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What The Avatar Movies Really Look Like Without Special Effects

"Avatar" is one of the most popular and successful movies ever made. The epic science fiction film, directed by James Cameron, was released in 2009 and quickly became the first movie to gross over $2 billion. In addition to achieving that remarkable feat, it's currently the highest grossing movie of all time.

The breathtaking CGI was one of the many reasons why "Avatar" and its 2022 sequel, "Avatar: The Way of Water," were so successful. Cameron didn't just rely on standard animation techniques while making the films; he used innovative, groundbreaking technology to make the world of Pandora and the Na'vi come to life. This resulted in two immersive movies that practically make viewers feel like Pandora is real. So much CGI was used in the movies that the scenes almost look unrecognizable without it. Keep reading to see various scenes before and after CGI was added, getting a behind-the-scenes look at how the films were made.

Jake fights a thanator

When Jake (Sam Worthington) is exploring the jungles of Pandora, he runs into a creature known as a thanator. The ferocious beast has six legs and a huge mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth. It's carnivorous, strong, and aggressive, yet also quite agile and fast — somewhat similar to a panther in real life.

Jake fights the thanator, but before CGI was added, the crew used a long pole with a red ball on it to stand in for the creature. The crew member holding the pole would lunge at Worthington so he could react on cue. Seeing Worthington look so terrified about a stick with a red ball on it gives us a whole new level of respect for the actors in the "Avatar" movies.

Jake is almost killed by the thanator, but manages to escape by jumping down a big waterfall. Later, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) teaches Jake more about Pandora and the creatures that live there, and he realizes that the thanator was just trying to protect its home.

Neytiri drinks water from a leaf

While Neytiri is teaching Jake about the ways of the Na'vi, she takes him deep into the forest to show him how they interact with the environment. She takes a moment to drink water from a big purple leaf, showing him that the Na'vi live in harmony with nature. Drinking water from a leaf might sound like a simple process, but it's much more complicated when it's happening on the fictional world of Pandora.

To make it happen, Saldaña worked with a gray contraption that was later replaced with a CG leaf. At the same time, she drank from a plastic water bottle covered in duct tape that was later edited out of the shot. After all, the Na'vi are very in tune with nature, so they don't use disposable plastic products. The short scene helps Jake understand that Pandora has much more to offer than the valuable mineral unobtanium that humans came there to mine.

Grace's avatar body

As the head of the Avatar Program, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) spends years studying Pandora. She's a xenobotanist, so she specializes in studying alien plant life, and many of the scientists on the ship admire her for writing a detailed book about the various plants on Pandora. She isn't just interested in plants, though; she's also fascinated by the culture of the Na'vi. She's empathetic towards their views and dedicates much of her time to building a peaceful relationship with the Omatikaya clan, even establishing a school where the Na'vi and humans can interact.

Since she's so involved with the Avatar Program, it only makes sense that she has an avatar of her own. While in her avatar, she wears more clothing than the Na'vi typically do, with a crimson Stanford tank top, khaki shorts, and occasionally a tan shirt. While filming the scenes of Grace in her avatar, Weaver wore a motion tracking suit, gloves, helmet, and helmet cam. She also had dots on her face to help animators translate her expressions into CGI later on. It's fascinating to see how closely the animators translated Weaver's expressions and body movements from the original footage to the final production.

Riding in the aircraft

When humans carry out missions on Pandora, they often use aircraft that are similar to helicopters. Pilot Trudy Chacón flies an Aerospatiale SA-2 Samson that can carry multiple people, avatars, and a good amount of cargo. One of the first times Jake is linked to his avatar, he gets aboard the aircraft with Trudy, Dr. Grace, and anthropologist Norm (Joel David Moore). They fly to one of the giant forests in Pandora, giving everyone an amazing aerial view of the lush terrain before they land and begin collecting plant samples.

To film the scene, the crew used a special rig that was essentially a metal mesh box with seats for the actors to sit on. Crew members outside of the rig bounced it around to recreate the appearance of flight. There were also fans blowing on the actors to simulate the wind, which must have been a nice change of pace since they probably got hot wearing those motion tracking suits.

To film some of the other scenes with people riding in aircraft, the crew used a traditional helicopter body modified for filming. It had no rotor blades and was lifted with a wire in front of a green screen to create the desired effect.

The Na'vi climb floating rocks

A lot of special effects were used to make the "Avatar" films, but that doesn't mean there weren't any practical effects. The scene of Jake and Neytiri climbing floating rocks required a unique combination of special and practical effects. While wearing cables for safety, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña had to climb a tall structure that was specially designed for the film. The process somewhat resembled climbing a wall at a rock climbing gym, since there were plenty of handholds for them to grab onto while making their way up the structure.

In the movie, the floating rocks were part of the Hallelujah Mountains. The majestic landscape was inspired by Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, located in the Hunan Province in China. There's one tall pillar in particular, the Southern Sky Column, that helped Cameron and his team design the Hallelujah Mountains. Could these floating mountains exist on some distant planet in real life?

"So, you know, you see floating mountains in the film. They're never explained," Cameron said during a 2010 interview with NPR. "Now, I happened to have, you know, sort of reverse-engineered a scientific explanation of how those mountains float, but every time I tried to shoehorn it into the movie, I just found that it was unnecessary explanation. People would accept that they had been transported to this amazing place where the rules were different, and it was okay for mountains to float. And it turned out that that technical explanation was completely unnecessary."

Riding direhorses

While getting familiar with the ways of the Na'vi, Jake learns to ride a direhorse. As their name suggests, they vaguely resemble horses in both appearance and behavior, with powerful legs, long necks, and eyes on the sides of their heads. Unlike horses though, they have six legs and are probably about the size of elephants. They live in herds in the wild, but the Na'vi tame them and ride on them, which is much faster than traveling on foot.

To film the scenes of Jake and the Na'vi riding direhorses, real horses were brought on set. Much like the actors, the horses had dots on their bodies to help with the motion sensor technology. On top of that, the horses had special attachments on their tails. All of this allowed visual effects artists to transform them into direhorses with CGI later on, which explains why the creatures seem so similar to horses, despite their alien appearance.

Neytiri yells

Neytiri is a fearsome, agile warrior who is very skilled at using bows. She's also the tsakarem of the Omatikaya clan, which means she's in training to become the spiritual leader of the community. On top of all that, she's about nine feet tall and has sharp fangs, so when she gets upset and yells, it's intense to say the least.

When Jake tells the Na'vi that the humans are planning to attack the sacred Hometree, Neytiri becomes extremely distraught. "You will never be one of the people!" she yells, pushing Jake.

While filming the dramatic scene, Zoe Saldaña wore her motion tracking suit, helmet, and helmet cam. She had a bunch of dots on her face to help animators track her expressions and translate them into CGI. It's pretty remarkable that Saldaña was able to give such an emotional performance while looking like that, but it goes to show how talented of an actress she is.

"I, at least, have no idea that I'm wearing this," Saldaña said, referring to her motion capture outfit. "I feel like I'm blue and I'm nine feet tall."

Jake and Neytiri ride on banshees

The moment when Jake and Neytiri fly on mountain banshees is arguably one of the best scenes in "Avatar." In 2019, Cameron actually said it's his favorite moment in the film. "We achieved our goals in terms of creating the ultimate alien rainforest and the beauty and all that. But I think the part that I still like the best, and that I had to fight the hardest for, was the flying," he shared.

The banshees are large winged creatures similar to dragons or pterodactyls. Brave Na'vi warriors tame banshees so they can fly on them, allowing them to hunt from the air and travel great distances. During a dangerous rite of passage, Jake has to bond with one of these fierce creatures and learn to fly on it. It's definitely a challenge, but he's able to make it happen, going on an exhilarating flight with Neytiri and earning the respect of the Na'vi warriors.

For this scene, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña each rode on a plastic structure. Crew members jostled the structures around to simulate the motion of the banshees during flight. The actors were also attached to wires that appeared to fling them around, creating the realistic look of losing your balance while learning to ride such a powerful creature.

The sacred trees

The Na'vi have a very special relationship with nature, living harmoniously with the natural world rather than exploiting it. Since the Omatikaya clan lives in the forest, they hold trees in particularly high regard, and some trees are important spiritual destinations.

The Tree of Souls is an absolutely stunning location that Jake and Neytiri visit after their banshee flight. It's an enormous tree with long glowing leaves that hang from its branches. The Na'vi revere the Tree of Souls because it allows them to connect closely with their deity Eywa, making it the most sacred place in all of Pandora. Later on, Jake and Neytiri visit the Tree of Voices, a sacred site that looks similar to the Tree of Souls. They connect their tendrils to the tree to hear the voices of ancestors and pray.

Although the sacred trees looked gorgeous in the film, the sets where the scenes were filmed were much less enchanting. Saldaña and Worthington really had to use their imaginations, admiring pieces of black string that would later be transformed into glowing leaves with CGI. To simulate connecting to the Tree of Voices with their tendrils, the actors each put a piece of frayed rope up to the strings.

Jake and Neytiri kiss

Jake and Neytiri do much more than pray when they visit the Tree of Voices. Neytiri tells him that he can choose a mate, and when he says that he chooses her, she replies that she chooses him, too. They embrace and share a passionate kiss, then sleep together underneath the tree.

It's a romantic moment, but filming the scene seemed much more awkward. Zoe Saldaña and Sam Worthington both had to wear their motion capture suits, which aren't exactly stylish or flattering. They also had green dots all over their faces so that animators could track the intricate movements of their faces and convert things into CGI.

The love scene was longer in the original script written by James Cameron. After Neytiri and Jake kiss, Neytiri says, "Kissing is very good, but we have something better." They kneel on the ground facing each other, then their "tendrils intertwine with gentle undulations," according to the script, shaking Jake with the force of his nervous system meshing with that of Neytiri. It's described as "the ultimate intimacy," but this didn't make it to the final version of the film, where the couple just share a kiss and viewers have to fill in the blanks for themselves.

Colonel Miles Quaritch's mech suit

The Na'vi aren't the only characters that need CGI. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is the chief of security during humankind's war against the Na'vi. He's the hotheaded main antagonist in the first film, but despite his military prowess, he wouldn't stand a chance against the nine-foot-tall Na'vi warriors if he tries going up against them with a mere gun. Instead, he uses a large mech suit that's very impressive with both offense and defense. It's sturdy, has powerful robotic limbs, and can fire weapons with ease.

Even though Colonel Quaritch himself didn't need any CGI in the first movie since he was a human, his mech suit was a different story; it required both practical and special effects. During filming, Lang sat in a big mech suit that looked very similar to the one in the movie, minus a few details. CG robotic arms, digital screens, and a large gun were added later to complete the look.

Jake's ceremony

By the end of the first movie, Jake has fully embraced Na'vi culture, so he decides to permanently transfer his consciousness into his Avatar. To do this, a big ceremony is held at the Tree of Souls. Both Jake's human and avatar bodies are laid near the tree, then the spiritual leader of the Omatikaya clan, Mo'at (CCH Pounder), does a ceremonial dance as a big group of Na'vi watch and sway together. Jake passes through the eye of the deity Eywa, then he wakes up in his avatar and walks through the crowd of Na'vi, having now officially become one of them.

Many actors had to learn choreography for this scene. A group of them sat cross-legged on the ground and swayed back and forth while wearing motion tracking suits. Meanwhile, Pounder performed a dance sequence while wearing a white outfit with flowing fabric that would later be turned into Mo'at's ceremonial shawl. After that, the actors stood up and made way for Sam Worthington as he walked through the crowd.

The Metkayina clan

The Metkayina clan plays a huge role in "Avatar: The Way of Water." When humans return to Pandora, the vengeful Colonel Quaritch goes on a mission to kill Jake, causing Jake and his family to flee the forest to protect the Omatikaya clan. They travel a great distance until they arrive at the aquatic environment where the Metkayina tribe lives, seeking refuge with them.

Since the Metkayina clan lives on the shores near the ocean and islands near the mainland, they have a special relationship with water. They spend much of their time swimming around the coral reefs, hunting for fish, and interacting with the local wildlife. Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his mate Ronal (Kate Winslet) are the leaders of the clan.

While filming the scenes of this new clan, the actors all wore motion capture suits that looked slightly different. Each of the suits had its own unique colors and patterns, most likely to help animators differentiate the characters from one another later on. Although many of the scenes were filmed with real water, the scene of the clan standing in shallow water at night was filmed without any water, so that was entirely CGI.

Learning to ride ilus

Once Jake and his family are accepted by the Metkayina clan, they have to adjust to a whole new way of life, which involves getting familiar with the ocean and the creatures in it. Some of the family members must learn to ride ilus, the aquatic version of direhorses that can easily travel through the water. Ilus look vaguely similar to plesiosaurs, except they have six flippers, four eyes, and antennae.

Creating the scenes of Jake's family riding the ilus required a ton of work. Instead of going with the standard method of dangling actors from wires, having them make swimming motions in the air, then editing the water in later, Cameron chose to film the actors in real water.

"It's about the credibility of the actor's performance," Richie Baneham, one of the visual effects supervisors for the film, told The New York Times in 2022. "If an actor is genuinely in water, there's a viscous resistance. It informs the actor's choices. That's what we're chasing. That's what makes it feel real."

To make this happen, a giant tank was built, complete with windows so camera operators could capture high-quality footage from the outside. It was even able to simulate waves to create a more realistic effect. A layer of balls floated on the surface of the water to prevent light from ruining the shot while still allowing actors to come up for air. While underwater, the actors held onto contraptions that would later be replaced with the ilus.

Colonel Miles Quaritch's avatar body

Neytiri killed Colonel Quaritch in "Avatar," but at the beginning of "Avatar: The Way of Water," we learn that Quaritch's consciousness has been duplicated and put into an avatar. Since he has all the memories of the original Quaritch, along with a bigger, stronger body, he's essentially a new and improved version of himself.

Quaritch's Avatar looks similar to the Na'vi, with blue skin, large yellow eyes, and pointed ears. Unlike most of the Na'vi though, he wears a lot of clothing. He's often seen wearing a tactical vest and pants, although sometimes he wears a tank top instead of the vest. He has short black hair, a watch, and the same eagle tattoo on his left arm as he did when he was human.

Because of all this, Lang had to wear a motion capture suit while filming the sequel, which he didn't have to do for the first movie. He had black dots on his face to assist with tracking his facial movements. Lang said that having an avatar body rather than a human body had a profound effect on the character.

"To take a character who represents the most kind of antiquated and limited point of view of a planet, which is Quaritch in the original 'Avatar,' and by placing him within the context of a Na'vi body, it advances Quaritch's own point of view," Lang shared. "He's brain locked on mission, always has been, but that's not the case anymore."

Ronal mourns the death of Roa

In addition to being the mate of Tonowari, Ronal is the spiritual leader of the Metkayina clan. She is spirit sisters with one of the tulkans in the film, which are very large, intelligent, whale-like creatures that live in Pandora's oceans. That tulkan's name is Roa, and during one touching moment of the sequel, she and her herd return from migration. Ronal is ecstatic to see her and share memories about what they have been up to since they last saw each other. Roa has given birth to a calf and Ronal is pregnant, so they're both very happy for each other.

Tragically, not long after this heartwarming reunion, humans kill Roa as a way to get Jake out of hiding. They also extract her amrita, a substance produced by tulkans that completely stops human aging, making it extremely valuable. To make matters even worse, Roa's calf dies shortly afterwards. When Ronal finds Roa's corpse, she's devastated, in a truly heart-wrenching scene. During filming, Winslet had to wear a motion tracking suit and use her imagination to envision the deceased tulkun, yet she still did an incredible job of conveying Ronal's grief.

14-year-old Kiri

Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) is the teenage daughter of the late Dr. Augustine. Her father hasn't been revealed, but she's the adopted daughter of Jake and Neytiri. She's a bit of an oddball, so she doesn't always fit in with the other Na'vi teens, but on the bright side, she has a strong connection to Eywa and the natural world. Kiri visits the Cove of the Ancestors and connects to the sacred Spirit Tree, causing her to see her mother, but also suffer from a seizure. Later on, it's revealed that she has the mystical ability to control Pandoran plants and wildlife. 

Thanks to technological innovation, Sigourney Weaver, who played Dr. Augustine in the original film, was able to portray Kiri in the sequel. She wore a motion capture suit and moved in a bouncy, playful way to portray the teenage character. "The amazing thing is that the technology gives me that portal to bring my 14-year-old self to play this girl," Weaver said. "I remember [James Cameron] saying to me, 'You're really only 14 the way you act most of the time, so you can do this.'"