Avatar: The Game Changer
"Some of the most important techniques were in the organization of realtime kits and the biospheres that he developed. The CG could go on forever because these are entire planets. To maintain the integrity of the realtime system, I had to come up with ways of continuing the look of a world that went on forever but not bog down the realtime render engine. One of the techniques that I came up with was biospheres and domes that you could place a camera in a scene that went forever. And we came up with proprietary tools that you could render a 360 sphere view at a certain radius that we would set, depending on how far we needed to interact, and then beyond that point, the geometry was literally collapsed into a dome but still looked like actual geometry. We would also combine that at later points with matte painting work by the art department itself. The organization of the kits was completely configurable. Jim would scout a virtual set with production designer Rick Carter as though it was a real one, but it was an [interactive] process that gave him total control."
For Carter, who helped design the life forms of Pandora with Rob Stromberg (the co-production designer), Avatar represents the hybrid in form and content as a new meta-experience -- redefining everything from mise-en- scene to visual effects.
"In that first rendered shot that came back [of Neytiri aiming her bow at Jake], you could see the introduction of all the levels that had to play out in this movie," Carter suggests. "From the introduction of Neytiri as the love interest, her interest in him, her change of heart about him from being an intruder to something she needs to accept because she's getting a sign from somewhere, which we really don't understand at that point. There are lots of things not only going on in the shot but also on a deeper level.
"That's why I always saw the movie as The Wizard of Oz meets Apocalypse Now. It's like this EKG kind of brain wave going from Kansas into Oz and into this mystical, bioluminescent dream state, the phantasmagoric, which is what he called it in the script. When I started tracking that almost like an EKG through three acts, I could see that as the film progressed you spent less time in Kansas, the real world, and more time on Pandora, the dream state. The scientific and spiritual binary components of the film dealing with the life force that binds all living things was already in the script as an intangible, but he elevated it into a whole movie going experience."
Carter even gets existential about VFX: "What do they mean? What's the point? And it's so obvious in this movie because none of it can exist in front of our eyes, so you have to create something that doesn't exist. Once you get to an entirely new planet with a new ecosystem connected spiritually with flora and fauna and characters. And with Jim's eye for detail, because he's been to places -- the bottom of the ocean, among others -- it gets right to the core of what is a visual effect, which is not just a series of pixels or colors or forms that combine to form a fantasy. You're actually trying to create a reality that can only come across with this new form that is introduced to us by the computer because of the amount of detail that it can create.