IS IT ANIMATION?
Ask the animators at WETA, and they'll tell you that the avatars and Na'vi are animated. Ask Jim Cameron, and he'll say the characters were performed by the actors. The truth is that both are right. It took great animation skill to ensure that the characters performed exactly as the actors did. But at the same time, no liberties were taken with those performances. They were not embellished or exaggerated. The animators sought to be utterly truthful to the actors' work, doing no more and certainly no less than what Sam, Zoë or Sigourney had done in the Volume. Of course the animators added a little bit, with the movement of the tails and ears, which the actors could not do themselves. But even here, the goal was to stay consistent with the emotions created by the actors during the original capture. So when Neytiri's tail lashes and her ears lower in fury, they are merely further expressing the anger created by Zoë Saldana in the moment of acting the scene.
"Actors ask me if we're trying to replace them," says Cameron, "On the contrary, we're trying to empower them, to give them new methods to express themselves and to create characters, without limitation. I don't want to replace actors; I love working with actors. It's what I do, as a director. What we're trying to replace is the five hours in the makeup chair, which is how you used to create characters like aliens, werewolves, witches, demons and so on. Now you can be whoever or whatever you want, at any age, even change gender, and without the time and discomfort of complex makeup."
Saldana trained for months to create a physical reality for her character, so that she could fully express Neytiri's natural athletic grace. She knew that this was not just a voice performance for a typical animated film, but instead a "total performance," and that every nuance of her facial expressiveness and her body movement would be captured.
Cameron and the actors worked together in the Volume for over a year, on and off. It was every bit as intense a working relationship as on a photographic film set, except that there were no lights, cameras or dolly track. It was pure acting. And this allowed everyone to really focus on performance, and the emotional truth of each moment, without all the distractions of photography. Director and actors alike were enthralled by the process, and enjoyed the rapport and focus that performance capture allowed. But it was not until Cameron and his cast saw the first finished scenes coming back from WETA that they completely realized how revolutionary this movie was going to be. Neytiri, Jake and Grace were alive.
With AVATAR it was critical to achieve an absolute authenticity of performance for all the many characters. AVATAR's CG characters would be, says Landau, "real, soulful and emotional." Adds Cameron: "Every nuance and bit of performance was created by the actors, who do all the things you see their CG characters do in the film, down to the slightest hand gesture. These characters ARE precisely and only what the actors created."
AVATAR goes a step farther, by placing these photorealistic characters into a world that is also computer generated but seems completely real. Every plant, every tree, every rock is created and rendered in the computers of WETA Digital, in New Zealand. Significant breakthroughs in lighting, shading and rendering allowed WETA to create a photo-real world which was alien in its details, but which strikes the eye as completely natural. Over a Petabyte (one thousand terabytes) of digital storage was required by WETA for all the CG "assets" of the film… all the myriad plants and animals, insects, rocks, mountains and clouds. To put this in perspective, "Titanic" required 2 terabytes to create (and sink) the ship and its thousands of passengers, about 1/500th the amount used for AVATAR.
In addition to all this complexity, AVATAR was made in stereoscopic 3D. So not only did WETA need to work in 3D in creating their CG scenes (as did the other visual effects vendors such as ILM), but the live action scenes would need to be shot in 3D as well. For this Cameron used the Fusion Camera System, which he had co-developed with Vince Pace. It took seven years of development to create the Fusion system, which is the world's most advanced stereoscopic camera system. The cameras performed flawlessly on the set of AVATAR, allowing the live action scenes to merge smoothly with the CG scenes into a unified whole.
Because of the many layers of technology developed specifically for this project, AVATAR was by far the most challenging of all of Cameron's films to date. The filmmakers found themselves in uncharted territory, figuring out the answers as they went along. Eighteen months were spent developing the performance capture "pipeline" before a single scene was captured with the cast. "I've always tried to push the envelope," Cameron points out, "But this time it pushed back. So we had to push harder. I liken the experience of making AVATAR to jumping off a cliff and knitting the parachute on the way down."
But these revolutionary technologies are just tools in the filmmaker's "toolbox," and are always in the service of the story, emotion and characters. Says producer Jon Landau: "Ultimately, the audience's reaction to AVATAR is not going to be about the technology; it's going to be about the characters and story Jim created. The technology allows Jim to tell a story that otherwise couldn't be told." Adds Cameron: "It always boils down to this question: Is it a good story? Ultimately the discussion is going to be about the characters - alien and human - and their journeys."
Landau compares Cameron's use of these groundbreaking tools in AVATAR to the way he used then-cutting-edge advances in his Best Picture Oscar-winning "Titanic." "On 'Titanic' Jim used visual effects to make people feel like a part of history; on AVATAR, he is using new technology to transport people into the future to another world." Cameron notes, "The technology is at such a high level that it disappears, leaving only the magic… the feeling that you're really there, and that the story, the characters, the emotions are real."
Next page: THE ACTORS, CHARACTERS - AND THEIR JOURNEYS