Performance-capture technology elevated 'Avatar'

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“Avatar” digital makeup artists used a more advanced computer system along with miniature head-mounted cameras to capture the nuances of the actors’ faces.

Most people don’t think of makeup as a cutting-edge discipline, but in the aftermath of “Avatar,” it has gained recognition as a critical component of performance-capture technology.

Lots of attention has been lavished on the film’s breakthrough editing, which digitally stitched together performances from different takes, and on its cinematography, which seamlessly combined live-action and CGI. But it was “digital makeup” that helped make possible the human-like facial expressions and emotions of Pandora’s inhabitants.

The technique isn’t new, but “Avatar” advanced it to a new level. The film’s makeup department head, Tegan Taylor, has used it on films dating back to 2004′s “The Polar Express.” By now she’s built up enough experience to qualify as the makeup queen for 3D performance capture.

Unlike traditional film makeup, which prepares actors for photography, Taylor prepares them for their roles by applying hundreds of reflective dots onto their faces, allowing their emotional expressions to be fed into the computer software that renders the animated images.

Her art has evolved. On “Polar Express” she and her team painstakingly applied hundreds of reflective beads on each actor’s head to help capture facial data. “Avatar” used a more advanced computer system along with miniature head-mounted cameras to capture the nuances of the actors’ faces. For that film Taylor replaced the beads with a phosphorescent paint she had to invent. “Nothing existed on the market,” she says.

No sooner was “Avatar” complete than Taylor ported the same techniques to “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” a 3D opus helmed by Steven Spielberg set for release in late 2011. The film is now in post-production, with Weta Digital handling the digital fx, as it did for “Avatar.” Weta topper, Peter Jackson, is a producer of the film, along with Spielberg, and is in line to helm the sequel.

“Weta was in the room with us,” says Taylor, referring both to “Avatar” and “Tintin.” “My job as department head was to make sure all their needs were being met.” She also had to balance Weta’s requirements with the concerns of “high-profile actors like Sigourney Weaver, making sure she is comfortable and the products I’m using are compatible with her skin. That’s one of the fine lines we walk.”

Taylor, who trained as a traditional makeup artist 20 years ago, continues to develop her own digital makeup products – or “potions,” as she calls them. “In between ‘Avatar’ and ‘Tintin,’ I slightly altered them, changing the consistency for longer-lasting results,” she says. “I found paints with fluorescent and black-light properties that glowed in the dark.”

Taylor just completed her work on Simon Wells’ “Mars Needs Moms” and is in tests for Robert Zemeckis’ “Yellow Submarine.”

Signings & Bookings

Innovative Artists bookings: costume designers Sanja Hays on Justin Lin’s “Fast Five,” Alysia Raycraft on Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke’s “Queens of Country,” Frank Helmer on CW pilot “Nomads” and Marissa Borsetto on ABC pilot “Southern Discomfort.” Agency has signed d.p.’s Sion Michel (“Green Lantern” 2nd unit) and Joseph White (“Mother’s Day”), and line producer Anthony Santa Croce (“Monk”).

Paradigm TV bookings: d.p. Giovani Lampassi on NBC pilot “Next,” 2nd unit director Allan Graf on ABC pilot “Boston’s Finest,” production designer Jonathan Carlson on A&E’s “Sugarloaf,” costume designer Bob Blackman on TNT’s “Rizzoli and Isles,” and five editors: Victor Dubois on NBC pilot “The Rockford Files,” Affonso Gonclaves on HBO’s “Mildred Pierce,” Joe Hobeck on TBS pilot “Franklin & Bash,” David Rosenbloom on ABC pilot “True Blue” and David Ray on AMC’s “Rubicon.”

Paradigm’s feature bookings: production designers Happy Massee on Lisa Azuelos’ “L.O.L.,” Linda Burton on David Anspaugh’s “Little Red Wagon” and Beth Mickle on Dito Montiel’s “Son of No One”; and editors Jeffrey Ford on Thomas Bezucha’s “Monte Carlo,” Lee Haxall on an untitled Glenn Ficarra and John Requa project, and Heather Parsons on Dermot Mulroney’s “Love, Wedding, Marriage.” Agency has signed d.p. Julio Macat (“Wedding Crashers”), and production designers Charles Breen (“Nurse Betty”) and Simon Bowles (“Doomsday”).

Gersh Agency bookings: d.p.’s Shelly Johnson on Joe Johnston’s “Captain America,” Philippe Rousselot on Tom Hanks’ “Larry Crowne,” Peter Collister on Tim Hill’s “I Hop,” Rob Hauer on Amy Wendel’s “Benavides Born,” Oliver Bokelberg on Tom McCarthy’s “Win Win” and Amir Mokri on Michael Bay’s “Transformers 3″; line producers G. Mac Brown on Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Men in Black 3,” Barry Bernardi on Dennis Dugan’s “Pretend Wife,” Tom Hammel on Rupert Wyatt’s “Cesar: Rise of the Apes,” and Trish Hofman on Philip Kaufman’s “Hemingway.”

Gersh has also booked production designers William Arnlod on an untitled Glen Ficarra and John Requa project, Bill Groom on Lee Daniel’s “Selma,” Jeannine Oppewall on D.J. Caruso’s “I Am Number Four,” Jade Healy on Amy Wendel’s “Benavides Born” and Kelly McGehee on Gavin Wiesen’s “Homework.”

Gersh has booked costume designers Marie-Sylvie Deveau on D.J. Caruso’s “I Am Number Four” and Melissa Toth on Tom McCarthy’s “Win Win”; and editors Joe Hutshing on Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck’s “The Tourist” and Tara Timpone on Jake Kasdan’s “Bad Teacher.”

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