Avatar and the Future of Digital Entertainment Creation
The production of Avatar highlights some fundamental evolutions in movie making. Although a lot has already been written about the movie, its production is an important milestone for the industry. It means a lot to us at Autodesk, particularly, as it showcases production requirements that support the directions that we have been taking for the development of our products. Avatar pioneers virtual cinematography, features believable characters and delivers a fully immersive stereo experience. More than 15 of the most prestigious VFX and post-production companies around the world collaborated closely to make this movie -- and also enlisted a world-class games studio to produce a title that extends the story into the interactive world. Together, they pioneered virtual moviemaking in the process.
Avatar marks the first time a director, James Cameron, has been able to direct computer-generated and live actors in realtime, in digital environments. The virtual cinematography set-up developed by the team at Lightstorm is probably the most advanced we've seen so far. It allowed extensive capture of the performance of the actors, including motion, facial animation and eye directions. The actors and the director saw the results live as MotionBuilder captured and mapped the actors' performances to their virtual counterparts and rendered them in realtime. As soon as each performance was approved, the shots could be sent over to Weta for final animation, rendering, lighting and compositing. But an added advantage to this digital workflow is that shots could be altered after the fact, giving the team more flexibility to test creative decisions for lights and cameras or even editorial.
With virtual moviemaking, after the performance is captured, the director can change or refine camera moves and angles. The performance is played back on a monitor/viewfinder that the director uses just like a physical camera that can be captured by MotionBuilder as well. The result is amazing creative flexibility --actors' performances and camera work can be decoupled!
Avatar, of course, relied heavily on previs. All of the sets and characters were built in Maya and available in MotionBuilder, so a lot of preparation work including planning and lighting could be achieved virtually by the cinematographer, Mauro Fiore, long before any set was constructed on stage in New Zealand. In fact, 18 months of shots were captured before the team went to shoot on stage.