Lightstorm Museum Is A Treasure Trove Of James Cameron Movie Props

As Mrs. Fableman recently said, "Movies are dreams that you never forget." There's more truth to that statement than not — even the most grounded, photo-realistic movie has that more-real-than-real quality to it, an intangibility that separates the "dream" from the "dreamer" in the audience.

Perhaps that's why visiting a museum full of memorabilia from cinema history feels so special. It takes those celluloid dreams and makes them feel that much more real, proving that those images and moments were indeed created and constructed by a team of talented artists.

The museum soundstage at Lightstorm Entertainment is just such a place, filled as it is with screen-used props and setpieces from filmmaker James Cameron's impressive cinema history. It helps that Cameron's background in engineering and various other facets of technology lends that much more realistic weight to these items: even up close, they look as if they're fully legitimate, animate, and operational. On the eve of the digital release of "Avatar: The Way of Water," I had the opportunity to visit the Lightstorm Museum on behalf of /Film, and saw some treasures that a variety of movie fans could appreciate.

Pandora comes to life

Before seeing some of the props and other items that had been captured on celluloid, the Museum tour began featuring physical items of characters and worlds that had largely been created within the digital space. Josh Izzo, head of the franchise division of Lightstorm and the docent of the Museum, introduced figures of Neytiri and Jake Sully created by the company Gentle Giant for display in movie theaters. While the figures were of course fully detailed, their most impressive element was their size; at "roughly 3.3 meters tall" (that's almost 11 feet), according to Izzo, standing next to both Na'vi feels like actually being in their presence on Pandora.

"The Way of Water" was also well represented later in the tour, as Izzo showed off a collection of the film's props and costumes. Granted, most of the props and costumes as seen in the film don't exist in the real world, but some are fully made either for their designs to get "approval and alignment on paint, makeup, hair, [and] accessories," according to Izzo, or to be fully scanned and made into digital files for use in the film. While not everything physically constructed need be actual size, there was another item in the collection made to once again indicate the disparity between humans and Na'vi: a life-size pair of Avatar boots. Those Na'vi have huge feet, lemme tell ya.

There was also an item signaling humanity's efforts to stand up (literally) to the Na'vi: a life-size AMP suit. A screen-used model that actor Stephen Lang performed against in the first film, Lightstorm's is one of only three in the world. Even better: it's fully articulate, acting as "one really big action figure," as Izzo astutely put it.

Heroes of Iron City

The only items in the Museum that did not emerge from a James Cameron-directed film were from 2019's "Alita: Battle Angel," directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by Cameron. The collection had two life-size figures of Alita herself, similar to that of the Na'vi, though these were created by Weta Workshop and were 3-D printed with silicone skin, glass eyes, and hair as added elements.

However, the collection's two gyroscopic bikes from the film were screen-used props, one which actors Rosa Salazar and Keean Johnson rode as Alita and Hugo, the other ridden by Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Tanji. The two bikes were made not just to hold the actors, but to be pulled by a flatbed truck during filming through the Iron City set that was built at Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios. As Izzo elaborated, the set was "so real that they laid pipe, poured concrete, broke the concrete and had everything basically fully distressed and functional to make it feel like a post-apocalyptic universe."

The Museum also had a screen-used prop of the weapon used by Dr. Dyson Ido (played by Christoph Waltz), a "rocket hammer," which looked pretty hefty and intimidating. Sadly, it was not possible to pick it up and swing it around.

Judgment Day comes to the Museum

One of my favorite pieces in the museum was a screen-used T-800 endoskeleton from "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." The thing is as imposing, eerie, and badass (not to mention shiny!) in real life as it looks in the movie, and it's posed on a suitably apocalyptic-looking bit of twisted metal scraps.

That's because this particular endoskeleton is the very one from the opening scenes of the movie, the sequence that introduces "Los Angeles, 2029 A.D." while the terminator crushes a human skull with its bare metal foot. The hero prop is impressively detailed: triple-chrome plated with a rubberized spine, the skeleton is also fully articulated, with visible wires connecting to his digits and appendages.

Even crazier, however, is the T-800's pulse rifle. This endoskeleton's rifle is "1 and 1/2 times wider than the other endoskeletons," Izzo explained, because "there's a real machine gun inside." In the pre-digital compositing days of 1990, in order to make the endoskeleton come to life, it was shot in a completely black room and puppeteered by a crew member covered in black, who had a string attached to the prop in order to pull the trigger on the real gun that would allow it to fire.

Although the visual of a walking, firing endoskeleton is very sci-fi, Cameron always tries to bring some verisimilitude to his films, which is why this prop is, according to Izzo, the actual size of star Arnold Schwarzenegger's body. Hopefully that's not what Schwarzenegger's real insides look like, but you never know.

The ultimate Aliens diorama

My absolute favorite items in the museum, however, were the life-size Alien Queen and Power Loader (appropriately posed in mid-battle) from 1986's "Aliens." Although the majority of items within the Museum are of an impressive size, it was these two titans who seemed to hold sway over the entire space.

Izzo was quick to point out that the Loader was indeed the hero prop used (or is that worn?) by Sigourney Weaver in the finished film. Although fully functional when the film was being shot, it's now nearly 40 years old, so its mandibles no longer open and close, there are some exposed wires, and so on.

That said, I'll bet it could still walk — if you found the right person. As Izzo explained, the Loader "was so heavy that it needed a 300-pound strongman to help walk it." The docent pointed us to two hidden foot holes in the back of the Loader, the very places where that strongman stood during filming in order to make the machine (with the actress still inside it!) move around.

Not to be outmatched, the Alien Queen is also the original screen-used animatronic, co-designed by Cameron and the late, great Stan Winston. The shape of the Queen meant that no strongman could be hidden inside or behind her, so she was moved around by a crane connecting to her head, back, and tail. While filming with these large, heavy items must've been cumbersome, they look so cool that they still inspire an impulse to try and pick them up and move them around all these decades later.

The pride of the White Star Line

Not every James Cameron film or production was represented in the Museum the day I attended. Izzo informed us that items from "The Abyss" were on loan to another exhibit in Australia, and there was only one small selection from "True Lies" on display: a model of the Harrier jet from the finale, complete with a miniature Arnold.

Still, those of us erroneously hoping to see something from "Piranha II: The Spawning" were satiated by the wealth of props and models present from "Titanic." In addition to the titular ship itself (a 1/18th scale "bigature" model which lights up on the inside), the Museum features a miniature of the wrecked modern-day Titanic, two versions of the safe that held the Heart of the Ocean necklace, the ship's engine control wheel, the fateful car where Jack and Rose consummate their star-crossed love, and one of the hero lifeboats which Cameron had constructed to be period-accurate and seaworthy.

One of the coolest items was a miniature of the engine room. Not merely used for design concepts, Izzo explained how all the movie's engine room scenes were shot in a small section of a real steamship and then digitally composited into the model itself.

For the finale of the tour, Izzo presented producer Jon Landau's Best Picture Oscar sitting comfortably next to the actual Heart of the Ocean necklace. As other members of the press tried on the necklace, Izzo regaled us with a story about pop star Adele's "Titanic" themed birthday from a few years ago, an event where the Museum arranged to have the real Heart of the Ocean presented to her for the night by none other than Leonardo DiCaprio. In that vein, if Izzo or anyone from Lightstorm is reading this, my birthday is a few months from now, so if a strongman could bring over the Power Loader to my party, I'd be most appreciative.

"Avatar: The Way of Water" is available on digital March 28th.