Creating a 3-D world in Avatar

James Cameron’s Avatar sparked new ways of thinking about making movies. Artists used new digital tools to carry out the performance capture, animation and photorealistic rendering needed to create Avatar.

Designing: Building James Cameron’s new world required a visual tool. The art department and production designers used Photoshop to produce artwork to convince studio heads the project was possible. After Effects was used to place flowing camera moves and dissolves on the still artwork.

Artists used Photoshop for storyboarding and to create very high resolution matte paintings and textures used for the 3-D computer graphics (CG) environments, vehicles and creatures. Thousands of digital images were taken as lighting and texture references, and these were catalogued in databases.

A huge stage was created in Los Angeles where motion captured actors performed live while watching their matching CG creatures on-screen in a virtual world.

Producing: Companies around the world created the movie’s visual effects shots which were 75 per cent of the movie. After Effects was used to create 3-D stereo scenes
for fi nished shots, motion graphics for the 3-D holographic screens seen in the control room and heads-up displays for the vehicles in the film. In one scene, Jake Sully and an offi cer switch to a three-dimensional hologram of the ‘Home Tree’, where the Na’vi people live (see Figure 11.2). Using a green screen across the top of a table, one company modelled the imagined hardware inside the table and added projected graphics of the terrain. These graphics were designed in 2-D in Adobe® Illustrator®, animated in After Effects and rendered in Autodesk® 3ds Max®. They also designed the scr eens for aircraft in Illustrator, and animated them in After Effects. The artist concentrated on animating for one eye and then 3-D images were generated automatically, animating the other eye and creating the correct depth.

Even simple 2-D shots become extremely complicated in stereo 3-D. When subtitling the stereo 3-D versions of the film, the subtitles must sit at the bottom of the screen in 3-D space to avoid interfering with the 3-D content.

Adobe® Acrobat® Connect™ teleconferencing software, was used for collaboration during production, allowing artists to control someone else’s desktop through an ordinary browser.

Rendering: Today’s audiences expect that visual special effects will be loaded with detail. Weta’s character Gollum for Lord of the Rings was the most complex CG for that time, but Avatar has set another benchmark. These effects require large amounts of processing power and must be completed before the next scene commences. Poducing a movie in stereoscopic 3-D makes files even larger.

Servers and render farms for Avatar ran up to 24 hours a day as the deadline neared. These servers contained 40 000 processors and 104 terabytes of RAM and were cooled using water. Tens of thousands of dollars are saved by changing temperature by just one degree.

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Avatar broke many box office records and won three Academy awards.

Home Tree

The three-dimensional hologram of the 'Home Tree'