Arts & Entertainment

AVATAR Creating Technology

James Cameron

Lesson time 15:51 min

The performance-capture technology used to create the Na’avi in Avatar changed the landscape of cinema forever. Learn how James developed the technology.

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Topics include: Observe, Observe, Observe • Developing the Technology • Capturing the Actor’s Performance • One Take, Full Coverage


[MUSIC PLAYING] JAMES CAMERON: When the term is a computer-generated character, there's the impression that the computer's creating the character. Computer's not creating anything. Computer is doing the number crunching to generate an image. But character is being created by the actor. It's not animation, it's performance capture. [MUSIC PLAYING] We've talked about low-budget filmmaking. Now we're going to talk about the opposite end of the spectrum. In "Avatar," we were-- it was a highly experimental production. So one of the things that's unique about it is that we went into it starting years before the release. We started in 2005, and the film came out in late 2009, not knowing exactly how we were going to solve most of the problems. We had a general idea of how to do things. We were pretty thin on specifics. And I had actually written "Avatar" in 1995, as a challenge to my digital effects company, Digital Domain. And they said, we can't do it yet. We don't have the tools to do the muscle rigs, and the facial muscle rigs, and the eyes, and the hands. And we can't do it. It's too much. It's beyond us right now. I said, all right, I'll just put it-- I'll just put it in a shelf for a few years. And I waited, and I waited, and I waited. And then I was watching "The Two Towers." And there's the scene where Gollum talks to himself. And he's in two places at once. And he's having this kind of schizophrenic, out-of-body experience. And it's highly expressive, highly emotional. It goes on for several minutes. And it's 100% CG character. And I said to myself, if they can do that, I can make "Avatar." And that's what set me down the path of making the movie. So I was inspired by the work of another filmmaker. I was building on what Peter Jackson had done and what WETA Digital had already done. So I came in with a whole new set of challenges and a new high bar they had to get through. And they loved that. They loved that challenge. We just studied a lot of close-ups, really big close-ups of men and women and looked at them in different kinds of lighting and said, well what do you see? What do you see about the way they move? What do you see about the way they take the light? What do you see about the skin pores? What do you see about the eye? You know? And one of the breakthroughs was the eye is not dry, the eye is wet. That's kind of obvious. But it also means that the upper part of the lower eyelid is actually a wet surface. And there's a little meniscus of tear fluid between that eyelid and between the eyeball. And it catches the light. And there's a little glint there, and it's always there. But if you're not looking for it, you'll never see it. The second we put the meniscus in, the eye came to life. I know, it sounds like a little tiny thing, something you'd never think about. But when it's missing, you sense the lack. And I always felt that CG characters fell down around the movement of the mouth. It...

About the Instructor

From The Terminator and Titanic to Avatar, James Cameron has directed some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. Now, for the first time in his 40-year career, he opens up about his process. Through behind-the-scenes breakdowns, James shares his approach to developing ideas, storylines, and characters; harnessing technology; and worldbuilding on any budget. Explore the innovation and imagination behind epic moviemaking.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

James Cameron

Academy Award–winning director James Cameron teaches you the tricks of the trade and shares his approach to epic moviemaking on any budget.

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