Friday Livestream: Watch and participate live right now!
"Avatar" "Avatar"

In December 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar hit theaters, becoming a landmark in motion capture-based cgi. Ten years on, we have another milestone: Cameron seems to have finally admitted that Avatar is, to a great extent, a work of animation.

Speaking to Variety, Cameron — who is at work on four(!) Avatar sequels — said of the original film: “I didn’t really return to the project until I saw that there was [sic] significant advancements in facial performance in character and animation.” Turning to the sequels, he added:

From 2013 until now we’ve mostly designed the whole world across four new movies… We’ve cast them, and we’ve [performance] captured movie two, movie three, and the first part of movie four. We’re mostly done with the live action… People don’t really understand the scope and complexity of the process. It’s like making two and a half big animated films. A typical big animated film takes about four years, so, if you do the math on that, we’re kind of right on schedule for December 2021.

Cameron’s comments are ambiguous. For starters, no one is sure what he means by “two and a half big animated films.” Is this a comment on the proportion of animation in the forthcoming films, a roundabout way of saying that the sequels have been a decade in the making, or something else?

The internet will puzzle over that one until Cameron clears it up. More to the point, the director is acknowledging that animation is a central component of the franchise. He has changed his tune — when Avatar was released, he was keen to erase the creative input of his animators (see more in the video below):

The thing that people need to keep very strongly in mind is that this is not an animated film. These actors did not just stand at a lectern and do a voice part, and then animators went off for the next two years and created the entire physicality of their performance.

Never mind that the film was full of cg animation and vfx — close to 60% of the film was computer-generated, according to an industry estimate. Never mind that a vast team of cg artists and animators led by New Zealand-based Weta Digital worked hard to ensure that the cast’s motion-captured performances translated into a race of vivid, plausible, and entirely imaginary creatures.

Cameron was adopting a narrow and tendentious definition of animation, which disqualified anything based on the movements of real people. By that logic, Disney’s rotoscoped Snow White isn’t animation, either. Of course, Cameron’s motivation was to build hype by presenting his film as an entirely novel kind of production — a marketing approach reminiscent of Disney’s strategy for the remake of The Lion King.

The production notes for Avatar were a little more nuanced, even if they continued to privilege the role of the actors:

Ask the animators at Weta, and they’ll tell you that the avatars and Na’vi are animated. Ask Jim Cameron, and he’ll say the characters were performed by the actors. The truth is that both are right. It took great animation skill to ensure that the characters performed exactly as the actors did. But at the same time, no liberties were taken with those performances. They were not embellished or exaggerated. The animators sought to be utterly truthful to the actors’ work…

Of course the animators added a little bit, with the movement of the tails and ears, which the actors could not do themselves. But even here, the goal was to stay consistent with the emotions created by the actors during the original capture.

Details of the sequels are scarce, but there’s no doubt that they will once again be full of animation and vfx — led again by Weta. Cameron’s recent comments indicate that he may be ready to fully acknowledge their contribution, as well as his cast’s.

The first Avatar sequel is due out from Disney on December 17, 2021, with the others following in 2023, 2025, and 2027 (assuming there are no more delays). Together, they may just be the biggest project ever taken on by a team of animators.