'Avatar' win marks 4th Oscar for effects guru

Joe Letteri previously won for two 'Rings' films, 'King Kong'

For senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, partner at VFX house Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand, "Avatar" marked his fourth trip to the Academy Awards stage in the past decade.

Having won for "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" and "King Kong," Letteri still was excited as he accepted the visual effects Oscar.

" 'Avatar' is a film about learning to see the world in new ways, and for that extraordinary inspiration I have to thank our director, James Cameron," he said.

Over the course of the four films, Letteri has proved that few can match his skill at turning inspiration and vision into onscreen reality. He pioneered the use of performance capture and related techniques to create believable CG characters. His tragic Gollum in "Lord of the Rings," performed by Andy Serkis, was a milestone in animated characters, and Letteri followed up that accomplishment with the remarkable Kong in "King Kong," also acted by Serkis.

Humans remain the greatest challenge, and many CG practitioners have jokingly referred to their struggle to cross the disconnect know as the "Uncanny Valley." That is when a CGI or motion-capture character looks essentially realistic but not quite human, leaving viewers with characters that appear disconcertingly creepy.

Letteri said his team tried to get closer to conquering the challenge with "Avatar," though he acknowledged that though the performance-captured, CG Na'vi of Pandora resemble humans, they also still are stylized.

"These characters were almost human, but not quite," he said. "So there was a nice chance to break that barrier of believability. The next time you see that, a lot is going to depend on the design. Are you going to try to apply these same technique to a human character or something that is slightly alien or slightly stylized? It depends on the story."

Asked whether he thinks a believable human is within reach, Letteri said: "I think it is possible to do a human, especially in really short bursts. But a full, sustained performance is still pretty difficult. We tried to hit that with 'Avatar.' The mouth on each of the characters was very close to the actor's mouth. With the eyes -- even though they were exaggerated -- we still tried to maintain all the human qualities.

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"We did a lot of that with Gollum and Kong, but a lot of that was by hand, using keyframe animation" he said. "The breakthrough with 'Avatar' is that we were able to track the eyes. So a lot of what we are seeing for the eyes was directly the actors' performance, more so than what we were able to do in the past."

The "Avatar" win for visual effects also is the second Academy Award for Stephen Rosenbaum, who won for "Forrest Gump." It was the second nom and first win for Andrew R. Jones, who was nominated for "I, Robot," and it was the first Academy Award nom and win for Richard Baneham.