Rob Powers Talks VAD and More Avatar
RP: We would start with at least one matte painting of an environment from one angle. It was enough of a challenge to turn that into a 360 of an environment. That was usually the workflow. But sometimes we figured it was easier to create it in this environment. There was one particular environment (Jungle/Biolume) that was laid out in its birth in the Virtual Art Department: it never existed as a painting. And I think that's fascinating because it won the VES award for best environment. I basically laid this out as a first pass, sent it into the volume; Jim walked through it, did his production design and changed a few things. But because those anemenoids were there, when they went to shoot, it was something they could respond off of. It wasn't in the script and I think Sam Worthington saw it and made suggestions [about touching them] and Jim loved it and it's in the movie. What that environment represented for me was two things: that it served as a legitimate design space from inception and that when you basically have the information for the actor and director to play off of, it showed how it made the scene better, and that is what is so amazing about Avatar. It was a living, immersive moment. I think this is a big shift for the positive. It's about making that final experience fantastic. And I was on the set when Zoe did two of her major performances where she really emoted so much on stage that you could hear a pin drop. And then I saw the movie it was the same performance and it affected me the same way.
RP: It is scalable. I think what people should know is that there was an awful lot of work that occurred on Avatar before the greenlight and off the stage. I had a very small system in my room that was accessible at all times to anybody that needed to go into that virtual space and not have the whole stage. So the technology is scalable from large motion capture stage, large volume down to much smaller systems. It's directly relevant. I think it's going to be more relevant to television productions as we move forward to independent films, smaller films, because once they realize how much time and money they save when they go through the process in this virtual workspace, you get things out before. That's what Rick Carter was able to do with all the live-action sets that he built in New Zealand. Every live-action set had a counterpart in the Virtual Art Department. He was able to walk through and look at those and make determinations and adjustments before it was ever considered to be built, and so it's really a place for people to vet out their thinking and their design process and to do it in a production-relevant way, which means with real world cameras in realtime. And the way the interface works is you don't have to worry about computer software programs -- you can come in and do a virtual walk through with a controller in your hand and move it. So the faster you get into this environment, the fewer problems you have. And that's all this really is.
BD: So what's it like being at NewTek?
RP: NewTek is fascinating because I've never worked in development before. The thing that struck me is that their company has always made cutting edge products that are affordable all the way through the TriCaster, which takes the concept of the whole studio production van and put it in a little box in HD; the same thing with LightWave. So enabling the artists through technology is what attracted me to the company. And when I looked at what I was able to contribute on Avatar, it was essentially the system that was put in place for Jim to enable the artists. And it was the technology that was put in place that allowed something that wasn't possible before. So it's the same thing that I feel about the technology at NewTek, which is why I'm so excited: the realtime stuff and the interactive rendering technology and some of the interchange stuff in an industry-standard workflow. There were very specific reasons that we chose to model most of the assets in the environments in LightWave. When we started in 2005, the fbx plug-in support for LightWave was much stronger than many other applications. It's a great workflow…and I needed a workflow that got me there from A to B with no questions.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.