Much of the magic of Avatar: The Way of Water that rubs your eyes in disbelief stems from its ability to convincingly blur the practical and digital – and the animators at Wētā FX did such a good job in this department that director James Cameron was often urged to approve shots completely computer generated.
In an exclusive interview with TechRadar, Daniel Barrett, Senior Animation Manager at a New Zealand visual effects company, revealed that he and his team were sometimes forced to ignore Cameron’s desire to keep things as practical as possible to keep things real. some shots.
“There’s a lot of interaction between [Na’vi] characters and spider [played by Jack Champion] in The Way of Water,” explains Barrett, “and getting the contact accuracy you need in a stereoscopic film can be a real challenge. The planning on the set was done to such a high level that many of the takes worked. But there were also times [when they didn’t].
“If you think about those shots where Quaritch brings Spider into the drop zone – it was all pretty much filmed, but we realized pretty quickly that there were parts of Jack’s body that we had to replace with digital ones to make sure we could get in all that contact completed. Our digital doppelgängers have reached a really high level. We had a lot of situations in the movie where we cheated on Jim [Cameron] – where he thought we were practical when we were actually digital.
“We would make a decision: what is the path of least resistance to give Jim back his plate exactly as he shot him? Sometimes the savings were too great not to go digital […] But of course there was still a lot to do there. For the camera team, creating matching movements that are accurate enough to hold up in 3D movies is a real challenge. And they did an amazing job on this movie to reconcile some of these situations for us.
Animation 101 from Wētā FX
As the person whose team was “largely responsible for everything that moves” in The Way of Water, Barrett is one of the few people who can give an informed answer to the question: how the hell did Cameron do it?
If you’ve seen any of the behind-the-scenes footage of the film, you know that the processes involved in bringing Pandora’s entirely fictional world to life on screen must have been incredibly complex. So naturally, we asked Barrett to explain – in plain language – how Wētā turned the likes of Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis into 10-meter-high water-dwelling Na’vi.
“The way we broke it off,” he begins, “there were certain bands for certain sequences, but we also have specialized artists. For example, we have a face team that did the lion’s share of the face work and they sit as a separate department. We have a team of motion editors whose starting point is performance capture data – obviously they’ve done a tremendous amount of work on this video. Then we have the animation team that does a little bit of everything – in charge of all the creatures, vehicles and stuff like that. We also have a crowd team to deal with larger crowds [animations], be it fish, birds or Metkayina in the village. So all these groups of people in the departments we call the field of movement numbered about 150 people at their peak.
“So the motion capture was captured – most of it was done in Lightstorm [studios] – I [the footage] it is then chosen by Jim, whatever he likes,” continues Barrett. “Then it will be transferred to Wētā where it will go through the motion capture team. Data tracking is done in Lightstorm, but we like to re-track it to make sure we maintain all the fidelity and detail in the performances. Then it will go to the motion editing team to start working on the bodies – and sometimes it involves a bit of cleanup [stage]. The motion editing team – and sometimes the animation team – will take care of the parts you can’t capture,” Barrett explains, citing the Na’vi’s fingers and tails as examples.
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“We like the bodies to be almost done before we get to the masks – and as such, there’s a lot of focus on what the head does, as the facial animation will drop if you don’t have a very faithful execution version. Once that’s done, we move on to the face [animations] – although sometimes, if we realize that we have missed something with our head, we have to take it back a step. And it’s more or less a performance capture process, [with regards] to the movement team.
“Of course, apart from us,” adds Barrett, “we’ve done an awful lot of work beforehand in terms of models, character rigging, shading and textures. But once there is movement, the footage goes through an ensemble of creatures that simulate clothing, costume, and hair. And of course we have a very clever lighting team that works its magic, which is always a wonderful thing. Seeing these characters finally rendered… oh, it’s just such a thrill. Work on something that looks a bit like a cartoon, and then see something that looks real. It’s such a pleasure, such a gift.”
Judging by the nearly 2 billion box office receipts of The Way of Water worldwide, viewers enjoy the pleasure as well.
Avatar: The Way of Water is now showing in cinemas around the world.