"Avatar: The Exhibit," created with the film's director, James Cameron, will be at Seattle's Experience Music Project | Science Fiction Museum June 4, 2011-Sept. 3, 2012.
At Experience Music Project | Science Fiction Museum’s new “Avatar” exhibit, although it feels like you’re on the alien moon Pandora, you never lose the feeling of being inside a museum — and that’s exactly what its creators want.
Glowing tendrils unfurl from the ceiling, trees are so lush that they look alive, and the soundtrack is so extraterrestrial that you half-expect a banshee to swoop in any second. With an exhibit based on a film so grandiose — and the highest-grossing one of all time — it would have been easy to go over the top.
“Our goal was to evoke the film without slavishly imitating it,” EMP | SFM associate curator Brooks Peck said of 2009’s “Avatar.” “We didn’t want it to become an amusement park.”
This latest hit-film-turned-museum-exhibit strikes just the right balance between entertainment and science in its world premiere at the museum, a little over a year after “Avatar” Director James Cameron approached museum founder Paul Allen with the idea. Cameron was heavily involved in shaping the exhibit, which has about 40 original artifacts, supplemented by interactive stations that take you behind the scenes of the film.
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The exhibit is divided into two sections: the first showcases the making of the “Avatar” world, and the second spotlights the filmmaking process and the technological innovations that made it all happen.
There are some stunning props, including the 13-and-a-half-foot Amplified Mobility Platform robot that was used as a weapon, but more intriguing are the displays of concept art for the film. Even though most of the costumes and props were digitally produced, Cameron’s team fashioned them all by hand first to get a sense of how they would realistically move with the characters.
“To have someone who’s not a computer artist design a darn cool costume and then translate it into the computer world just gives it this level of reality,” Peck said. “That’s the kind of work that went into this film, which I think is above and beyond.”
Just as Cameron broke new ground with his filmmaking techniques, the exhibit is steps ahead of ventures the local museum has mounted in the past. There are stations where visitors can build their own Pandoran plant, manipulate the film’s score and learn to say things like “hello” and “goodbye” and even “you’re stepping on my tail” in the Na’vi language, invented specifically for the film by a University of Southern California linguist.
But the interactive station that guarantees a long wait is the performance-capture stage, where you shoot your own scene as an avatar and email the final cut to yourself, with Cameron — on video — directing you. It’s based on the performance-capture technology Cameron used in the film.
The museum’s staff conducted more than 20 interviews with Cameron, the cast and crew, and video clips throughout the exhibit shed more light on the decisions the filmmakers made. One topic is the psychology of the film and how they made the Na’vi relatable — for example, making it believable that human protagonist and avatar operator Jake Sully could fall in love with the Na’vi woman Neytiri.
The exhibit will be in Seattle until Sept. 3, 2012, and a few cities have expressed interest in hosting it after that.
EMP | SFM spokeswoman Anita Woo knows the exhibit will appeal to “Avatar” fanatics, but she hopes it’ll draw families and general film buffs, too.
“You develop a new appreciation for the film because when you watch it the first time, you take it all in,” Woo said. “Then when you go through an exhibit like this and actually see how it’s made, it’s fun to watch the film again and see everything come together.”
Fans will have a bit of a wait for the “Avatar” sequels — two are in the works, with the first tentatively planned for 2014.