June 9, 2023

James Cameron’s “Avatar” film series is arguably one of the most famous film franchises in recent memory. “Avatar,” first released in 2009, was praised for its usage of computer-generated imagery (CGI) throughout most of the movie. The movie was made using a mix of performance capture, live-action and a hybrid shooting of performance capture and live-action.

Cameras captured the use of a virtual system to display a digitalized set on computers that were used to best film motion-capture footage. Actors would then wear suits with reflective markers to reflect infrared light to the cameras on set. This would provide points of data to help animators create digital characters. Actors would also wear helmets with cameras attached to them to help capture facial performances.

For “Avatar,” most of the movie’s setting was generated with CGI. Some of the scenes were also used through a virtual set to help discover changes that would be made in physical sets afterward.
Although CGI was not an entirely new idea or tool in cinema in 2009, Cameron innovated new methods and techniques to build the film. He changed the course of CGI in cinema using highly advanced motion capture and 3D technologies.

“CGI was already very popular in virtually all tentpole movies before the first “Avatar” came out, so no, I don’t think Cameron had all that much to do with the popularity of CGI in movies, but he and his team did utilize the technology in an interesting way,” said Michael Eaton, professor of film studies.

Before “Avatar” was released, other films also utilized CGI, such as “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” (1999); but CGI was at an early stage in cinema. These movies’ CGI, particularly “The Phantom Menace,” does not look visually satisfactory by today’s standards.

Since 2009, movies using CGI have arguably improved. The technology has even evolved to help de-age older actors in films such as Robert De Niro in “The Irishman” (2019) and Michael Douglas in “Avengers: Endgame” (2019). Mark Hamill was also de-aged in the second season of “The Mandalorian” (2020) and the first season of “The Book of Boba Fett” (2021) TV series.

“Based on movies that involved CGI, it is possible that James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ improved CGI, although realism was not as popular in movies. I believe that he may have influenced CGI in an upward trend after the release of ‘Avatar’,” said David Harty, junior intercultural studies major.

Cinema has almost universally improved how CGI is applied across many studios. Cameron and Avatar might have much to do with paving the step-up in CGI usage and visual improvements over the last 13 years.

These improvements are commonly seen in movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe on actors like Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Hulk and Josh Brolin as Thanos.

“After watching the first ‘Avatar’ movie, I believe that James Cameron was one of the filmmakers who revolutionized CGI in the film industry,” said Marc Agbayani, senior creative writing major.

“Before the time of the movie’s release, there were not many films that really tackled CGI to such a great extent that ‘Avatar’ did. Sure, there were movies like ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest’ in the film industry, but neither of them had an almost fully CGI set like ‘Avatar’ did.”

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