'Avatar' at 10: How James Cameron pulled off that perfect flying scene

In December 1978, Richard Donner made audiences believe a man could fly in Superman: The Movie. Flash-forward to December 2009, and James Cameron did the same thing for alien cat creatures. The director’s long-gestating science-fiction epic Avatar premiered in theaters exactly 10 years ago on Dec. 18, 2009, ready to transport moviegoers to the far, far away planet of Pandora. With the magic of motion-capture technology and immersive 3D photography, Cameron’s deep-space dream world became a living, breathing ecosystem populated by otherworldly creatures straight out of 1960s sci-fi pulp fiction. The film went on to score nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and earn $2.78 billion at the worldwide box office, making it the highest-grossing movie in history. That record was only surpassed this past summer by Avengers: Endgame, which nudged ahead of Avatar with a $2.79 billion global gross.

When Yahoo Entertainment caught up with Cameron earlier this year, the filmmaker had just started shooting the first of four planned Avatar sequels, which will hit theaters in 2022. “We achieved our goals in terms of creating the ultimate alien rainforest and the beauty and all that,” the director said while reflecting back on the original film a decade later. (Watch our video above, beginning at the 6:35 mark.) “But I think the part that I still like the best, and that I had to fight the hardest for, was the flying.” He’s referring to a sequence that comes midway through the three-hour film, in which the film’s heroes — human Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Na’vi Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) — take flight on the backs of two Mountain banshees, Pandora’s answer to our own pre-historic pterodactyls.

This flying sequence from 'Avatar' remains one of James Cameron's favorite scenes in the 2009 blockbuster (Photo: 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved/Courtesy Everett Collection)
This flying sequence from 'Avatar' remains one of James Cameron's favorite scenes in the 2009 blockbuster (Photo: 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved/Courtesy Everett Collection)

At this point in the story, Jake’s consciousness is inhabiting a Na’vi avatar while his physical body is back at a military base camp. For her part, Neytiri isn’t aware that she’s giving a human a crash course in flying, and her amusement at watching him struggle eventually turns into approval as he learns to pilot a mountain banshee. It’s the spark that lights Avatar’s interstellar love story. “There’s something very dreamlike and freeing and life-affirming about learning to fly,” Cameron explained. “It’s through the flying that they fall in love, so it resonates perfectly with the Loe story and that’s the part of it that I think we nailed. If we didn’t nail it, I don’t think the movie would have connected with people the way it did.”


And Cameron promises that Jake and Neytiri’s love story will continue in Avatar 2 and beyond. “We never take our eye off that ball — that this is about two people out of the entire universe who probably love each other more than anybody else. That doesn’t meant they don’t have their issues!” When we spoke with him, Cameron had recently been reviewing early footage of Saldana reprising her role and admitted to tearing up at his leading lady’s performance. “She goes to a whole other level,” he raved. “And so does Sam.”

Avatar is currently streaming on Disney+.

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