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Avatar: Behind the scenes at Weta Digital

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Avatar writer/director James "Jim" Cameron and producer Jon Landau (above right) chose Weta to work on the movie following the group's work on The Return of the King.

Weta Digital's director Joe Letteri (above left) said he received a call from the director the night after the movie scooped the pool at the 76th Academy Awards. This conversation would lead to a collaboration that would flourish over the next five years.

Letteri said Avatar had a very detailed pre-production process, part of which involved creating incredibly detailed computer models. For example, he said Gollum from Lord of the Rings was made up of 5,000 polygons, while even a single plant in Avatar consisted of a million polygons.

As a result, he said it wasn't until three years after project began that the company had any finished footage for the director to see.

"But when Jim saw this he said 'Maybe this movie won't suck after all'," Letteri quipped.

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Richard Taylor, co-founder and creative director of Weta Workshop, stands here holding one of the guns from Avatar. Some of the Weta-produced guns were fitted with reticulating saw motors so it appeared they were "firing" when triggered.

Richard Taylor said the production had such a long gestation period because of the amount of detail that Cameron wanted to go into — he even tasked Weta with creating a social structure for the Na'vi which would go on to inform all of the props.

Taylor said that even though most of the props would be digital, Cameron insisted the company make full-scale versions of baskets, jewellery, eating implements and even garments to serve as models for their digital counterparts.

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An Amnio Tank in-situ at Weta Workshop: this is where the Na'vi avatars are "born". The tank was built onsite, but only afterwards did the company realise James Cameron intended it to be filled with water!

The Weta Workshop is where most of the props for Weta productions are made, and the walls are decorated with sets from past movies and private projects: a Kong bust playing with a globe; a giant 1:1 scale Panzer tank in plastic kit form; dinosaur skulls; and a huge bronze statue of a bygone aviator.

Blocking the entrance to the workshop was a scale steam train being tended to by Richard Taylor's father who told us trains was a hobby the two of them shared.

The workshop is also home to the Warthog vehicle built for a Halo movie which never materialised. Alex Falkner, a props maker for Weta (and Avatar extra), fired the engine up and told us it was "the single best piece of promo material we've ever made".

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