The Making of Avatar

Neytiri (Zoë Saldana) and Jake (Sam Worthington) make final preparations for an epic battle that will decide the fate of an entire world.
Neytiri (Zoë Saldana) and Jake (Sam Worthington) make final preparations for an epic battle that will decide the fate of an entire world.
Neytiri (Zoë Saldana) and Jake (Sam Worthington) make final preparations for an epic battle that will decide the fate of an entire world.

James Cameron’s long-awaited epic fantasy Avatar is definitely “titanic” in size and scope. “It’s got a big story—that’s where it starts,” said producer Jon Landau, who also produced Cameron’s last film, Titanic. “Jim created a story that called for a world that did not exist. The technology did not exist before Titanic. The technical hurdle was creating the closeup. In the center of our world, we have CGI characters—and movies are all about the closeup.”

For these characters, created through a complex process beginning on stages at Playa Vista and ending up largely at Weta Digital in New Zealand, Cameron and his crew realized that the success of the movie rested on the believability of the creatures, the native inhabitants of the alien world, Pandora. “You don’t get involved in the motion of the world,” said Landau. “You get involved in the characters. We needed emotive and engaging characters.”

One of the breakthroughs in Avatar was the advent of a new type of performance capture system in which live actors were translated into digital characters through a system in which cameras were attached to the actors’ heads via a helmet device that would record the actors every facial movement. “Instead of going with what people did in the past, we instituted e-motion capture,” said Landau. “Instead of reflective markers, we used an image-based capture on a frame-by-frame basis. On the visual effects end, it’s intensive. But we created a paradigm for them to focus on the hard stuff.”

After six months of “e-motion” capture, running from April to September 2007, the material was compiled by editors Stephen Rivkin and John Refoua, plus Cameron himself, who—as in Titanic—is a credited as editor on Avatar, and sent to Weta for assembly onto the creatures—10- foot tall blue beings called the Na’vi.

Jon Landau on the set of <em>Avatar</em>
Producer Jon Landau on the set of Avatar

“We committed to Weta in January of 2007,” Landau explained. “In the movie, there will be 3,000 visual effects shots. In comparison, Jurassic Park had 50 visual effects shots.”

Certainly, there have been shows that have had more visual effects and were just as challenging as Avatar, but Weta was ideal for this particular project according to Landau. “Avatar is relatively confined,” he said. “We were limited to studio filming. We created it a whole different way. Looking where Weta was going as a company—image-based facial captures—we turned over templates of sequences where we wanted facial capture. They were open to all of this.”

During and after the facial capture process, with Joe Letteri supervising Weta’s work, Cameron and the editorial team stateside used a sophisticated system of interacting with their New Zealand counterparts. “We do a live interactive video conference with them where they are viewing one of three streams right from our Avid, or they could see us, and we could see them,” Landau explained. “They are running in sync with us. Throughout this, we used the Avid as our tool for viewing visual effects. We can put things into editorial cut sequences with multiple video streams—say take 1, 3 and 5. We put those all in sync in our Avid.”

Of course, Avatar did not only involve computer-generated imagery. Subsequent to the image capture portion, Cameron went to New Zealand to soundstages and a backlot in Wellington where Peter Jackson shot scenes from Lord of the Rings and King Kong.

From October 2007 to February 2008, Cameron shot his live actors on sets using parts of the team from Jackson’s film, including Richard Taylor who supervised special props and equipment, plus the team from the late Stan Winston’s studio, who created makeup and mechanical devices.

Of note, Winston’s work with Cameron went back to the original Terminator in 1984. “The live-action side was all studio-based filming,” Landau confirmed. “We used that stage for cost reasons and proximity to Weta and craftsmanship—we found great artists. Richard Taylor built our weapons and tanks. A very small part of the show was shot using greenscreens.”

Following physical production in Wellington, Cameron returned to California for several months of virtual cinematography, using a camera that he co-created, where the director could create shots in the digital world of Pandora using any angle he wished. “In production, we had two different phases—performance capture to get the actors, and virtual camera to see what they were doing in the environment,” Landau explained. “We did not spend the time during performance capture to do the camera coverage. It was all about the actors. Then, with our virtual camera, we would do coverage and edit those sequences in a template level. This was the action of the sequences, and performances that Jim wanted, and then Weta would work on those sequences.”

In comparing their last production to this new one, Landau crafted an interesting technological analogy. “When we did Titanic, we turned to existing real-world solutions to raise and lower the ship,” said Landau. “Here, it felt a little more like NASA felt when Kennedy said ‘we’re going to the moon.’ Our moon is Pandora and we had to figure out how to get there. I think it’s an evolution, just like when Jim did the pseudopod in The Abyss.

On this movie, we had to come up with terminology. We visited Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson who are doing TinTin [with some of the same processes used on Avatar] and people are using our terminology. Hopefully, they will evolve it, and there will be new tools to use.”

Another crucial element of Avatar is the 3D camera system that the production utilized— though in theaters Avatar will screen both in 3D and traditional 2D. “Hopefully, 3D is the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae,” said Landau. “For us, 3D is about creating a window into a world. Technology is what enables exhibitors to create high-tech 3D. Our goal is to have the 3D disappear and not notice it. We want to create an illusion of a window into a world. We will only come out in Digital 3D and IMAX 3D. Technology services stories. Here, we were able to adapt this technology and apply it to this story.”

Surely, many eyes will be on Cameron as this is his first film in 12 years and Cameron’s crew is well aware of this though they feel Avatar is a natural step for the director. “I think Jim is uniquely qualified to make this movie—you had to have a vision to work on this virtual production stage and make the camera movement seem natural to filmmaking,” Landau said. “He did not want visual effects to overcome the filmmaking. Jim himself has the great balance of a technological understanding and story. He brings that into directing. He brings that technology to the story. He always pushes the envelope and on this one, it pushed back. It was the most challenging.”

Will Avatar ultimately serve as a new type of filmmaking, which other directors will strive to imitate? Landau isn’t concerned. “I think Jim doesn’t look to set bars,” he said. “He looks to conquer his own challenges. He looks for challenges that motivate him. It’s all about passion. When you set it high in front of you, you find the passion to achieve your goals. The story is first and foremost. He found a way to utilize technology to tell a story that would not otherwise have been told.”

Related Articles:
Joe Letteri on the Visual Effects of Avatar

View The Trailer