Avatar: 11 Cool Behind-The-Scenes Facts About James Cameron's Movie

Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington - Avatar

Never discount James Cameron. Anytime someone tries to count him out, the prolific writer/director exceeds everyone else's expectations and produces a phenomenally successful hit. People who thought Titanic would flop enormously, for instance, were shocked by the blockbuster's astonishing success. Likewise, the folks who anticipated Cameron to strike out with Avatar, his ambitious special effects-heavy sci-fi action-thriller, were once again surprised to see this passion project become Cameron's chance to outshine himself and reclaim the number-one spot on the all-time charts.

There's no doubt that this visionary filmmaker knows how to triumph, which makes any early claims that his forthcoming Avatar sequels won't excel questionable at this moment. The man makes hits, and Avatar is certainly one of his finest crown jewels. Indeed, the road to its success was paved with hard battles and troubles, though Cameron certainly prevailed. Let's explore some interesting behind-the-scenes facts about 2009's Avatar.

Sam Worthington - Avatar

James Cameron First Began Writing Avatar In 1994

It took a long, long time for James Cameron to bring his vision for Avatar to life. The filmmaker reportedly first conceived images seen throughout his movie back in the 1970s, when he wrote his first screenplay, and the ideas found throughout record-breaking blockbuster formed throughout the course of the resulting decades. Specifically, Cameron started writing Avatar all the way back in 1994, as ABC News reported, and he continued to rework and retool the script in the years to follow, wanting to wait until technology allowed the story to be made as he envisioned it.

While Cameron tried at different points to bring it off the ground, his earlier attempts were unsuccessful; the moviemaker was unwilling to make compromises on his vision. But as technology advanced, allowing greater possibilities to be realized through new-age technology, the possibilities became real.

Sam Worthington - Avatar

The Look Of The Na'vi Was Inspired By A Dream James Cameron's Mom Had

There's been a lot written and said about the correlation between dreams and cinema. The subconscious is a beautifully bizarre entity, capable of crafting terrifically peculiar and puzzling images that often haunt, disturb, and fascinate us — even in our waking hours. The sights seen in dreams have richly inspired many images we've witnessed on the silver screen (and vice versa, assuredly), though we don't often hear about how other people's dreams inspiring the images crafted by our most famous filmmakers.

Alas, as James Cameron revealed during Avatar's release, the initial image for the Na'vi came from his mother's dream, where she envisioned a twelve-foot-tall blue woman, which was "kind of a cool image" that stayed with the filmmaker. Additionally, The Terminator's initial inspiration came to Cameron in a nightmare while he was sick in Rome.

Screenshot from Avatar (2009)

Composer James Horner Used Newly Invented Instruments For Avatar's Score

When you create a world as expansive and vibrant as Pandora, you want to convey the vast and wonderful otherworldliness of this exotic, extravagant alien world in a stunning and distinctive fashion. Beyond the memorable imagery, fantastical creature designs, and striking environments that are seen throughout Avatar, one of the most organic ways of conveying the magic and amazement of this newfound planet is through the score, which can ease us into the journey and allow us to be swept us in its grandeur and majesty. To craft the emotions and sounds that our lead characters feel and hear, Avatar's composer, the late James Horner, went to extremely extensive measures to create a dazzling original score.

Specifically, he tirelessly searched for musical instruments worldwide and also used instruments that were invented from scratch to create the sound he wanted for the score. As Horner explained in the LA Times:

There were a lot of vocal sounds I took from various places. These were odd vocal sounds that I would manipulate digitally and there were interesting flutes, for instance, from South America and Finland that I wanted to be more abstract. I also have instruments invented from scratch. They were programmed. There were a lot of instruments that sound like flutes of different sorts, but they were combined with gamelan-sounding instruments ... It’s a very pretty fusion of different worlds that gives the place itself a quality that is magical. Using it for percussion, rather than drums or other things, gives a sort of magical glow to everything. And as I said there were a lot of instruments that I invented and worked on with my programs. I was very particular.

Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington - Avatar (2009)

Linguist Paul Frommer Created A Thousand Words In Na'vi

It often takes centuries to form languages, which are constantly recontextualized and retooled as time moves forward. But linguist Paul Frommer didn't have the luxury of time when he worked on James Cameron's Avatar. Showcasing a beautifully primitive planet of Pandora, which is populated by the Na'vi, Cameron set out to create a whole new language for this distant species, and it all started from scratch. And you thought your job was tough.

In an interview with Frommer, he detailed his extensive, thorough process of creating this brand new language, hoping at the time that Avatar would find success so that his work wasn't in vain. While you don't often hear people speaking Na'vi in day-to-day interactions, Avatar found its audience, which is quite fortunate for Frommer. He started in 2005 and created nearly a thousand-plus words.

Screenshot from Avatar (2009)

James Cameron Set A 'Plant-Based Menu' On Avatar's Set

At its core, Avatar is a story about environmentalism and the importance of protecting our world from the corrupting forces of greed and capitalism. Whether or not you find the movie effective at conveying this message, there's no denying that it's something James Cameron felt passionately towards while making this cinematic achievement. The filmmaker is a vegan, and he's been an outspoken advocate for shifting away from animal agriculture for both health and environmental reasons. Especially for a movie as adamant about a planet's well-being as Avatar, it'd be hypocritical — to say the least — if this set was filled with animal products.

Therefore, Cameron strictly enforced a vegan set, providing a "plant-based menu" for the cast and crew, as The Guardian reported. You gotta practice what you preach, and Avatar's set was certainly mindful of its own food consumption.

Michael Biehn - Avatar

Michael Biehn Really Thought He'd Be Cast In Avatar

Shakespeare once said, "expectations are the root of all heartache." Bit dramatic, you must admit. Nevertheless, expectations can often set you up to fail. That's been proven time-and-time again for a number of people in a variety of different ways. Sadly, Michael Biehn's expectations got the better of him when it came to Avatar. The actor has a long-standing working history with James Cameron. The actor and director made The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss together, and Biehn thought he'd have a role in Cameron's latest project as Avatar came into fruition.

Biehn previously got burned when he thought he'd star in Titanic and missed the cut. Then he spent nine months thinking he'd have a role in Avatar -- specifically in the role Stephen Lang ended up playing-- only to find out the hard way that he didn't wasn't on the casting list. What a bummer.

Andy Serkis - The Lord of the Rings

Gollum Convinced James Cameron It Was Time To Make Avatar

When Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was released, it was a phenomenal moment. The majesty of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy novels were realized with such extravagant visual and narrative splendor, capturing the joy and wonder of the franchise in incredibly vivid, stunning detail. It's considered one of the greatest film adaptations of the new millennium. And understandably so.

Jackson's spellbinding trilogy is a marvel of story, character, imagery, and special effects wizardry. One of the most incredible accomplishments from the LOTR franchise is the creation of Gollum, masterfully played through motion capture by Andy Serkis. His excellent performance matched by the astonishing WETA CGI special effects was an incredible step forward for CG effects; that's certainly how James Cameron felt. In an EW interview, Cameron claims seeing Gollum on-screen was what convinced him that Avatar was possible.

Looking at what Peter Jackson was able to do with Gollum, and then King Kong. And Davy Jones [from Pirates of the Caribbean] — all these examples of compelling photo-realistic, fully CG characters, in a photo-realistic world. I don’t think many people are aware that a lot of the jungle scenes in King Kong were actually CG. They did a lot with miniatures, but toward the end they were doing a lot of the jungles in CG.

Giovanni Ribisi - Avatar

Avatar Was Fox's Most Expensive Movie (At The Time)

James Cameron doesn't make movies on the cheap, especially these days. Through his extravagant ideas and expensive mythology, he imagines worlds that engulf the screen, practically bursting at the seams. To realize such incredible innovations, some serious dough needs to be thrown on the table. Titanic was certainly not a small-budget effort, but Fox was rewarded tenfold for that well-regarded film. Therefore, it makes sense that they willfully let Cameron have whatever money he needed to realize his latest vision. That said, Fox certainly forked up a whole lot of moolah.

As it was reported, Avatar cost an estimated $237 million — and that's not counting promotional material. That's a fortune for just one picture, notably by 2009 standards, but as Fox executive James Gianopulos admits, it was ultimately "money well-spent" given Avatar's great success.

Sigourney Weaver - Avatar

Sigourney Weaver's Cigarette Was CG, Though James Cameron Defended Her Smoking Against Criticism

An astonishing amount of CG went into Avatar. It's been reported that 60 percent of Avatar involves CG, and it's hard to know if that's counting all the CG environments, characters, technology, weaponry, and everything else computer-animated that appears on-screen. Avatar involves so much computer graphic technology that even Cameron later admitted that they're basically animated movies, especially when you account for all the random uses of CG seen throughout — even if you didn't notice.

For instance, did you know that when Sigourney Weaver's Dr. Grace Augustine smokes a cigarette, there wasn't a real cigarette in Weaver's hand? The Blu-Ray extras reveal behind-the-scenes footage that shows Weaver puffing on air. It was a special effect, though Avatar's depiction of smoking was nevertheless criticized. Cameron defended the choice.

Screenshot from Avatar (2009)

Avatar Was Originally Meant To Be R-Rated

Projects change invariably throughout their production. What's on the page isn't always what's on the screen, and the journey through which a movie is realized is filled with compromises and revisions. James Cameron is better known for his R-rated movies like The Terminator, T2, and Aliens. Even his well-known PG-13 movies, including The Abyss and Titanic, push hard against its regulations. And Avatar was reportedly also set to be R-rated at one point, though that wasn't meant to be.

As it was reported, Cameron originally wrote an R-rated screenplay, but it became clear that concessions were needed. Given the incredible budget, they needed to make sure the blockbuster had as wide an audience as possible; that wouldn't happen with an R-rating. Therefore, Cameron dialed back and made a PG-13 version instead.

Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana - Avatar

James Cameron Reportedly Made $350+ Million For Making Avatar

It's an understatement to say that James Cameron is a very wealthy individual. The guy once made two of the highest-grossing movies of all-time. That is not an easy feat, and it brings you a great deal of wealth in this life. Sure enough, thanks to Avatar's success, Cameron got a whole lot more money in his pocket. Specifically, as it was reported by Deadline, Cameron apparently made more than $350 million from making Avatar, due to his directorial deal, which was structured as either "first dollar" gross or else, "at cash break" gross.

That's a pretty good cut of the pie. Given its $2.7 billion success, it makes sense that Cameron received a healthy compensation for this achievement. As the writer, director, and producer, it's safe to say Avatar wouldn't exist without Cameron's bold vision. Therefore, given its incredible triumph, it makes a lot of sense that the award-winning filmmaker earned one sweet-ass paycheck.

What are some Avatar behind-the-scenes facts you know? Share them below!

Will Ashton

Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.