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As AVATAR continues to dominate the box office, The Third Floor discussed its previs with AWN.

As AVATAR continues to dominate the box office, The Third Floor discussed its previs with AWN.

Casey Schatz, simulcam supervisor, initially worked on the After Effects pipeline for generating the kabuki masks used in the film. The 2-D movies that the kabuki masks were originally shot on were mapped onto 3-D geometry. To do this, Schatz and other members of the team "took the eyes and mouth from the live-action talent and blended it into an image of the actors' Avatar face," he explained.

After that system was in place, Schatz started doing motion editing and scene assembly in MotionBuilder, which involved getting all the performances and stitches to work together while ensuring that the 3-D action, the kabuki and the audio track were all in sync.

Schatz said his favorite task on the project came when it was time to animate cameras either from scratch or additively on top of James Cameron's existing camera motion. Schatz worked with Cameron in the Wheels Room for four to five months and before he knew it, it was time for him to get to New Zealand where the live action photography took place.

Schatz described the simulcam work as "our system of motion capturing the camera and in real time keying out the green of the live action and compositing it with what the MotionBuilder camera was seeing."

The team was able to photograph the film's talent against green, but still see them interacting with the 3-D environment and characters through the eyepiece or one of the video assist monitors.

Schatz spent six months in New Zealand where he was one of two artists in charge of scene prep and real-time operating of MotionBuilder.

After New Zealand, Schatz worked at Cameron's house for about seven months and then at Lightstorm for four to five months doing 3-D tracking and compositing for hundreds of live-action shots throughout the film. He also did previs on a variety of sequences, including the opening fly-through of the forest.

Schatz eventually had to pull away from that work to prepare for the second leg of live-action shooting.

Barry Howell, founder of The Third Floor and 3D concept artist on AVATAR, began working on the film in October of 2006. He told AWN it was invaluable working with Ryan Church, Dylan Cole, Stefan Dechant and other concept artists.

He and Dorian Bustamante were tasked with taking the 2D concept art and turning it into a fully three dimensional environment. Howell collaborated extensively with the concept artists to create a full 360-degree set out of what began as a painting. Concept artists routinely painted over the top of Howell's screen grabs and provide the missing details needed for 3-D.

Production designers Rob Stromberg and Rick Carter worked with Howell to inform him of any changes that were requested by Cameron along the way. Cameron routinely took a look at the revisions from all angles.

"He definitely knew what he wanted and had a great eye for detail and would give very specific notes on what to change," Howell told AWN.

"At the same time he would often comment on the concept paintings that were done based off of our models."

After approval, the environment would be sent to the project's virtual art department where the model was converted from Maya over to MotionBuilder and prepared for the stage. Cameron then did all of his digital location scouts on the stage where he could walk around and see through his virtual camera rig, Howell explained.

Some of the environments that Howell worked on include the “Well of Souls" and the “Beanstalk," which contained the path of floating rocks held together by vines, the exterior area around the Hometree, Shack Site A and Shack Site B.