What’s coming in 2010? Since content is at the centre of the digital experience, let’s start there. You may have seen Keanu Reeves dodging bullets in front of blue-screens in The Matrix (1999), or an aging Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).  The next diamond on the Hollywood red carpet is Avatar, which is one of the most impressive display of the latest digital media technology in immersive experience and content creation.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Avatar is “a groundbreaking mix of live-action cinematography and virtual photorealistic production techniques” featuring real-time, digital actors who respond to our physical world during primary photography.  Although the budget for the movie is approximately $230M, $30M more than Cameron’s 1997 Titanic, more than 50% of the film is completely CG (computer-generated).

Avatar is filmed using two high-definition cameras in a single camera body to create depth perception, which means the movie is also available in IMAX 3D.  Blu-ray 3D specifications have been finalised and Sony has confirmed it will be bringing 3D experiences through PlayStation 3, Blu-ray players and other platforms.  Avatar will be one of the flag-bearing titles to lead that charge for immersive 3D digital experiences at home.

Released on December 18, 2009, Avatar is now the fastest movie to reach $1 billion in sales worldwide: 17 days.  It proves there is such a thing as overnight success.  However, for James Cameron and Avatar, it was a 14-year-long overnight success – a concept he started working on before Titanic (1997).

In Cameron’s own words from a BusinessWeek interview:

BW: What innovations have you developed for Avatar?

JC: We have greatly enhanced the size of the performance-capture stage, which we call The Volume, to six times the size previously used. And we have incorporated a real-time virtual camera, which allows me to direct [computer-generated] scenes as I would live-action scenes. I can see my actors performing as their characters, in real-time, and I can move my camera to adjust to their performances.

In addition, we have pioneered facial performance capture, in conjunction with our visual effects partner, Weta Digital. This technique eliminates hours in the makeup chair, and various other discomforts, for the actors. Previously, actors needed to have hundreds of tiny spherical markers glued to their faces, and they couldn’t touch their own faces throughout the shooting day as a result. With the new system, a lightweight head-rig can be donned minutes before shooting.

We have had great success, and other filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have worked on our virtual stage doing tests for their upcoming films, and given high praise to the system.

BW: In what directions do you see the technology going in the short term?

JC: Improvements to the software and higher computation speeds and storage densities will enable us to have more realistic environments and more refined facial emotions and hand movements. Hand movement, for example, is still at a crude state.

On Avatar, we’re working on-stage at a reality level equal to an ’80s video game. At the end of the day, after a year and a half of post-production, the images seen by audiences will be 100% photo-real, i.e. indistinguishable from photography. But for our day-to-day shooting, the image can be improved a lot.

Another area which needs improvement is the lighting. We need to improve its ability to handle cinematic lighting, the casting of shadows and so on. All of this can be improved as Moore’s Law raises the speed of processing and as upgrades to the software become available.

In addition, we’re developing ways for [computer-generated] characters to interact with actors who are being photographed on real, live-action set. We will have real-time stereo (three-dimensional stereoscopic, or 3D) composites of characters, which will be viewed by me in the eyepiece of the camera while I’m shooting a live-action scene. This will be revolutionary.

Here’s a CBC interview with Ontarian James Cameron:

Tim Tang

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