How to... make Avatar

Fox gave us an exclusive behind the scenes peek at how the Nav'vi and virtual world of Pandora were made

To celebrate the launch of the Avatar Collector's Edition Blu-Ray (which can now be snapped up from Amazon for £18), Fox gave us an exclusive behind the scenes peek at how the Nav'vi and virtual world of Pandora were made.

After witnessing Weta Studio's trailblazing collective of digital artists and virtual in cameras in action, we left convinced that movie-making won't ever be the same again. Here are five 'simple' steps to making Avatar:

1. Become a god

Before you can start blowing things up, you need to design a fictional world from the ground up. On Avatar, Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop spent two and a half years developing the Nav’vi culture, from their religious customs down to eating utensils.

A linguistics professor spent six months building the structure of a new language. Animators then took inspiration from real world scenery and animals to cook up the moon’s scenery, with the iconic floating mountains based on China’s Huangshan range.

2. Get an augmented reality camera

Making a film with tons of CGI and motion capture? You need a ‘virtual camera’. These nifty gizmos feed live motion capture footage from infrared cameras – Weta Digital had 120 mounted on the studio ceiling for Avatar – through MotionBuilder software, which creates a real-time animated version of the scene that you can watch on the camera’s LCD.

This meant James Cameron could hold up the camera and see his actors instantly transformed into blue aliens, then reshoot the scene from any angle after they’d left the stage. These ‘templates’ looked like early 90s video games, but were then passed onto Weta Digital’s to work their animation magic.    


3. Reinvent face capture

Facial motion capture used to involve covering an actor's face in reflective blobs, asking them to pull faces, then using animation to turn those dots into a believable character. The Avatar team found a better way.

Firstly, each actor performed an exhaustive ‘alphabet’ of facial expressions in front of a 3D scanner, creating a malleable head scultpure. All actors then wore head cameras that recorded their every eyebrow raise by tracking coloured marks on their faces. Mari software then used these performances to ‘drive’ the digital masks and create each actor’s ‘Avatar’.  

4. Grow a digital jungle

Once you’ve shot the film on your 'virtual camera', it's time to transform it from an early 90s video game into a photo-real 3D world. To create Pandora's jungle, Weta Digital used 'Massive' software.

More famous for creating giant battle scenes in Lord of the Rings, animators used it to randomly scatter an entire jungle of seeds and grow an unfathomable mass of digital vegetation based on the 'competition for resources' principle. Half of the plants were then given glowing bioluminescent properties for night scenes, then a host of six-legged creatures were animated from scratch, textured using Mari software then released into their virtual Amazon.

5. Let there be light

Lighting a bioluminescent jungle that’s crawling with alien creatures isn’t a job for a special effects newbie. After some lengthy head-scratching the maestros at Weta Digital revamped their Maya lighting tools and used HDR still photos taken in New Zealand to make Pandora and the Nav’vi people, who had a habit of turning ‘Kermit‘ green in yellow light, look realistic.

Once they’d succeeded, it was time to rely on Weta’s gigantic data centre, the largest computer system in the southern hemisphere, to plough through 8GB per second of rendering around the clock.


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