Monday, March 15, 2010

Behind the Scenes: Technology in Avatar Movie

 James Cameron - The man who dances with the computers

James Cameron began writing the script for the "Avatar" movie in 1994, but knew that he could not realize his project at that time without a completely new technology. The director who is well known for his technological innovations which he introduced in films such as "The Abyss" or "Terminator 2", had to wait for many years for the adequate technology to be developed. The viewers who saw "Avatar" in 3D suspected that there was something very different about this movie. The visual effects were just breathtaking and the viewers had a sensation of being completely immersed in the world of the Na'vi. 

“This film integrates my life’s achievements,” Cameron told Dana Goodyear of the New Yorker Magazine. “It’s the most complicated stuff anyone’s ever done.”
What makes "Avatar" so special is the innovative use of the 3D technology and the use of spectroscopic cameras that were specially designed for this movie's production. 

To create depth perception, Cameron used 3D Fusion Camera System. To achieve the desired effect, two cameras were "fused" into one camera body. The line of sight of the lenses could be adjusted so that the director was able to angle them closer together to focus on close objects, or farther apart for those in a distance, just the way our eyes do when we look at objects.The camera allowed Cameron to control the aesthetics of the steroescopic space. 

The set itself was wired with technology. There were more than 90 cameras hanging around the perimeter of the sound stage where the movie was shot. Later on computer-generated landscapes and structures replaced the studio walls. The amazingly beautiful landscape of Pandora came to view.

The visual effects were created by a New Zealand company called Weta Digital. The company used Linux system and Linux based advanced software to create the wonderful fauna and flora on Pandora moon. The creating of visual effects required more than one petabite of storage. (1 petabit = 1015 bits = 1,000,000,000,000,000 bits) In comparison, movies such as "Transformers" required only about 140 terabits. (1 terabit = 1012 bits = 1,000,000,000,000 bits). The final footage of Avatar occupied 17.28 gigabits per minute. A company called Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) joined in to help create the battle sequences together with the Weta Digital so that the movie could be made on time. 

Cameron also used his own virtual camera system. In Cameron's own words: "It's like a big, powerful game engine. The system displays an augmented reality on a monitor, placing the actor's virtual counterparts into their digital surroundings in real time, allowing the director to adjust and direct scenes just as if shooting live action." 

An innovative motion capture technology was used to shoot the movie. It was more advanced than any technology previously used. Facial expressions and eyes movements of the actors who wore specially designed head gear, were transmitted to a dozen computers which translated the data into the facial expressions of the digital characters. The new technology made it possible to transfer the entire physical performance of the actors into computers. The Na'vi fascinated viewers with their mimicry. They looked almost "humane" on the screen.

Independently from its "ideological" content and the quality of the script, Avatar is a technologically unique movie. Its technology set a new milestone in cinematography and opened new vistas for movie directors in the science fiction genre. It definitely deserves its Oscar for the visual effects.

By Dominique Allmon

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Behind the Scenes: Technology in Avatar Movie by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.