Avatar – part 2

3D World

James Cameron’s latest film cost in the vicinity of about $500 million dollars. This total seems to include all sorts of costs – from creating the digital assets, to hiring actors, to marketing the film. But any way you cut it, he spent a lot on research and development creating the virtual world and the technology to display it stereoscopically (more on this another day).

Essentially most of the world you see (Pandora) is virtual. That is, it doesn’t exist anywhere except in the computer as digital files. According to Cameron, the film is composed of about 60% CG (computer graphics) and 40% live action. That’s a lot of CG elements that have to end up looking realistic. The more real something has to appear (and the closer it appears on the screen) the more work you have to put into the models and textures. The team at Weta (and others) had to create a lot of digital assets, create a ton of special effects and do a lot of compositing to make Pandora believable.

Designs

I love the designs of both the plants and animals of Pandora. The jungle is an amazing complexity of plant life. I especially like the flying creatures the Na’vi ride. I like how the designers took it to another level by anatomically giving them two sets of wings and breathing holes in the chest area. Nicely done. The horse creatures have the same kind of breathing holes and that fact ties the two creatures to the same biosphere. Overall the plants and animals of Pandora are a delight to the eyes.

I feel the design of the Na’vi was okay. Not the greatest, but not too bad. They weren’t too weird in order that we could still relate to them, but I think that was intentional. I believe they were designed in such a way as to make sure that they didn’t end up in the uncanny valley. Human-like in appearance, but not too human in order for them to still be alien.

Making sure that they were ‘humanoid’ also enabled the designers to copy features from the humans to their ‘avatars’. You can tell when you are looking at Sigourney Weaver’s avatar – it just looks like her. If they had been too non-human then that wouldn’t have been such an easy thing to do. Although I have seen human characteristics transfered to non-humanoid creatures done successfully, consider Draco from Dragon Heart, somehow they made that dragon look like Sean Connery – his voice actor – and still look like a cool dragon.

Animation

All the animals in the movie were well animated. I don’t recall too many times where I got pulled out of the movie by the analytical side of my brain where it screamed about the creatures’ movement being wrong. Unlike the people of Pandora which were brought to life by performance capture technology, the animals had to be animated by hand, and well animated they are!

As for the motion of the Na’vi I must say that the performance capture of both the body and the face worked quite well – they were generally realistic. And most of the time I bought the sales pitch and suspended my disbelief.

When using performance capture, the process involves capturing the motion using motion capture cameras/suits. That data is then massaged by an animator who takes some of the noise out and tweaks the motion to suit the shot. James Cameron and crew came up with newer technology for the facial motion capture. I believe that even with that new technology the facial motion capture wouldn’t have worked as well if the Na’vi had actually been human in appearance. If they had been real humans I think we would have noticed that they were still missing some of the facial nuances and it would still have fallen into the uncanny valley.

As for the general use of motion capture, I think this is a perfect example of when to use motion capture (this and some realistic game animations). When animating a film with caricatured or toony characters you don’t want realistic motion, you want caricatured or toony motion. The same goes for realistic motion. When you have a creature or person that has to fit into a real world you should try to motion capture it. If you can’t motion capture it, like when you have a non-existent, six-legged horse creature, then obviously you get an animator that is good at creating realistic motion to animate it. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t really be using motion performance technology when trying to animate toony characters as in Monster House, Polar Express or Scrooge. But that’s an aside and a pet peeve.

Anyway, congratulations to all the people in all the studios that worked on this film. It’s an incredible amount of work and they pulled it off. The world, the forest, the animals and the alien Na’vi look believable, at least they do to me.

For more details on the technical aspects of making the film check out this link at CGSociety and this link here.

In the next parts I’ll start talking about the stereoscopic aspects of the film, the cinematography, and the story. This is where the movie goes down hill for me…