Everything We Learned From The ‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’ Lightstorm Bonus Content Screening
It’s no secret that Avatar: The Way of Water was one of my favorite movies last year. So when the studio invited me to tour the Lightstorm production facility in Manhattan Beach, I was thrilled.
First, we had an intimate tour of their exclusive Lightstorm Museum. As a lifelong science fiction fan, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by seeing original, screen-used props from Aliens, Terminator 2, and Alita: Battle Angel. And we’re not talking tiny prop toys, either. The tour guide showed us the real, formerly functional Power Loader exo-suit that Sigourney Weaver dawns at the end of Aliens. Next to that stood the Endoskeleton of the T-800, particularly the one used in the opening scene of T2. And for the manga fans, they featured both of Alita’s picture cars or bikes, in this case.
Of course, there are a multitude of Avatar and The Way of Water props and costume pieces too. There were many bows, knives, warrior items from the Na’vi, and headpieces and jewelry worn by the natives. In contrast, there were big backpacks and huge boots from the RDA (the evil corporation colonizing Pandora) proportional to the Avatar bodies like Jake Sully and Norm Spellman. The film uses computer-generated characters and worlds, so these pieces aren’t physically wielded on screen. Instead, the costume and props team produces these accessories while the geniuses at Weta FX scan all these props into their CGI asset database.
And while the sci-fi gadgetry was fantastic, the best part of the tour was seeing the Titanic section. Here, we learned that the giant engine room is a miniature, with actors composed on top with green screen technology. Then we saw two massive miniatures of the Titanic boat – one pre-wreckage and one post-wreckage. The detail in the miniature was so meticulous that you see inside most rooms on the top half of the pre-wrecked ship. That attention to detail was so critical to Cameron–a director who insisted on building a replica ship on the starboard side and flipping the letters, blocking, and costume pieces to make the beginning dock scene as period-accurate as possible. No wonder this film was the recipient of 11 Academy Awards.
At the end of the Titanic exhibit section was the original Heart of the Ocean necklace, which sat next to Jon Landau’s Best Picture Oscar for the film. As we were gifted a photo-op with the Oscar, Mr. Landau surprised the group and shared some Oscar stories of his own. From here, the Avatar producer led us to a screening room for a sneak peek at some behind-the-scenes.
We got to look at four of the 14 mini-docs featurettes. The “Inside Pandora’s Box” featurettes provided incredible insight into the world-building, the new performance-capturing two-camera process, and much more. My favorite featurette was “The Challenges of Pandora’s Waters,” which highlighted the struggles of performance capture above and below the water’s surface, their utilization of wave machines and current generators to reproduce ocean conditions, and how they used underwater vehicles to replicate creature movement. The crazy combination of creativity and technology to make everything in the film work is phenomenal.
That blend of creativity and technology was the crux of my conversation with Jon Landau, whom I was fortunate to speak with. If you don’t know, Academy Award and two-time Golden Globe-winning producer Jon Landau holds the distinction of having produced the two highest-grossing movies of all time, Avatar and Titanic, so it was super dope to ask him about the making of the movie.
After speaking with Mr. Landau, we closed the day with a tour of “The Volume.” Here, we were greeted by Richard Baneham. Baneham is an Academy Award and BAFTA winner for Best Visual Effects for his work on Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water (his new Oscar was proudly displayed during his presentation).
The Volume is an extravagant studio space with over 140 small infrared “camera” devices lining the walls. These devices capture the actors’ motion within the area when wearing their marker suits so that the team at the Lightstorm Lab can input them digitally. Although the Na’vi and Avatar body proportions are larger than humans, the Weta FX team uses “inverse bio-kinematic solve” to correct the difference. An “inverse bio-kinematic solve” is a fancy method of simulating the trajectory of movement. So if they have the bones–the data collected by the marker-based motion capture system–they can adapt those into any shape, size, or form.
The actor’s movements are input inside the virtual space created by the Lightstorm Lab. The Lightstorm Lab is the backbone of virtual production for the Avatar films. Comprised of specialized teams, the Lab builds & supports every aspect of the production – environments, motion editing, Kabuki, sequence, post-viz, and software development. Before anyone arrives at The Volume, the Lab teams with WETA FX to build a “template” version of the scene. The “template” is essentially a full 360 degrees, PS2-looking pre-visualization of the scene atmosphere and environment constructed in a virtual space and calibrated to the size of The Volume.
With digital actors inside a three-dimensional digital world, they can freely interact with all the virtual flowers and forestry of their “template” surroundings. Director James Cameron then holds a virtual “camera,” which is fundamentally a game controller with a monitor attached. This device allows him to move the camera or adjust angles, “focal length,” and all the practical functionalities of a cinema camera. Again, the image in real-time looks like a PS2 video game, but once Cameron and company finished filming, the “template” can be dropped into the editing timeline, cut, then sent to Weta FX for the final polish.
On top of that, Cameron (or whomever the operator is) can adjust the sizes and shapes of digital assets, like plants that are too big or marine life that’s too small. That was one of the coolest parts of Baneham’s demonstration, as he showed us a “template” scene from The Way of Water when Kiri is swimming by herself underwater. We watched Mr. Baneham tweak the size of one of the coral reefs. What stood out to me is that visual effects artists had to create every aspect of this world before they even started filming, then go back and re-animate it later.
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