Thursday, November 22, 2007

James Cameron's Ace In The Hole: Rob Legato

Click image to enlarge. Note that the creature image here is NOT the image that Fox wanted taken down from a later post.

Wow. I am suitably impressed with Rob Legato. I was looking high and low for the source of James Cameron's groundbreaking technology in use on the Avatar set because everyone was raving over it and the actors were dumbfounded that they were actually using NON-OPTICAL cameras (first talked about here as a rumor). Huh? Yes, that's right - Legato has confirmed that Cameron is using infrared cameras for some of their shots! Now this isn't entirely new as others have used this before, but Legato took things further and really handed the golden baton to Cameron.

I had not noticed his title of "Virtual Cinematography System Creator" until I read a Variety column by Anne Thompson all about Legato. This is the guy who gave James Cameron the ability to look through a viewfinder as if he were shooting 'Live Action' when really they are shooting performance capture - or combinations thereof!

Cameron uses a very similar system to Zemeckis' (Beowulf) 'The Volume' (similar idea to volumetric display) which is a platform surrounded by hundreds of infrared cameras to capture the actor's performance through the use of white tracking dots stuck all over them and also form-fitting suits. But rather than do what Zemeckis does - grabbing as much 360 degree 'footage' as possible, then going in editing and changing camera angles and deciding where the shot goes after the fact - Legato gave Cameron the ability to DIRECT the performance. To CHOOSE what type of camera to use ON THE FLY! He can see the action as he shoots even though the background and other CGI are not complete yet. He can actually build the whole picture at the same time because of Legato's expertise.

Imagine being able to start some live action footage already taken by your 3D Fusion Camera System in a viewscreen. Then tie in 'The Volume' and introduce your sythespians. Then bring in any backgrounds that have been green screened (and believe me do they ever have a green screen for Avatar!). Then, get this, Cameron can choose to start by using a hand held camera and walking through the shot - no wait that's not quite what he is searching for and he switches to a handheld steadicam. After a few moments he zooms back out from the shot with a boom camera, etc, etc. All of this is done while wearing 3D glasses because the whole damn thing is ALSO IN 3D! Do you see what I mean? Complete flexibility - and it is in the hands of one of, if not the greatest, directors of our time.

You tell me why I shouldn't be excited about seeing Avatar in 2009.

Something that is still not clear to me is how they blend the performance capture with the live action segments. That is some powerful computing if its being done. I suspect it can also be introduced into Cameron's viewfinder at will. I will seek confirmation about this asap. Rob Legato has just exposed the technology used on the Avatar set and man, does it ever rock. I can't even imagine the surprises in store for us in Avatar - AND Battle Angel for that matter, which Cameron is expected to jump right into after Avatar wraps.

Well done Rob.

Further acknowledgement goes to Jack Beckett of NB Digital for the first theatrical use of Infrared Cinema Cameras - also first in using them in 4K film scanning, conversions and 3D. Jack holds many patents in the US and Europe. He also designed the Dalsa chip and is regarded by many as the "Father of Digital Cinema Cameras".

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