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The Surprising Way Madonna Influenced Avatar

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When it comes to Avatar, James Cameron has cited an encyclopedia’s worth of influences. Most of them are pretty clear-cut: Romeo and Juliet, Ghost in the Shell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Princess Mononoke and other Hayao Miyazaki films, the Chinese mountain range Huangshan, the history of colonialism, ecology, Hinduism, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a dream his mom once told him. These are fine inspirations, if a bit typical. Who hasn’t invoked 2001 when making an ambitious sci-fi spectacular? I’m more intrigued by a one-off reference nestled in the middle of a New York Times story about how Cameron and his collaborators developed the complex technology that generated the Na’vi-inhabited moon, Pandora. It turns out their lucrative blue world got some indirect help from the singer of “True Blue.”

“If Madonna can be bouncing around with a microphone in her face and give a great performance,” producer Jon Landau, who has worked closely with Cameron since True Lies, told the Times in 2009, “we thought, ‘Let’s replace that microphone with a video camera.’ That video camera stays with the actor while we’re capturing the performance, and while we don’t use that image itself, we give it to the visual-effects company and they render it in a frame-by-frame, almost pore-by-pore level.”

Consciously or not, Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, and CCH Pounder were channeling the Queen of Pop when bringing their cerulean counterparts to life. And why shouldn’t they? Pretending you’re headlining Madison Square Garden would make darting around a soundstage in a bodysuit with dozens of motion-capture dots all over your face more palatable. All that’s missing are cone bras.

The actors Cameron transformed into bioluminescent Na’vi humanoids wore black headsets that resembled the one Madonna popularized on her Blond Ambition Tour. Instead of the microphone positioned in front of Madonna’s mouth, the Avatar cast had a small square camera recording their expressions up close, which allowed Wētā Workshop’s effects artists to avoid the uncanny-valley lifelessness that later plagued Disney’s pseudo-live-action Lion King remake. (You can see the actors at work here.) Madonna has pioneered much of the pop landscape as we know it today, and while she wasn’t the first performer to employ a hands-free mic during concerts — Kate Bush and Janet Jackson ran up that hill first — I’m sure she’d be happy to take credit for photorealism.

Maybe Landau was making a tossed-off analogy, but isn’t it more fun to imagine Worthington grabbing his crotch and belting “Express Yourself” to prepare for the grueling Avatar shoot? Landau and Cameron are toiling away on the sequels, the first of which opens in December, and didn’t respond to my emails asking whether they stand by Landau’s 13-year-old quote. Cameron, for his part, shares a birthday with Madonna, but there’s no evidence she shares his affinity for going deeper and deeper underwater. (See what I did there?)

Cameron’s aim with Avatar, which he began writing before he shot Titanic, was to “go beyond” what Hollywood was capable of. “I wanted to be so far out in front that nobody would ever catch us,” he said in a behind-the-scenes documentary. Of course, people have caught up, including Madonna herself. Earlier this year, she entered an avatar world of her own, for better or worse. Partnering with the crypto artist Beeple, Madonna released an NFT series called “Mother of Creation,” in which her nude digital doppelgänger gave birth to butterflies, trees, and a centipede.

Long story short, if you love Avatar, thank Madonna and her early-’90s headset. Jon Landau did. If you hate Avatar, well, as Madonna once sang, “There’s no point in placing the blame, and you should know I suffer the same.”

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The Surprising Way Madonna Influenced Avatar