Avatar: The Game Changer
"This was a total revolution in that these environments of Pandora could speak to him in the moment and changed how he actually shot a scene, " boasts Rob Powers, who first served as animation TD before becoming virtual art department supervisor. "So final scenes in the movie were affected and changed because he was able to live and explore things as if he were really in the jungle. He could place characters where it was the best place to put them because it existed. It wasn't something where he would just shoot them bare and then, later on, Weta would create something from that. He was in the environment and those key creative decisions that previously would've been done by animators and visual effects houses at a later point --and who knows how many hands would've touched it at a later point -- were done by Jim Cameron himself. He didn't have to rely on other processes to complete the vision.
"The fascinating thing is, if that realtime environment had not been there for him to explore and shoot in, the film would have been immensely different because it was a process that is timeless -- it is the filmmaking process in its essence that he was able to tap into. This has not been the case ever before with these heavy visual effects films. And there's been no film like Avatar to this degree. It's definitely changed the art of digital filmmaking, and especially visual effects, which are increasingly part of our movies. It's never going to be the same because once people grasp what Avatar represents-- and the majority of the industry is still struggling with what this new paradigm shift is -- they'll understand how Jim's vision propelled the process and the hard work of everyone involved [executed it]."
Powers was part of the core group that started in 2005. He worked out concepts and problem solving for the creatures: The first time the Leonopteryx flew, it was through his animation; the first time a Direhorse galloped, he animated it; and the first time the Na'vi walked through a Pandoran jungle, he created the CG jungle and animated the Na'vi. But Powers' biggest contribution was to the environments of Avatar and the virtual moviemaking workflow used for the production.
"I was a strong believer that MotionBuilder could handle shadows and lighting cues and atmospherics that Jim required. I did a test of the log scene and populated it with ecosystems and tried to create a sense of what the artwork conveyed. The two-tier contribution that I was directly responsible for was bringing this level of art direction to what MotionBuilder could display for him in realtime and what the virtual production could see, introducing that in realtime so Jim could see that world and shoot in that world on Pandora. Also, coming up with techniques so he could do those in the moment changes like foliage layouts; and coming up with techniques for beautiful daytime plants to become bioluminescent at night with the flip of a switch.