Magoosh English Lesson: The Amazing Technology Behind Avatar

In part two of our two-part English in Blockbuster Movies: Avatar series, we will take a closer look at how advanced technology brought the imaginary creatures and worlds of Avatar to life. So, let’s get ready to learn about the amazing technology behind Avatar!


  • Learn how to talk about filming processes
  • Learn new general English and movie-related vocabulary
  • Learn how to use prepositional idioms
  • Discover interesting facts about the making of Avatar

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Time: Approximately 15 minutes


Reading Passage

When James Cameron first came up with the idea for Avatar in 1994, film technology wasn’t quite up to the task. CGI had been around since the mid-1970s, but filmmakers weren’t able to make images look realistic. However, as digital technology advanced in the 1990s and early 2000s, filmmakers started putting computer animation to much greater use.


A Game Changer

While every filmmaker uses a slightly different technique to get the CGI to look realistic, James Cameron took his film tech to a whole new level. Instead of relying on past filming systems, Cameron used his own unique Fusion Camera System to shoot the film in 3D. This system has two high-definition cameras working in tandem to create a 3D image. Principal photography required shooting of live-action scenes that were combined with computer-generated images. 

For scenes involving the alien race (known as the Na’vi), Cameron used motion-capture technology. This required the actors to wear special suits that allowed the camera to track their movements. The digital animators would then replace the image of the actors with the image of the Na’vi, giving the humanoid race realistic movements.


Improved Direction Techniques

In addition to using his own Fusion Camera System, Cameron utilized a virtual camera system that produced digital images in real-time. In most films that use CGI, actors must pretend to talk and interact with others in front of a green screen and the digital images are added in much later. During the making of Avatar, however, the director could see the digital characters and environments as the actors performed, allowing Cameron to give more precise directions.


Creating Realistic Emotions

Finally, Cameron wanted to make the Na’vi seem like real creatures with human-like emotions. In order to do this, he had to find a way to capture the emotions and facial expressions of his actors with 100% accuracy. In the months leading up to the film shoot, Cameron devised headgear fitted with high-definition cameras and motion-capture technology. This way, every movement on the actors’ faces could be recorded and transferred to the final computer-generated image.


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Word Focus

Let’s take a closer look at some of the words in bold from the passage:

  • Up to the task – (adjective phrase) – Able to do something difficult; prepared for a certain activity.

Many critics thought Avatar couldn’t be made, but James Cameron was up to the task.

  • CGI – (noun) – Short for “Computer Generated Imagery;” computer images used in film or other media.

At the time of its release, Avatar involved the most advanced CGI audiences had ever seen.

  • Computer animation – (noun) – A type of CGI (computer-generated imagery); the process of using digital images in a movie or television series.

James Cameron and his team of digital animators used computer animation to create the Na’vi in Avatar.

  • To take to a whole new level – (phrasal verb) – To change something; to advance or improve a process.

Avatar in 3D takes the movie-watching experience to a whole new level.

  • In tandem – (adverbial phrase) – Together; alongside one another.

Several new cameras were used in tandem to film Avatar.

  • Humanoid – (adjective/noun) – Resembling human beings; a non-human species that shares certain physical characteristics with humans.

The Na’vi are the blue, humanoid creatures that live on the planet Pandora.

  • In real-time – (prepositional phrase) – Occurring as an event happens; instantly.

The actor’s facial expressions were recorded in real-time.

  • Green screen – (noun) – A physical, green background used during filming to allow filmmakers to digitally add new backgrounds during post-production.

Acting in front of a green screen requires a lot of skill and concentration.

  • Headgear – (noun) – Equipment that is designed to be worn on the head.

James Cameron’s headgear was specially designed for every actor’s unique measurements.


Grammar Center

Take a look at the following sentences from the passage:

When James Cameron first came up with the idea for Avatar in 1994, film technology wasn’t quite up to the task. 

In addition to using his own Fusion Camera System, Cameron utilized a virtual camera system that produced digital images in real-time.

This system has two high-definition cameras working in tandem to create a 3D image.

Do you notice the pattern? All three of these sentences include English idioms made up of prepositional phrases. These idioms all begin with a preposition and end with a noun (like any prepositional phrase), but these phrases have meanings that you may not be able to figure out without context clues. 

Though there are plenty of English idioms that do not begin with prepositions, the ones that do give English speakers a way to describe a thing, place, action, or period of time in greater detail. 

So, let’s look at a few more prepositional idioms with their meanings and example sentences:

    • Behind the scenes – In secret; hidden from public view.
  • James Cameron is a very demanding director behind the scenes.
    • Beside the point – Irrelevant.
  • Whether Avatar is the greatest film ever made is beside the point; it is still a great achievement of filmmaking.
    • By mistake – Accidentally.
  • Nothing was done by mistake during the making of Avatar.
    • For a living – As a job; as a way to make money.
  • James Cameron gets to make movies for a living.
    • From scratch – Without any pre-made items; from original materials.
  • Some of the filming equipment had to be created from scratch.
    • In no time – very soon; quickly.
  • Avatar turned a profit in no time.
    • Out of the question – Unable to be considered; not an option.
  • The idea of just using actors in blue makeup was out of the question for James Cameron.
    • With the naked eye – Without the use of a special microscope, lens, or magnifier.
  • People can’t see Avatar’s 3D effects with the naked eye; they need special glasses to enjoy the 3D experience.


Now, let’s look at a few questions to review the passage, vocabulary, and grammar:


1. Which of the following statements most accurately captures the central idea of the passage?

A. In Avatar, the actors had to wear special headgear to record their facial expressions.
B. James Cameron spent years developing advanced camera and motion-capture technology to create the creatures and environments in Avatar.
C. Using specially-made cameras, James Cameron was able to film Avatar in 3D.
D. Avatar is a very expensive and successful movie that required advanced computer animation technology.

2. How did James Cameron make the Na’vi express emotions?

A. Virtual camera system
B. Reality Camera System
C. Motion-capture technology
D. 3D technology

3. Fill in the blank: If an actor’s performance is viewed in real-time, it is viewed _____.

A. Before it happens
B. As it happens
C. After it happens
D. None of the Above

4. Based on your understanding of the term, which of the following is a good synonym for up to the task?

A. Diligent
B. Hardworking
C. Intelligent
D. Capable

5. Which of the following is NOT an example of a prepositional idiom?

A. Up in the air
B. In advance
C. Move on
D. Out of shape

6. What part of speech comes at the end of a prepositional idiom?

A. Noun
B. Adjective
C. Preposition
D. Adverb



Correct Answers:

  1. B
  2. C
  3. B
  4. D
  5. C
  6. A
Jake Pool

Jake Pool

Jake Pool worked in the restaurant industry for over a decade and left to pursue his career as a writer and ESL teacher. In his time at Magoosh, he's worked with hundreds of students and has created content that's informed—and hopefully inspired!—ESL students all across the globe. Jake records audio for his articles to help students with pronunciation and comprehension as he also works as a voice-over artist who has been featured in commercials and on audiobooks. You can read his posts on the Magoosh blog and see his other work on his portfolio page at You can follow him on LinkedIn!
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