Avatar wasn’t just a theatrical release in 2009, it was a full blown force of nature. The biggest box office hit of all time, Avatar also revolutionized motion capture and 3D in Hollywood and picked up several Oscar nods and wins, including a nomination for Best Picture. It also won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for its director of photographer, Mauro Fiore, an Italian-American who has also shot the films Training Day, The Island, Real Steel, and Runner Runner, to name a few.
While Avatar’s dominance was no surprise to anyone, its win for Cinematography was interesting considering its competition. Avatar is nearly seventy percent computer generated, in some respects practically an animated film, and Fiore had only been behind the camera for less than a third of the movie’s running time. Its competitors in the Cinematography category included a gritty indie film shot on 16mm, a stylistic Tarantino World War II film, a gloomy Harry Potter sequel and a black & white German drama. However, Avatar bears the marks of a Mauro Fiore-shot film, and despite its abundance of digital effects, is a superbly photographed movie worthy of its award.
The film’s digital and live action elements are inseparable, however, and it’s impossible to talk about the look of Avatar without understanding its technical foundation. Director James Cameron famously spent fifteen years developing the technology and the world of Avatar, waiting until it was physically possible to bring his vision of a distant alien world to life. Much of the film was shot with the Fusion Camera System, a digital 3D apparatus co-developed by Cameron and since used with several other films. The Fusion allowed Cameron, Furio and the crew to shoot in 3D with a revolutionary quieter, smaller setup. It used stereoscopic lenses—two separate lenses on the same horizontal plane—to mimic the vision of two human eyes. By capturing two images slightly adjacent to one another, it created the same three-dimensional depth people see with their eyes. By adjusting the intraocular distance between the two lenses, the filmmakers had control over how much depth was in a given shot.
The Fusion was able to reduce the distance between lenses to an incredibly small amount while also incorporating ten other types of motion that gave the filmmakers an unprecedented amount of control to compose a three-dimensional image. It could do all this and still be stripped down to even perform handheld and Steadicam work, which was crucial to Cameron’s intense direction. The Fusion also allowed for several types of cameras to work with it. In Avatar, Fiore shot with three different HD Sony models. Cameron, a famously hands-on filmmaker, would often operate the camera himself while Fiore blocked the scene.
Fiore, obviously new to this system, took several weeks to get acquainted with the equipment before he felt confident enough to shoot with it. This included getting familiar with how the Fusion would handle light, something any DP needs as much control over as possible. During this testing period, Fiore found the Fusion created a ghosting effect that would blur images with especially bright and especially dark objects within the same frame. Fiore was able to block his set to account for this, keeping certain objects apart, lighting them appropriately, and even using smoke to temper the effects of the contrast and ghosting.
Another technical innovation Avatar introduced to Hollywood was its virtual cinematography. For shooting in the animated world of Pandora, Cameron and his team could use a handheld controller similar to the one used in video games. Using a monitor that would show the motion-capture actors in their pre-rendered animated states, the team had full control over the scale and motion of the virtual camera. By switching the scale, the camera could tower over the digital figures as if atop a 100 foot crane. The controller could also operate the camera as if it were on dolly tracks, or a Steadicam rig, or even handheld. In effect, it was total cinematic control over the digital image.
Despite these major technical innovations, Avatar still had to rely on traditional filmmaking methods to be a fully realized movie. The live-action shooting, while a smaller proportion of the production, was key as the foundation for the motion-capture and digital creations of the film. To help see what they were shooting, Cameron and Fiore were able to watch their dailies in 3D and make adjustments as they progressed.
Shooting in 3D, even with the Fusion, limited the range of depth of field for the cinematography team. This was especially concerning given how complex the jungle world of Pandora looked on screen, and with everything in focus, the audience’s eye could easily be overwhelmed. Fiore directed the audience’s attention by creating depth-of-field through light and contrast, as well as blocking. A longer lens was used for many shots, especially when giving the perspective of Jake, Avatar’s protagonist. In order to ground the fantastical world and story of the epic, Cameron used his human protagonist and handheld camera work to give the film a more naturalistic foundation.
Light was perhaps the most important element to the cinematography team, and is also what helped Fiore get the Avatar gig in the first place. It was his characteristic use of light in the jungle-set war film Tears of the Sun that helped convince Cameron Fiore was the right man for the job. By using the strong beams of sunlight that permeated the towering trees of Pandora, Fiore created a lush, vibrant image that made the planet feel real. By painting with light, Fiore helped give Avatar its distinctive look.
Light was also Fiore’s key to seamlessly merging Avatar’s digital effects with its live action. Had the filmmakers fail to blend the two into a coherent movie, Avatar might have been remembered as a optically-jarring flop as opposed to the visual masterpiece its now known as. Fiore realized early on in the production that he could use reflective paint and reflective material on certain objects that would react to UV light in a way that differentiated them in post-production, allowing the green screen around them to feel invisible.
Green screen was obviously a prominent part of Avatar’s shoot. Even the ceiling of many sets used green screen, which made it impossible for Fiore and his team to hide their lights. To work around this problem, Fiore cut stripes of green screen and hung them from the ceiling like curtains, in effect hiding the lights. Once the effects were superimposed on the green screen, the strips and ceiling all formed one single image.
Since many exterior scenes were also shot indoors with green screen, Fiore also had to block with light sources that weren’t physically there. In each shot he had to be aware of where the sun would be digitally added and theoretically light the scene. For one major sequence involving an army of soldiers, Cameron actually chose to shoot outside, night-for-day. At first, Fiore thought faking night for day was ludicrous but eventually saw Cameron’s reasoning. By lighting with their own equipment as opposed to the actual sun, they had total control over illumination and shadows. And if there was one thing Cameron cherished on his set, it was total control, even over the heavens.
Since light was one of Fiore’s few physical tools, he used it creatively to establish movement as well. When there were scenes shot in the interiors of vehicles, typically these vehicles were stationary, limited by the green screen set. To create the illusion of fast and twisting movement, Fiore placed lights on quick-moving cranes and other equipment. By changing light and shadows on the actors and props inside the vehicles, Fiore could create apparent velocity and movement.
By using light and adapting to Cameron’s advanced hardware, Fiore and the Avatar team were able to create a grounded, physical look for a fantastical, digital movie. As a watershed film in Hollywood’s technological evolution, the cinematography of Avatar shows how the old and new can be combined to make something not quite either.