How Did They Do That? Avatar Special Effects: Jake Sully’s Legs

Avatar fallen Ever wonder how they did that to Jake Sully's legs in AVATAR? While maybe not the flashiest special effects around, Sully's skinny, atrophied legs have a lot of people scratching their heads and asking, “How did they do that?”

Guest post by Robert Guthrie

James Cameron's sci-fi action blockbuster, AVATAR, has been getting a lot of press for its revolutionary use of special effects and 3D, some of which are downright astonishing (AVATAR might be the first movie where people rendered in CGI avoid the dreaded “uncanny valley” effect). While the stunning rendering of Pandora and the amazing detail shown to the flora and fauna there are incredible, it is easy to overlook some of the less spectacular, but just as important, special effects that make movies what they are.

What's easy to forget is that even though the best of the best in terms of CGI and 3D were called upon to make this smash-hit blockbuster, there are masters in the traditional movie arts as well and they were most certainly involved here.

Though CGI and visual effects are increasingly popular, traditional forms of movie magic are still being used and can make all the difference between a believable movie and a cheesy one. Case in point: Jake Sully's legs.

How did they do Jake Sully's Legs?

The decision to make Jake Sully a paraplegic has been hotly debated from all directions, but is generally applauded because of how tactfully this element was handled in the movie and because of how realistic his disability seemed on screen, which begs the question: How did they make Jake Sully's legs look so real?

Contrary to popular opinion, Jake Sully was not made to appear disabled through the use of CGI or green screen technology (at least not entirely). In a movie filled with wowing special effects, it's easy to overlook the little stuff.

The real answer is a lot less complicated than that. The technology used to create this effect is a sci-fi staple, used in Star Wars and Star Trek as far back as the 60's and in all kinds of movies well before that. The makeup and costume masters of AVATAR made Jake Sully look paraplegic the same way Vulcans got pointy ears and Klingons got wrinkly foreheads: Prosthetics.

The question of how they did Jake Sully's legs is a great example of traditional movie magic at work. According to an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Director James Cameron said that the prosthetics Sam Worthington used were cast from a mold of a real paraplegic's legs. Combined with intelligent camera usage and Worthington's well-practiced movements, a very realistic disabled Jake Sully was created.

Even the fanciest special effects and CGI are no match for the right props in the right situation. AVATAR gets a thumbs up for using all of the tools in the filmmaker toolbox.

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What other effects do you wonder about in AVATAR?

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