'Avatar' Virtual Production Art Director Talks Future of Cinema Tech

Norm Newberry, who'll receive a lifetime achievement honor at the Art Directors Guild Awards, also recalls teaching Tom Hanks how to drive a steam locomotive while working with the actor on Robert Zemeckis' 'Polar Express.'
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
'Avatar'

During a career that has spanned more than four decades, Norm Newberry, 75, who will be honored with a lifetime achievement award at the 22nd annual Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Awards, has tackled increasingly complex challenges, like creating believable simulations of things like a NASA space probe — on a TV budget — on such '70s shows as The Six Million Dollar Man; devising sets for early motion-capture movies like 2004's The Polar Express; and summoning imaginary worlds like Avatar's iridescent Pandora. And with James Cameron, he helped pioneer digital virtual production techniques. Ahead of his honor, Newberry shared secrets of his craft and success.

Your TV work involved envisioning future technology for The Six Million Dollar Man during the '70s. Could you give us an example?

A "Venus Probe" that was supposed to be an unmanned vehicle lifted by NASA to go to Venus, but of course it goes haywire. The challenge was how do you create a piece of machinery that could be built in the special effect shop in a few days that looks like NASA hardware and is easy to function in front of the camera. You also had to figure out how to stretch a [TV] budget — like figuring out how to use a bicycle handle brake as a lever that moves a hand on the Venus Probe. The show was full of those challenges.

Universal must have had 25 TV shows going on at the same time; the SFX shop was completed jammed. And Universal was also doing some big-budget movies at the time. TV wasn’t the priority; almost everything on our show was built on overtime or on weekends.

At first I was kind of embarrassed that I was on the show; I thought it was kind of silly. But then I found out that every kid and engineer that I knew though it was brilliant, so I changed my attitude. It’s still on TV every day.

How did the motion capture on Robert Zemeckis' Polar Express affect the way you worked?

Part of my job was to help the actors understand where they were in this invisible world. I taught Tom Hanks how to drive a steam locomotive; we built what represented all the levers. My grandfather and uncle drove a locomotive, and when I was a kid, my uncle taught me how to drive one, so on Polar Express, they left that detail to me. Tom would call me "conductor." He would say, "Where's the conductor? Show me what I have to do." He said it was the most difficult film he ever worked on — he played five different roles — but he had the most fun.

On Avatar, you had the credit of "virtual production art director." What exactly did that involve?

I was inventing the process along with 100 other people. Avatar used live-action photography and motion capture, so the sets are digital, and it required a different mindset. The director is holding a virtual camera seeing the 3D set. Instead of being built by carpenters and painters, the sets were built by digital artists. Basically, I was managing the digital artists while making sure they delivered what James Cameron wanted onstage and that it worked in the film. You also have to produce a physical reference so the actor's performance matches the digital set.

What was your collaboration with Cameron like?

Very difficult, actually. The man is a genius, and he can really do everybody's job better than they can. He was very gracious and thankful when it was all over, but while it was happening, we were all suffering because we could not anticipate exactly what he was up to. He was way ahead of us.

With Avatar sequels on the way, where is your craft heading?

The future of cinema in the digital world is going to be about refining the ways we work. These tricks will become easier to do; there will be better computer and camera technology that allows us to work faster, simpler and, most important, less costly.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.