Avatar: Capturing Emotion

Avatar Avatar Avatar Avatar Avatar
With the actors working tirelessly to incorporate all these physical, linguistic, and emotional nuances that were central to their characters and to James Cameron’s vision, the filmmaker was determined to capture it all in the actors’ computer generated incarnations
Worthington and the other actors found it liberating to be working on the bare stage known as the Volume, while wearing special performance capture suits and headgear. “We embraced the performance capture and had a lot of fun with it,” says actor Sam Worthington, who plays the lead. “Even though Jake’s avatar is ten feet tall and blue, it has my personality and soul. It’s spectacular that Jim can do that.
“Performance capture is incredibly freeing,” Worthington continues. “You can’t hide, so every take has to be truthful. At first it’s a little nerve-wracking, but you forget you’re wearing headgear and a few hundred dots on your face.”
“You wonder if you’ll have the mental capacity to look at the gray, stark performance capture stage, and see a humongous snake or a lush forest,” adds Laz Alonso. “I mean, the Volume is as drab as you can get. But thanks to Jim’s direction, performance capture and the virtual camera, something great starts happening – you really start to see these animals and this incredible environment. You get so deep into this world that you start seeing, smelling, hearing, and feeling Pandora.”
Joel David Moore says the way the Volume sparked the imagination reminded him of a back-to-basics approach to acting. “Working on the performance capture stage takes you back to the old theater days,” he explains. “All you’d have [on the theater stage] is a wall, a table, and some chairs. You had to imagine everything else.”
Another revolutionary advance was the virtual camera, which not only made the CG work director-centric and performance-centric, it created a new production paradigm that gave Cameron the unprecedented ability to actually see an actor’s CG character – and the CG environments – in camera, as he worked with the actors in the Volume. “The virtual camera allowed Jim to direct actors in an immediacy never before possible. At the same time, actors get a much better feel for their CG character because they get to see the CG scene and environments almost immediately, instead of having to wait months- for the effects house to deliver the shots,” explains Landau. The in-camera CG imagery had only the resolution of a video game; but after Cameron completed filming and editing a specific sequence, WETA would then work on it for months to create the final, high-resolution photographic images. In effect, each shot was created twice; once with Cameron in the Volume, and again after WETA completed its months-long work finishing the shot.
The virtual camera, which resembles a videogame controller with a video monitor attached, is not really a camera at all because it doesn’t even have a lens; instead, it emulates a camera as it is “fed” the CG images by a bank of state-of-the-art computers surrounding the Volume. A small screen on the device displays the CG image fed to it by these computers.
This allowed Cameron to shoot the action from any angle or approach, giving him unprecedented spontaneity, flexibility and options on the virtual production stage. “For example, Jim could tell us to create a five-to-one scale in vertical,” says WETA’s Stephen Rosenbaum. “And when he moves the camera, instead of moving it three feet, it’s a 15-foot crane move, in real time. In effect, Jim could turn the camera crew into a team of 10-foot-tall Na’vi.”
“Long after the actors had gone home, I would still be in the Volume with the virtual camera, shooting coverage on the scene,” says Cameron. “Just by playing back the take, I can get the scene from different angles. We can re-light it. We can do all sorts of things.”
“It’s filmmaking on a different level – like comparing grade school to a doctoral program at M.I.T.,” says Laz Alonso.
Another groundbreaking tool in Cameron’s “toolbox” was the Simul-Cam, which integrated, in real time, CG characters and environments into the film’s live action Fusion camera eyepiece. The technology essentially treats a photographic camera like the virtual camera, taking the virtual production toolset and superimposing it on the physical production. “The ability to shoot on a live action set and see in your camera eyepiece CG characters and environments that are not there, allowed Jim to shoot that scene with the same sensibility he would a live action scene,” explains Landau.