'Avatar' house is motion-capture Giant

Little-known company is working on large-scale projects

Steven Spielberg had just wrapped six weeks of motion-capture work on his passion project "The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn." Offering a toast to the production crew hired for the highly specialized shoots, the director raised a champagne glass and noted they had helped him squeeze in the most setups in the fewest days of any production in which he had been involved.

"So maybe that tells you how I feel about the experience of working with you all," a beaming Spielberg told the assembled employees of Giant Studios.

The little-known company is tucked away in a commercial patch of West Los Angeles, just north of the Playa Vista campus where Spielberg once aimed to build his own mammoth studio.

Giant is one of a select few stand-alone motion-capture houses working on movies, and it's been singular in the scope of its involvement with some landmark productions. Besides "Tintin," Spielberg's 3D take on the classic Belgian comic strip set for a 2011 release, Giant has made key contributions to Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and 3D holiday perennial "The Polar Express" from Robert Zemeckis, whose own production stages are adjacent to Giant.

But by far its most elaborate work in the burgeoning field has come on James Cameron's long-gestating 3D action fantasy "Avatar," already touted among genre fanboys as a movie likely to alter the public's perceptions about motion capture in particular and filmmaking in general. Cameron and his "Avatar" stages have been housed in a former Hughes Aircraft hangar on the sprawling Playa Vista campus for more than four years.

Working there with Cameron, Giant has executed all of the motion capture since the film was greenlighted by Fox in January 2007. Giant's development work on the project dates to early 2006, several months before Weta Digital signed on to perform final rendering of the captured images and long before Industrial Light + Magic was enlisted to add CGI to final-reel battle scenes.

As far back as 2005, Giant and Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment collaborated on groundbreaking advances in the motion-capture system used in "Avatar." The system is based in part on technology developed during the past decade by Giant's R&D team in Atlanta, where the company was founded in 1999.

The system allows movie directors to frame elaborate virtual-set details in real time in their motion-capture cameras' viewfinders while also tracking actor movements. Cameron is personally lensing "Avatar," forgoing a director of photography.

"Jim frames his shots like live-action shots," Giant production vp Matt Madden said. "This system lets him frame not just the actors but every light, every leaf, every element that he wants in the frame."

Although Giant's work with the industry's most iconic helmers has been creatively and commercially rewarding, its public exposure has been modest.

"We're the little guys behind the curtain," quipped Candice Alger, Giant's Atlanta-based CEO. "But we've worked with them all."

The nimble new camera system created for "Avatar" was an attempt "to give the director more control and, quite frankly, make it a little less intimidating," Alger said.

"Avatar" producer Jon Landau noted that the system wasn't terribly expensive to develop.

"A lot of this stuff existed before, but we have gotten it all to a point where the parts can talk to each other and work together," he said. "We didn't have to write a lot of new software. We were writing plug-ins or code that made software do things that were already there."

The Internet has been abuzz about supposed record production costs on "Avatar," though Fox and Lightstorm reps insist such estimates are exaggerated. A studio spokesman said pic costs will total $227 million, but final rendering and pickup shots are still in progress.

Giant is known for its ability to deliver novel services at a fair price.

"People tend to make a decision to go to Giant because of their real-time solution and because they're cost-effective," said Demian Gordon, chairman of the L.A.-based Motion Capture Society. "Giant has been involved in enough projects that their technology has been pushed as a result. They haven't changed their underlying hardware much, but they have changed their software and really built something streamlined for filmmakers. They're kind of the little company that could."

For all of Giant's work on big, effects-driven films, the work on "Avatar" has made a big impression on those involved in the potentially watershed production. Cameron already is mulling a couple more motion-capture projects that could quickly follow in the wake of "Avatar," set for a Dec. 17 release by Fox.

"Working on this has been a life-changing event for everyone involved," Alger said.

A 24-minute assemblage of "Avatar" scenes was screened to theater operators at the recent Cinema Expo in Amsterdam, and similar footage will be shown next week at Comic-Con in San Diego.

From the clips shown, it appears "Avatar" will be more thickly layered with image detail than anything previously produced through motion capture, thanks in no small measure to Weta's state-of-the-art final rendering. The film's three-dimensional imagery is introduced by brief live-action scenes at the beginning of the pic before Sam Worthington's titular character enters Pandora, a fantasy world of floating mountains and 1,000-foot trees.

"To see the finished imaging with the shading and light and such -- well, we were relieved to see how well it all worked," Alger said. "Jim was very impressed. And he's a tough guy, you know."