Avatar: behind the scenes at Weta Digital

CNET Australia takes you behind the scenes of the Avatar Extended Edition and looks at some of the innovations made by the film makers.

Ty Pendlebury
1 of 26 20th Century Fox

New Zealand may be known as the home of Lord of the Rings, but you may not know that it is also the unofficial birthplace of Avatar.

You see, Peter Jackson's Weta Workshop in Wellington is behind the special effects of films such as Heavenly Creatures and Prince Caspian. But more famously, it has produced the effects in both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and now Avatar. In fact, the company was working up until July 2010 to finish work on the Extended Edition of the Avatar Blu-ray.

Weta not only produced the effects for the film, but most of the live-action sequences were also shot in its New Zealand studios.

To celebrate the release of the Avatar Extended Collector's Edition, CNET Australia was taken behind the scenes at Weta studios to witness how the movie was made. As this extensive photo gallery shows, we were taken through each step of the process — from motion capture through to the finished product.

Avatar writer/director James "Jim" Cameron and producer Jon Landau (above right) chose Weta to work on the movie following the group's work on The Return of the King.

Weta Digital's director Joe Letteri (above left) said he received a call from the director the night after the movie scooped the pool at the 76th Academy Awards. This conversation would lead to a collaboration that would flourish over the next five years.

Letteri said Avatar had a very detailed pre-production process, part of which involved creating incredibly detailed computer models. For example, he said Gollum from Lord of the Rings was made up of 5,000 polygons, while even a single plant in Avatar consisted of a million polygons.

As a result, he said it wasn't until three years after project began that the company had any finished footage for the director to see.

"But when Jim saw this he said 'Maybe this movie won't suck after all'," Letteri quipped.

Ty Pendlebury flew to Wellington as a guest of 20th Century Fox.

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Richard Taylor, co-founder and creative director of Weta Workshop, stands here holding one of the guns from Avatar. Some of the Weta-produced guns were fitted with reticulating saw motors so it appeared they were "firing" when triggered.

Richard Taylor said the production had such a long gestation period because of the amount of detail that Cameron wanted to go into — he even tasked Weta with creating a social structure for the Na'vi which would go on to inform all of the props.

Taylor said that even though most of the props would be digital, Cameron insisted the company make full-scale versions of baskets, jewellery, eating implements and even garments to serve as models for their digital counterparts.

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An Amnio Tank in-situ at Weta Workshop: this is where the Na'vi avatars are "born". The tank was built onsite, but only afterwards did the company realise James Cameron intended it to be filled with water!

The Weta Workshop is where most of the props for Weta productions are made, and the walls are decorated with sets from past movies and private projects: a Kong bust playing with a globe; a giant 1:1 scale Panzer tank in plastic kit form; dinosaur skulls; and a huge bronze statue of a bygone aviator.

Blocking the entrance to the workshop was a scale steam train being tended to by Richard Taylor's father who told us trains was a hobby the two of them shared.

The workshop is also home to the Warthog vehicle built for a Halo movie which never materialised. Alex Falkner, a props maker for Weta (and Avatar extra), fired the engine up and told us it was "the single best piece of promo material we've ever made".

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Instead of computer animating the Na'vi, the creators of Avatar used a technique known as "motion capture" which helps to create more natural-looking characters.

Each motion capture actor dresses in a black jumpsuit covered with reflective panels. Each actor has a different splash colour on their suit so the director and animators can tell them apart.

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While much of the motion-capture was actually shot in Los Angeles, the studio it was shot in resembles this one on the Weta lot. The studio you see here is relatively new and is the home of the new Tintin movies.

While this mocap studio is soundproofed, according to Weta staff the original studio where the live action portions of Avatar was shot isn't soundproof. This is a problem because Weta is quite close to the airport, and in a bid to reduce noise intruding on takes we were told that Weta employed "spotters" to sit on the hills surrounding the studio and alert the crew when a plane was about to fly overhead!

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The performance space, or "volume", is surrounded with sensors including 70 infra red cameras which detect the markers on the actors. Unlike other studios, "occlusion" or blocking by actors or other objects isn't a problem as the high number of sensors easily capture all of the actors' movements. This also means that crew members can be present in the volume without interfering with the capture process. This is especially helpful for one James Cameron's main innovations....

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One of the techniques pioneered by James Cameron in Avatar was the "virtual camera". It works like a normal camera except that instead of capturing "images" it transforms the actors on the stage into their "avatars" in real time. It enables the operator to "shoot" new footage when moving around the actors at the time or even after filming by physically walking though past takes.

"The virtual camera came out of Jim's idea of wanting to break down the barrier between live action film-making and digital film-making," said Jon Landau. "So when you're working with actors on a performance capture stage you're obviously seeing them because they're there on the stage, but what you really want to be seeing is their characters in the world."

"So the virtual camera allows the director to pick up the camera, aim it and see not Sam and Zoe, but Jake and Neytiri. Not a bunch of stands and props and things, but actual jungle and the floating mountains of Pandora. It puts the director in the middle of the digital film-making process," he said.

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Like the actors, the virtual camera is marked with reflective tape so that the system knows where it is pointing at any time. It then transmits the 3D 'view' to the camera's viewfinder which can be stored for use later. Many of the shots from Avatar were captured in this way by the director himself.

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The view that the director sees via the viewfinder is called the 'template' and is a product of the sensors' output with basic textures overlaid on top. The Extended Edition enables users to watch the entire movie in template mode if they wish.

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In addition to sensors, the Avatar shoot employed headmounted cameras that enabled the director to capture the actors' facial expressions. As Jon Landau put it, this enables film makers to capture "not only the motion, but also the emotion of the performance".

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Avatar producer Jon Landau says motion capture gives film makers a lot of flexibility with actor choice.

"People ask, 'Oh, you're looking to replace the actor?' No, we're looking to preserve the actor. We're looking to allow them to play roles they could not otherwise play. You're not going to recreate Marilyn Monroe. You might create a model of Marilyn Monroe that another actress can drive," he said.

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The information received by the various cameras is transformed into a basic wire-frame of each actor.

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The wireframe is then converted to a "skinned" model (top), which in the case of Avatar was a 8-foot tall bidepal cat. (Bottom) This is what the sensor sees.

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Jed Brophy (front) has appeared in several Weta productions including the Lord of the Rings trilogy and he said motion capture is like getting paid to be a kid all day.

"You have to remember that everywhere you went on the set so that you can match each take, and in that respect it's just like live action shooting. It is kind of weird wearing this suit all day but you get the point where you don't want to take it off," he said.

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The virtual camera operator follows the actors under a table.

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The view from the camera as shown on screens around the room. The "set" you see here is the schoolhouse which appears in the Avatar Extended Edition.

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Like the actors and virtual camera, props also need to be marked so they can be tracked.

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If props are not marked, as in the case of this table, strange things can happen — such as the actors appearing to float in mid-air.

But at the end of the day, motion capture is nothing without special effects to back it up.

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In his work at Weta Digital, Joe Letteri created a new technique called sub-surface scattering. The term describes the way light interacts with semi-transparent textures such as skin and eyes. It was used first to detail the Gollum character from LOTR and was used extensively in Avatar.

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An early example of facial motion capture from King Kong. Actor Andy Serkis' face is covered with silver dots, but recent developments have meant the number of dots needed has significantly lessened and changed from silver baubles to dabs with a green pen.

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One of the major developments in motion capture is with 3D facial scanning. Here you can see 3D models of Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington. According to the Weta staff, both actors enjoyed the scanning process.

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To scan an actor's face, the actor sits inside the scanner and is told to move certain muscles at a time — raise their eybrows or purse their lips, for example.

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The animators then use combinations of these movements to create emotions which correspond to the actor's performance on the motion cap stage. In this case, the animators are altering the Avatar's face to resemble a smile.

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Not all of the facial animations are human. This bare-toothed snarl was based on a hissing cat.

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In its work Weta uses several different software programs to create its special effects. The company uses PCs running Linux and most animation is done using Maya. To complement this, the company created its own software including Mari, which is used to "skin" characters and monsters using scans of rubber molds taken from actors. Mari lets animators use skin like a brush to coat each of their figures.

The animators also make use of a program called Massive which is primarily used to populate large crowd scenes with creatures. During the making of Avatar, Massive was also put to work creating other complicated tasks such as modelling the many water effects.

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