A Brief Look at the Technological Advancements in James Cameron's Avatar
It's about that time again where we get a much-needed update from James Cameron on his still 16-months-out Avatar. The last update arrived back in late May when Cameron gave a speech at the Microsoft Advance '08 conference and talked about the technological advances they've made with Avatar. This week it was the Hollywood Reporter that talked with him further about some of the most amazing digital advancements you'll hear about, including live rendering of CG environments while shooting, an editing system called Facial Performance Replacement, as well as a camera system called Simulcam. We're still very far out from even seeing Avatar, but it's already one of the most advanced films in production and the technology implemented within it is all a testament to the genius of James Cameron.
"You have to make a good film that would be a good film under any circumstances," Cameron explains. And although we already know this, he emphasizes that "it is the most challenging film I've ever made." Cameron expects that by the time it's finished, Avatar will contain 60% CG animation featuring characters created using performance capture system, and 40% live action with visual effects imagery filling in the gaps. Although this may end up being the most amazing film we'll see visually, Cameron hasn't forgotten how to direct. "You have to put the narrative first. The reality is no matter how many (3-D) screens we get, you are still going to have a large number of people -- possibly the majority of people -- who see the film in a 2-D environment." They've already finished all of the performance capture with actors and are currently in the post-production process, which brings us to the technology they've invented.
Workflow: "The way we developed the performance capture workflow on Avatar, is we have our virtual camera, which allows me to, in real time, hold a camera -- it's really a monitor -- in my hands and point it at the actors and see them as their CG chartacters." This technology is something I've also seen at both DreamWorks Animation and LucasArts / ILM. Those two production houses also have a camera system that puts the operator in the virtual environment as if it is there; seeing this in person, it's obvious that it is where the future of filmmaking is headed. During the shoot, actors wear motion capture suits and a rig that takes an image of their face. "That is going though facial algorithms and going back into the camera as a real-time CG face of the character. You see it talk; you see the eyes move. It is pretty phenomenal."
Asset Management: "Once we've laid down a take, the take exists in the digital asset management system. It an be accessed at any time. Long after the actors have gone home, I'm still out there with the virtual camera, shooting coverage on the scene. I just have to play the take back. I can do the close up, the wide shot... I can even move them around on a limited basis. We relight it. We do all kinds of things." Now we might finally understand what Cameron is doing in the remaining 16 months, because as he works on the CGI and technology, he can at any moment go back and change the shot or the camera angle or any element of a scene. In essence, he'll be editing the film to perfection the entire time. "When you are doing performance capture, creatively it's very daunting. It's very hard to imagine what it will look like. But if you can see it, if you can have a virtual image of what is it going to be like, then you are there... I'm still doing a lot of virtual camera work on the film ... on stuff that was shot six months ago."
FPR: Some experienced cinephiles might be familiar with the term ADR, which stands for Automated Dialogue Replacement, which is the process of replacing audio in the editing process to fix scenes that have dialogue changes or poorly recorded audio from the shoot. On Avatar, the system Cameron has developed is called Facial Performance Replacement and it's similar to ADR, but for CGI faces. "We changed the words and [actor Laz Alonzo] redid the dialogue. We didn't have to recapture (his body performance) and he didn't have to put the performance capture suit on again. We were just creating new words, and we were creating a new face." Again, referring to the idea that Cameron is simply editing the film for the remaining 16 months, this technology allows him to change dialogue or facial reactions without reshooting any of it.
Simulcam: As an extension of the workflow aspect above, Simulcam is the term they coined for the camera system that simulates the actual CG environment that they're shooting. "We're taking our virtual production toolset and superimposing it on physical production. We turned the set on the soundstage into a capture volume and turned the physical camera into a capture virtual camera, so we were able to integrate CG characters and environments into our live action." Again, this is a concept that's somewhat hard to understand without actually seeing it in person, but it's as if the CG world they've created can be seen by the actors and the director while they're actually shooting it with motion capture suits on. For example, Cameron describes: "We have people in flying vehicles, and I can see what is outside the window, fed in, in real time." If only the Wachowski's could've used this on Speed Racer.
Cameron's goal with the visuals in Avatar has been to create "one movie where the aesthetics of physical production and the aesthetics of virtual production are, to the extent that we could do it, pretty much it identical." From the sounds of it and from the descriptions of the technology they've invented, this definitely sounds like what we'll see next December. If you're salivating for more, be sure to head over to the full Hollywood Reporter article. For now we'll continue to wait until our next update from Cameron and potentially the first teaser, which I hope arrives by year's end. I've said it before and I'll say it again - we are in for one hell of a cinematic experience next December and even 16 months out, it's apparent that Cameron is advancing the technology of cinema so much that we may truly see a real revolution with Avatar.