Article by David Freeman
Many people were not just entertained, but uplifted by James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
But what are the techniques that Cameron used to create these uplifting feelings?
Specifically, how does a writer or director uplift an audience and give them a spiritual experience?
This article will go over twelve of the techniques used in “Avatar.”
Along the way, I’ll be drawing comparisons to the following movies which are also spiritually uplifting:
- “The Matrix”
- “Star Wars”
- “Dead Poets Society”
- “The Karate Kid”
- “Lord of the Rings”
- “American Beauty”
- “Shakespeare in Love”
- “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”
- “Groundhog Day”
Of course, aesthetics are very personal, and if one or more of these films did nothing for you, that’s totally fine. One can still learn from the “uplifting techniques” used in “Avatar.”
It’s possible that I’ll be referring to some films you haven’t seen. That’s okay –– you’ll still be able to understand the technique I’m discussing.
1. Don’t be mushy
If you’re trying to create a spiritually uplifting feeling in a film, don’t overdo it.
An example of a good way to proceed is exemplified by “Dead Poets Society.” The kids in the boarding school learn about poetry, drama, and the rich possibilities of aesthetic experiences.
With all that poetry, it would be easy for the film to turn flowery and mushy. But the drama is anchored in reality and never gets too saccharin. There are some very dark moments.
“Shakespeare in Love” provided an even more tempting story for becoming flowery and mushy. But the writers were careful to get let the film become poignantly poetic only a few times.
“Shakespeare in Love” delivers a transcendent experience –– but this emotion is balanced out with comedy and the drama.
“Avatar” didn’t become mushy. As to how the film avoided this and uplifted audiences spiritually, read on…
2. Don’t be too specific or controversial with the spiritual message or world
A film that promotes Mormonism will appeal to Mormons but that’s probably about it. It could alienate those with other religions. The sort of vague Taoist spirituality of “the Force” in “Star Wars” is much less likely to alienate audiences.
Ditto for the pantheism of the Na’vi, and their magical world.
3. Let the spiritual experiences happen with a minimum of telling, a maximum of showing
It’s good to avoid long lectures on spiritual subjects, such as what unfortunately occurred in “What Dreams May Come.”
In that film, Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) walks around in something that’s supposed paradise. There he receives long lectures by various spirits on the nature of existence. As stunning as the visuals were, many audiences tuned out.
Nothing like this occurs in “Avatar.” The spiritual messages are conveyed with a minimum of telling and a maximum of showing.
When they first meet, Neytiri prays for the spirit of an animal she killed. Then she scolds Jake for being a child says it was his fault for causing this unnecessary death. She doesn’t give him a lecture on the sacredness of life.
“Show, don’t tell” is used effectively in some other films that deal with spiritual issues.
This technique is used in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” In fact, there’s very little dialogue in the entire film. Very little of the characters’ spiritual abilities is even explained.
In “American Beauty,” a bag that drifts in the wind, as if playing with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), conveys much of the spiritual message.
In “The Karate Kid,” Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) puts his hand on Daniel’s (Ralph Macchio’s) hurt shoulder and heals it with “chi,” the spiritual energy that spiritually disciplined people can supposedly harness. But there’s no lecture given about chi.
We see the Na’vi, using their hair, connect themselves to animals and the Tree of Souls. We don’t hear them lecture about it.
We see Neytiri and Jake walk among luminous plants at night. We don’t hear a lecture from Neytiri about how the Na’vi appreciate the beauty of nature and how important nature is to them.
The same show-don’t-tell technique is used multiple times in “Lord of the Rings,” such when the Elves make a magical protective metal cloak for Frodo, or when the Elven archers defending Helms Deep move together and shoot their bows together gracefully, as if tied together telepathically.
4. A little spirituality goes a long way
While there are some profound spiritual moments in “Avatar,” they’re punctuated by long periods where nothing spiritual is happening.
This same technique is used in “Star Wars” –– mentions of, and Luke’s or Obi Wan’s use of the Force come and go. The films in the “Star Wars” series changed as the series went on, making it hard to recall back to how stirring the idea of Force was when it was first presented.
But “A New Hope,” in addition to offering comedy and action, was definitely spiritually uplifting. Obi Wan, Yoda and light sabers all became compelling icons.
5. Balance out the uplifting spiritual reality with some harsh reality
In “Avatar,” spiritual moments are balanced with harsher moments to “ground” the more spiritual ones.
These include dangers presented by various animals, and of course greater dangers from the military.
There are analogies in “Phenomenon”:
As with “Avatar,” serious elements balance out the spiritual ones.
In the first half of the film, John Travolta’s character, George Malley, is rejected by his former friends as they become increasingly fearful of his as his spiritual abilities develop. In the second half of the film, the seriousness comes from his impending death. (His abilities turn out to be a byproduct of a growing brain tumor.)
6. Give us a relatable (empathetic) character who goes on a spiritual journey
It’s hard to see oneself as Jesus or Buddha. It’s easier to see oneself as a skeptical guy or woman who meets Jesus or Buddha and who is then slowly transformed.
There are 48 techniques one can use to make audiences identify with a character (all of them covered in “Beyond Structure”). Seven are used with the character of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) so that we empathize with him.
Because of our empathy, as he slowly becomes moved, changed, uplifted, and enlightened by exposure to the Na’vi, we go on that journey with him. When he feels transformed, we feel transformed. Thus we experience the spirituality he experiences.
This technique –– a spiritual journey experienced through the eyes of a character with whom we identify –– is used with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in “Star Wars.”
It’s used with Neo (Keanu Reeves) in “The Matrix.”
It’s used with the teen boys in “Dead Poets Society” who gradually become aware of the aesthetic world.
7. The spiritual journey is difficult
The difficulties along the journey usually come from one or more of three sources:
A. Internal resistance
For a new way of being to be born, and old way of being needs to die. Sometimes the person resists. This occurs, at times, in both “The Karate Kid” and also “Dead Poets Society,” as the teens in the strict boarding school overcome their strict, conservative “programming.”
Internal resistance is the main form of resistance Phil (Bill Murray) encounters as he undergoes emotional and spiritual growth in “Groundhog Day.”
B. External resistance.
Sometimes there are those who stand in the way of the journey. In “Dead Poets Society,” it’s the kids’ parents and the school administrators.
In “Avatar,” it’s the military who fight Jake’s journey; specifically, it’s Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).
C. Mastery of difficult skills
Sometimes there are difficult skills to master. For Jake, there is almost no end of skills he needs to perfect if he’s to operate in harmony with the world of Pandora and with the Na’vi.
8. See the effects of the spiritual journey on the character
The character with whom we empathize needs to be changed by the journey.
As Jake becomes more attuned to the Na’vi life, we see him run better along the branches, fly better with his dragon-bird, and sincerely use their most profound expression, “I See You.”
Phil, in “Groundhog Day,” lives a completely different kind of life.
Near the end of “The Matrix,” we see through Neo’s eyes as the world dissolves into green computer code.
9. Mortality Busters
A “Mortality Buster” is my term for something that gives us the feeling that the spirit doesn’t die when the body does.
No film as much as “Avatar” has ever dealt as much with the life force. Jake moves his spirit from a human body to a Na’vi body. The Na’vi can tie their life force to the life force of animals. Even the Na’vi who die stay alive among the ancestors, accessed through the Tree of Souls.
A similar technique is used in “American Beauty,” where Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) continues to narrate the story after his body dies.
10. High aliveness, high purposes, high control of self / group / environment, high courage
An angry person who blames the world for his or her problems has little courage to do what’s ethical, and receives little pleasure in living.
A happy, ethical person has a lot of certainty about himself or herself, and much more courage to face the world, and to fight for what’s right if necessary. He or she enjoys a lot of pleasure from living.
There are about 15 key attitudes that change as a person becomes happier, and thus more in communication with the world.
Among them, the person becomes more courageous, more able to handle his or her environment, and more alive.
As one goes very high on the happiness/aliveness scale, things like courage, aliveness, pleasure, and the ability to face things without flinching become very expansive indeed. At that level, life takes on an aesthetic and/or spiritual quality.
As Jake rises to join the Na’vi’s high level of ethics, courage, and mastery of the world, these high attitudes have a spiritual resonance.
This same technique was done in “Lord of the Rings,” where Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, and others exhibit these same attitudes.
11. Above high ethics is high responsibility
Responsibility is such a big subject that I separate it out from the other attitudes.
One can have passable ethics.
Above that, one can have high ethics.
Above that, one takes responsibility for the wellbeing of many – for oneself, ones group, one’s people, one’s world.
A film with a character, or characters with extremely high innate senses of responsibility will uplift us.
In “Groundhog Day,” the spiritual uplift from the film comes from our empathy with Phil (Bill Murray) and then experiencing his rise in responsibility.
He finally comes to the point where he takes responsibility for helping both the lives and the morale of everyone in the town where he seems to be stuck forever.
Once he takes responsibility for what has become “his town,” he is so in the moment, so alive, that life takes on an aesthetic quality.
And he’s able impart his aesthetic experience to the entire town –– in the warm speech he makes, in the ice sculpture he creates, and in the music he provides at the big town gathering.
But the path he took to achieve this heightened awareness, this aliveness, this immediacy, and this aesthetic quality was a path of increasing responsibility.
In “Avatar,” the Na’vi feel responsible for everything for the land, for each other, and even for strangers. They kill only what they need. They pray for the animals they kill. They let the humans who didn’t fight go at the end of the story without massacring them.
Jake takes responsibility for helping the military by later leading the war against them.
12. Credible spiritual abilities in a character (or in more than one character) with whom we identify
When one or more characters with whom we identify have spiritual abilities that we can “buy into” (with our suspension of disbelief), this also can give a film an uplifting quality.
An example would include the Na’vi communicating with the ancestors through the Tree of Souls.
Or Gandalf’s many magical abilities.
In “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” Jen (Zhang Ziyi) and other characters can defy gravity for periods of time.
Yes, there are more techniques in “Avatar” which help uplift audiences emotionally and spiritually, but this article is already getting on the long side, so I think I’ll end it here.
If you take “Beyond Structure,” ask me about these additional techniques and I’ll be glad to share them.
Here are few conclusions to take away from this article:
The techniques have wide application
On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be that much in common between “The Karate Kid,” “American Beauty,” and “Avatar.”
But when we look deeper, we see they share common techniques for evoking spiritual experiences.
This was always the challenge of unearthing the vast body of techniques that became “Beyond Structure”: they draw us into stories, so it’s difficult to stand back far enough, and be clear-headed enough, to spot them, label them, show their many applications, and figure out ways to teach them.
“Spiritually Uplifting” doesn’t dictate a specific genre
“Avatar” is a science fiction / adventure / war film.
“Dead Poets Society” is a tragic drama.
“American Beauty” is half drama, half dark comedy.
“Groundhog Day” is a romantic comedy.
You don’t need to employ all these techniques
In both “Dead Poets Society” and “Groundhog Day,’ no one attains mystical spiritual abilities, as they do in “Avatar,” “The Matrix,” “Star Wars: A New Hope,” or “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.”
However, “Dead Poets Society” and “Groundhog Day” are spiritually uplifting nevertheless.
The types of techniques offered in “Beyond Structure” are a “palette.” You can pick and choose among them to see which might be right for any given script you’re writing, directing, or producing.
You could also use just a few of these techniques, executed in a subtle way, to add some slight spiritual overtones to straightforward drama, comedy, military film, etc.
It doesn’t take a huge budget to use these techniques
Take a look at the list of films that have been discussed in this article. Most have very modest budgets.
Craft is not art
Techniques like those offered in this article are the essence of craft. To turn craft into art, you need to supply the missing ingredient: you.
Art is when you bring your own vision, aesthetics, life experience, depth, and themes and apply them to craft.
When you turn craft into art, and you do a good job, no one will notice the craft. They will be swept up into the complex emotions of your story and characters.
“Writing” is much more than dialogue
If you survey this techniques in this article, or many of the articles on this website such as “Visual Storytelling In ‘Batman Begins'”, it’s clear that much of what’s creating the emotional impact has nothing to do with dialogue.
The over 200 techniques taught in “Beyond Structure” address an audience’s unconscious. They draw the audience in, emotionally and evoke complex emotional experiences, and hook the audience from the beginning until the end.
The techniques are illustrated with many film clips.
But because the techniques make the story compelling and engaging, this also makes them very difficult to isolate. Even if you discovered 30 of them on your own, it’s unlikely you’d figure out the additional 170 or more.
You don’t need to –– in “Beyond Structure,” you’ll learn techniques that took a decade to distill and collate –– techniques that help writers, directors, and producers create unique and emotionally layered characters, dialogue, scenes, and plots.
They quickly push a writer or storyteller up to the level of mastery, skipping years of trial and error.
I hope you’ll join us.
email: david AT freeman DOT com