An interview with Paul Frommer, Alien Language Creator for Avatar

by Matteo Milani, U.S.O. Project – Unidentified Sound Object, November 2009

U.S.O. Project meets Paul Frommer, linguist and developer for the long-awaited film Avatar with James Cameron of the whole language and culture for the fictional indigenous race of Pandora called Na’vi.

Fictional languages are by far the largest group of artistic languages. Fictional languages are intended to be the languages of a fictional world, and are often designd with the intent of giving more depth and an appearance of plausibility to the fictional worlds with which they are associated, and to have their characters communicate in a fashion which is both alien and dislocated.

[Paul R. Frommer –]
Matteo Milani: Can you describe your background activities and your previous experiences at USC before working with James Cameron?
Paul Frommer: My undergraduate degree, from the University of Rochester in New York, is in Mathematics. Soon after graduating, I spent two years in Terengganu, Malaysia as a United States Peace Corps volunteer, where I taught English as a Second Language and also mathematics, the latter in the Malay language. Although I had studied foreign languages prior to that (Hebrew, French, Latin, German), it was during my time in Malaysia that I really fell in love with languages. I decided to do my graduate work in linguistics and entered the doctoral program at USC.
While I was a graduate student, I had the opportunity to teach for a year in Iran, which was a wonderful experience. Returning to USC, I completed my dissertation on a topic in Persian grammar. Then, after several more years of teaching, I switched careers and entered the business world, becoming a strategic planner and business writer for a Los Angeles corporation.

My return to academia led me in a new direction: business communication. I joined USC’s Marshall School of Business as a full-time faculty member in 1996, teaching in the department now known as the Center for Management Communication. I became chair of that department in 2005 and served in that capacity until 2008.

MM: Traveling back to 2005, how and when did you meet the director?

PF: During the summer of 2005, Lightstorm Entertainment, James Cameron’s production company, sent an e-mail to the USC linguistics department inquiring about a linguist who might be able to develop an alien language for a new movie. That e-mail was forwarded to me, and I jumped on it. I expressed my strong interest in the project and sent Cameron a copy of the linguistics workbook I had co-authored — Looking at Languages: A Workbook in Elementary Linguistics. A week or two later I was called in for an interview. I spent a very stimulating 90 minutes with Cameron in his offices in Santa Monica, where we discussed his vision for the movie and the language. At the end, I was thrilled when he shook my hand and said, “Welcome aboard.”

MM: What were his initial requests?

PF: Well, he wanted a complete language, with a consistent sound system (phonology), word-building rules (morphology), rules for putting words together into phrases and sentences (syntax), and a vocabulary (lexicon) sufficient for the needs of the script. He also wanted the language to be pleasant sounding and appealing to the audience.
“We created the language of the Na’vi starting about the time that I was doing the shooting draft of the script […] Dr. Paul Frommer, who was with USC (University of Southern California) at the time, spent about a year creating the language. The trick was we had the language before we actually cast most of the parts. So the casting director, Margery Simkin, had to learn a bit of Na’vi so that she could get the auditioning actors to repeat the sounds of the language. If they couldn’t make the sounds, they couldn’t have the part.
The studio asked me the same question. They asked, “Do they have to have tails?” We’re very happy with the way the Na’vi worked out because what we found is the tail and the ears show the characters’ emotional state. A cat owner knows that you can tell a cat’s mood by what its tail is doing. Just as we created a verbal language, we created a vocabulary for the tail and the ears.”

[James Cameron – via]

“I’ve discovered over the years that a voice needs to sync with body movements as precisely as it does with lip movement, in order for the sound to most effectively bond with the character.
[Ben Burtt – an excerpt from Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide: Beeps, Bleats, Boskas, and Other Common Intergalactic Verbiage]

MM: Can you reveal the process of creating the Na’vi language? What are the major difficulties in creating a phonetic system with its own style, consistency, and unique character?
PF: I didn’t quite start from zero, since Cameron had devised 30 or 40 words of his own for the original script—some character names, place names, names of animals, etc. That gave me a bit of a sense of what kinds of sounds he had in mind.
The next step was to develop the phonetics and phonology—the sounds that would and would not appear in the language, along with the rules for combining sounds into syllables and words and the pronunciation rules that might in certain circumstances change one sound into another. The major constraint, of course, was that although Na’vi is an alien language, it has to be spoken by human actors, and so the sounds it included had to be ones that the actors would be able to reproduce.
To create some interest, I included a group of sounds not often found in western languages—“ejectives,” which are popping-like sounds that I notated as kx, px, and tx. I also needed to determine what other elements in the language would be “distinctive”—that is, would be able to differentiate words: for example, stress (the eventual answer was yes), vowel length (no) and tone (no). I presented Cameron with three different “sound palettes” or possibilities for the overall sonic impression of the language—he chose one, and we were off!
The next step was to decide on the morphology and syntax. For those, I was on my own. Since this was an alien language spoken on another world, I wanted to include structures and processes that were relatively rare in human languages but that could be acquired by humans, since according to the plot of the movie, a number of humans had learned to speak the language. The verbal morphology, for example, is achieved exclusively through infixes, which are less common than prefixes and suffixes. And the nouns have a system of case marking, known as a tripartite system, that’s possible but quite rare in human languages.

“Overall, the creation of alien languages has been the hardest task. A language, or more accurately, the sensation of language, has to satisfy the audience’s most critical faculties. We are all experts at identifying the nuances of intonation. Whether we understand a given language or not, we certainly process the sound fully and attribute meaning–perhaps inaccurate–to the emotional and informational content of the speech. Our minds are trained to recognize and process dialogue. The task, therefore, of creating a language is all the more difficult because of the strength of the audience’s perception.”
[Ben Burtt – an excerpt from Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide: Beeps, Bleats, Boskas, and Other Common Intergalactic Verbiage]

MM: How did you make the Na’vi dialogue sound “real”? How difficult was it to make the dialogue believable?
PF: Well, that was really more a matter for the actors—and it was quite a challenge. They had to learn their lines in a language no one had ever heard before, including learning to make unusual sounds and sound combinations, and then they had to act convincingly in that language! That involved not only memorizing the sentences but mastering the stress and intonation, so that they could place emphasis in the right place. It wasn’t easy, but they did a remarkable job.

I met with all seven of the Na’vi-speaking actors off-set before their scenes were shot to help them with the pronunciation, and I also supplied recordings in the form of mp3 files so that they could listen to and absorb the dialog.

MM: Is there a “gold standard” for constructed language that served as an inspiration to you?

PF: In terms of “alien” languages, that would have to be Klingon, the language developed by linguist Marc Okrand for the Star Trek series. It’s a very impressive piece of work—a rough-sounding language with a complex and difficult phonology and grammar that now has a devoted base of followers. There are Klingon clubs all over the world where people meet to speak the language, and there’s even a translation of Hamlet into Klingon! If Na’vi ever came close to that kind of following, I’d be delighted.

MM: Do the Na’vi have their own alien writing system?

PF: No, the Na’vi don’t have a writing system, so that was one thing I didn’t have to bother with. But of course I needed to devise a consistent orthography, based on the Roman alphabet, to write down the language for descriptive purposes and transcribe the words and sentences for the actors.

MM: Did you develop a vocabulary?

PF: Yes, I developed it on an as-needed basis. That is, the words I came up with first were those that appeared in the script. This past May, when I translated dialog for the Avatar video game, I faced new situations that required words I didn’t yet have, so that was an opportunity to expand the lexicon further.

“Part of my research was to identify interesting real languages to use as a basis for alien ones. The advantage of using a real language is that it possesses built-in credibility. A real language has all the style, consistency, and unique character that only centuries of cultural evolution can bring. I found that if I relied on my familiarity with English, my imagined “alien” language would just be a reworking of the all-too-familiar phonemes of everyday general American speech. I had to break those boundaries, to search for language sounds that were uncommon and even unpronounceable by most of the general audience.”
[Ben Burtt – an excerpt from Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide: Beeps, Bleats, Boskas, and Other Common Intergalactic Verbiage]

MM: An “a posteriori” language is any constructed language whose vocabulary is based on existing languages, either as a variation of one language or as a mixture of various languages, unlike “a priori” constructed languages (e.g. Klingon). How did you first search for some exotic languages that would act as inspiration?
PF: I didn’t base Na’vi on any particular human language. In terms of its sound, I thought that the original words Jim Cameron had come up with had a bit of a Polynesian flavor, and I included those sounds in the language. But I added a lot beyond that, so that I don’t believe that Na’vi sounds like any specific existing language.
As I mentioned, there’s nothing in Na’vi that couldn’t be found in some human language—and that’s important, since humans have learned to speak it. However, the particular combination of elements in Na’vi—its sound system, morphology, and syntax—is unique.

Avatar producer Jon Landau to discuss making James Cameron’s vision a reality.

And a linguist invented the Na’vi language—did you pick up any?
I have enough trouble with English! I could say a few words in Na’vi, but not much. Na’vi is a hard language. When I knew we had to create a language for the movie, I thought, okay, you go hire someone and say, ‘This is the word we have to say.’ And they’d come up with the word. I was wrong. Paul Frommer, our linguist, took six months just to define the structure of language, which I thought was fascinating. And after that, he’d start coming up with the sentences that we needed.
Does it have parallels to any language on earth?
I think it’s relatively unique. We didn’t want someone to hear it and go, ‘Wow, that’s Watusi!” Or Maori, or French.

MM: The upcoming score by James Horner will feature vocals in the Na’vi language. Would you like to describe your experience with the singers during those recordings?

PF: That was a lot of fun! James Cameron had written the lyrics for six songs, four of which I translated into Na’vi. (It was interesting to try to write poetry in the language!) Then at various times I met with music director James Horner, his associates, and the singers who had to sing in Na’vi to help them pronounce the words of the songs. For some of the recording sessions, the music was fluid and developed on the spot, which I found a wonderfully creative process. For one session, though, there was already pre-composed music written out on a musical staff. I’m a pianist and I have a musical background, so I was able to read the music with the singer and help him fit the words to the melody.

USC professor creates an entire alien language for ‘Avatar’



James Cameron has big aspirations for “Avatar,” and here at Hero Complex we’re stepping up with some epic coverage plans: a 30-day countdown. Today’s topic: The USC professor who found himself on an unexpected Hollywood adventure when he was hired to create the language spoken by aliens on Cameron’s distant planet of Pandora.

This modern era of moviemaking has plenty of peculiar challenges for actors — on green-screen sets, for instance, they have to watch a ping-pong ball hanging from a string and convince the camera that they actually staring down some magical beastie — but for the actors auditioning for “Avatar” the biggest challenge may have been reading a sheet of paper with words invented by a USC professor named Paul R. Frommer.

Frommer, a linguistics specialist, was brought in by “Avatar” writer-director James Cameron to create an entire functioning language for the tribe of 10-foot-tall blue aliens who inhabit Pandora, the setting for the film’s conflict. Frommer tackled the project with glee — “How often do you get an opportunity like this?” — but the actors who had bend their tongues around the invented vocabulary and syntax were slightly less charmed by the experience.

“Oh, it was so hard and I was really concerned about it,” said Zoe Saldaña, who portrays an alien named Neytiri in the sci-fi adventure that opens in theaters Dec. 18. “I didn’t think I could get through it. I’m not good with languages. All the actors, we worked together. It was the only way.”

Frommer has spent four years laboring on the language of the Na’vi tribe and his work will not end on the day of the film’s release. He plans to keep expanding the language until he’s, well, blue in the face.

“I’m still working and I hope that the language will have a life of its own,” the professor said. “For one thing, I’m hoping there will be prequels and sequels to the film, which means more language will be needed. I spent three weeks in May, too, working on the video game for Ubisoft, which is the name of a French company. That’s not a French word, though, I don’t know where they got Ubisoft.”

Frommer is clearly delighted by his unexpected excursion into the Hollywood dream factory, which has the buttoned-down academic working side-by-side with movie stars and hobnobbing with an Oscar-winning director of Cameron’s stature. Sitting on a concrete bench near the bustling center of USC campus, he recounted his Tinseltown labors with verve; the only time a hint of disappointment crept into his voice was when he explained that his alien language was limited by the terran larynxes of Sam Worthingon, Saldaña, CCH Pounder and other cast members who spoke the Na’vi language.

“The constraint, of course, is that the language I created had to be spoken by humans,” Frommer said. “I could have let my imagination run wild and come up with all sorts of weird sounds, but I was limited by what a human actor could actually do.”

Between the scripts for the film and the video game, Frommer has a bit more than 1,000 words in the Na’vi language, as well as all the rules and structure of the language itself. “I’m adding to that all the time,” said Frommer, who says he would like to see the new tongue catch on in the way that Klingon has become a studied language among especially, um, engaged fans of “Star Trek.”

“Oh, I’m very aware of Klingon,” Frommer said the way a sports coach might analyze a rival with a long winning tradition. “It was created by a linguist [named Marc Okrand] and it is very, very well put together. I actually once developed a problem for students in analysis using data from Klingon. When I started working on this, though, I deliberately did not look at Klingon so I wouldn’t be unconsciously influenced by it.”

Frommer’s fondest wish is that the language takes off and that fans of the film use the Internet and conventions to spread the sound of Pandora. “It’s definitely doable for people, and so many people have learned Klingon, so there could be an interest,” he said. To some ears, Klingon sounds like a cross between Russian and crawfish, but the Na’vi language is far more gentle on the ear. “Cameron wanted something melodious and musical, something that would sound strange and alien but smooth and appealing.”

Frommer is a linguist by trade and got his PhD at USC, but after he finished his doctorate he left acadmeia for the business world. ”I really wanted to teach, though, and came back.” He ended up on the faculty of the Center for Management Communication at the Marshall School of Business and teaching in the area of clinical management communication – but he concedes that, deep down, his true love is still for language and pure linguistics.

James Cameron and Sam Worthington on Avatar

When “Avatar” producer Jon Landau and his company, Lightstorm, approached the linguistics department at USC with Cameron’s proposition about creating an extraterrestrial tongue, the request quickly found its way to Frommer, who had once collaborated on a workbook that collected data from 30 languages.

“The e-mail that came my way that said they were looking for someone who could create an alien language for a major motion picture directed by James Cameron, but the name of the project at that time was Project 880,” Frommer said. “As soon as I saw that e-mail I pounced on it.”

Frommer didn’t start completely from scratch; Cameron had come up with about three dozen words of the Na’vi language at that point in his project document, which was like a quasi-script or a long treatment (“They called it a scriptment,” Frommer said, “and that was a new word to me”) but most of the words were character names.

“It gave me a sense of the sound that he was looking for and then I expanded it. Given these sounds and the possible combinations, what further structure could I bring to the sound to make it interesting,” Frommer said. “That was the starting point. Probably the most exotic thing I added were ejectives, which are these sorts of popping sounds that are found in different languages from around the world. It’s found in Native American languages and in parts of Africa and in Central Asia, the Caucasus. “

Frommer prepared three “sound palettes,” which were collections of words and phrases that did not have meaning but did have the cadence and feel of languages. Cameron mulled over the sound files and picked the third as the best fit for the world he wanted to hear. He did not want tonal differences and variations in vowel length, for instance, but he loved the ejectives.

Then came the heavy lifting — nailing down the sound system, word construction, the rule of syntax — and Frommer immersed himself in the thousands of decisions required, many of them deciding what goes in and what goes out. The Na’vi language, for instance, does not have the sounds buh, duh, guh, chu, shu, and by restricting the sounds, Frommer said, a characteristic shape of the language begins to distinguish itself.

James Cameron on avatar set

“If you allow everything and the kitchen sink, you get a mishmash, it sounds like gibberish,” Frommer said. “An analogy is cooking and deciding how you are going to spice up a certain dish. If you put everything you have on the shelf, you get a mess. If you are judicious you get something good. In language, sometimes things are defined by the absences.”

The finished product sounds, to some ears, vaguely Polynesian, while others hear the rhythms of African languages in it. “Someone said it sounded German to them, someone else told me Japanese, and I think that’s good. If everyone were saying one single language then it would be bad,” Frommer said.

Frommer worked with the actors at the studios of dialect coach Carla Meyer, whose credits include all three “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, “Angels & Demons” and ”Erin Brockovich” as well as “Air Force One,” in which she helped Gary Oldman shape his hijacker’s Eastern European accent. Frommer was impressed with the actors’ intensity of focus.

“I was surprised they all did very well, and it gave me hope, too, that other people will try to learn it and speak it,” Frommer said. “I’m excited because there is going be a Pandora-pedia online and a lot of material for people to learn more about the planet. There’s this incredible devotion to detail. It’s been fascinating to me. It’s almost academic in its approach.”

Frommer finds himself walking the campus sidewalks and talking to himself in the language. He has attempted to write poetry, too. It wouldn’t be surprising if some of his couplets were forlorn — it’s lonely being the only person speaking a language. “I just wish,” he said, “that I had someone to talk to.”

– Geoff Boucher

Great Expectations,,20007998,00.html

James Cameron is finally following up that movie about the boat accident. His new project, Avatar, is an epic, 3-D sci-fi film about an ex-Marine on an inhospitable planet where humans can only survive by projecting their consciousness into genetically engineered bodies (a.k.a. ”avatars”). The people of earth want to exploit the planet’s natural resources, of course, causing the inhabitants to revolt and a war to break out. The rub for the protagonist, named Jake (played by newcomer Sam Worthington), is that he’s fallen in love with a native (Zoe Saldana), forcing him to choose a side in the battle. Fox has gone out on a limb, granting Cameron a whopping $195 million to tell the tale — but hey, what’s a couple hundred mil for a guy who racked up 11 Oscars with his last full-length feature?

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: For a while now, you’ve been debating between two different projects: Avatar, which is an original screenplay that you wrote, and Battle Angel, adapted from a series of Japanese comics. So why pick Avatar?
Well, Battle Angel and Avatar were being developed at the same time. The thinking was that we’d be using similar technology to create either one or both of those films. It was little bit of a horse race there for a while to see which one was going to be done first. The way I pitched it to Fox was, ”We’re doing both these films.” The order is relatively arbitrary, because we’re making an investment in a methodology and a technical infrastructure that could produce both. But I ultimately had to choose which one was going to be first, and I began to run into a bunch of script problems with Battle Angel, because I was synthesizing down these graphic novels. There are 10 of them. It was the kid in the candy store problem — too many good ideas and no story. So we went through five drafts and didn’t solve them. So I switched to Avatar and we started developing that. Then, of course, a great script came in on Battle Angel! Which is a good problem to have, because I had two great projects, either one of which the studio would be happy to go ahead with. I would say it was August or September of 2005 we decided to push ahead with Avatar. Believe it or not, it was that long ago.

What was the deciding factor?
We did a test of the performance-capture techniques we wanted and needed to use to make this film — a live action, real-time, director-centric performance-capture process. In other words, as the actors perform, I’m able to see in the monitor not only what they might look like as their CG character, but in the CG environment we’ve created, and direct them accordingly. When we did the test, we chose Avatar, just because it seemed like the easiest one to get going for a test, for a lot of reasons.

This is an original screenplay, correct?
That’s correct.

How did you come up with this story?
Well, my inspiration is every single science fiction book I read as a kid. And a few that weren’t science fiction. The Edgar Rice Burroughs books, H. Rider Haggard — the manly, jungle adventure writers. I wanted to do an old fashioned jungle adventure, just set it on another planet, and play by those rules.

Your premise reminded me a lot of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter, Warlord of Mars series.
It’s definitely got that feeling, and I wanted to capture that feeling, but updated. To be certain, I wanted a film that could encompass all my interests, from biology, technology, the environment — a whole host of passions. But I’ve always had a fondness for those kind of science fiction/adventure stories, the male warrior in an exotic, alien land, overcoming physical challenges and confronting the fears of difference. Do we conquer? Exploit? Integrate? Avatar explores those issues.

How long has this been in your head?
I wrote an 80-page treatment 11 years ago. We were working from the treatment in designing the world and the creatures and so on. I wrote the script the first four months of 2006.

Is it true you have developed a whole culture and even a whole language for the aliens in this movie?
Absolutely. We have this indigenous population of humanoid beings who are living at a relatively Neolithic level; they hunt with bows and arrows. They live very closely and harmoniously with their environment, but they are also quite threatening to the humans who are trying to colonize and mine and exploit this planet.

Sounds like you’ve crafted a story with a lot of political resonance.
Only in the very broadest sense of how we as a Western technological civilization deal with indigenous cultures; we basically supplant them. If not in an active, genocidal way, then in a passive manner. They just kind of wither away. Our impact on the natural environment, wherever we go — strip mining and putting up shopping malls. Now, we’re extending that to another planet.

How long did it take to brainstorm the language? Did you work with people on that?
There’s a guy named Paul Froemer who I was lucky enough to encounter a year ago. He’s the head of the linguistics department at USC. I talked with a number of linguistics experts, but he was the one who kind of got the challenge. He said, ”We’re going to beat Klingon! We’re going to out-Klingon Klingon! We’re going to have a more detailed and well thought out language than Klingon!” He’s been working on this for a year. It began by riffing off things in the treatment, but from there, it went to how sentences would be constructed, and what the sound system would be. It would have to be something that was pronounceable by the actors but sounded exotic and not specific to human languages. So he’s mixing bits of Polynesian and some African languages, and all this together. It sounds great.

What was the tipping point in terms of realizing that this movie was technically possible?
Looking at what Peter Jackson was able to do with Gollum, and then King Kong. And Davy Jones [from Pirates of the Caribbean] — all these examples of compelling photo-realistic, fully CG characters, in a photo-realistic world. I don’t think many people are aware that a lot of the jungle scenes in King Kong were actually CG. They did a lot with miniatures, but toward the end they were doing a lot of the jungles in CG.

Was the number of theaters that could exhibit a 3-D movie also on your mind in terms of when to go forward with this?
Absolutely. There’s been a sense for me over the past two or three years of, ”Well, if not this year, then it’s okay next year for me to start a movie, because the longer I wait, the more theaters there will be,” and I want to be able to land in 1,000, 1,500 theaters — as many theaters as I can — in digital 3-D. Because I’ve been working with our 3-D cameras over the past six years. We’ve refined them. They work great. They work perfectly. I love working with them. I don’t want to go back to shooting on film. I don’t want to go back to shooting in 2-D, so for me it was just a question of waiting for the right moment. In fact, I think I’ve actually waited too long. Everybody else is out there making animated films and putting them in 3-D and this is such a big picture. We’re not going to land in theaters until summer of ’09. But I think we can be sure that we will have a lot of 3-D screens by ’09 at the rate they’ve been increasing.

How did you convince Fox to do this movie?
Walking them through the process. It’s a good thing we actually had built a functional stage environment that was producing usable footage. When they came down and saw it they went, ”Wow, maybe this is the way to make one of these movies, where you have so much more of a sense of control and confidence as you’re making the pictures.” Because I’ll be able to literally turn over cut sequences as we go, right from the get-go. Right from the time we start with the actors, the studio will be able to see it. So instead of spending an enormous amount of money, and then after the money is all spent, still not having scenes with a rough sense of what they really like because the special effects process hasn’t really even begun yet, they’ll be able to see what it looks like as we go along.

To be clear, Fox was financing all this development, correct?
Correct. We were on a week-to-week funding scheme, where we continued to develop and do budgets and do the F/X breakdowns. But while we were doing that we were actually doing capture on a weekly basis. I would do a day, or two days, or three days of motion-capture work. We were actually working out the methodology. So I was able to bring them down and tour them through the facility and show them all the design work and really give them a sense of how much preparation this film had under its belt. I think they felt that yes, this is a very daunting project, but that it was also the most intricately planned project since… well, since ever. [Laughter]

When did you invite them down and give them that tour and show them what you had been doing?
l would say that was a couple months ago. And then the conversation evolved into casting. We were going to make this big expensive film — were we really going to do it with a cast of unknowns? Relative unknowns, not stars. Not Tom Cruise. So we had to get our minds around that. Or they had to. I was already pretty happy with our choices.

And you had already made those choices.
Well, we had already cast a few actors. What we were talking about was the lead, the male lead. I had found Sam Worthington fairly early in the process. He really hung in there and trooped with us for a long time. He came in for a couple screen tests, and kinda hung on, hoping. So I have to give him credit for that. It was a very exhaustive process. We looked at a lot of people. There were people who were championed by the studio and I even screen-tested them. Ultimately, when I showed them Sam against their champions, they was no comparison.

Was there any concern at the studio about the potential budget for this, given their experience with you on Titanic?
Absolutely… A lot of the last six months was about figuring how to make this a very, very finite process that’s not prey to all these pitfalls of these big effects movies. So a lot of scrutiny was spent on the contracts with Weta [the New Zealand-based F/X facility], a lot of scrutiny on the budget, the methodology, on testing and so on. As the process went on, the confidence level increased that the number was not going to change.

The reported figure is $200 million. Is that accurate?
The reported figure is supposed to be $195 million — that’s what our budget is. Is that figure going to drift by a couple percentage points up or down? Probably. I don’t think you can do any big project and land exactly on budget. But I’m hoping to come under. Really shock everyone.

That would shock everyone.
But the history of the last six years is that that’s all I’ve done. I did 44 hours of television — Dark Angel — that was done on budget and on schedule. I did four major documentary projects that were subject to Atlantic and Pacific storms and all these exegeses of major ocean expeditions, and they were all done on budget. I’ve spent really the past few years working on our methodology for this type of big, mainstream effects film, and doing it within parameters, which is something Hollywood typically isn’t very good at… A film like Titanic, we had a six-month shoot. At the end of those six months, because we had been working flat-out, six days a week, very little of the picture was cut, there was very little to be turned over to the F/X guys in terms of finite counts, and so all of the F/X got jammed into the last four months of making the movie. That’s why we didn’t make our release date and why we went over budget in effects, because we had to divide it up amongst 14 vendors to even attempt to make our date. In direct contrast to that, I have almost two and a half years on this film, and we’ve already been doing performance-capture for four months, and the F/X guys are already working… Our live action shoot is just 31 days — it’s a fifth of Titanic, all on stages, all interiors. We’ll do all that in New Zealand. All the sets are designed now. We don’t even begin site construction until May.

When will you start shooting those 31 days?
Late August. Might drift to September.

How excited are you to be back making movies like this?
Oh yeah! I always assumed I would come back and be that guy again. I didn’t think it would take this long. I was having too much damn fun doing expeditions. And frankly, I’ve already been working on this movie pretty exclusively for a year and a half. So I feel like I’ve already been doing it. We’re just announcing it now; it feels like I’ve been part of the Manhattan Project and we’re going public.

Will you still do Battle Angel?
Yeah. In fact, this film has a very long tail on it, about a year and half of post-production. Basically, after I finish my job as a director, after directing the actors and editing a film and turning over a cut, I think it’s very possible that I can slip a good six months of pre-production of Battle Angel into that period.

Will Fox be involved?
That’s a Fox project, as well.

When you go down to New Zealand, will you be bunking with Peter Jackson?
Peter and I have gotten to be friends over the past couple years. He’s a 3-D fanatic, like I am, and he loves the effects, and he loves the big show, and he loves fantasy filmmaking. I’m going to be relying on all the infrastructure he’s built down there, from the live action soundstages to the Weta workshop, where they’re going to make all the props and sets. It’s going to be, ”Thanks for building all this, Peter. Now can you move out for a year and let me use it?”

For more about Avatar, check out the upcoming issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Jan. 12.