The Crazy Tech Behind James Cameron's Avatar

Avatar movie poster

If you haven't heard, James Cameron's upcoming sci-fi epic, Avatar, is a movie that is being filmed in photo-realistic, "stereoscopic 3D," which mixes live-action and CGI imagery in a seamless blend.

We here at Screen Rant felt it was high time we helped get heads wrapped around the future of movie technology that Cameron is ushering in with Avatar - just as he ushered in the era of CGI with Terminator 2. And, in the spirit of sharing, we've come up with a layman's dossier to help make you sound like a tech-wiz when describing Avatar's innovative techniques around the water cooler. (You can thank us later.)


Avatar will reportedly be 60% CGI imagery, with a majority of the CG character animation filmed with revolutionary new motion-capture techniques using live actors. The other 40% of film will be live-action imagery, relying on more traditional (but no less spectacular) Cameron-brand visual F/X. The live action sequences were shot on location in New Zealand last Fall/Winter, using the same Fusion 3-D camera system that Cameron helped pioneer for his IMAX feature Ghost of the Abyss in 2003, and which has gone on to make live-action digital 3D fare like Journey to the Center of the Earth possible (much to our shared regret).


To bring his CG characters to life in the most realistic sense, Cameron has reportedly redefined the way motion capture (or "performance capture") sequences are filmed. His actors wear special bodysuits and head rigs equipped with a standard definition camera that takes constant images of their faces. That data is then transmitted to another camera creating a real-time image of the live actor "wearing" their CGI costume.

"The way we developed the performance capture workflow on 'Avatar' is we have our virtual camera, which allows me to, in real time, hold a camera -- it's really a monitor -- in my hands and point it at the actors and see them as their CG characters," Cameron said... "It's this amazing ability to quickly conjure scenes and images and great fantasyscapes that is very visual...When you are doing performance capture, creatively it's very daunting. It's very hard to imagine what it will look like. But if you can see it, if you can have a virtual image of what is it going to be like, then you are there."

Pretty sick. Makes you wonder if George Lucas had this technology available while filming the Star Wars prequels would we have had to suffer the likes of Jar-Jar Binks? (Really, could any decent human being have given such an obnoxious performance?)

Another new motion capture technique being employed by Avatar is what Cameron and company call "Facial Performance Replacement" (FPR). Basically, FPR allows Cameron to digitally re-work an actor's facial movements. Lines of dialogue that get changed after principal photography on a scene can still be seamlessly implemented into the finished scene, without the actors having to re-don their body suits and head rigs for another take.

Avatar movie poster


For Avatar, Cameron wants to further blur the line between live-action imagery and CGI imagery. To that end, he's come up with something called "Simulcam"--a revolutionary new camera able to superimpose CGI images, over live images being filmed in real-time.

"We turned the set on the soundstage into a capture volume and turned the physical camera into a capture virtual camera, so we were able to integrate CG characters and environments into our live action." [Cameron said...] "We have people in flying vehicles, and I can see what is outside the window, fed in, in real time."

Wow, just imagine: movies where the interplay between what is real and what is digital is virtually indistinguishable; CGI environments that truly feel "alive," rather than hollow, empty, green-screen stages with live actors running around trying in vain to act like they're immersed in some fantastic world (*cough* Star Wars prequels *cough*).

In addition to inventing a few new filming techniques for Avatar, Cameron hopes the film will have additional impact on the movie business: getting more old films re-mastered and re-released in digital 3D. (Using Cameron-brand conversion technique$, no doubt.)

"The real question is "Where does all this go?" Cameron said. "Are we looking at a situation maybe 10-15 years out where most laptops are sold with 3D stereoscopic screens, most monitors are stereo compatible, most DVD players can run stereo content? ... I can see this becoming much more pervasive that we are thinking now."

At this point, who knows which fork in the road technology will ultimately travel down. But I can't lie: seeing movies in their full HD, 3D, digital glory from the comfort of my own couch does not upset me. Bring it on, Mr. Cameron, bring it on

Does this new tech make you just a tad more interested in Avatar? Or do you need to see that first trailer drop before the you'll start getting as jittery and excited as me?

Avatar is slated for a December 18, 2009 release. It's being directed by James Cameron (duh).

Source: Hollywood Reporter

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