James Cameron's 'Avatar' creating tech buzz

3-D project using visionary new techniques

With 17 months to go before the release of James Cameron's sci-fi epic "Avatar," his first narrative feature since 1997's "Titanic," anticipation already is enormous. The wildly ambitious project will be made in stereoscopic 3-D and combine live action and computer animation using visionary new filmmaking techniques.

Slated to open Dec. 18, 2009, the production already has been in the works for 2 1/2 years. When completed, Cameron expects "Avatar" to be about 60% CG animation, based on characters created using a newly developed performance capture-based process, and 40% live action, with a lot of VFX in the imagery.

"It is the most challenging film I've ever made," Cameron said.

Still, the innovative filmmaker and digital 3-D pioneer and champion has never shifted his emphasis from storytelling.

"You have to make a good film that would be a good film under any circumstances," he said. "You have to put the narrative first. The reality is no matter how many (3-D) screens we get, you are still going to have a large number of people -- possibly the majority of people -- who see the film in a 2-D environment."

The live-action principal photography for "Avatar" was shot in New Zealand last fall and winter using the Fusion 3-D camera system. Cameron first used the Fusion to make his 2003 Imax 3-D film "Ghosts of the Abyss"; he and "Ghosts" director of photography Vince Pace invented the camera system for the project.

Now, Fusion camera systems are available for rental via Burbank-based 3-D provider Pace, through which president Vince Pace and Cameron continue to innovate and develop the technology. The system already has made its mark, having been used on such pioneering live-action digital 3-D titles as "Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth."

Said Pace: "The systems themselves, in my opinion, can handle any creative challenge. We've learned a lot since shooting 'Ghosts of the Abyss.' "

With "Avatar's" principal photography completed, Cameron is focused on CG production. The helmer said his team has completed the performance capture (sometimes referred to as motion capture) of the actors and is in the post process of performance capture 3-D.

The CG involved a large amount of additional R&D that afforded the director new creative options and flexibility. For one, the film used a new performance capture production workflow.

"The way we developed the performance capture workflow on 'Avatar" is we have our virtual camera, which allows me to, in real time, hold a camera -- it's really a monitor -- in my hands and point it at the actors and see them as their CG chartacters," Cameron said.

The actors wear leotards and a "head rig" with a tiny standard-definition camera that takes an image of an actor's face. "That is going though facial algorithms and going back into the camera as a real-time CG face of the character," the helmer said. "You see it talk; you see the eyes move. It is pretty phenomenal.

"Once we've laid down a take, the take exists in the digital asset management system," he said. "It an be accessed at any time. Long after the actors have gone home, I'm still out there with the virtual camera, shooting coverage on the scene. I just have to play the take back. I can do the close up, the wide shot. ... I can even move them around on a limited basis. We relight it. We do all kinds of things.

"It's this amazing ability to quickly conjure scenes and images and great fantasyscapes that is very visual. We call it 'director centric' because I can use the camera to block the actors," Cameron related. "When you are doing performance capture, creatively it's very daunting. It's very hard to imagine what it will look like. But if you can see it, if you can have a virtual image of what is it going to be like, then you are there. As the processing power goes up our models get more sophisticated and our lighting tools get more sophisticated, even while we are making this movie. I'm still doing a lot of virtual camera work on the film ... on stuff that was shot six months ago."

Cameron also used what he calls FPR, or Facial Performance Replacement, which he likens to the film sound technique of ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement).

To describe the process, the director relates that he recently wanted to redo a line spoken by actor Laz Alonzo. "We changed the words and he redid the dialogue. We didn't have to recapture (his body performance) and he didn't have to put the performance capture suit on again. We were just creating new words, and we were creating a new face."

On the cinematography, Cameron related that his goal was to create "one movie where the aesthetics of physical production and the aesthetics of virtual production are, to the extent that we could do it, pretty much it identical."

Reaching this goal involved development of what Cameron calls the 'Simulcam,' which essentially treats a real camera like the virtual camera and in turn helps to remove guesswork. "We're taking our virtual production toolset and superimposing it on physical production," Cameron said. "We turned the set on the soundstage into a capture volume and turned the physical camera into a capture virtual camera, so we were able to integrate CG characters and environments into our live action."

As an example of how this works, he explained: "We have people in flying vehicles, and I can see what is outside the window, fed in, in real time."

On 3-D, both Cameron and Pace are looking ahead.

"The real question is 'where does all this go?" Cameron said. "Are we looking at a situation maybe 10-15 years out where most laptops are sold with 3-D stereoscopic screens, most montors are stereo compatible, most DVD players can run stereo content? ... I can see this becoming much more pervasive that we are thinking now."

He and Pace believe content is the key.

Pace addressed one last--and not often addressed--aspect of 3-D: The archival value.

"I think back of our shots at Titanic (lensed for "Ghosts of the Abyss"). Those have incredible, future proof, archival value," Pace said. "When we look at (3-D) display devices in the home (which are already becoming available)--a lot of filmmakers and studios need to be making 3-D right now. Those production commitments are often based on the here and now, instead of thinking about how much value there is to this 3-D product in the future. Why not master in 3-D now if there is only an incremental expense? Why not think about that now?"