3D spotlight

'Avatar' is introducing new technologies to 3D production

Three-dimensional movie production is about to enter a whole new world.

The digital format already has proved its commercial appeal as films released this year in 3D have almost universally received a bump at the boxoffice. But as the Dec. 18 opening of James Cameron's inter-stellar adventure "Avatar" approaches, the 3D landscape is heating up on the technology side.

In part, this activity can be attributed to a recent increase in equipment manufacturers working to refine and expand 3D production capacity. Such manufacturers as P+S Technik, Element Technica and Binocle have developed 3D camera rigs, and it is now common to find 3D capabilities in leading postproduction systems, from companies including Avid, Autodesk, DVS, the Foundry and Quantel. Panasonic and Sony also are working on a full line of 3D products, aiming to provide the technology and a cost structure that makes 3D viable.

But the production of "Avatar" is shaping up as a key factor in the evolution of 3D, as the ambitious, $230 million-budgeted live-action/motion-capture film has become a testing ground for several technologies gaining traction in the 3D community.

For instance, the film's live action was lensed using the Fusion 3D camera system, which Cameron invented with Vince Pace, a director of photography on the film. First used to make Cameron's 2003 Imax 3D film "Ghosts of the Abyss," the Fusion rigs -- which can be used with a variety of digital cinematography cameras -- are now available for rental via Pace's Burbank-based 3D provider, which continues to develop the system for other productions.

Fusion has been used on such live-action digital 3D titles as this summer's "The Final Destination" and concert films by Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. Those films benefited from the work done to prepare the camera system for the challenging "Avatar" production.

"This was a very ambitious film," Pace says. "They really became 'Avatar'-specific rigs."

The movie, which is still not quite completed, is expected to be roughly 60% CG, including characters that were animated using new performance capture techniques; and 40% live action with a substantial amount of visual effects elements. Cameron shot the film in Hawaii and New Zealand, where Peter Jackson's Weta handled visual effects. The performance capture was done on a Marina Del Rey stage with the help of advanced technology company Giant Studios.

Insiders in the 3D community have been watching the production because of several innovations on display. The most significant new toy is an algorithm that guides the cinematographer through some of the mathematics of stereo vision.

"It essentially recognizes a focal length and adjusts the controls of the system to provide a starting point," Pace says. He believes this will allow the cinematographer to focus on creative decisions, rather than the technical.

"It will also help minimize the number of bad 3D shots," he adds. "With bad color, you walk away saying, 'That didn't look good.' In stereo, you walk away saying, 'That didn't feel good.' There is a big difference."

Pace and Cameron also tweaked the camera system to make it more manageable for director of photography Mauro Fiore. "The intention was not to have six cameras. It was to have three that could do six different configurations needed to get the job done," Pace explains. "We made some lens and some configuration choices to allow the camera -- this was a big change -- to flip so that whether we wanted it to be hand-held or on a dolly, it was as simple as just inverting the camera."

Meanwhile, Pace president Patrick Campbell developed a balance plate to keep the center of gravity consistent on a Steadicam during the course of the shot. "It was designed so that the Steadicam operator would not feel the movement of the camera rig during the course of a shot," Pace says.

Cameron also developed a new way to marry the performance capture and live-action production. The system, dubbed the Simulcam, allows the user of the Fusion camera system to look into the eyepiece and see the CG elements in real time. This way Cameron could operate the camera as if he was shooting from within the film's virtual world of Pandora.

Pace recalls the first time he was exposed to the Simulcam. It was during a scene in which the lead character Jake (Sam Worthington), a wounded Marine who travels to Pandora as an avatar and meets a race known as the Na'vi, was lying on the ground looking up at Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Pace laid on the ground, pointed the camera upward, and looked into the eyepiece.

"I saw her there, she was looking at me as if I was Jake," he recalls. "I saw a knee in the shot, and I put my knee down, because I thought I was seeing my knee. But the knee was Jake's. From the minute you get behind that eyepiece, you become part of the interaction. It instantly fooled me; I was inside Jake's body."

The "Avatar" team believes the innovations created for the film will influence future productions because they allow filmmakers to forget about the science behind the creativity.

"It's not about technology; it's about philosophy," producer Jon Landau says. "It's more about a window into a world than a world coming out of a window. The goal of 3D is to duplicate human vision."

But Landau also hopes that this movie helps to prompt a shift in thinking about 3D.

"Our goal is to create the most engaging and immersive movie possible," he says. "I think 3D is something that helps you get there. The limiting factor for 3D has been the technology. With digital production you can now have high quality."