Avatar officially began preproduction in January 2006. But to understand how Avatar came into being means a trip into Cameron’s past films, where he laid the groundwork for the technology behind Avatar’s camera systems.
The first glimmers of what would become Avatar came into being on a 2000 underwater diving expedition to the Micronesian island of Truk, which Cameron went on with his longtime friend and colleague, Vince Pace.
“That’s when Jim indicated he would do another feature and that it would be 3D,” says Pace. “I got all excited, as if it was going to happen in the next 90 days. But that was Jim on the path, saying he was going to do this.”
Cameron’s vision, recounts Pace, was “a Holy Grail” camera that could do both 2D and 3D, without compromising either. “The camera would need to be capable of capturing 2D and 3D at the same time,” says Pace. “But he also didn’t want to give up being able to use the camera handheld or with Steadicam.”
On that tropical island, their conversations centered on the existing high-definition cameras and whether they were good enough for the kind of 2D/3D combined projects that Cameron had in mind. “I told him I was interested,” says Pace. “My passion has always been to take camera systems to different levels. I’d worked with Jim on other projects and knew his demanding style of getting the most for the effort.” Producer Jon Landau recalls that Cameron was “impressed by the quality and ease of use of the HD cameras in very difficult situations, especially in regards to lighting.”
Developing that Holy Grail 2D/3D camera perhaps took more effort than either of them could have known in that moment. “There was no intent to start from ground zero,” says Pace. “He wasn’t saying, ‘Let’s reinvent everything.’ Jim’s intention was to feel out the market and see what cameras were out there and if they needed further development. I was brought on board initially to participate in those meetings and evaluate current technology and see what the best move forward would be.”