Virtual advances aid ‘Avatar’ sequel

Cameron pic pushed to next production level

“Avatar” and its dazzling effects have come and gone, but the three companies that developed the virtual production tools for that film are pushing them to the next level.

The trio — James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital and vfx software maker Autodesk — have moved on to the “Avatar” sequels, which like “Avatar” itself, will see the director working with actors situated in a world he cannot see: Pandora.

In making “Avatar,” Cameron needed a back-and-forth with the actors that was on the same intimate level he had with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic,” the films’ producer Jon Landau says. “In looking toward the next ‘Avatar’ films, we wanted to be able to work with higher efficiency, see changes on the fly and have a lot less downtime.”

It quickly became obvious that filmmakers wanted tools for a virtual camera, a new way to efficiently capture large files in real time and a tool that allows a director to load virtual sets, explore those sets and then makes changes or adjustments on the fly. They’re now all present in Autodesk’s MotionBuilder 2013 package, after Autodesk set up a system with Lightstorm and Weta that allowed them to experiment and update the software by incorporating quick feedback from the set and the computer screen, says Bruno Sargeant, senior product manager for virtual production at Autodesk.

As a result, filmmakers using the system can immediately view playback of actors within their digital environments and see everything exactly as it will appear on the screen.

Weta Digital chief technology officer Sebastian Sylwan says such collaboration between three companies is rare. “But we’re seeing the lines between pre-production, production and post-production collapsing more and more,” he says, “so tools like this are very important.”

As the distinct stages of production have blurred together, it’s also become more important for different departments to be able to work on a film simultaneously, making changes as the director needs them. It’s also crucial for any production pipeline to be flexible so that it can accommodate the different work styles of each helmer, Sylwan says.

Initial versions of these advances have already been deployed by Steven Spielberg on “The Adventures of Tin Tin” and Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” The goal is to make production in virtual space even more filmmaker-centric, according to Landau. In other words, to allow easier interaction between director and thesps, enabling the helmer to quickly make decisions about what is and what is not working in the film’s virtual environment.