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NAB: 'Avatar 2' Producer Talks Underwater Performance Capture in Keynote

UPDATED: Jon Landau also discusses high frame rates and the state of the VFX business.

James Cameron & Jon Landau
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images
James Cameron, left, and Jon Landau

LAS VEGAS -- Oscar-winning producer Jon Landau revealed that production of Avatar sequels would include underwater performance capture Sunday during a keynote conversation at the NAB Technology Summit on Cinema.

“We have kept a team of digital artists on from Avatar in order to test how we can create performance capture underwater,” he said. “We could simulate water [in computer graphics], but we can't simulate the actor's experience, so we are going to capture performance in a tank.”

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“We are looking at [techniques including] what we did before with reflective markers,” he said, adding that another important task is “how we record reference photography so that as we are going through the editorial process and the postproduction workflow, we can see what the actors did and make sure that the final performance up on screen represents that.”

Debunking rumors linking director James Cameron’s 2012 dive to the Challenger Deep with filming of Avatar, Landau asserted, “He is an explorer. … Yes they filmed. It had nothing to do with Avatar.”

He explained that as they approach the Avatar sequels, “We want to take advantage of the technology that people are putting out there to make the next two movies more engaging and visually tantalizing, and wrap up the story arc of our two main characters."

As part of that effort, high frame rates are being explored for the sequels though a final choice has not yet be determined. “It is a better experience for the audience,” Landau said of high frame rates, making a case for offering choices to filmmakers. “Nobody should dictate to a filmmaker whether they should make films at 24, 48 or 60fps since the technology now exists and can be presented with the same cinema equipment.”

Landau applauded Peter Jackson for his use of HFRs on The Hobbit. “What Peter Jackson presented, is what Peter Jackson wanted to present,” he said. “Audiences went to The Hobbit expecting the same tone as the Lord of the Rings films, but The Hobbit is a different film with a different story and a different tone, and Peter Jackson made absolutely the right creative choice [in shooting 48fps] for him and should be respected for that.”

“3D is evolutionary not revolutionary, and it will take time to come to market. But look at Russia and China, where the 3D screens market is phenomenal. In emerging markets, communities are going to theaters for the first time and are experiencing film in 3D – that's what they think of as a cinema experience. To show them a 2D presentation is a step back for them.”

He also emphasized his and Cameron's belief in photographing in 3D. “[Conversion] will never be a comparable choice to native 3D shooting,” he declared. “As good as conversion can get, it's two and three quarters 3D and never true 3D.”

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As the Avatar sequels are being prepared, Landau and Cameron are exploring new immersive sound systems at their Lightstorm Entertainment at Manhattan Beach Studios. “Our machine room on the next Avatar looks like a NASA machine room with media stored on two continents for protection,” Landau said.

While discussing technical advancements, Landau kept the focus on his true goal. “Let's not lose sight of why people go to the movies,” he said. “They don't watch for technology they watch because they make an emotional connection to a story.”

Landau also addressed the troubled visual effects business that recently saw the bankruptcy and subsequent sale of Rhythm & Hues. “There has to be an acknowledgement that there is a democratization of technology,” he said, pointing out that small VFX companies now have access to tools and technologies used at larger facilities. “Rhythm & Hues is fantastic, but they are a big robust company. These companies have to adapt, where not only do they have the best people, but deliver the work at a price that is at least competitive.”

During his visit to NAB, Landau also pointed out that archiving is in a state of flux. Describing this as “very big issue,” he asked, “how do we archive everything that we have today, now that we are not on film anymore?

“We are trying to stay as current as possible with the digital technology and continually roll over our assets to the latest formats. I don think anyone can tell you today how to archive what we shot for 100-plus years. I don't think we know the answer.”