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Interview: Kevin Pollack talks with
Avatar's Effects Engineer Robert Legato

Here's a video interview featuring Robert Legato from the Kevin Pollack Chat Show. Legato is the Virtual Cinematography System Creator & Visual Effects Pipeline Engineer for Avatar and also worked with James Cameron on Titanic.

In 1998 Legato received an Academy Award for his work on James Cameron's 1997 "Titanic", which took the use of digital special effects to new heights, particularly in the combining of computer generated images and live action shots.

The video is over two hours long and the actual interview begins at the 15 minute mark. Thanks to AMZ Forum Member Damien for contributing this video link.

Interview: Reuben Langdon, motion capture artist for Avatar
By Devin Coldewey

Reuben Langdon is a motion capture artist in motion pictures and games — you’ve probably directed his actions without knowing it in such games as Resident Evil 5 and Dead Rising. Most recently he’s been working on James Cameron’s epic CG film, Avatar.

He took some time out of his busy backflipping schedule to talk to us about motion capture, having his own studio, and working with Cameron on the biggest and most ambitious CG movie of all time.

CrunchGear: So we cover movie and cinema technology every once in a while, but we don’t get to talk a lot about motion capture. i was wondering if you could encapsulate really quickly what it is you do for our readers, so they have an idea of what a motion capture actor does?

Reuben: Let me see, how can I encapsulate that? I guess it depends on project to project, but overall you’re acting just as you would on TV or film or stage, only you have to pretty much use your imagination to make up your environment around you, it’s all CG.

You’re familiar with green screen acting — well, that’s probably the closest thing except you don’t even have a wardrobe, you’re in this marked-up suit that has these reflective balls on it, and there are 20 to 100 cameras surrounding you in a square or rectangle type area - the more cameras, the bigger the size.

You’re working in this 3D environment, where in green screen you’re in 2D, or rather the camera can only see you and the background in 2D.

I guess the closest thing is stagework, but you’re not really projecting to the guy in the back, you’re just doing your thing. And with technology getting better and better, there’s actually real-time technology now where you can actually see the CGI environment while you’re acting, which helps tremendously.

What is the preferred nomenclature for what you do? I’ve heard it called Mocap but I don’t know if that’s a copyrighted term or something.

Yeah, Mocap is definitely the most common term we use now. There’s motion capture, there’s performance capture, there’s mocap, pretty much everybody in the industry just says mocap because it’s easy to say. For a while they were trying to call it performance capture, because it’s performance-based, which is true, but at the end of the day you’re capturing motions.

I remember in shots of mocap from like 10 years ago, the actors have things the size of tennis balls stuck on them, but in the picture of you recently there are stripes on the suit and little tiny luminous things on your head… how do you think the technology has changed over recent years?

Well with the stripes on the black suit, we… well, let me back it up. What’s common these days is to have video reference. The motion capture is good, but sometimes if you’re playing a creature with non-human proportions or something, and you don’t have reference data to show what the actual actor’s doing, so the data it can be confusing.

The animator might have trouble interpreting it, so he needs to watch regular video of the actor. But the black suit doesn’t always show up well, so basically all the stripes are are for when the animator goes back to the reference video they can see you better. That’s the only real addition to those suits.

Tom Rothman and FOX looking forward to 2009 and AVATAR
By Robert Sanchez | Source:

At least once a year, 20th Century Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman likes to go on the record to discuss the studio's upcoming slate. Just last week, I sat down with Rothman exclusively at the Fox lot in Century City.

We talked about a variety of things and films. The first part of the interview, Rothman and I discussed the disappointing summer Fox experienced this year, after nine consecutive record-breaking years, and what their game plan is for the future.

IESB: For the past 10 years, Fox has done great at the summer box office, this year was a little tough. What are you looking to do different next year, or the next couple of years, are you looking for more blockbusters, more tentpoles?

Tom Rothman: I'll tell you the truth of the matter is that we actually had, the irony of the way these things go, we actually had a great first half, beginning the year, winter and spring was terrific for us.

We had, Horton, that did tremendously well worldwide, that was the bulk, Alvin and the Chipmunks worldwide was huge, over $350 worldwide and then we had a lot of nice, fairly solid doubles, triples movies - 27 Dresses, What Happens in Vegas and we even did very well with The Happening because it did $100 million overseas. So the first half of the year was very good for us.

The summer was a disappointment and there's no two ways about that, but ultimately, it's really simple - the movies weren't good enough, that we had for the summer and we had made the decision because of the strike and because of other things that we were not going to rush certain movies, right, we took an extra year on Wolverine for example, when originally we had hoped to have that for the second half of this summer.

Same with Day the Earth Stood Still, we could have rushed to update Day the Earth Stood Still but we took a decision to have, to give the movies the proper time they needed and the films that we had in the summer, they just weren't good enough to hold their own.

So, we didn't actually lose a lot of money but we certainly had, for us, certainly having had nine summers in a row that have been top notch, we had an off summer. But, the good news about it is, I guess because of that, from basically now, from Max Payne through all the way through all of next year through Avatar we are absolutely loaded for bear.

So, we're in as strong a position going forward as I think Jim [Gianopulos] and I have been running the company, but, you have a disappointing summer you have to learn from it and push on and have some stronger films and who knows what happens in decades to come but certainly for the next eighteen months to two years, we are loaded -- locked, loaded and ready to go!

So, that's the upside of having had a couple of films that didn't make it in this summer is that the coming year is going to be very strong for us.

IESB: You mentioned Avatar, everything that we are hearing about it, it sounds great but it also sounds SO expensive, and a lot has to do with the investment in the technology to make the film. At the same time, is it because you hope to use the technology on other stuff too?

TR: Yes, but I guess I should say that I won't comment on the exact budget except to say that as always with Jim [Cameron] everything is misreported, everything is exaggerated, because he is larger than life and so everything surrounding him tends to be larger than life.

While it's obviously an expensive movie, it's not an unprecedented expensive movie and it's not even the most expensive movie we've made at the company and certainly not close to the most expensive movie that's been made in the business recently.

But, it is in absolute terms a costly undertaking, is because it's an entirely revolutionary technology. It will be a movie unlike anything audiences have ever seen. And, genuinely brand new, genuinely unlike anything that has ever been seen and that's hard to do and that isn't cheap.

IESB: And it's an original film, it's not based on a comic book or other material...

TR: It's an entirely original film, it's not a television show, it's not a comic book, it's a thing that all of the punditocracy, all of the media and the audience cry out for, true originality.

And yes, you never know and I wouldn't presume now, but the idea is, Jim Cameron tends to make hits and if the movie is a hit then this is the beginning, certainly for both the use of the technology and the work, it's not going to stop here. So, there's long term value to it as well.

IESB: So, potentially, this is a franchise?

TR: If it does well, yes, absolutely, in terms of an arena a whole new world. But for us, it isn't any of that, it isn't even the technology, it isn't even the look and the world all of which is the coolest shit I've ever seen, it isn't even any of that, it's that it's a great story.

It's just a great story. You read the story and you are gripped by every page, it's just a great, original story with tremendously, classic emotional value. So, at the end of the day, that's really what we're here for, to try and make great stories when you can find them.


All interviews on this page are excerpts, click on the source link for the complete article.

How the Hell Did They Do That?
Cameron’s Oscar-Winning VFX Master Tells All
By John Freeman Gill | Excerpt:

Visual effects technology has come a long way since effects virtuso John Bruno teamed up with James Cameron to codirect 1996’s Terminator 2: 3-D, a Universal Studios amusement park film. Back then, the 3-D camera weighed 450 pounds and was as large as a washing machine. “There’s no future in 3-D if this is how it’s gonna work,” Cameron proclaimed darkly at the time. “I don’t want to do this if we can’t move the camera.”

A decade and a half on, Cameron has belied his own gloomy prediction with Avatar, a tour de force which makes eye-popping use of today’s far lighter and nimbler 3-D cameras. Meanwhile, Bruno, Cameron’s sometime motorcycle buddy and longtime collaborator (Bruno snagged an Oscar for The Abyss) served as a VFX supervisor on the sci-fi epic. Bruno tells 30 Ninjas Editor John Freeman Gill how the film’s visual effects team used groundbreaking techniques to bring the native Na’vi, the avatars, and the distant moon Pandora to vivid life.

30 NINJAS: You were brought in by Fox and James Cameron to work with the New Zealand viusal effects house Weta midway through the production of Avatar. What are some of the sequences you worked on?

JOHN BRUNO: I did all the training scenes: Neytiri training Jake to shoot a bow and to track and kill the hexapeed in the rain. I did the sequence when Jake meets Colonel Quaritch in the amp-suit bay, and Quaritch climbs in the amp suit and makes the deal that Jake will work for him, and walks away in the amp suit. I did all the stage planning and shoot for the [climactic] Quaritch fight itself at the end of the movie, when Quaritch has leaped out of the burning Dragon [aircraft] and goes after Jake and then Quaritch fights Neytiri, who’s riding the Thanator.

And then the scene that I started with on the film was the scene right after that where she saves Jake, puts the face mask on him, picks him up, holds him, and says, “I see you.” That took a year. [Laughs]

30 NINJAS: The motion-capture technology on Avatar is pretty eye-popping. What was your involvement with it, and how did that system work?

JB: I started working with Jim Cameron, and [Weta's] Stephen Rosenbaum and Richie Baneham here in Playa del Rey on the motion-capture stage, where Jim was still shooting some capture. The motion-capture system was basically people wearing suits with little reflective patches on it, but they had done something different here that I’d never seen, which is that a real-time facial capture system was developed.

What you were seeing—what the actors were doing—was instantly being interpolated and matched to an avatar or a character and played back [on monitors] in real time. It was still pretty rough—it was sort of a live action template. It was accurate enough to get the motion if a character picked up a bow or, I’ll just say, a cup. Not detailed enough that the hand would clasp around it, but it would be in the right position.

30 NINJAS: Now this means that when the actor on the stage picks up a bow, you are seeing a digital version of the character, of the avatar, say, on a screen in real time perform those actions?

JB: Exactly. And they’re in the [CGI] background that they are supposed to be in. They’re acting on an empty stage, but what you’re seeing on the monitors around you and what Jim’s seeing on his virtual system is the composited real-time image. [Using the perfromance] on stage, the lab guys would basically composite, record, and clean up and play [it] back pretty quickly. To the point where they would feed it to the editor on stage—one of the editors would be there at all times—to see if they had images that were displaying the action that Jim wanted.

Now what was interesting about this was that once it’s locked in in this 3-D space, you can then go back and it’s basically a master action. It’s recorded and you can treat it like a master [shot] and then, for the use of this virtual camera system, walk through the [stage], walk through the action, and stand behind a character and move your camera to the point where you can get a nice composition where you’re over one character’s shoulder shooting at Neytiri, say, and Neytiri is acting.

You record that, and then you can go back, shoot another angle over Neytiri’s shoulder onto Jake, as many times as you need. And you can play with the angle and find it. You know, if there’s a tree behind a character’s head and you don’t want it there [in the frame] you just step to the left and the tree is gone. But [the whole time] Jim is standing in the middle of nothing out on the stage. It’s quite bizarre.

30 NINJAS: Is he seeing that environment in his viewfinder as he’s looking through the camera?

JB: Well, the camera at this point is like an eight-by-ten monitor. There’s other 50-inch monitors in different postions around the stage that show what he’s seeing. So we’re all able to view that, and what he does is call action and push a button and [the equipment] records the moment that he wants, then he calls cut, and that action is then given to an editor, the editor cuts it together, and at the end of the day they can review it and say, “You know, I could do better on this angle,” or, “I need a shot here. I want to do a crane shot,” and there’s a way on that virtual camera system to do a crane shot or a helicopter shot.

The whole process was quite bizarre to see. They would then take that raw information, the lab would update it, polish it a little bit, —you could move trees, you could move rocks, you could move bushes, you could move characters around—and then sort of lock it in on what you wanted it to be. That information would then be sent to Weta, where they would … do a higher render of character animation and some better backgrounds. That would come back, and Jim could then study that, and he could reshoot that environment based on this sort of clean, much better filled out scene.

And once that was done and locked in, that was approved for animation. And these turnovers would be done via cinesync sessions, where you get in a room where [you’re in L.A. and] you talk to the people you’re working with in New Zealand and you can draw on the screen and say, I want this to look like this, and this should be over there. So I can say that in October 2008 there were, I think, two shots or three shots that were finaled, but Jim called them a CBB, which means “Could Be Better,” and if there’s time you could go back and redo them.

And those scenes were: The first shot of Neytiri in the tree, the first time you see her and she draws back her bow and there’s a close-up of her face, and the first shot of Jake, when he’s got his wooden branch that he carved into a makeshift spear.

30 NINJAS: And both those shots were done with this whole real-time motion capture system and the rest of the process that you just described?

JB: All of it. But the final process of making the final realistic look from Weta took months and months and months. Those were the first shots that finally made it, and that was in the first week of October ’08. Anyway, that’s the jungle look, and so I was assigned to WETA. I was basically sitting with Stephen Rosenbaum this whole time and he kept showing me how the WETA process works. They were still developing the skin textures of the the [pterodactyl-like flying creatures called] banshees; he was showing me all the 270 or 280 layers of jungle plants, trees, and ferns and the alien plants that Jim [Cameron] liked.

He said, “If you want to get a shot that Jim might approve, he likes these specific plants, and you might be able to put some of them in later.” So I was learning this process, so at that point I was given the scene where Neytiri picks up Jake at the end of the movie and he’s unconscious and she puts a mask on him and brings him back to life and then holds him and a tear runs down her face, and she says, “I see you.” That scene took a year to finish. [Laughs] And the other scene that took a year was Jake getting his banshee.

30 NINJAS: You worked closely on the climactic fight sequence, where Colonel Quaritch straps into his amp suit, leaps out of his burning Dragon [warship] and goes after Jake in a fight to the death. How were the visual effects done in that sequence?

JB: Well, there were several different ships. The Dragon command ship, which is the lead command ship that Quaritch rides in, and the Valkyrie is the shuttle next to it, and the Samson and the Scorpions were the two different helicopters. The same way the motion capture suits worked, there were wire-frame mockups of these ships that had little reflective markers on them, and they were in different patterns so that the computers could recognize their positions [on the stage].

The [Pandoran flying creatures called] banshees also worked that way. I got to do that a couple of times with Jim on stage, where you actually walked around the [stage] with your hand—it’s like holding a model airplane and flying it around, except it’s a wireframe. You’d see it for real on the monitors, [with the animated banshees moving in the animated Pandoran forest, according to the way you moved the wireframes with your hands].

It’s the same technique as the motion capture I was describing except there’re no actors; it’s a couple of people walking around on stage interacting with these different wireframe mockups of these different vehicles and different-scaled banshees.

30 NINJAS: But what you’re getting on the monitor is a real-time version of what it looks like in the environment of Pandora?

JB: Yeah, and whatever banshee you’re holding has a pattern of reflectors on it that is for a specific banshee. So you could be holding two of them, and you’d see two different banshees on the monitor. So one might be blue with orange stripes or one might be green and so on. And you’d get the motion down, and then the lab guys would polish that up and clean up the path—if you bounced a little bit [while holding the wireframe mockup banshees or warships] they could clean that up. So the ship —everything—was done in advance. There was no model work done.

Normally over the years I would’ve done motion control models, but this sort of eliminated that. Weta had already built all of the assets: all those jungles, the Hell’s Gate buildings, all the vehicles at Hell’s Gate, the shuttle, the Dragon [command ship], the Scorpion [helicopters], the amp suit, that was already built and under development. The physical 3-D objects existed. And they could easily be mocked up on the spot. So that particular battle, Home Tree was done first. Then Jim spent a couple of weeks, we started to actually flesh out the fight, this big battle.

Jim had some key moments that he wanted, as scripted, and basically, we started going through the scene and shooting on stage this way. Once that stuff was captured, then he would film it and find the angle. It was really fun, like once Jake has landed on the Dragon command ship and throws a grenade and blows out one of the engines, and it starts to spiral, that was fine, because the spiral was all in there and worked out, but Jim kept going back and finding the right angles to follow it, and we still owed interior shots of Quaritch getting into the amp suit and jumping out.

But we had rough animation of that, it was given to the [New Zealand visual effects house] Weta. Weta animated it, gave it back, and then in April, I came back [from New Zealand to L.A.] for an April shoot where we actually shot Quaritch on stage, him in the amp suit.

And what was so cool about that was, you can take the animation, you take those Maya [software] files, you’d have the animation move, and you’d have the motion-control move or the camera move, you could feed that into a motion-control system, put an actor in the [giant] amp suit torso that was rigged by [Virtual Production Supervisor] Glenn Derry on a motion base that would actually move based on the approved animation. So the actor was in for a ride! And the camera system would follow the camera move that was done.

Now, the genius thing that I loved about this thing is, it’s a Simulcam system: There was a system that would show you the animated scene, the template—Jim could see that through his camera lens—the camera was synched up in the same volume, Jim could actually line up, knowing which lens was used, in stereo. He would walk [on the stage] with the actor … and he could see Stephen Lang as Quaritch in the amp suit with the animation amp suit locked together and the background that was around them.

'Avatar' designer on Jim Cameron, banshees
and those nagging 'Delgo' comparisons
By Gerrick Kennedy

Gerrick Kennedy of the Los Angeles Times:
You want "Avatar" coverage? You can read
about the sci-fi epic right here at Hero Complex
until you turn blue in the face.

LA Times' 30-day countdown to the most expensive
movie in Hollywood history is now at the halfway mark.
Today Gerrick Kennedy has a Q&A with Neville
Page, the creature designer for "Avatar" who created
the dragon-like banshees that fly through the skies
of Pandora.

Page's previous credits include "Cloverfield,"
"Watchmen" and the J.J. Abrams reboot of
"Star Trek."

GK: How did you get on board with James Cameron?

NP: I had some friends who were working with him before on a different project. He had put out some feelers for his great adventure and I thought, “What the hell?” At that point, I didn’t really have the portfolio [for creature work], my background was more industrial design. He liked the fact that I didn’t have a creature-centric background. I guess it was a unique approach. We started working at his house in Malibu [in May 2005], which was a treat to say the least.

GK: Talk a little bit about the process behind creating the creatures seen in Pandora.

NP: Like everyone else, we took a stab at everything. We worked on the Na’vi, the plants, the environment. The first people brought on board were to see what the planet would look like. Rather than drawing shapes, I tried to resolve it from a physics standpoint. If a creature was supposed to have six legs you can put those anywhere, but soon an animator will have to make it walk and run. You have to be careful. Jim, like few others, is so tuned into the plausibility of organisms. He wanted them to look as real as possible, and work organically as well.

GK: Computer-generated characters are such a staple in films today. When you think of films you’ve seen in the past, what didn’t you want “Avatar” creatures to look like?

NP: Digital technology has afforded all of us the chance to suspend disbelief much longer. In some ways it makes doing creature design easier. Almost anything can be made to look realistic. So the goal that I had -- gosh [laughs]. I didn’t have as big a goal or preconception. Jim really had a vision for this. He’s been eating, breathing, sleeping, everything about this project. He knew exactly what he wanted. He would guide us. For the most part he was master and commander of every aspect in this film. We had to take what was inside of his head and pull it out and realize it in some form.

Interview with Avatar's Production Designer
Rick Carter Part 1 (Part 2 below)
'Avatar' as innovation: 'We were in new territory...
there was no road there'

Here's the first of a two-part conversation with Rick Carter, one of Hollywood's most celebrated production designers, whose credits include "Forrest Gump," "Jurassic Park," "War of the Worlds," and "The Polar Express." I spoke to the Oscar-nominated designer in Vancouver, Canada, where he's at work on "Sucker Punch," director Zack Snyder's surreal action fantasy.

GB: You've worked with a relatively narrow group of directors but it's quite the list -- Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and now Zack Snyder. I would imagine, too, that "Avatar" is already feeling like a career highlight for you just based on its aspirations...

RC: Absolutely. Jim has made an amazing movie. He's quite a talent and when he puts his mind to something it's quite formidable.

GB: Coming into this project, what were some of the specific challenges it presented to you?

RC: I take a page out of the philosophy that obstacles are insurmountable opportunities. I'm pretty optimistic because things have gone well for me. Coming into "Avatar," I had only really been working with Spielberg and Zemeckis up to that point. That's twentysomething years. My approach is to orient myself toward the vision of the director and that becomes the sole thing I have to concern myself with. There are many decisions but the one challenge really is to fulfill that vision.

Those guys are so strong as directors that it's nice because the process isn't diluted with other concerns, like executives from the studio or even public opinion, which can happen to some degree sometimes. Its about the director's vision, solely, and completing it and realizing it. And at the point where there isn't something there, the task is, "What can I offer? What can people in the art department offer?"

GB: Where did you begin on "Avatar"?

RC: Coming into "Avatar," it took me about 3 1/2 hours to read the script, even before I had the interview with Jim. I really wanted to take my time to "see" the movie. It was clear that what he was doing was not just about a literal translation; you couldn't just piece it together by thinking of things you had seen in other films because it was an entirely new world. As I started reading through it there was a part -- and it's a part, actually, that's not in the movie anymore -- but one of the alien characters says, "When you see everything you see nothing."

And I stopped at that and thought, "What does that mean?" And I realized that the state that I was in reading the script was that I was so overwhelmed with all of what I was seeing that I was actually starting to see nothing. I was in a state of what I call whiteout, where everything is in there. I liken that actually to "Pinocchio" and wishing on a white star that comes down and fills the frame of the window and out steps the Blue Fairy and out of that something is created, Pinocchio comes to life. So in a very lyrical way I gave myself over to that idea that there was too much for me to see.

Interview with Avatar's Production Designer Rick Carter Part 2
Jim Cameron vs. Robert Zemeckis? An insider's view of the rivalry

Geoff Boucher: James Cameron says you were the one that brought up "The Wizard of Oz," a film that became a sort of touchstone for "Avatar" and even lent some of its dialogue to the new movie. What can you tell us about the connection there?

Rick Carter: I actually thought this movie is like "Wizard of Oz" meets "Apocalypse Now" and I laid out a whole board showing that. Like "Oz," you go into this whole other dimension, but unlike that movie, we go back and forth in this one. There's a change too in the way the audience feels about the place they are going. The whole design of the movie, to be in sync with Jim, is to try to create an immersive experience where in the beginning you can be referenced by the humans and our world and what we are doing on this other planet.

Then slowly there's a transformation to embracing the "otherness" of Pandora and the Na'vi race and the whole ecological system from top to bottom. And then [the audience's sympathies] in fact change sides along with the main character too. What you emotionally relate to in the film changes. I think that's part of the hybrid of the movie, not just technologically with live action and motion capture and CG animation. The hybrid is between where you, the audience, are and where the alien race is.

That in fact is the [main character's] avatar state of being, which is a mixed DNA version of the two. The film is, in a funny way, trying to get you there in that state too, to understand that place. As a designer, to help Jim get to that, I had to kind of give myself over to something unknowable and is, in a sense, in conflict until I could resolve these two different worlds.

GB: It sound like you could teach a film theory class on this movie before you even reached the set.

RC: I know all of this sound highfalutin, but it is how my brain works now after spending time with directors like Jim, [Steven] Spielberg and [Robert] Zemeckis. Entering "Avatar," that's how I approached it and tried to get inside Jim's head and his vision and the glimpses he could offer -- which were quite elaborate at times. On this film, as production designer, it was like "The Polar Express"; I needed help in the full realization of that vision because I needed, physically, to be in two places at once. I had to be with the motion-capture part of the film, but I also had to oversee the live-action part of the film which was down in New Zealand.

GB: How on earth do you do that?

RC: Well, I got help. There's a co-production designer on the film I brought in and want to acknowledge. His name is Rob Stromberg and he comes at this from the visual effects side of things -- the matte-painting world -- and he came up with imagery that he and his team could create, along with my input. And he really had to run the point a key thing: how to make this planet come across as an alien ecological that is connected, just like our world, but more than that is almost connected like a nervous system. The wildlife, the fauna, the people-esque creatures -- it goes all down to the basic core of the planet and its spirituality. That spirituality and connection is what is at stake in the movie.

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