Thursday, June 25, 2009

Avatar: Letter From A Crewperson

Michael here. "Another Loyal Crewperson" posted this last night in the comments section of our "Footage Impressions" article, but it really begs to be posted on the front page, as it is a perfect showcase of the passion, dedication, and pride that the Avatar team has poured into this project for so many years.

Plus, there's some really cool tidbits in there.

Warning - Potential Spoilers Below:

Hi Avatar Fans,

I have been working on “Avatar” in Los Angeles for four years, and like the “Woodsprite” guy or gal down in New Zealand, I have resisted the almost overpowering urge to take pictures of the incredible stuff on the set, so your site has provided me with something to show my friends, too.

I know the fans are disappointed that more stuff hasn’t leaked out, but I am frankly amazed. This is testimony to the incredible loyalty of the thousands (yes, thousands) of people who have worked on the project over a decade, especially since everyone has cellphone cameras. Both Jim and “Avatar” itself inspire such dedication to make the movie as good as humanly possible, and to have the maximum impact when it is finally seen by the audience, by not “spoiling” Pandora’s virgin uniqueness.

Some of these comments are older, but just being posted now. They were written before some other sources revealed the facts. I have also added comments regarding the Amsterdam presentation.

(This is regarding an old picture of our MoCap stage.) When I saw the picture of our motion capture stage (which does indeed have a grey floor) some time ago, I immediately searched the stage for the mysterious being, but could not find it. We do have a female Na’vi model, but this one is an ordinary human-sized department store manikin that had been modified to match the Na’vi body. It has sported different wardrobe from time to time, so I assume the one in New Zealand served the same purpose. What the bigger one on our stage was remains a mystery.

We have the full-size ampsuit prop which was shipped up from New Zealand, along with other props and parts of sets. It is truly awesome – everything Jim has in this movie looks like it could work! The arms and legs can be repositioned, even the fingers, but unlike an action figure, it cannot stand up by itself. A large steel support beam is attached to its rump, which will be removed by computer processing. The canopy opens and closes, and various panel lights come on when switches are thrown. The actors who operate an ampsuit in the movie have spent so much time in it that they learned where the main power and other controls are, and their actions are very realistic.

Regarding the “clunky robot” look of the ampsuit, there are many logical reasons for it. As now, the military gets stuff that has been in development for quite a while, and then takes time to manufacture and more to work out the inevitable bugs. Once something does function more or less reliably, there are budgetary considerations in replacing it. We’re still flying B-52s, for God’s sake! The same goes for firearms – the M16 is half a century old! All our guns are indeed projectile weapons: simply refinements of the assault rifles and machineguns in use today. (But there are some “interesting” refinements to be seen.) Jim has given a lot of thought to mechanical engineering requirements in the design of the various mechanisms seen in the movie.

Along with others, I too wish the Na’vi looked more “alien”, but a large part of the success of “Titanic” was related to the fact that the movie wasn’t about a ship sinking, but rather about a love story set on a sinking ship. Since “Avatar” is also a love story, but one set in the future on an alien world, the audience has to accept that a human man can fall in love with a giant blue humanoid female with a tail. To this end, she has to possess certain attributes of human beauty. On the other hand, unlike “Titanic”, “Avatar” is visually so stunning that I think the story may take a back seat to the images.

The Pandoran plants and animals more than make up for the lack of alieness in the Na’vi. Real horses were used to capture the motion of the Na’vi’s mounts, so they look absolutely real at a full gallop. Videos of various terrestrial birds and animals were studied to develop the movements of the other Pandoran animals, and they too are completely believable. Unfortunately, I can’t mention anything more than what is in the scriptment or in the just released game screenshots, but the viperwolves (what the guy called “dogs” above) are far more nasty than their Earthly counterparts, and there are many animals far worse than them on Pandora. The “panther” is called a “thanator” and can eat a viperwolf for a snak. The horned creatures are “sturmbeasts”, and are kind of like buffalos. Like the machinery, the biological engineering of the animals has not been ignored. You will believe they are living on some planet somewhere in the universe. (Then again, perhaps Jim didn’t invent any of them – he just remembered what he had seen elsewhere, because he’s really an alien.)

The CGI banshees are nothing like those in the concept art picture – they’re much more amazing, both in their appearance, and aerial acrobatics. Even better than the ones in the game screenshot, although they are closer. And, yes, the Na’vi do ride them. But the banshees are mere pigeons compared to the leonopteryx.

Regarding the thanator, it was scaled down a little bit from the scriptment concept because if it is too powerful there is no drama in an encounter when the audience knows it can just step on an ampsuit and squash it flat. Now there is the slight possibility that an ampsuit might be able to beat a thanator. Maybe an old lame one. Perhaps. At least in the game.

Pandoran plants are as thought-out as the animals, and we see several that have unique characteristics (such as the spiral retracting one mentioned above). The plants’ colors in the daylight are almost irrelevant (and not all of them are green) – in the night scenes everything is alive with colored light, and those scenes totally eclipse (if that is the appropriate word) the day ones.

As to things like the floating mountains, etc, mentioned in the scriptment, remember that “Avatar” is much more than a movie – it’s a myth, a spectacle, and a cautionary tale. As a result, there are some things in it that are not explainable by “modern” science. But that does not mean that Jim ignored science. He had NASA scientists advise him on the space stuff, and uses Unobtanium, a room temperature superconductor, to explain other phenomena. But to make “Avatar” the truly exciting and spectacularly visual science-fiction epic it is, certain liberties had to be taken with reality. But no shortcuts – instead of “warp drive” or “hyperspace shunts”, Cameron’s starship travels at less than the speed of light, with all the complications of maintaining crew and passengers over a multi-year voyage, and the logistics of supporting a colony isolated by more than a decade of round-trip time.

Other compromises were made to allow the audience to experience “Avatar” without unnecessary distractions. Hundreds of years in the future, the English language will have evolved to the point where it might be incomprehensible to us (or devolved, if texting continues its relentless advance), so his characters speak contemporary English. On the other (four-fingered) hand, the Na’vi speak their own language, which has been developed by a college linguistics professor, and is perfectly believable because it is not just a bunch of random sounds (klaatu barada nikto) but a complete language with consistent syntax and vocabulary. The Na’vi also have a well-thought-out culture, with religion, music, cuisine, etc.

While “Avatar” follows the scriptment in general, there are a number of major points that are changed or eliminated, and new ones added. Sadly, the theatrical release of the movie can’t be four or five hours long, so some of the great scenes that were captured have wound up on the “editing room floor”. (Actually, they’re still on the editorial hard drives, so maybe a “Collectors Edition” DVD will have them.)

There is a great deal of crossover of assets between the movie and the video game, but there is no way that even a dedicated gaming computer has enough power to render the fluid motions of the movie’s GCI characters, let alone the incredible surface detail. (The game ampsuit doesn’t have windshield wipers.) Making the game 3-D only increases the number crunching. One of the advantages to CGI is that things like skin color are easy to change, assuming you haven’t already rendered the frame. Of course the game frames don’t take anywheres near the up to a hundred hours of a movie frame. The game can have their sturmbeasts any or all colors they want. I’m sure the Avatar game will beat any other game by a Pandoran mile, but it won’t come close to the movie itself.

(Regarding an old comment by “Woodsprite”.) The commercial/residential development which surrounds us is almost finished – in far less time than it took to make the movie. Our “stages” are actually old buildings left over from the Hughes Aircraft Company – you can Google Earth for an image. The largest building (with the white roof) was the live-action greenscreen stage (and also where the Spruce Goose was built), the smaller building across the street (with the tan roof) was the mocap stage.

The ultra-wide picture from the presentation looks like painted artwork, but much of our production art is computer-generated, and indistinguishable from a rendered frame of the movie.

We are finished with production, and Jim will have to work almost 24/7 to finish the show for its December 18th release. In my many years in show business, this is far and away the most fantastic (in both senses of the word) film I have ever worked on.

Another Loyal Crewperson

P.S. I work on the production crew – not Fox’s publicity dept. But everyone here is completely taken with the project, and our enthusiasm knows no bounds. When “Avatar” hits the theaters, no one will be disappointed with the images on the screen, no matter how high their expectations are. YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS – JUST ASK THE PEOPLE AT THE PRESENTATION!

Thanks to "Another Loyal Crewperson" for this letter, as well as for the years of work on Avatar.

From everything I've heard from people working on the project, Cameron was dead-on when he said, "There’s a spirit on this film, an esprit de corps amongst the virtual team, that comes from knowing we’re doing something absolutely groundbreaking."

And that's probably the best reason of all to be excited.

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Jim Dorey
jim (at) marketsaw (dot) com

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