Much of the eye-rubbing-in-belief magic of Avatar: The Way of Water comes from its ability to convincingly blur the practical and the digital, and the animators at Wētā FX did such a good job in that department that the director James Cameron was often tricked into approving completely CGI shots.
In an exclusive interview with TechRadar, Daniel Barrett, a senior animation supervisor at the New Zealand-based visual effects company, revealed that he and his team were sometimes forced to sidestep Cameron’s desire to keep things as practical as possible. possible to maintain the realism of certain shots.
“There’s a lot of interaction between the characters (Na’vi) and Spider (played by Jack Champion) in The Way of Water,” Barrett explains, “and getting the kind of contact precision you need on a stereoscopic movie can be quite an experience.” “. challenge. The planning on set was done at such a high level that many of those takes worked. But there were also times (when they didn’t).
“If you think about those shots where Quaritch takes Spider to the drop zone, that was pretty much all one take, but we quickly realized that there were elements of Jack’s body that we needed to replace with a digital one to make sure we could get all that contact done. Our digital doubles reached a really high level. We had a lot of situations in the movie where we cheated on Jim (Cameron), where he thought we were practical, and in fact, we were digital.
“We would make the decision: what is the path of least resistance to return Jim his plate exactly as he shot it? And sometimes the savings were too great not to go digital (…) But obviously there was still a lot of work to be done there. For the camera crew to create movements that are precise enough to play 3D movies, there’s a real challenge in that. And they did an amazing job on this movie to reconcile some of those situations for us.”
Animation 101 with Wētā FX
As someone whose team was “largely responsible for everything that moves” in The Way of Water, Barrett is among the few people who can give an informed answer to the question: how the hell did Cameron pull this off?
If you’ve seen any of the film’s behind-the-scenes featurettes, you’ll know that the processes involved in bringing the entirely fictional world of Pandora to life on screen must have been mind-bogglingly complex. So, naturally, we asked Barrett to explain, in layman’s terms, how Wētā turned the likes of Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis into 10-foot water-dwelling Na’vi.
“The way we divided it up,” he begins, “there were certain teams for certain sequences, but we also have specialist artists. So, for example, we have a facial team, which did most of the facial work, and they sit as a separate department. We have a motion editing team whose starting point is performance capture data; obviously, they did a tremendous amount of work on this film. Then we have the animation team, who do a little bit of everything: they are responsible for all the creatures, vehicles and the like. And we also have a crowd team, which deals with the largest crowd (animations), whether it is fish or birds or Metkayina in a village. So all of those groups of people, in those departments of what we call the realm of the movement, totaled about 150 at our peak.
“So, the motion capture is captured, most of it was done in Lightstorm (studios), and then Jim selects (the footage), whatever he wants,” Barrett continues. “Then he will deliver himself to Wētā, where he arrives via motion capture equipment. Data tracking is done in Lightstorm, but we like to re-track to make sure we maintain all the fidelity and detail of performances. That will then go to the motion editing team, who start working on the bodies, and sometimes there’s a bit of cleanup involved in that (scenario). The motion editing team, sometimes the animation team as well, will take care of the parts you can’t capture,” Barrett explains, giving Na’vi fingers and tails as examples.
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“We like the bodies to be fairly finished before moving on to the facials, and in that sense, a lot of attention is paid to what the head is doing, because the facial animation will fail if you don’t have an exact version of the performance. Once that’s done, we move on to facial (animations), although sometimes if we realize we’ve missed something with our head, we have to go back a step. And that’s pretty much the process for performance capture, (as far as) the motion team.
“Obviously, beyond us,” Barrett adds, “there’s a lot of work done before in terms of the models, character builds, shading and textures. But once the movement is there, the footage cycles through the team of creatures, simulating clothing, costumes, and hair. And then of course we have a very smart lighting team doing their magic, which is always a wonderful thing. Seeing these characters finally rendered… oh, it’s so exciting. Having been working on something that looks a bit cartoonish and then seeing something that looks real. It is a pleasure, a gift.
Judging by The Way of Water’s global box office receipts of nearly $2 billion, audiences are enjoying the treat, too.
Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theaters around the world.