software to record their facial expressions, providing a "framework" from which the CG artists worked.
Colonel Quaritch mentions that being on Pandora made him feel "like a shave-tail Looie." "Shave tail" was a term originally used in the 19th century among U.S. cavalry regiments. Newly assigned cavalry troopers were given horses with a shaved tail, to let other troopers know that the rider was dangerously inexperienced, and should be given extra room to maneuver during training. "Looie" is a nickname for lieutenant, the lowest ranking, and least experienced, rank among U.S. Marine Corps officers.
The word "na'vi" in Hebrew means prophet. A na'vi is a visionary or someone who communicates directly with God. Its plural, nevi'im, also refers to the prophetic books of the bible, which include "Daniel," "Micah," and "Isaiah."
In James Cameron movies, allies to the main characters often have Catholic references. In Aliens (1986), this ally was called "Bishop;" in The Abyss (1989), it was "Monk." In "Avatar," Sigourney Weaver plays a character called Grace Augustine. Saint Augustine was a Catholic monk who brought Christianity to pagan England, and became Archbishop. One manner of address for an Archbishop is "Your Grace."
There are striking similarities between the movie and the "Destination: Void" universe depicted by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom in the science fiction novels, "The Jesus Incident" and "The Lazarus Effect." In the novels, an alien planet called Pandora is home to a global network of sentient kelp in which the minds of the deceased also continue to exist. The kelp, as well as other native lifeforms on the planet, are linked into a large entity with a shared consciousness, called "Avata."
The film reached the U.S. $500 million mark in 32 days, beating The Dark Knight (2008)'s previous record of 45 days. James Cameron's previous film, Titanic (1997), took 98 days to reach the U.S. $500 million mark.
The RDA (Resources Development Administration)'s private security force members all wear French military rank badge. Colonel Miles Quaritch ("Stephen Lang") wears the rank badge of a French Colonel. When Trudy Chacón (Michelle Rodriguez) breaks Sully and Augustine out from jail and flies them to the avatar link outpost, the woman alerting Quaritch is shown wearing the three ribbons of a French captain.
The film's original title was "Project 880." In the original script: Earth and its environmental problems are explored (Sully has never even seen a forest, so Grace has to practically hold his hand when they go into the woods); we see Josh (Jake) Sully's Avatar being born (he actually "births" himself), and his reaction to walking again is quite different, as it takes him a while to gain any sort of strength, and then he cries; it is revealed the Avatar program originally existed to train Na'vi to be an indigenous workforce for the Corporation, since it is so expensive to send human workers. Obviously, they did not like that; there is an Avatar controller who is burnt out because his Avatar died with him in it. He committed Avatar suicide because he had fallen in love with a Na'vi girl who had been killed by the military; the Avatars have a Na'vi guide named N'Deh, who is sleeping with Grace; Grace survives the soul transfer.
Jake Sully's initials (J.S.) are the same as John Smith, a central figure in the historical and often romanticized story of Pocahontas. This film shares many similarities with the Pocahontas story in plot and theme. Like John Smith, Sully is a member of an invading force who falls in love with a tribal princess, after learning her customs.
The first time Sigourney Weaver has appeared in a James Cameron film since Aliens (1986). Cameron said that he didn't want to cast her at first, exactly because "she was [his] safest choice to play the botanist."
The concept of a network of trees, in which minds of the deceased continue to exist, appears in several novels of the "Ender" series by Orson Scott Card, most prominently in "Speaker for the Dead." Just like in the movie, the trees in the novel are sacred to the native (remotely humanoid) inhabitants, who tolerate the presence of a small human colony on their world until cultural misunderstandings lead to conflict.
The common spirit of Pandora, where every creature is constantly connected to each other, and the planet itself, is based on the concept of Gaia, described in Isaac Asimov's novel "Foundation's Edge" (1982).
In an obvious nod to Alien (1979), James Cameron has an early long shot showing the company ship, ISV Venture Star, approaching Pandora. This is identical to the long shot in Alien (1979), when the Nostromo is approaching LV-426, the planetoid where they are receiving the signal from.
This film was released in China, but its 2D version was pulled from cinemas very quickly afterwards, despite the film being the most popular shown in China ever. It is likely that a large part of this was because of its message, which could be seen as being potentially inspirational to oppressed people within China. Oddly enough, China still allowed the 3D version to be shown even afterwards.
In the final battle sequence, Jake jumps onto Col. Quaritch's gunship. The colonel sees Jake and pushes the control stick to swerve the ship. Jake loses balance and slides down the ship, where he grabs and hangs on to a missile. This is a reference to True Lies (1994), also directed by James Cameron. In that film, Harry Tasker uses the control stick to swerve the Harrier jet he is flying. The terrorist, who is standing on the jet, loses balance and slides down the wing of the jet, and his suspenders catches on the missile.
James Cameron wanted Mauro Fiore to photograph this film because he admired Fiore's lush jungle photography in Tears of the Sun (2003). Fiore agreed after a 30-minute meeting with Cameron, followed by a two-hour guided tour of the constructed sets with Jon Landau.
Mo'at, the spiritual leader of the tribe, is referred to by the title "Tsahik." This name sounds remarkably similar to the Hebrew "Tsaddik," meaning an individual of outstanding virtue and piety. The term is often applied to an especially knowledgeable interpreter of Biblical law and scriptures.
Grace mentions there are ten to the fourth connections between each tree, and ten to the twelfth trees on Pandora, and that this is more than the human brain. In scientific notation, "ten to the fourth" is ten thousand, and "ten to the twelfth" is one trillion. This makes for a total of ten to the sixteenth, or ten quadrillion, connections. The human brain has an average of 100 trillion.
While the movie was often described as "anti-war" by critics and fans, James Cameron repeatedly said in interviews that the film was not inspired by or commenting on any specific conflicts or any specific nation's overall foreign of defence policies. Cameron also said that the film DID have a brutally strong pro-environmentalist message on purpose because, as he put it, "I am a tree-hugger."
There are two sound effects borrowed from Jurassic Park (1993) creatures. During Jake's run from the panther-like Thanator, it roars at him, using a T-Rex roar. Later, when Jake is learning to ride the horse-creature, Pale, she makes a barking noise, like that of the Velociraptors in the kitchen scene.
Avatar (2009) has a striking resemblance, in terms of plot, to the Indian movie Vietnam Colony (1992). It should be noted that Vietnam Colony was released in 1992, and James Cameron said that the Avatar script was ready in 1995 and had many inspirations from India, including the title. A brief comparison between both the movies: 1) Vietnam Colony: Mohanlal and an innocent guy are appointed by a real estate company to a notorious colony called Vietnam Colony, as this colony has high real estate values. Avatar: Sam Worthington is appointed by the RDA Corporation to go to Pandora, as the place has a valuable mineral, called Unobtainium. 2) Vietnam Colony: Mohanlal disguises himself as a writer and becomes a member of the colony. Avatar: Sam transfers his mind to a Navi body and becomes a member of Pandora. 3) Vietnam Colony: Mohanlal falls in love with the heroine (Kanaka), who is an important resident of Vietnam Colony. Avatar: Sam falls in love with Neytri (Zaldana), who is an important resident of Pandora. 4) Vietnam Colony: While Mohanlal was trying to cheat the colony residents and throw them out of the colony, he understands that the company is doing injustice and tries to help the residents. Avatar: While Sam was trying to cheat the Pandora residents, he understands that the company is doing injustice and tries to help the residents. 5) Vietnam Colony: Mohanlal finally joins hands with the colony residents and fights against his company. Avatar: Sam joins hands with the Navis and fights against his company. 6) Vietnam Colony: At the end of the movie, Mohanlal becomes a permanent Vietnam Colony resident. Avatar: At the end, Sam becomes a permanent Pandora resident.
The film is considered to be a futuristic remake of the 2003 film "The Last Samurai". In that film, Tom Cruise stars as disillusioned American civil war veteran whom is hired to help the Emperor of Japanese deal with Samurai warriors and sides with the Samurai warriors, after he is captured and lives among them in their village and embraces their culture and their way of life.
At the beginning when Colonel Quaritch is briefing the men on the situation on Pandora, there are blinds, as well as a metal panel in the top-left corner of the blinds, which resemble an American flag. Oddly enough, the panel has a "50" engraved in it, as 50 is the number of stars on the American flag.
When Jake reassures Mo'at (the shaman) that he is "empty," it refers to his life being empty. The term "jarhead" is applied to Marines referring to their traditional "high and tight" haircut, and is used by Dr. Augustine when Sully is entering the Avatar link for the first time.
The film was thrown into an unwanted spotlight when several filmmakers, including Canadian director John Greyson, put out a press release stating that James Cameron had blocked the movie from being released in Israel, in accordance with the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, (which calls for all Israeli activities to be shunned until Israel acceded to all Palestinian demands to end their conflict). Cameron found out about this when his top producing partner called him, and he was furious about it, as he had no intention of boycotting Israel (or any other nation that wanted to show the film) and Greyson and his colleagues admitted that their original press release was "a joke" that amounted to "wishful thinking" on their part.
The tree, Eh'wa, also bears a resemblance to the Hindi/Aramic/Urdu word "Hewa," which, in English, means "Eve." "Eve" in Hebrew means "The Giver of Life," an entity from which all life arises. Also, in the Bible, Eve is tempted to eat from the Tree. The word na'vi bears close resemblance to the Hindi/Urdu word for Nabi, meaning "prophet." "Avatar" is Hindi for the "incarnated one." Lord Krishna was one of the avatars of Lord Vishnu. Some Hindus believe that Lord Buddha was also an avatar of Vishnu, preceding Krishna.
The Chinese renamed one of their national park mountains as Avatar Hallelujah Mountain, because of this film. Of course, according to James Cameron, the design of the mountains in the film are inspired by the mountains around southern China, in particular, Huangshan.
Calling the sizable pallets of explosives onboard the shuttle "Daisy Cutters" refers to the BLU-82B, a 15,000 lb bomb and the largest non nuclear weapon the U.S. Air Force had at its disposal (until 2008, when the MOAB was deployed), designed to flatten landing areas in jungle zones.
In 2014, an article entitled "The 1960s Avatar TV Show" was posted to the web, claiming that the film was actually a re-imagining of a science fiction television series from 1963. It supposedly starred William Shatner as Jake Sully (until being replaced by Roger Ewing in season 3) and featured several images from other 60s sci-fi films and series, with the actors' skin tinted blue. Despite claiming to be authentic, it was entirely a hoax.
Augustine throws a piece of fruit to Sully and says, "Think fast," when he ventures outside for the first time as his avatar. In The Terminator (1984), Sarah Connor fakes throwing a bag to Kyle Reese with the same line. Michael Biehn, who played Kyle Reese, was considered for the role of Miles Quartich.
In this film, Zoe Saldana's character Neytiri is an extra terrestrial who falls in love with Jake Scully (Sam Worthington), a human. In Saldana's earlier film "Star Trek", which was released the same year. Zoe Saldana's character Nyota Uhura, a human, falls in love with Spock (Zachary Quinto) an extra terrestrial.
James Cameron said "some of the design choices were about colors affecting us psychologically, which is why the film has such a striking color palette, like the early days of color cinematography where everything had to be bright and vibrant."
James Cameron felt that after working months and months on the Na'vi and the avatars and the creatures, that he stopped thinking about all the work that went into them and just enjoyed the life of those scenes with them.
James Cameron said making the film was "a complete leap into the unknown. Like a jump off a cliff and madly fabricating a parachute on the way down. It's a lot of fun to be out on the edge and know that you're doing something nobody's ever done before."
An early idea for Pandora that was abandoned was the sky would be purple and the plants would be blue but James Cameron felt the Na'vi being blue was challenge enough and just let the greenery be green.
James Cameron said "some people think of this as an animated film. It's not an animated film because I'm not an animator. I don't want to be an animator. I'm a director. I want to work with actors. A director-centric actor-centric process."
James Cameron described his creative process as "what I'm good at is working with actors to create scenes and then editing they're performances to get the absolute best vibrating version of that scene and then share that with the audience. It's an amazing process to go through. Sometimes you think it's not going to work when you get started and then the characters come to life."
James Cameron said doing the designs were "a joyful experience. What you imagine is always kind of hazy. It's like the memory of a dream. You can't be specific. You can draw it but it's a completely new act of creation."
20 of the world's top creature designers worked with James Cameron on the film, as well as character designs and landscape designs, all for the hardware, amp suits and the helicopters. A year and a half of the film was spent on design. Cameron wanted the creatures to be plausible so their form and function were interrelated, e.g. if a creature has four wings, how does it fly, do the wings move together or the opposite way or 90 degrees out of phase like they do in the film with one wing moving and the other acting as a stabilizer, but if they need to climb or make a rapid escape all four wings beat furiously. All the six-legged creatures in the film move after observing insects like the creatures that gallop were achieved not by imitating horses but ants where the four front legs move together but the rear two move separately almost like an ant run.
James Cameron likes 3D because "it brings to cinema what better sound or color brought. I'm making it my ethos not to change how I direct my movies or how I do scenes with the actors. I'm trying to make 3D plus the film or turbocharge it but the basic architecture of the engine is the same and that's the only healthy way to view the 3D. The actors don't act any differently for a 3D camera."
James Cameron admitted that the expectations were daunting on this film after Titanic (1997) and his other films but that was to be expected. Cameron does consider Avatar (2009) different to anything he's made before and it plays by its own rules.
Peter Mensah had appeared in 2 episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008) and Sam Worthington previously starred in Terminator: Salvation (2009) as Marcus Wright. Writer and director James Cameron created the Terminator franchise.
James Cameron: [feet] Close-up of Jake's feet when he moves them around in the soil; close-up of Col. Quaritch's feet in his first scene; slow-mo focus on the wolf-creature's feet as it circles around Jake's avatar, just before he first meets Neytiri.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In the final battle sequence, Neytiri has a white hand print on her chest as part of her warpaint. It has five fingers, indicating that it is Jake's hand (avatars have five fingers while Na'vi only have four).
When Jake is examining his ponytail, Dr. Augustine states, "Don't play with that, you'll go blind." This is a common phrase that is taught to adolescent boys (referencing their genitalia) to discourage them from masturbating. It is shown later in the film that the Na'vi use their ponytails to link their minds during mating.
Stephen Lang has hinted that Colonel Quaritch could return for a sequel, saying, "You think those two arrows in my chest are going to stop me from coming back? Nothing's over so long as they've got my DNA."
In the scene that introduces the concept of the tree of souls to the viewer, Grace remarks that outsiders are forbidden to go there, but that she would "die to get samples." This turns out to be an unfortunately prophetic figure of speech as later, she is allowed to go to the tree of souls because she is dying. Her first words upon arriving are, "I need to get samples..."
In the scene where Jake Sully is in prison, his back is to the camera and you can see the back of his wheelchair. The brand of wheelchair he is in is "Grunt," which is another term for a Marine infantryman.