James Cameron set out to make a revolutionary film in 2009 called Avatar. The title references an engineered body operated by a human brain in another location. The idea began in 1994 but the needed technology did not exist, at the time. The language for the film’s Na’vi people, developed by linguist, Dr. Paul Frommer (of USC), started to develop in 2005 while the screenplay continued to evolve.
The budget for Avatar started at $237 million. Cameron worked with Weta Digital (now Weta FX) which was based in New Zealand and founded by Peter Jackson (along with Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk). At one time, almost nine hundred people were employed by Weta to work on Avatar.
Microsoft created a new cloud-computing and digital asset management (DAM) system just for this film. Gaia, as the system was called, would handle all of the data from the different cameras and software programs. Weta used a ten thousand square foot server farm and four thousand Hewlett-Packard servers on the film. According to Wikipedia, creating the Na’vi and Pandora required over a petabyte of digital storage. This is one thousand, twenty-four terabytes or one million gigabytes.
Cameron had been developing motion capture animation techniques for the previous fourteen months in 2006. A new system for lighting large areas, an improved capture method allowing for full-performance captures, and skull caps with small cameras were among some of the improvements Cameron brought to Avatar. These innovations made it possible, according to the director, to capture close to one hundred percent of the actor’s performances, which would be transferred to their digital counterparts.
Stan Winston helped with some of the design work for the film. Production design was broken into two, one focusing on the flora and fauna and the other designing human “factors” like machinery and little bits. Design took several years. Two high-definition cameras filming into one was used to create the 3D effect. Cameron called this the Reality Camera System.
Filming in motion capture removes the need for makeup touch-ups, saving hours of time. There is little to no need for repeated camera and lighting setups. Costume fittings are unnecessary. Much of what many might refer to as “tedium” is gone. Cameron is quoted as saying, this sort of filming is a “form of pure creation where, if you want to move a tree or a mountain, or the sky, or change the time of day, you have complete control over the elements.”
The majority of the visual effects came from the way things were filmed. Interactive shots, filmed with a simulcam (a merger of the 3D and virtual camera systems) was able to capture both the live action and the CGI images at the same time. The digital images were superimposed and shown on a smaller monitor, giving the director added control and the actors more freedom.
Unlike many other films, to date, Avatar thought to ask the question of “Why?” rather than “How?” What this means is, the director had a singular vision of a world and of characters no one had seen before. Cameron wanted to create this world using special effects, also that no one had ever seen before. The challenge to the team Cameron assembled was for their imagination, not just their technical expertise. He wanted the planet of Pandora to have practical wildlife and biological plants, not just things which exited “just because.” This gave the CGI a purpose other than to impress the audience with what it could render. The planet needed to have plants which could be feasible, so botanists were consulted to create the plants and animals.
“We wanted it (Pandora) to have this dreamlike quality,” Cameron said. “The eye needed to be educated through the experience of the film.”
The audience is brought onto Pandora through the clouds to a human base. Then, they’re brought into the forest during the day. Then, as the day fades, a whole other facet of the planet is revealed. This process was deliberate, as it built a world through the experience of the audience, not just in a whole cloth sort of way. When this happens, what the audience sees has to be done in a way that convinces the audience, what they’re seeing is real. This was the “Why” portion of Cameron’s vision. The effects had to exist so it could immerse the viewer in Pandora.
Motion capture had been used on King Kong in which actor, Andy Serkis’ face was covered in silver dots. For Avatar, far fewer dots were used, and they were, instead, green dots made with a pen. A 3D facial scan of the actors was also done, which would make rendering easier and more realistic. To achieve this, the actors were put inside a special room, then directed through a series of facial movements while being scanned. Animators, then, could use a composite of both the real actor and their scanned emotions to create the final look.
In addition to motion capture for the faces, performance-capturing suits and head-rigs were fitted to each actor. Joe Letteri, visual effects supervisor, had worked on King Kong and Lord of the Rings and was quite familiar with the techniques of marrying CGI with live work. Under his direction, the head-rig would capture the actor’s physical movements as they moved through their scenes. Careful blocking was necessary to make certain the added content matched the actor’s movements. This was done on a capture stage and required over one hundred cameras.
Simulated creatures in the world of Pandora were also created using real animals. Puppets of certain creatures were created, including a banshee-type one. Horses were also used. These different creatures were composited into the scenes based on the placement of the actors.
Richard Taylor provided conceptual designs for costume and specialty props. He had a lot of input on how the Na’vi culture would have evolved and what they would look like. They needed to have, as Taylor said, “a believable lineage of culture.” To do this, their weaponry and costuming had to have a tangible feel. Even though the film is set in the future, the idea for the inhabitants of Pandora was, they existed in a more primitive time. This meant, among other things, they could not use metal. Bows and other weapons had to be constructed of more natural materials.
It also meant their costuming would need to have the same feel.
Deborah Scott and Mayes C. Rubeo, costume designers for Avatar, worked on creating physical wardrobe for Avatar. Scott created physical pieces for every character in the film so the computer versions would be as accurate to Cameron’s vision as possible.
“I didn’t understand anything to do with computers, really,” Scott said. “So, I was playing catch-up.” She worked with people who were already in the process of creating pieces for the film. “They were approaching it just like the Na’vi would.”
John Harding, a New Zealand Costume Designer, helped the process along. His personal challenge, coming from Cameron, was to make things which had no counterpart on Earth. This meant experimenting with fabrics and materials in a different way.
First, the costumers tried different fabrics and materials which moved in the way they wanted for the items they constructed. Then, the test reels showing the actual constructed items was shipped to the effects people at Weta so they could replicate the same look, feel, and movement of the items on the characters.
(Stills from the YouTube short: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Y8Buy5b6DQ)
The somewhat controversial effect of the lead character being a paraplegic was achieved in the same way as films like Star Trek achieved some of its effects. Instead of further green screen, they relied on the less complicated art of prosthetics. A mold of real paraplegic’s legs was cast and fitted to the lead actor. Specific camera angles and practiced movements by the actor helped achieve a realistic visual.
The combination of practical and digital effects was seamless and produced a motion-picture phenomenon. Avatar won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects. It was also nominated for nine other awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
SpFX part 20: Avatar
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