Avatar's Effects Whiz Talks Shop
By Steve Pond
He helped create Gollum and King Kong and the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park,” winning four Academy Awards along the way.
But nothing Joe Letteri had done quite prepared him for the scale and scope of “Avatar,” in which the Weta Workshop partner led a team that created the alien landscape of Pandora and then filled it with strange flora, fauna and a race of 10-foot blue people called the Na’vi.
Director James Cameron’s blockbuster hit is a groundbreaker visually and technologically, with Letteri and Weta exploring new techniques during three years of painstaking work.
Along the way, Letteri also found time to check in with a couple of other Weta projects, including the summer hit “District 9” and Weta founder Peter Jackson’s new “The Lovely Bones.”
Letteri sat down with theWrap the week he was in town for the “Avatar” premiere. It marked the first time he’d actually seen the film all the way through. (Letteri photo by Marty Melville/Getty Images Entertainment)
So what was it like to finally see the finished movie?
It was great. The thing I thought was most successful was the editing. I thought it really moved along and kept you engaged the whole time. I saw a rough cut about four months ago, and that was a good 45 minutes longer. And we hadn’t really even started working on the third-act battle scene.
That’s an awfully big piece of the film to leave until the last minute.
Oh, it’s typical for these movies. No matter how you try to plan, it all happens at the end. “Lord of the Rings” was the same way. “Kong” was the same way.
Was it a no-brainer when Cameron asked you to do “Avatar”?
In terms of wanting to do it, yes. Jim had this idea that was almost like “The Wizard of Oz” – what if we just go to this whole other magical place, where the people are not the people but we still recognize things about them? But when it came to sitting down and figuring out if we could actually do everything we had to do to make this movie, that took a little more brain power.
The line I keep hearing is that Cameron had to wait until technology advanced to the point where it was even possible to do what he envisioned.
That’s fairly true. It took, probably, another year beyond the point when we started making the movie to where we actually could make the movie. We’ve been laughing about that for the last few weeks: “Okay, now we know how to make this movie … but we’re almost done!”
What were the problems that you hadn’t solved when you started?
Everything. We started completely from scratch. We just ripped the whole engine apart, basically, and said, “Okay, everything we’ve been doing for the past 20 years, just assume its wrong and find where the flaws are.” Because we’ve got to be able to do more of it, it’s got to be better and faster and more flexible than we could ever do before.
Dealing specifically with the character animation, and the things that Weta did with Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" movies — what parts of that did you have to throw out?
We kept the same basic idea, of trying to figure out from the expression that an actor is making what their face is actually doing, what the underlying muscles are doing. When we animate, we’re not trying to say “This point on the face moves this far, so we’ll move the spot on Neytiri’s face this far.” We’re trying to figure out, if this dot, this dot and this dot moved this much in that frame, what did the muscles underneath the skin do, and what does that tell us about the emotion at that moment?
That was a process we started with Gollum, and carried through with Kong. Gollum was all key-frame animated, because we had no way to do motion capture on the face. With Kong, we came up with a way to glue markers on the face to track the motion, so we had a more accurate representation and we were able to write software to solve what the muscles were doing.
But “Avatar” didn’t use dots glued on the actors’ faces.
No. For “Avatar,” we needed something that was quicker than all the markers on the face, so Jim came up with the idea of having a helmet-mounted video camera. But we needed a lot of software, then, to figure out what the face is doing, and how you translate that back to what the muscles are doing. And we applied that not just to one character, but to seven main characters with speaking parts, and other 14 secondary characters that also had some dialogue, and then another couple hundred for the tribe. They’re all singing and chanting, and we never knew where Jim was going to move the camera.
How did you make sure the avatars, the human/Na’vi hybrids, kept the actors’ performances intact?
One of the design elements was that we tried to use the mouth area of each of the actors who was playing the Na’vi, and then we blended that into the elongated face and the big eyes.
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