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The Oscars: Letteri Talks 'Avatar'

Joe Letteri discusses the impact of Avatar and assesses Star Trek and District 9.

Check out the Avatar trailers and clips at AWNtv!

VFX colleagues are comparing Avatar to The Wizard of Oz. All Images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Now that it's toppled Titanic at the box office and has become a best picture Oscar contender, Avataris the talk of the industry. Joe Letteri, senior visual effects supervisor for Weta Digital, kicks off our VFX Oscar coverage with his analysis,

Bill Desowitz: Congratulations again on the phenomenal success of Avatar.

Joe Letteri: Thanks, it's been great.

BD: I'm curious what kinds of conversations you've been having with colleagues.

JL: Most of it has been pretty positive and I think what people like is the immersive nature of it: almost a Wizard of Oz quality. Once you take off with the Jake, and you go into the world, you're just kind of there. And people are finding it believable and likable. They really enjoy their visit to Pandora: they want to stay there and see more of it. They understand the emotions between Jake and Neytiri. Obviously, that's what we put a lot of our focus on and there's certainly a magical quality to parts of the jungle and other parts of the environment that people are responding to. So it feels like people are taking it in the spirit that it was meant to be, which is nice.

BD: Are people asking how they could apply some of the techniques to their upcoming projects?


Yes, people are definitely interested in the technology and how that relates to other ways of doing very similar things. So it really exists on a spectrum of what you're trying to do with your film, and how much live action vs. digital there would be. There's obviously one more bag of techniques that you can bring to that. You know, the more you're going to be in a realm where a scene is created mostly digital or have large digital components, the more you can bring that technology to bear on those. Obviously you don't need to pull that out for every shot and every scene, but it's there now if you need it.

Zoe Saldana's performance truly shines through her Na'vi avatar.

BD: And as a tool for directors to become more immersed in their CG environments without it being cumbersome.


Exactly. More and more directors are doing more and more work with effects and not all of them have the experience, so they are looking for an easy way to step into it and understand what's going on. And this definitely gives you that.

BD: Are people beginning to understand more about the role of the animation and the significance of the performance capture?


I have had discussions about that and people just aren't sure how much of it is straight performance and how much of it is animation. And it's always going to be hard to separate the two: how much of it is live action, how much of it is your mind and how much of it is your muscles. For an actor or an actress that all has to work together: you have to have that control, that expressiveness -- that is all part of the art. In this medium, you're really looking at the actor or actress to drive the heart of the performance, but then it has to be realized through some other medium. And I'm not sure if some people are saying if a computer does all that and no one touches it, that's fine, or if someone touches it, it's not fine, which doesn't make sense to me. I think people are trying to understand it. And it's hard to quantify all the things that actors bring to it, but I think they're worth a lot. There's a particular moment when Neytiri's mother tells her that she has to take Jake in and teach him our ways. Her reaction is so much like a teenage girl. It's perfect. Yeah, we probably could've thought about it if we came up with it in animation, but that's Zoe -- she played it perfectly. So what if an animator had to fix the toes so they touch the ground properly. That's not really what we're talking about here.

BD: What about other technical questions people have asked, including the significance of virtual production?

Cameron has described digital doubles as a new form a virtual make-up.


People are interested in that, but, generally, they're asking about performance capture because the rest of it gets into more detailed conversations that are more specific to particular productions. And I think, for the most part, we're deferring those questions until we get a little further along with anything new.

BD: And have you started having preliminary conversations yet about sequels?

JL: I'm hearing rumors, but I have not talked to Jim [Cameron] about it. Because so many people are going back to see it multiple times and saying they want to see more.

BD: Do you stay on Pandora or introduce another moon?


Yeah, exactly: I have no idea.

BD: I guess that'll be discussed at the retreat along with what improvements you can make.


For sure, but that's always an ongoing process: what we set off to do, how far we got with it -- what we were able to make work and what we'd like to do better next time. A lot of it comes down to efficiencies as well. You take things on like this where you're doing multiple characters and it takes a long time to develop those characters. Well, we want to shorten that time for the turnaround, so we can do more on the live action stage and on the performance capture stage. We want to be able take what we did but do it faster and just as well.

BD: We've talked last year about finding simulation and rendering improvements.

Technological advances have made populating virtual world with unique vegetation easier.


Exactly, growing trees and things like that is still extremely difficult. On the rendering side, we did use a lot of measured data to figure out what some of these things wanted to be: matching real foliage and then adapting that to get the look of the alien foliage. That was all a step in the right direction, but a lot of that had to be done by hand, sorting through a lot of it and figuring out what it all meant, try to collate it and relate one piece to the other and just dealing with the complexity of the organic growth you get with plants. You would seed the ground with different plants; they'd have different growth rates and compete for resources (sunlight and terrain). So smaller plants initiated bigger plants and they would die off and you'd get this nice, natural growth pattern. But we didn't do that to the point where we actually grew each of the individual plants as this growing was happening. What we'd do was just pop them in like pre-built models at their specific age of development. The next step would be to actually grow the plants. Would that give us a more interesting variety? Is that even necessary in a jungle where you don't see everything? Still, it's an interesting problem and there's going to be a need for that solution somewhere along the line.

BD: And the virtual art department?


I think what we want to be able to do there is have just a little tighter integration with the art department, the virtual art department and the post-production you get into a tricky area that has to be managed in between all of this because when you're creating all of the virtual art department assets, considering that you're shooting on a stage and everything is live action, you get a photographic plate, you get your shot turned over to you, you get your element, you just start working on it. If you need to cast shadows or something on that element, you take measurements, you rebuild the geometry and you match it as closely as you can. When you're dealing with a virtual art department, the assumption is those assets are the same. And so you need to know when, in fact, they are the same and when they're not because often times they're lower resolution because of the necessity of getting realtime playback. Other times, they may be changed or if there is something on the set, [it's hard] just keeping track of all that information because you go from having this live-action shooting style where you're recording camera takes and all of the information just as if you were shooting it live action, but then you immediately turn it around into shots because you have to render it for editorial purposes, and so that whole line between the two is very blurred. And it was kind of fluid the way we were doing it, experimenting with different ways that worked. But I think we'll need to talk about how we can nail it down with one way of working.

BD: What about stereoscopic improvements?


For Avatar, we didn't really have too many problems with stereo. But there is one overriding technical problem if you're shooting a lot of plate work and doing any kind of reconstruction or paint out and so forth. That's still a difficult problem to do in stereo, and that's something that's on our list of R&D projects.

BD: It's been a great year for visual effects overall. What are you impressions of the other sci-fi nominees?

Avatar pushed the use of stereoscopic 3-D to new level, but Letteri says there are issues with plate work that still need to be ironed out.

JL: It's interesting because a lot of it almost comes down to style these days because the work is uniformly pretty good. Everyone has a lot of stuff figured out and it's hard to fault the work that people are doing. It comes down to style, integration, how it works with the film. It's harder and harder to look at these things just on their technical merit because everyone is doing such a good job. The ideas and techniques are more well-known and people have a good understanding of what they need to do and the work just looks good across the board.

BD: What did you think about Star Trek?

JL: Excellent, especially from the design point of view in the way they created some of the look of the space effects: the nebula and things felt more volumetric and had more of a presence.

BD: And a movie closer to home, District 9?

JL: Yeah, District 9 was like the realism of it -- like a documentary feel: just seeing the big ship hanging out at Johannesburg, the helicopter flying back and forth to it. You felt that was something you would see on a news show if that were to happen. And the way they did the aliens.

BD: You weren't sure they were CG.

JL: That's right: they had a very good performance to them, being really furtive and angry -- they really got into characters.

BD: What are you doing next?

JL: I'm jumping right into Tintin.

BD: Great: I'm looking forward to discussing that.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.