Yesterday -- Earth Day -- marked the DVD and Blu-Ray release of James Cameron's Avatar, now the biggest grossing film to date. The timing of the release is considered early, which is interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the connection to the strong environmental themes in the film. What's also exciting is that the filmmakers are supporting the release with genuine action for Pandora, er the Earth.
According to news reports, consumers snapped up 4 million copies of Avatar on Earth Day, including 1.5 million of those on Blu-ray, a record. Yet the film is still playing in some theaters, and an Earth Day home release is considered a rush effort. Critics of Hollywood's "old media" business model, such as Muhammad Saleem of The Drill Down and Mark Cuban, say earlier release of home video is a great way to reduce piracy while giving consumers what they want, instead of treating your customers like criminals (by using digital rights management systems and targeting illegal downloaders).
At a recent event for press in NYC, Avatar producer Jon Landau said, "Every bit of data on the disc is the film. The best quality is with the least amount of stuff on it" -- which he said is why there are no trailers or commercials. A special edition disc should be available in November, according to Landau, with deleted scenes, commentary, more explorations of Pandora and more.
Much of the coverage of Avatar in recent months has been over the technology of 3D, which some feel is being over exploited in the wake of Cameron's smashing success. Some critics had speculated that home video versions of Pandora wouldn't sell, since it is not being released in a home 3D version (Landau said he didn't believe the technology was there yet, or in enough homes to warrant a foray.)
But clearly, as the Earth Day release numbers show, the film holds up. Interestingly, some reviewers are reporting that they prefer seeing it in 2D. Some people have said that 3D is disorienting. "In 2D, your eye can roam more, and notice more details," said Landau.
Landau said that he has been working with James Cameron for 15 years (the two won an Oscar for Titanic). Prior to that he was executive VP of feature production for 20th Century Fox, and worked on some other films, including 1989's Honey I Shrunk the Kids (a movie I loved as a kid, and which also has some green and ecological themes). "We're excited that Fox suggested a home release of Avatar on Earth Day," Landau said. "They felt the themes in the film were related. And we will plant one million trees around the world by the end of the year," he added.
Much has been said about Avatar's environmental ethics. The green blogosphere has waxed poetic about it, while some conservatives and religious groups have criticized what they feel looks like paganism. In Britain's Guardian, critic Gordon Mackie wrote, "But Cameron movies come with his own dialogue so its only the visuals that stay with you, and you sometimes feel bludgeoned with his none-too-original green, antiwar message writ large.
When The Daily Green asked about the film's messaging, Landau said, "The movie doesn't preach. It gives you something to think about." He explained that Avatar has resonated with many different people all over the world, and that many have said they have been inspired by the beauty and fragility of Pandora, and the fight of the heroes to preserve a proud tradition.
"One man told me, 'After I saw Avatar, I really noticed the oak tree that's been in my yard for 15 years," Landau explained. The filmmakers have shown it in Brazil to gain support for forest protection. In fact, Cameron has been outspoken in that Latin American country, recently opposing a massive dam project that would flood forest and displace an indigenous group that is not unlike the Na'vi.
Landau showed a clip of the "thanator chase" scene, in which the terrifying dinosaur-like creatures chase Sam Worthington's character Jake shortly after he arrives in avatar-form on Pandora. According to the producer, the scene was the first test sequence the filmmakers attempted, back in Fall 2005, in order to gain studio support for the project. At first, James Cameron ran around after Worthington with an orange tennis ball on a stick (Peter Jackson's Weta Digital would later add effects). In 2007, the primary cast and crew went to Hawaii to rehearse, and to submerge themselves in a natural world that served as inspiration for the sci-fi one they would create on screen.
According to Landau, a local walking his dogs stumbled upon Worthington, running through the woods in a loin cloth, being trailed by Cameron, who was watching him through one of those little lenses directors are known for. The hiker asked a crewmember what was going on. "See that man over there, he directed Titanic," was the reply. "Huh. Well he's gone downhill from there," the man said.
Landau said the film's cast trained in horseback riding, archery and the Na'vi language, a full tongue created by a hired USC linguist. According to Landau, star Zoe Saldana said the hardest part for her wasn't speaking in Na'vi, but trying to speak English with a Na'vi accent. Landau also said a key goal had been to make sure the digital rendering processes would translate the actors' performances, not mask them. "The real technological breakthrough is not the 3D, it's the performance capture," he said. Landau added that the score by James Horner (a frequent Cameron collaborator), hit the right note of classical feel with indigenous undertones.
When I asked about reports that Pandora's storyline contains elements that are similar to many other works, Landau shrugged it off. "Some people say that Titanic is really Romeo and Juliet," said Landau. "I think that's ok, if the audience has a unique experience."
What's next for Cameron and Landau? The producer said that they are considering a sequel, probably to include a new race of aliens. Like the first film, Avatar 2 would be rated PG-13 most likely, though Landau stressed that there is nothing in the first film that he wouldn't want his young children to see. He also noted that Cameron has expressed interest in exploring the story of the Na'vi in other media, through video games and books.
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