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Autodesk University: Day 2 - 20 Stunning Minutes of Avatar

Day 2 of Autodesk University brought the worldwide premier of the 20 fantastic minutes of James Cameron's new film, Avatar. Buzz aside, it was great!

By George Maestri

James Cameron's Avatar

Tuesday night proved to be a big highlight of Autodesk University.  The Media and Entertainment keynote featured the first public screening of footage from James Cameron’s highly anticipated 3D feature “Avatar.”   The evening started with a talk from Marc Petit, VP of Media and Entertainment who introduced Kareem Kalifa from Marriot Hotels, who had the unfortunate role of opening act. 

Kalifa talked about how Autodesk products have been assisting Marriot in visualizing new interior designs for their hotels.  A process that normally took many months and the actual construction of real interiors in their hotels now can be done virtually using Revit and 3DS Max.  The company is doing photoreal renders of new designs that rival photography.  We were all quite impressed by the renderings of actual interiors, which were indistinguishable from the real thing.

This is wonderful news for architecture and visualization.  For people making movies, however, photoreal is old hat.  “Avatar” promised to take photoreal into the next dimension, and this is why the film is causing such a stir in the community.  Jon Landau of Lightstorm took the stage and gave a brief talk about the Autodesk technology that helped make the film a reality. 

The story of “Avatar” had been developed by James Cameron 15 years ago, right after Titanic became a hit.  The technology to make “Avatar” simply didn’t exist at the time.  Motion capture was still in its infancy and there was no way to preview mo-capped actors in real environments.  This changed about 4 years ago.  One of the key developments was a clever device that interfaced to Autodesk’s Motionbuilder software, which performs motion capture and animation editing.  The device was a simple LCD screen that could send positional data to Motionbuilder.  This allowed the screen to act as a virtual “camera” that allowed Cameron to “see” into the world of Avatar as Motionbulder captured the actor’s motions.  Being able to see motion captured actors in ‘character’ against their virtual environments gave him the ability to direct the film that he wanted.

Once Landau’s talk was over, we put on the glasses and watched the film.  Before they rolled footage, however, the admonition against any sort of camera or recording device was made very clear.  Beefy security people from the studio roamed the aisles to enforce the studio’s wishes.  This was, apparently, the first public showing of sequences from the real movie, so the tight security was expected.  Nobody complained, we were all too eager to see the film on the big screen, with Dolby Surround Sound, and a full cinematic 3D-projection system. 


The story is set in the future and is about a soldier who lost the use of his legs in a war of some sort.  He’s given the chance to walk again on a planet called “Pandora,” where Earth has established a mining colony.  His chance to walk comes in the form of an avatar, a genetic amalgam of human DNA and the DNA of the planet’s natives, 10 foot tall, blue skinned Amazons.  The main characters transfer their consciousness into these avatars so they can work on the surface of Pandora.  What ensues is a hero’s journey, with the main character falling in love with a native and leaving his human self behind.

Simply put, “Avatar” was as stunning as it was rumored.  The 3D works incredibly well, but what impressed this animator more was the level of realism in the virtual characters.  The facial animation/capture was impeccable, the faces no longer looked like rubber masks as they have in so many movies that use facial capture.  In Avatar, the characters truly came to life and were believable in every way.  The audience identified with the characters and that made the story work on a much deeper lever.  The characters inhabited a world that was just as believable.  Much of it was lush jungle with fantastic creatures.  Some of the little details I noticed were highly realistic water, mud, and other subtle effects that helped to make the world that much more engaging.

The one minor complaint I had was with the some of the faster action scenes.  Personally, I found that the 3D fell apart during fast cutting.  The 3D effect was more effective in longer scenes.  Perhaps that’s just my impression, because a lot of people I talked to after the film thought the action sequences were some of the best sequences we saw.  I preferred the longer scenes, particularly where the acting of the characters was stronger and helped move the story along.  I was very impressed with how emotive the characters were, and that level of believability will make this film a lot more than just another sci-fi action movie.

When the lights came up, we had seen about 20 minutes of the final film.  This 20 minutes represented a wide range of styles – from live action to full 3D worlds, and mixtures of the two.  All of them were beautiful and, more importantly, they showed the power of digital filmmaking technology, and true allure of 3D.  Jon Landau mentioned in his talk that 3D was going to be ubiquitous on all of our screens, no matter where.  I’m not totally convinced of that, but it will definitely become more prevalent in the coming years.

George Maestri is an animation director and producer. He is currently the president of Rubber Bug, a Los Angeles based animation studio. He also teaches animation at Otis College of Art and

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.