A friend of mine once showed me a little blue book he owned that contained the hand-written visual effects budget for a film made in the 1930’s. His grandfather had been an early studio man and had worked on many of the old classics including King Kong. The overall budget for the particular film that he showed me was under five hundred dollars all in. If grandpa could only see us now he’d note some changes.
A week ago Saturday I attended a Gnomon School of Visual Effects presentation entitled “The Making of Avatar”. It was an all day affair held in a space designated as Stage 20 in Hollywood where more than a hundred attendees sat transfixed on folding metal chairs as several dozen of visual effects finest artists and scientists displayed and discussed their contributions to Avatar. The first half of the day I sat slack jawed as hundreds of production art images flashed across the screen. On any large visual effects production there are invariably hundreds of drawings created to home in on the director’s vision. Most of the time the early drawings are dead ends or pale shadows of the finals as the artist and director seek to solidify their visions without a strong direction at the outset. This was not true of the early work on Avatar. It’s clear that from the very beginning James Cameron had a strong idea of where he wanted to go and all of the early drawings (including some of Mr. Cameron’s) show a clear vision from the inception. Despite this strong direction there were literally thousands of drawings used to further clarify and refine the production design for the film.
In several cases arrays of drawings were displayed that showed various designs of body markings on the Na’vi characters. The differences between one image and the next were often so infinitesimal that they appeared to be sheets of identical postage stamps but they represented very subtle and real choices. Nothing was left to chance.
The mantra as expressed by many of the designers was “realism in design”. To that end the gun designer, Aaron Beck, created a modular system of case-less ammo firearms that included The Bush Boss. When the still images were projected onto the screen it became clear that the attention to detail lavished on this particular facet of the project had yielded a product so refined and believable that the eventual realization of these weapon systems seem inevitable, almost current. These concepts were beautifully made flesh by the prop makers at WETA. Every corner of this world was given the same attention.
The period of time on most features for production design is usually from three to eight months. The production design phase for Avatar ran three years. In that three years armies of artists and scientists rolled up their sleeves and focused on pleasing a man who is noteworthy in our field as being “demanding”. From the myriad of images, many of them barely discernable from one another, it was evident that the whole of the exercise was one of refinement. One of the speakers made the statement that Cameron was so demanding of his artists that they all felt that they would take a little piece of him forward into all their future work. The other artists around him all nodded their heads in approbation.
Beyond character design and props a great many images of the world of the Na’vi were displayed on the screen. These included an array of just stunning concept paintings that glowed with imagination and skill. Robert Powers and his team comprised the VAD or Virtual Art Department. This technology in conjunction with the Simulcam allowed the director to see an acceptable image of the final shots in real time.
Clearly the bar has been once again reset by time, money and ingenuity. Some of the techniques employed here will quickly enter the toolbox of visual effects artists worldwide. Others of the approaches will take longer to filter down but will eventually become accessible to all. Whatever the time frame all this dissemination occurs within you can bet that we will be chasing the look and feel of Avatar for several years. Somehow, I don’t think that the days of grandpa’s budget are ever coming back.