22 December 2009

Making of the Avatar – Technology milestones

The recently released movie ‘Avatar’ has left its viewers spell-bound by the visualization and rendering of a remote world populated by natives who live in harmony with the bio-luminescent natural world around them. Avatar is a major technological milestone in the marvel of film-making technology.

Is there a reason why the ‘Avatar’ is touted as the greatest Sci-Fi films of all time in 3D, and there also must exist an understanding of the estimated production budget of 237million $ in making it. Most viewers have exclaimed at Pandora’s landscape and its diverse life-forms both plants and animals species. The technological mix of real actors and computer-generated images has been brilliantly executed that we hardly seem to notice a difference.

Through Digital Oman, let us explore the sophistication in film making that has made it possible to present the ‘Avatar, leaving us in complete obscurity of what is real versus what is generated and how it has been achieved.

The humans colonize the virgin land of Pandora, ironically in the search of a rare material called the ‘Unobtainium’. Here they wage a war against the local inhabitants called the Na’vi, who have exceptional sensory skills in understanding the ecological balance of their extraordinary world and its animal and plant species.

Through a genetic program that combines the DNA of the humanoids and that of the Na’vi, hybrid humanoids called the ‘Avatar’ are reared to penetrate into the Na’vi community and learn their secrets. The Na’vi and the Avatar are computer generated 3dimensional characters, 3meters tall with bio-luminescent blue skin and incredible strength and acumen.

CGI characters
Both the Na’vi and the Avatars are computer-generated imagery (CGI) that is digitally manipulated by originals artists who portray their characters in a studio environment. In addition 3D computer graphics software are used to simulate the imaginary landscapes of the land of Pandora.

The Na’vi and the Avatars characters created with CGI were seamlessly integrated, along with real actors in studio settings into live action scenes. The primitive version of this setting was achieved through stop-motion animation where character-models were moved frame-by-frame and individually photographed to show the illusion of continuous motion.

Digital 3D technology
While hitherto cameras did exist to make 3-D films, the making of the Avatar has resulted in the invention of an agile 3-D camera system for 3 dimensional cinematography. James Cameron the director of the ‘Avatar’ used his own Reality Camera System that employs two high-definition cameras in a single camera body to create depth perception in 3-D.

This camera rig is significantly lighter and the two camera lenses can dynamically converge on a focal point with the help of a computer, which is crucial for sweeping camera moves and action sequences.

While the movie’s 2-D version can be seen even in an ordinary theatre the 3D version requires special 3D projection facilities and the audience are also required to wear polarized glasses for viewing in 3D. Those who wish to understand the complete process of making a3-D films from camera to projection and viewing can read more about it at http://tinyurl.com/yly4jgk.

3-D Animation
The models of the Avatar and the Na’vi are sculpted in varying levels of details just like a puppet with several movable joints and parts. These joints or movable part may even be finer facial muscles that cause a smile or smirk and not just bendable hands and legs.

Now these joints or movable parts can be managed through various controllers manually or those driven by computer software that feeds in motion inputs. Now 3D animation combines computer generated images along with these models and programmed movement to create live action.

For example the talking lion of the movie ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ had over 740 controllers just for facial expressions. Similarly the 2005 version of the King Kong Gorilla owed its realistic human-like expressions, to these inputs taken from the real expressions of the actor Andy Serkis.
Well if 3D is going to be the future of movies, now the question comes as to how to generate these animation inputs that have to be very realistic. The answer lies in the ‘performance capture’ technology.

Performance capture
The CGI characters need to act and behave like real actors and this has been made possible by the ‘performance capture’ technology. Through this technique, inputs taken from real human actions of ‘Sam Worthington’ and ‘Zoe Saldanha’ in the studio settings are fed as input for computer animations of ‘Jake Sully’ and ‘Neytiri’ respectively.

Motion capture is a technique by which live actions of real actors are recorded to be the inputs that control and manipulate a digital 3D character model. When it goes beyond simple hand, legs, head and body movements to capture subtle facial expressions and finger gestures, then this is called as total performance capture.

Imagine Sam’s fearful expression being shown on his avatar, when he encounters Pandora’s wild life and Zoe’s gentle touch of her pet – ikran the Banshee, captured as Gigabytes of data per second of action through their skull caps and leotards covered in sensors.

Sam and Zoe work in an empty studio amidst grids so that their performance could be recorded by sensor-based digital capture systems. Later they are replayed on to the models of Jake and Neytiri. Read more from the director’s interview with the BusinessWeek at http://tinyurl.com/ypfh82.

Pandora the mythical Utopia
Pandora is a distant moon civilized by the Na’vi amid its exotic luminescent living forms. Knowing very well that 3ft and hanging mountains can’t be real, it is impossible to dissect what could be real from sets and what is animated in the entire movie. The studio shoots are done in a 16K Sq.ft film set with a green paint on its inside walls.

While most actions takes place in this set-up Pandora, the action scenes are shot amidst a computer-generated lush jungle environment in New Zealand with real actors, robotic animals and plant species. James Cameron’s stereoscopic cameras that each use a pair of lenses built to mimic human eyes capture images with a sense of depth. The mix happens later in digital studios where shoots are merged and appropriate sound effects are added.

Key message
Despite the splendid visuals and simple screen-play, James Cameron - the writer-director-producer of Avatar has a key message in general: ‘Pandora as a world that harbors treasures and resources almost beyond price and just as the original Pandora’s Box wrought devastation on those who would use it for their own gain, so too this world may destroy not just the Na’vi’s home, but ours as well’.


Dullister said...

Good stuff! It certainly deserves to be one of the greatest Sci-fi films of all-time.

Shamrez Zack said...

This post doubled over the limit urge to watch this tech spectacle...

A very informative post..

Keep writing, keep enlightening..

Essence Oman said...

Allow me to thank you first for the last two links cause they just put a smile on my face and reminded me of the whole essence of the movie last night, feelings and goose bumps. Magical world. I swear I could feel it all over again now by just seeing the pictures of Pandora and Nytiri.

I must say, I admire the prospective you are writing behind your article. Unlike other articles I mostly read or googled after watching this brilliant movie. Most spoke about the movie, story, actress but I read something different with you. The Technology and IT behind it. It is Amazing!!! I mean I don’t know how could they have the patience to do such a thing in such a way!! The amount of technology invested in this is simply brilliant!!! Well im surprised I actually understood your article lool too many computerized, digital words to me.

I thank you so much for sharing this and I thank you more for the information behind it. Informative Article.

I can now go brag in front of my sis about the cool info I know that she dosent about the movie ;)

keep sharing your thoughts

Anonymous said...

makes me want to join the Q in Shatti

Sangeetha Sridhar said...

Dullister: Tks for dropping a line :)

Shamrez: U got to see this movie twice based on yr comment, have fun!

EssenceOman: U had an exclusive preview for this; nice comments and tks for taking your time to post:)

YnoTo Oman: Hope u have seen it by now; what's your experience?

Bobby said...

Nice post and thanks for the info
I was so much lost in Pandora's wold that I (confess) literally starting cry'g when they starting felling trees...
Later, my frndz and me (as zoology students) discussed the process of the possible evolution of those animals...for the whole night!

Cute nemesis said...

An awesome post. Through pandora James is showing us the importance of nature & how we humans destroy it..Awesome post.. keep writting

alfred said...

We have always said that in terms of technology, there is nowhere else to go but forward. And move forward is exactly what renowned Hollywood director James Cameron did in his latest venture, Avatar.

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