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Wētā FX’s Dan Barrett Talks ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’

The two-time VES Award-winning and four-time Oscar-nominated Senior Animation Supervisor discusses his team’s groundbreaking animation work on the record-shattering ‘Avatar’ sequel, now in theaters.

Avatar: The Way of Water continues to smash box office records right and left, immersing audiences around the globe in an imaginative world unlike any they’ve experienced before. Directed by James Cameron, with cinematography by

Russell Carpenter, and visual effects created by a small army of immensely talented artists, the film continues the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri and their kids), depicting the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight, and the tragedies they endure.

In achieving new heights in visual and narrative achievement, director Cameron was supported by New Zealand’s Oscar-winning visual effects powerhouse Wētā FX, who were also instrumental in the success of the first Avatar film. Among those lending his skills to the enterprise was Senior Animation Supervisor Dan Barrett, who, along with Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri and the other dedicated members of Wētā’s gifted team, ensured the verisimilitude of both the characters and the many complex components comprising the Na’vis’ watery world.

We spoke with the two-time VES Award-winning and four-time Oscar-nominated Barrett (he's also won two Annie Awards and received 4 BAFTA nominations) about his collaboration with Cameron, and about the commitment and attention to detail that continues to define Wētā’s world-class work.

AWN: It seems to me that, more than on most films, there was an incredible amount of what I'll call “prep work” that went into The Way of Water. It seems like very little was left to chance, and the visual effects folks had an easier time than they sometimes do because they weren’t searching around in the dark for direction. Did you find that you had more to work with, and that you could really focus on executing, rather than having to figure stuff out first?

Dan Barrett: The kind of work that I enjoy doing is bringing out little details, especially compelling emotional performances. And what I personally find difficult is working on things that don't end up on screen. That’s something that happens, whatever department you're in, but on certain films it happens a lot more than others. Jim Cameron wants every cent of the budget that he has, or as much of that as possible, to end up on screen. So he spends money and time and energy at the right time in the process – whether it's making sure the script's completely nailed down, working out what the shots are going to look like, preparing for the live-action shoot, making sure that all of the builds associated with that match, and ensuring that the motion-capture shoot is going to match the environment. All these decisions being made at the right time gives us the time that we need to do our job, which is putting all of that detail in there to make those compelling and believable worlds and compelling and believable performances.

AWN: As digital character performances get better, people not in the know tend to think it's a lot easier than it is, and they tend to think it's just motion-capture from an actor in a suit. But even if you produce a good looking photoreal image, as soon as you have to make it move with emotion, that's where an incredible amount of difficulty still comes in. Can you talk about how you use the motion-capture data and what your animation process actually entails?

DB: Our new system gives us better than a 90% blocking of the facial performance, but there’s always stuff to be done beyond that by the animator’s hand. It's what the audience feels when they see a face. And those little subtleties tend to be the bits that are (a) most important, and (b) less likely to be picked up by the technology. So that's where the animator is, guiding that last five to 10% of detail in the faces to make sure that it's all there.

There are two ways of looking at a shot. You can look at all of the details, what's moving on the face. The other way is where you just have to clear your mind of all that and you just have to sit back and you have to let it wash over you. You just sit there as a human and look at the performance. What do I feel? And then you do the same with the CG version. Do I feel the same thing? And when you don't, you know you're not quite there.

AWN: Are the eyes the most difficult thing to get right, or are there other parts of the face that are equally or more challenging?

DB: As far as eyes, as long as you've got a rig that does the job, that moves sympathetically – like if the skin surrounding the eyes moves correctly and sympathetically with eye movement – that’s a great starting point. I've always said that eye animation is the most important thing on a face and the easiest thing on a face. You just need to observe and make sure you do what you have to.

I think one of the trickiest things from an animation perspective is the mouth. It's an orbital muscle that's incredibly dexterous. It can move in all sorts of ways. And you really don't want to lose people on that. You want people to believe that the words that they're hearing are the words that are coming out of the mouth of the character. So I think that's really an important part.

AWN: How big of a team did you have doing the animation that you were supervising?

DB: I think that we were about 150 strong just for the animation team. That includes various departments. We had a special facial department led by Stuart Adcock, and we had a special motion-edit department that dealt just with captured performance. They're not going to do creatures, they're not going to be keyframing from scratch – which isn't to say that they don't animate, but their starting point tends to be performance-capture. This entire animation team handled the characters and creatures.

AWN: Were there any unexpected challenges for you and the team on this film?

DB: It's a good question because you do endeavor not to have unexpected challenges when working on a Jim Cameron film. You like to think you've thought about everything in advance. I can't really think of any unexpected challenges, but there were certain things that we knew were coming that we had to learn along the way. One of the things that required a new way of working was the water. For example, we knew we had to animate a whole lot of boats, and we knew that the terrain that we were going to be animating these boats on was going to be liquid and we knew that that would change. Maybe a boat came past and there was a simulation that then upset a wave crest. Or, more commonly, you would have situations where you would be asked to change the wave phase. And so, all of a sudden, all of the work you'd done was gone because you just changed the terrain you'd been working on. We did a lot of development there on building rigs for animators that included elements of simulation.

So, you drive it in that direction. You put it at the speed, it shows you what it's going to do as it goes over these waves. And, obviously, the motion's different if it's going towards the wave, as opposed to with the wave. So there were some big challenges there. But as we went, we learned and we improved those tools.

AWN:  What did you learn on this film that's going to serve you on the next work that you do?

DB: I'm an animation supervisor, but I think I'm a stronger filmmaker now for having worked with Jim, because he's such an interesting and generous guy to work with. He shares information, he tells you what he wants, and he tells you why he's doing these things. It's sensible because he wants to empower those around him to get ahead of those decisions, to understand the way he makes film, so that you don't need to be told down the track. If you see something happening, you can make suggestions or you can change things or suggest things. So you tend to learn a lot. I think I've probably learned more over the last few years working with Jim than I have in the rest of my career.

Dan Sarto's picture

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