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Animation

Avatar: An Introduction
William Brown and Jenna Ng Animation 2012 7: 221 DOI: 10.1177/1746847712459595 The online version of this article can be found at: http://anm.sagepub.com/content/7/3/221

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Editorial

Avatar: An Introduction
William Brown Jenna Ng

Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 7(3) 221225 The Author(s) 2012 Reprints and permission: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1746847712459595 anm.sagepub.com

University of Roehampton, UK

University of Cambridge, UK

Like Titanic (James Cameron, 1997), Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) is a film surrounded by records of various kinds: the biggest budget film ever made; the highest box office gross of all time; record revenues upon first release (US$3.5 million in the USA); the highest number of DVDs and Blu-Rays sold (2.5 million DVDs and 1.5 million Blu-Rays were sold on Earth Day (22 April 2010), a date chosen to coincide with the films putative bent towards ecology, eventually reaching sales of 10 million DVDs and/or Blu-Rays in the USA alone); massive worldwide releases of 3,500 screens in the USA, and 14,000 screens worldwide (approximately 10% of all cinema screens on the planet); and winner of three Oscars (in cinematography, art direction and visual effects). Yet the films significance lies in more than its numbers. It is also, for instance, a high-profile example of contemporary Hollywoods globalized industrial practice. Shot in the USA and New Zealand, Avatar is an international co-production involving the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Lightstorm Entertainment and Dune Entertainment from the USA, and the Ingenious Film Partners from the UK, with Fox itself being a trans/multinational corporation with interests in a huge range of markets and regions. The talent involved includes a Canadian director (Cameron), an Australian leading actor (Sam Worthington), and a familiar and ethnically-diverse supporting cast, including Sigourney Weaver (one of Camerons best-known star actresses) alongside Giovanni Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez and others. Furthermore, Avatar required work from numerous digital effects companies across the world, such as the USA (Industrial Light and Magic), New Zealand (Weta Digital), the UK (Framestore), Canada (Hybride Technologies) and France (BUF). Finally, Avatar premiered not in the USA, but in London, UK, on 10 December 2009, demonstrating again the filmmakers acknowledgement of the global market for Hollywood products. The box office figures an impressive US$760 million in the USA, only to be overtaken by the US$2 billion it took elsewhere likewise exemplifies the nature of the film as a product of global Hollywood. The film is also an interesting example of blockbuster promotion and release strategies. Avatar had been gaining media attention since 1994, although it did not get made earlier because the technology had to reach a stage sufficient to manifest the vision James Cameron had for the film. As such, Avatar was widely promoted as a return narrative on the part of its director (Camerons return to filmmaking after a decade of underwater documentaries and the like), as well as a
Corresponding author: Jenna Ng, University of Cambridge, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT, UK. Email: jpsn6@cam.ac.uk

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technological and budgetary spin that were all too tied to James Cameron himself as brand-auteur. Indeed, the film then generated controversy (read, anticipation) thanks to its speculated budget and delayed release date (originally May 2009, but was eventually December of the same year, prompting the usual speculation regarding whether the film was a disaster waiting to happen). Even though the film was such a long time in the making, the first image from the film was conveniently leaked only in August 2009, four months before its release and three months after the original May release date. The trailer finally debuted on-air in November 2009 on a large screen in the Cowboy Stadium in Texas as well as being broadcast on Fox NFL Sunday, making it the largest live motion picture trailer viewing in history (Johnson, 2009). In terms of release, the film was shown on multiple platforms, namely IMAX theatres as well as 3D and 2D screenings. DVD and Blu-Ray versions were released almost immediately after the film had been removed from cinema screens. The film then returned to cinema screens in August 2010 for a special edition theatrical release and, by Christmas 2010, Avatar was showing on box office television, 3D television and numerous other platforms. In other words, not only was the films release exceptional in terms of its scale, it also illustrates the way in which Hollywood studios here specifically Fox studios strategize their releases in the contemporary era to maximize profit, particularly by bringing the release windows of different platforms closer together. Furthermore, Avatar takes commercial tie-ins and licensing deals, strategies already exemplary of the Hollywood blockbuster, to unprecedented heights. Fox licensed 125 Avatar-related products in the video games, toys, apparel and publishing markets, alongside tie-ins with Coke Zero and McDonalds at the time of the films release. The films score, composed by James Horner, and a single by Leona Lewis were released as an album on CD and music download. Panasonic used the film as a promise for selling its new range of 3D televisions (enjoy the ultimate Avatar experience at home), while Microsoft generated coverage via the film in its reports of how Avatar would not have been possible without their cloud computing solutions. In these landmarks and milestones, Avatar thus marks its place on the media landscape as an important film, presenting myriad ways to study it. Compounding this, the films twin plot strands of ecopolitical conflict and the arrival of a messianic saviour in a time of crisis have also attracted much commentary on both academic and journalistic fronts. Multiple interpretations abound, of which a few instances are highlighted here: Robert Hyland (2010) and John Rieder (2011) see the film respectively as reflecting a cultural imperialist and male race-revenge narrative; Bert Olivier (2010) interprets it as a political stance which, through viewer-identification with the protagonists in the film, galvanizes action to save the planetary ecosystem(s) from destruction. Yosefa Loshitzky (2012) analyzes how the film is co-opted in Palestine briefly for anti-Occupation protests; Ken Hillis (2009) reads the film as being about the world soul, or an ecological fantasy, while James Der Derian (2010) sees Avatar as a great anti-war film, even as Joshua Moritz (2010) takes it to the theological plane. Thomas Elsaesser (2011) reads the mass appeal of Avatar in its literal sense, analyzing it as simply the blockbuster designed to have something for everyone, cf Joshua Clover (2010), who, confronted with that many invitations to interpret the film allegorically, refrains from any reading whatsoever, instead charging that the film generates an allegory so chaotically inconsistent that one slinks away in defeat (p.6). In one sense, the articles gathered here in this Special Issue on Avatar will, of course, contribute to this pile of readings. More than that, though, we were also primarily motivated to guest edit this issue of articles on Avatar (and in this respect also engaging with themes of interest for readers of animation: an interdisciplinary journal) in view of the technologies used in the making of this most successful film of all time. These are principally motion capture (especially highly profiled innovations in facial performance capture as recorded by a lightweight camera being attached to a

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skull cap moulded to the actors head) carried out on the largest motion capture stage ever created, and 3D production with KernerFXs Kernercam stereoscopic camera rig. While these technologies are noteworthy in terms of their innovation, they also reflect on the numerous themes of the film, such as colonization, environmental destruction, community, alienation, indigenous survivance, human/American imperialism and mechanized warfare. Given that the film involves representations of otherness and seeks to tell an allegorical story concerning American imperialism and ecological disaster, analyzing how this story is told becomes a central part of critiquing Avatar. The role that the technologies used to make the film thus come into play in the telling of Avatars story, compelling them to be discussed not only for their innovative natures, but also in light of the seeming ideological ends for which they are used. The articles here thus provide a collective perspective on Avatar via the films technological constructions as a lens through which to continue various interpretations of Avatars political, social and cultural themes. Sean Cubitt opens this Special Issue with Avatar and Utopia, laying out utopian longing in the 21st century not simply in terms of Avatars narrative itself, but also within its imagery, specifically of composited live action and highly constructed diegetic space. In his investigation of the interstices of the image, Cubitt aligns the disruptions to the image with the political disruptions in Avatars narrative, lending the film a new layer of analysis. In counterpoint, Leon Gurevitch offers an alternative reading in The Birth of a Stereoscopic Nation: Hollywood, Digital Empire and the Cybernetic Attraction by linking Avatars computer-generated composite forms to Victorian stereographic imaging, specifically Charles Wheatstones original stereoscopic hand drawings, arguing a self-referentiality in the film about its disruption of the relationships between body and vision central to Victorian stereoscopic imaging, and further connecting that to the racist and colonialist logic evidenced both in the history of the Victorian empire, examined here via DW Griffiths Birth of a Nation (1915), and Avatar. In interrogating CGI technologies through their readings of Avatar, Cubitt and Gurevitch use the films technological aspects as a framework through which to address some of the philosophical and scopic dimensions of the film. The next two articles in the Special Issue share and extend Gurevitchs interest in interrogating the visual regime of Avatar. Seeing plays a dominant role in the film: much of the discourse surrounding the film involves notions of seeing the budget on the screen, as well as seeing its politics and the injustices they present (Monbiot, 2010). The concept of seeing is a self-conscious trope in the film, a trope that is then reflexively incorporated into critiques of the film, particularly as it is read as a movie about ecology and as an allegory of the destructive aspects of human development (for example, Quinn, 2009). At the same time, seeing in its literal sense is also co-opted into the films very presentation, particularly in terms of its vaunted 3D/stereoscopy (see, for example, Corliss, 2009), even as it is yet counterpointed by the non-seeing of its human actors in the guise of their mocapped digital puppets. The next two essays in the Special Issue engage thus with these different ideas of seeing in Avatar. In antithesis to cinema as light (lcriture de la lumire), William Brown argues in Avatar: Stereoscopic Cinema, Gaseous Perception and Darkness for the role of darkness in film viewing, using as the fulcrum for his argument a theorization of 3D glasses as a dimming medium, or further apparatus or filter. Applying this to analyses of Avatar, particularly where the films 3D effects train the eye where to look in the image, Brown calls for 3D cinema to be considered more gaseous rather than solid, whereby the viewers eye is allowed to roam and pick up on whatever he or she wishes. Ultimately, Brown argues, in alignment with his theorization of 3D, for a regime of vision if not the very possibility of the universes existence itself which relies more on darkness than light. Similarly, Jenna Ng, in Seeing Movement: On Motion Capture Animation and James Camerons Avatar, revisits our experiences of seeing light when watching films and considers how motion capture and the seeing of recorded

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movement (contra its crucial distinction to the seeing of a moving object) proffer different viewing experiences premised on movement and being rather than on light and seeing. By connecting Avatars thematic concerns of seeing and experience with its use of motion capture technology, she raises broader ideas of being and experience regarding the theoretical implications of motion capture technologies for theorizing the moving image. The last two articles examine Avatar in wider contexts of politics and ideology, in the process also reflecting on the impact that digital technology has had on contemporary film form. In Mark Bartletts kaleidoscopic essay, Going (Digitally) Native, he posits the film in its hybridities, constructed between scientific realism and political fantasy, fictional narrative and factual documentary, and scientific legitimacy and aesthetic imagination. Demonstrating across far-ranging issues on how the films techno-scientific materiality and content reinforces its themes, most notably messianism, Bartlett argues that Avatar offers an alternative model for identity formation based on a networked ecology of interdependent and co-operative actants. Aylish Wood, concluding the Special Issue with Where Codes Collide: The Emergent Ecology of Avatar, discusses a similar ecology of Avatar not only in terms of the environmentalism of its narrative, but also the connectivity between the film and its associated texts, such as production culture disclosures, making of featurettes, and interviews. Wood suggests an ecology of codes, or emergent spaces, both of which concepts bear implications in discussing transmedia aspects of current filmmaking practice, and questions of narrative, genre, performance and characterization. Our goal in putting together this Special Issue was to offer reflections on what we felt was a significant film as marked not only by its many milestones, but also by the depth of the issues it explores and the relevance of its themes in a contemporary world ravaged by violence, profiteering, a continuing exploitation of resources and a blatant disregard of the planets environmental issues (the universal condemnation of the general failure of any constructive governmental effort from the most recent Earth summit in Rio says it all). To that extent, we see all six articles in the Special Issue as a step towards fulfilling that goal, not only by pushing our understanding of an important film in discussing its issues and technologies from a range of perspectives, but also of a ringing statement made about and on our world, politics and myriad problems today. References
Clover J (2010) The struggle for space. Film Quarterly 63(3): 67. Corliss R (2009) Corliss appraises Avatar: A world of wonder. Time Magazine, 14 December. Available at: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1947438,00.html (accessed 2 August 2012). Der Derian J (2010) Now we are all avatars. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39(1): 181186. Elsaesser T (2011) James Camerons Avatar: Access for all. New Review of Film and Television Studies 9(3): 247264. Hillis K (2009) From capital to karma: James Camerons Avatar. Postmodern Culture 19(3). Hyland R (2010) Going Navi: Mastery in Avata. CineAction! 82/83: 1016. Johnson N (2009) Avatar trailer gets worlds largest live trailer viewing on November 1. Reuters, 29 October. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/10/29/idUS214196+29-Oct-2009+BW20091029 (accessed 7 August 2012). Loshitzky Y (2012) Popular cinema as popular resistance: Avatar in the Palestinian (imagi)nation. Third Text 26(2): 151163. Monbiot G (2010) Mawkish, maybe. But Avatar is a profound, insightful, important film. The Guardian, 11 January. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/jan/11/mawkishmaybe-avatar-profound-important (accessed 2 August 2012). Moritz J (2010) Science fiction, ET, and the theological cosmology of Avatar. Theology and Science 8(2): 127131.

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Olivier B (2010) AVATAR: Ecopolitics, technology, science, art and myth. South African Journal of Art History 25(3): 116. Quinn K (2009) Dont just watch Avatar, see it. 17 December. Available at: http://www.theage.com.au/ opinion/blogs/the-vulture/dont-just-watch-avatar-see-it-20091216-kx47.html (accessed 2 August 2012). Rieder J (2011) Race and revenge fantasies in Avatar, District 9 and Inglourious Basterds. Science Fiction Film and Television 4(1): 4156.

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