What These Avatar Scenes Look Like Without CGI

"Avatar" is among the landmark films of the 21st century. Regardless of whether you love the movie or not, it's impossible to deny the cultural impact that James Cameron's 2009 science fiction epic had. The game-changing 3D technology and immersive special effects were unlike anything that audiences had ever seen before. It inspired viewers to keep going back to the theater so they could experience Pandora again and again.

It's impossible to talk about "Avatar" without mentioning its incredible run at the box office as it surpassed everyone's expectations to become the first movie to cross the $2 billion worldwide mark. Although it was briefly robbed of its title by 2019's "Avengers: Endgame," "Avatar" became the highest-grossing film of all-time once more thanks to a 2021 re-release. After playing in IMAX theaters this year, Cameron's epic may be the first and only film to cross $3 billion, while the sequel "Avatar: The Way of Water" finally hits theaters this December. As fans anticipate what he has in store for them, Cameron has admitted that "Avatar" is really an animated movie. Since there was such an abundance of computer-generated imagery, here's what these "Avatar" scenes look like without CGI.

Jake goes to Pandora for the first time

Although "Avatar" is often praised for its compelling visual effects, the film has some truly underrated character work. James Cameron is often not given enough credit for how good of a writer he is, with films like "Aliens," "The Terminator," "True Lies," and "Titanic" giving audiences characters that they can invest in amidst the mind-blowing spectacle. With "Avatar," Cameron gave the viewer a character whose situation was very relatable, as Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) served his planet in combat and has been using a wheelchair to overcome his injuries.

Jake is chosen to replace his identical twin brother to participate in the mission on Pandora. Although Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has doubts about his abilities, she reluctantly agrees to bring Jake along. Despite the imaginative visual effects that surround him, Jake has a compelling motivation to join this exploratory force. He is struggling with a disability and wants to experience what it's like to live in a different body. The look of wonder on his face as he wheels out into Pandora for the first time isn't something that can be faked with CGI. Worthington admits that when Cameron first approached him about the project, he said that "there are things when I have no idea what this man's talking about." The challenges of the role are what first attracted him to the project.

Jake wakes up in an Avatar body

Motion-capture technology is often used in fantasy and science fiction films to capture the essence of different creatures. Ironically, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) in 1999's "Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace" was actually the first motion capture character ever, although most movie fans would rather forget that fact. "Avatar" was unique because it featured a cast that was almost entirely made up of motion capture performers.

This did not make it an easier film to shoot. It's pretty challenging to act in front of a green screen, where you have no idea what you are supposed to be looking at. Some actors had no conception of what they would look like in their "Avatar" bodies until well into the film's production. James Cameron updated the motion capture technology in "Avatar" so that the characters' expressions would feel more naturalistic. He said that "we have almost as many muscles in just our face as we have in the entire rest of our body, so the systems previously that we used were good at capturing body performance." This attention-to-detail captures moments of raw emotion, such as when Jake wakes up in his "Avatar" body.

Jake is attacked by a thanator

"Avatar" is a science fiction spectacle, but it is also a film with an important theme of environmentalism and colonization. After experiencing the culture of the Na'vi, Jake begins to question if his planet's military goals are justified. They are outsiders on Pandora, and they have no right to take control of the territory that the Na'vi live in. While humans would rather mine Pandora for its resources, the Na'vi respect the natural wildlife on the planet. We see how Jake learns to trust the Na'vi after his experiences with the thanator monster.

When Jake is first exploring Pandora in his new body, he is attacked by a vicious carnivorous creature known as the "thanator." He is nearly killed by the fearsome beast and narrowly escapes by jumping down a waterfall. However, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) shows him that these creatures are simply trying to protect their home. During the final battle, she bonds with a thanator after her banshee is killed. Instead of trying to eat her, the thanator helps attack Colonel Quaritch's (Stephen Lang) mechanical suit. Although both scenes with thanators are pretty exciting in the final film, they weren't nearly as thrilling on set. Sam Worthington and Saldana had to act alongside a CGI creature that they couldn't see.

Neytiri drinks sacred water

The movies that become sensations are the ones that generate emotion. Whether it's the story of a farm boy who wishes for adventure in "Star Wars," the bond between a boy and his alien friend in "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," or a doomed romance between two people from different social classes in "Titanic," inspiring stories of characters growing up have always had a place with audiences. "Avatar" features a rather touching romance between Jake and Neytiri. Although they both suspect each other at first, Jake and Neytiri realize that they both have things to learn from each other.

Jake is attracted to Neytiri because of the respect that she shows for the natural world of Pandora. During a scene where they are bonding, Neytiri drinks sacred water from a leaf. During filming, Zoe Saldana actually drank from a real water bottle to simulate the expressions. Although it is a fairly simple scene, it signifies that Neytiri finds value in the resources of her planet. In turn, Jake learns that Pandora should not just be used as the source of potential military technology.

Jake and Neytiri embrace

"Avatar" has certainly inspired a passionate fanbase, but more general audience members might not have the same interest in the anatomy of the Na'vi. The somewhat infamous love scene between Jake and Neytiri is rather tender and sweet in the finished film, but dedicated fans have managed to learn more about Na'vi intimacy thanks to a little bit of extra research.

James Cameron's original screenplay describes how Neytiri and Jake's "tendrils intertwine with gentle undulations." In the theatrical cut, they only share a kiss. She says that "kissing is very good, but we have something better." "Avatar" fans quickly began to speculate about what Cameron cut from the film; thankfully, home video release filled in the blanks. However, even if the film does its best to convey the intimacy of the moment, it wasn't quite as personal on set. Trying to spend time with someone you love isn't quite as romantic when you're wearing a motion capture suit!

Grace unveils her Avatar body

Sigourney Weaver is one of the most iconic science fiction stars of all time. Her performance as Ellen Ripley in 1979's "Alien" modernized the concept of the "final girl" within the context of a sci-fi adventure. It was actually James Cameron who helped turn Weaver into the action star that she is today when he directed 1986's "Aliens," which saw Ripley learning to defend herself when she helped a group of Colonial Marines face off against a horde of Xenomorphs.

Weaver reunited with Cameron to play Dr. Grace Augustine in "Avatar." One of the more interesting characters in the film, Grace is the head of the "Avatar Program" who begins to have suspicions about her employers. She becomes concerned that if Pandora's Hometree is destroyed, it could fundamentally damage the ecosystem of the planet. Weaver was intrigued by the use of performance capture technology in the film. She said that motion capture is "much more actor-centric if you do it the James Cameron way." Grace's enthusiasm about her new body reflects Weaver's excitement on set.

Jake and Neytiri climb the rocks

Although "Avatar" is a work of imagination, the design of Pandora was actually inspired by the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in the Chinese province of Hunan. The "Southern Sky Column" in China is quite similar to the "Hallelujah Mountains" that appear in "Avatar." In fact, the film's popularity across the globe inspired tourists to check out the locations that inspired it. Models of Na'vi have been placed nearby for tourists to photograph. These mountains are featured in one of the most stunning sequences in the film where Jake and Neytiri climb through floating rocks that appear above the natural wildlife. Even if they weren't climbing a real mountain, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana still had to climb a rock structure during the filming process.

Could these floating rocks actually exist? According to James Cameron, they don't have to. Cameron said that he "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." He felt that "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."

Jake and Neytiri fly on the banshees

Of all the incredible sequences in "Avatar," James Cameron says that the scene where Jake and Neytiri fly together on the winged banshee creatures is actually his favorite moment. It was one of the more complex aspects to film, with mounted rigs built for the actors to ride and Cameron piloting a model to simulate movement. The results are wondrous. Although he had some anxieties about living in a new body, Jake gains confidence as he rides on the back of the dragon-like beast.

Learning to pilot these aerial predators is a sacred custom within the Na'vi culture. Jake has to earn his place within the tribe by breaking in a wild banshee and taming it, proving his merit as a hunter. It appears that Jake retains his connection with Bob, the banshee that he flies, as they are seen together in the trailer for "Avatar: The Way of Water."

The tribal dance

Ever since the film's release, "Avatar" has been compared to Kevin Costner's historical epic "Dances With Wolves." Both focus on the story of an outsider that is accepted within tribal culture and learns to stand up against colonization. James Cameron has approved of the comparisons, and said that both stories "have that clash of civilizations or of cultures." Cameron looked at real historical accounts of the European colonization of North America when he was designing the look of Pandora.

In one scene meant to emulate the beauty of tribal customs, four actors performed an actual dance routine that Cameron had choreographed. Although these characters are only briefly featured, they embody the spirit of the Na'vi. However, the film has attracted some criticism for the way that Cameron characterizes indigenous people, with some noting that the film perpetrates the "white messiah" complex that sadly has become a trope in popular culture.

The sacred trees

James Cameron developed a complex ecosystem for Pandora. Within the Na'vi culture, trees play a very pivotal role. Neytiri and her tribe live in a Hometree that is large enough to house them all. Unfortunately, the Hometree is also on top of a massive source of unobtanium, attracting the attention of military forces that want to rob the planet of its natural resources. Destroying the Hometree could spell doom for Neytiri's people.

The Tree of Souls allows some characters to transfer their consciousness. Jake, along with Neytiri's mother Mo'at (CCH Pounder), attempts to revive Grace by bringing her to the Tree of Souls but she dies before they can save her. Quaritch plans to destroy the tree so he can break the spirit of the tribe. Jake later has to pray to the Tree of Souls to empower himself before the final battle. Even if these trees only exist thanks to CGI, "Avatar" fans have the chance to interact with them in real life. In 2016, a 12,000-square-foot exhibit opened in Taiwan that featured artwork inspired by the CGI tree models in the film.

Colonel Quaritch's mech

Stephen Lang gives one of the strongest performances of his career in "Avatar" as Colonel Quaritch, the fearsome leader of the Resources Development Administration forces. Quaritch could care less about the damage being done to Pandora's wildlife, willing to strip the planet of its resources so that he can develop missile technology. Lang says that the film's relevant political subtext is what attracted him to the role. When asked what he thought about fans that agreed with Quaritch, he said that "people respond to leaders no matter what their moral stance may be." He noted that he thinks "we see a lot of evidence of that in our recent political climate in the United States."

During the final standoff between Quaritch's forces and the Na'vi, the RDA plane is shot down. Quaritch uses an AMP suit to hunt down Jake. Lang acted in an actual rig suit that was designed for the film and placed in front of a green screen background. Although Lang had to do some challenging stunts in the first "Avatar," he says that the upcoming sequels are even more intense.

The assault ship attack

Militarism and industrialism are two of the most important themes of "Avatar." These also happen to be recurring concepts within James Cameron's works. Both "The Terminator" and its sequel "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" examine the dangerous consequences of putting too much faith in technology. In "Avatar," Cameron shows how a primitive tribal species like the Na'vi can defeat a powerful military-industrial organization like the RDA. However, the RDA certainly does not go down without a fight. As detailed in "The Art of Avatar: James Cameron's Epic Adventure," the design team developed a complex infrastructure for the firepower in the evil company's arsenal.

The RDA utilizes several different vehicles in "Avatar." The Valkyrie SSTO-TAV-37 B-class shuttle crafts are utilized to harvest and transport natural gas from the Pandoran surface. Larger attack vehicles, such as the C-21 Dragon Assault Ships, the Aerospatiale SA-2 Samsons, and the AT-99 Gunships are almost exclusively used in combat. This indicates that the RDA did not come to Pandora with any peaceful intentions. So how did Cameron and his team simulate flight on set? It wasn't nearly as high-tech as what it looks like in the finished film. Actors like Sam Worthington and Joel David Moore appeared on a rig while they were blasted by fans.

The wildlife joins the battle

Amidst the final battle, the Na'vi are overwhelmed by the technological forces of the RDA, forced to flee after Tsu'tey (Laz Alonso) and Trudy Chacón (Michelle Rodriguez) are killed amidst the conflict. However, Jake had made a special Na'vi prayer to the Tree of Souls to ask for help. In what is perhaps no coincidence, the native Pandoran wildlife joins the attack, helping the Na'vi defend their home. Perhaps they are being territorial, but Neytiri believes it is because the mother goddess, Eywa, has heard Jake's pleas.

Even though these creatures were completely digital, James Cameron wanted to design a complex Pandoran ecosystem so that the audience could connect with the different creatures. Even though the actors could not interact with live animals on set, Cameron said that the film required him "to create an entirely new alien culture and language." According to creature creator Wayne Barlowe, the mammalian creatures were "influenced by manta rays and skates." He said that "sea life motifs were prevalent in my thoughts at the time. Their lines informed everything from wings to head profiles."

Jake leads the attack

Jake finally becomes the hero that the Na'vi had trained him to be when he leads the tribe in the battle against the RDA. In one of the most exciting sequences in the film, Jake is nearly killed by Colonel Quaritch after he opens the avatar link operator to Jake's human body. However, Neytiri comes in at the last moment to save Jake and kills Quaritch. This scene wasn't just one of the most difficult sequences to choreograph but actually required James Cameron to push the limits of 3D technology.

During filming, two different camera units had to be used to capture all the details. One camera captured the live-action elements on green screen background, while the other captured the 3D CGI effects and mapped them on top. This was risky technology that drew the ire of some industry professionals, and even Cameron admitted that the studio had to "put up $10 million to prove we could make this movie."

The final ceremony

Jake forms a spiritual connection with the goddess Eywa during his brave defense of the Hometree. He proves that he has completely shed his human body, and has now adjusted to the Na'vi culture. In order to make this process official, Jake attends a special Na'vi ceremony held in the Tree of Souls during the final scene of the film. The tree allows Jake to permanently transfer his consciousness to his Na'vi body. When he opens his eyes, it signifies that the process was successful.

When he reflected on the film's legacy, James Cameron said that even though this scene was a digital creation, it embodies the emotional journey that the audience goes on in the theater. He said that viewers are "willing to go on a fantasy if you can relate to the main characters, and Sam's character took us on that journey." He stressed that "the movie puts us back into that childlike wonder about nature, and about nature's grandeur and complexity and beauty."