Monday, November 29, 2010

Avatar moves to a new dimension

It's not every day you get a guided tour behind the scenes of the most successful film of all time and, no less, by the acclaimed director himself.

The movie, of course, is Avatar and the director James Cameron.

The Oscar-winning director has already confirmed he will be making two Avatar sequels.

“There’s a lot of writing, a lot of designing and there’s a lot of tech work that we’re going to do,” Cameron said.

“What I can tell you is this - our plan right now is to make two and three together as a single large production released a year apart.”

The busy director is also planning on writing an Avatar novel before he tackles the sequels.

“If this movie was based on a book, what would that book have been,” he said.

“How about the 30 years before Jake got to Pandora? The discovery of the planet, Grace’s (Sigourney Weaver’s character) arrival there - all the back-story.

“All the context for what happens in the story and then everything lateral to what you see in the movie, whether it’s things that are happening off-camera or things that are happening inside the characters’ heads.”

But Cameron isn’t done the original Avatar yet.

After a record-breaking run at the box-office and another record-breaking release on DVD and Blu-ray, a Collectors Edition of the film will be released.

It features an extra 16 minutes including an alternate opening set on Earth along with 45 minutes of extended and deleted scenes plus a feature length documentary with Cameron, producer Jon Landau and the talented crew which brought the script to life.

This team of gifted artists, designers, animators and effects wizards were brought back for a special event to demonstrate how their skills were put to work on the film.

To create an entirely new world with new characters and culture for Avatar was no easy task so when the film began we were introduced to the wondrous and dangerous planet.

Our tour of Pandora begins.


Neville Page was the lead creature designer on Avatar and that meant coming up with a look for everything that lives, moves and breathes from the Nav’i to the many creatures who roam its poisonous surface.

Page’s resume includes work on Cloverfield, The Watchmen and X-Men 2 and 3 before working on Avatar. Page said he already had a starting point with director James Cameron presenting him with detailed drawings of what he had in mind.

“Jim’s an artist and that was great for us because he had such a clear vision,” Page said.

John Rosengrant was the character design supervisor who started his career being mentored by Stan Winston when effect wizard was working the 1984 sci-fi epic which put James Cameron on the map - The Terminator.

For Avatar, Rosengrant created a number of props from the smallest gun or tool to the large rideable AMP suits which were shoot in the live action scenes rather than be created with CGI.


Robert Stromberg, Avatar’s art director, says the film started with a piece of pen and paper as they core group who began on the project tried to work out what Pandora looked like.

“We were asked to create an entire world literally down to the texture of the moss on every rock and everything in between,” he said.

And it wasn’t like Stromberg could head off to the store and buy props. Everything seen in Avatar had to be created and built from scratch.

And despite the objects being scene in CGI-heavy scenes each item still had to be created and scanned into the computer so that’s its texture, shape and the way it interacted with character when being used can be captured.

Yuri Bartoli , the supervising visual art director, had a hand in designing the creatures and environments of Pandora which took more than five years from start to finish.

“The organic nature of the production was unique because the technology allowed Jim to make changes on the fly and create what we used to call these designs feedback – we would design something and then we would hand it off to a prop builder or a CG artist and they would sculpt it into the computer,” Bartoli said.

And once it was on the computer everything was adjustable – need that floating mountain a little bigger – a few mouse clicks and it was done. Need to move the trees and make them smaller – it only took a matter of seconds to achieve.

All of these methods also applied to the costumes which were designed by Deborah Scott whose previous credits included Back To The Future and Titanic. Once the costumes were designed and made they were captured digitally so they could move, flow and drape like a real garment.


One of the landmark achievements of Avatar was the creation of CGI characters based on actor performance and an environment that James Cameron could still visualise in real time and direct his actors through each scene.

Once the environment was created it is saved into a computer system and scaled to the size of the motion capture stage where the actors will be performing.

This was called The Volume. Once actors stepped onto the stage or The Volume Cameron was able to use a virtual camera which was a small monitor mounted on a curved handle with motion sensors along the surface.

Whenever he moved this camera the screen reflected the part of The Volume he was looking at so he would know if he was looking at a tree, a rock or any other object.

He could also see the actors, fitted with motion capture cameras and sensors, as they would look as Nav’i completely to scale against the background they were being filmed against.


Joe Letteri, the three-time Academy Award winner, had his work cut out for him when he took on Avatar.

His main challenge was to capture an actor’s complete performance with their bodies and the faces right down to the smallest twitch and expression.

For their bodies actors were clothed in tights which were dotted the motion capture sensors.

But it was the technique developed for the actors faces which would be the real breakthrough.

Letteri created headrigs for each actor which would contain a tiny camera aimed at their face. Motion capture dots were then pained on each of their so the finest detail of every expression can be captured accurately.

And by having the camera at a constant position from each actor’s face there was no need to other cameras on set to capture those minute details.

The result was the most defined CGI characters ever seen on screen which remained an exact reflection of the actor’s performance.

On the Avatar Collector’s Edition on Blu-ray there is the option of viewing a an hour of the film as picture in picture showing the actor’s actual performance on the motion capture stage alongside the actual finished CGI scene.


The Nav’i – the indigenous population of Pandora – needed not only their own look and design they also needed their own language.

The task of creating a brand new language from scratch for the Nav’i fell to Paul Frommer, a communications professor from the University of Southern California.

Frommer took more than six months to create a vocabulary of original words, phrases and pronunciations along with rules for the use of verbs and nouns just like existing languages.

He then created MP3 files to make it easier for the actors to learn and speak the language so they could understand each other and concentrate on their performances.

The other part of the Pandora world which features quite prominently is the plant life and to ensure realism botanical consultant Jodie Holt was hired.

Holt, a professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at the University of California, was called create and name specific plants and a credible look and behaviour to exist on a planet with Pandora’s climate and conditions.

Avatar Collector’s Edition is released on November 24.

* Stephen Fenech travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

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