A peek behind Avatar's curtain

Ars Technica writes that a ‘city of geniuses’ worked on Avatar. The credits read like a who’s who of the special effects industry. WETA, Industrial Light and Magic are only two more well-known example of the many effects houses that have worked on making this movie a reality over  the past decade.

In a strong testament to the power of dreams and what having a lot of money can do,  James Cameron’s Avatar is populated with a host of cutting-edge technology. Some, like HD, have matured over the years, while others, like 3D, remain on the bleeding edge of movie-making.  For the techie, the science behind Avatar is nothing short of amazing.

Most noticeable of which is the process that went into animating the 10-feet tall Na’vi of Pandora.  Through what Cameron prefers to call ‘performance capture’, the actors acted out all their scenes in huge sound-stages filled with cameras and gear.  Departing from the wholly hand-animated expressions of Gollum, with clear intent on traversing the ‘Uncanny Valley’, Avatar’s Na’vis were animated with the aid of cameras on head rigs that captured the actors facial expressions all the time. These custom-made setup allowed  the animators a complete set of reference data to capture every quirk and nuance and reproduce the actors performance believably.

But facial expressions only account for so much in an action film. There are fight scenes and explosions galore in Avatar, both live-action and computer generated. To allow the director a preview of the end product while shooting the actors live,  the production employed the use of Simulcams.  Simulcams allow the director to follow a virtual character captured through motion capture in a live-action setting in real-time. Through the use of many HD cameras in every angle conceivable, the makers were able to experiment and shoot as if they were in the animated world of Pandora.

And 3D. Many still consider 3D a gimmick. Probably aware of its reputation, the makers of Avatar chose a different tact when using 3D. Instead of throwing spears at the audience,  the special effects team chose to use depth of field and play with focus to replicate how the eye views the world. The aim is for the viewer’s total immersion in the screen worlds. Roger Ebert, renowned critic, writes, “Cameron's use of 3-D is the "best I've seen -- and more importantly, one of the most carefully-employed.The film never uses 3-D simply because it has it."

Critics may hate Avatar for not having a strong story, but no one will remember Avatar for its plot. The movie reveals the new horizons in movie-making, as movies like ‘Star Wars’ have done in the past, and will inspire countless film-makers to reconsider what is possible. As the Huffington Post puts in, from here on movies will either be B.A. (before Avatar) or A.A. (after Avatar).  The millions of dollars poured into the making of this movie will continue to spillover and the technology will affect many fields, and not just movie-making.  For this, Avatar will remain a landmark in movie history.

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