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Virtual worlds technology and Cameron’s “Avatar”

James Cameron’s return to motion pictures after the success of Titanic appears to be headed into the same distinguished realm of box office history.  Released for the holidays, Avatar has already amassed over $1 billion in box office receipts worldwide.  The movie has received critical raves for the visual effects and film-making techniques developed specifically to produce this movie.  While they also note the simplistic, and at times derivative, script, the positive discourse focuses on the achievements in CGI technology and performance capture film-making, achieving what Robert Zemeckis has not yet been able to with his work in the same field.

For those who have not seen the movie, the story focuses on a military-industrial attempt to obtain from the planet Pandora a mineral named “unobtainium”.  As part of this attempt, a group of scientists have been given permission to make contact with the planet’s indigenous life, the Na’vi.  The scientists devised a special technology to do this: the avatars.  The scientsits genetically combine Na’vi and human DNA to create a Na’vi body that the human can inhabit via a wireless upload/download technology.   While the specific details of this cybernetic link are never fully explained, the human goes into a capsule with neural interfaces whenever s/he wants to download his/her consciousness into his/her genetically create Na’vi host body; his/her own DNA was used to insure that this downloading occurs without a problem.   A crippled soldier inhabits one of these bodies,  and over the course of his interacting with the Na’vi comes to learn about them and, more importantly for the story, himself.

I won’t say anything more about the story.  If you are interested, I would recommend seeing it on a large screen in 3-D to fully appreciate the technological achievement of the film-making.  The point of this essay is to discuss how Cameron’s Avatar relates to virtual worlds.

The first way is obvious — the title says it all.  However, instead of the avatars being those of virtual worlds, in the movie they are portrayed as corporeal alien bodies that human minds inhabit to venture into the aliens’ culture/society and potentially change it and them.  This representation of “avatar” is similar to other recent films, Surrogates and Gamer.  In this film, the use of “avatar” reflects the two common usages: avatar as religious, and avatar as technological.  The humans use their Na’vi bodies to descend from the sky and walk among them, educating them, as gods of old were supposed to have done on Earth via human bodies. Only in this movie, these avatars are changed by the Na’vi more than the Na’vi are by them. Then there is the obvious parallel with avatars as they exist in our virtual worlds and digital games. The human still exists, encased in a technological device that allows his/her mind to transfer to the Na’vi body, in the ultimate form of downloading/uploading that some virtual reality proponents have predicted, and as was seen in The Matrix trilogy and to a lesser extent The Lawnmower Man.

While these concepts were simultaneously in effect, we cannot forget that all the Na’vi were CGI creations and at no time in the film-making process were they represented via material objects. Like our virtual world avatars, they are only always digital. One critic even speculated that the portrayal of the main characters was done in a way to foster identification between audience and characters, promoting the audience’s immersion/transportation/presence in the virtual world of the film. Thus, in a sense, we the audience could have all the Na’vi and humans on screen as our own avatars, just not under our control (although we may like to think we would have done what they would have, if we were in the same circumstances).

While this multi-layered appropriation of “avatar” is interesting, the most impressive aspect of the movie occurred before it reached the screens.  The success of Avatar would not have been possible without Cameron’s development of new film-making technology — a technique that utilized virtual worlds technology.

Sigourney Weaver, one of the film’s stars, in doing her press junket tour, visited The Daily Show, where part of her job was to describe, and make “cool”, the film-making technology of the movie. As part of the discourse preceding the film’s release, the stars, film-makers and marketers played up the “revolution in film-making” that the movie represented. So, what was this revolution?

This in-depth, Fox produced behind-the-scenes discusses and illustrates this film-making process: the performance capture technique used to animate the CGI of the film’s diegesis.  Performance capture is not a new technology, and has recently been expanded with works like Gollum from Lord of the Rings and Zemeckis’ work. Where the revolution comes in is the real-time interaction between the physical performance capture and the virtual rendering of the CGI. The film-making occurred in a large sound stage covered with cameras to record the data from the sensors on the performance capture suits. The performance capture technology was used to animate virtual models that were being rendered in real-time, so that as the performance was occurring, the film-makers could see what the CGI representation would look like. But not only could the film-makers see this display in the virtual world of the film’s diegesis, but the actors, in performing their parts, such as aerial flying, could see their virtual self and how this avatar looked performing this motion. Thus we have yet another appropriation of “avatar” with dual meaning, as it was the early rendering of the Na’vi body being shown and the projection in the virtual world of the actors while their actions were being filmed.

Then, to make the final product more like a motion picture, Cameron had a “virtual camera” — akin to the concept of the “camera” in machinima film-making. Similar to the technology of the performance capture suits interacting with the cameras of the sound stage, this was a camera he held in the physical world that was programmed to record the virtual world as if he himself was a virtual world inhabitant, moving around the avatars with a camera in his hands. This virtual camera is also referred to as a 3D camera, most likely because it was being used to capture the 3D digital objects in the virtual world of the film’s diegesis. In a sense, the entire sound stage was the interface for interacting with a virtual world that was being created during the interactions. While machinimas use preexisting virtual worlds (landscapes, objects, avatars and NPCs) to create their films, Cameron developed a virtual world while making his film, and shared this created virtual world with the audience.

The production of Avatar utilized many preexisting film-making technologies: CGI, green screen sound stages, performance capture. The revolution involves the ability to combine these elements to produce the virtual world of the film as it is being filmed. Doing so aids in the film-making, as actors can better picture what they are doing — rather than just acting to blank green screens and sticks with tennis balls on them, the actors can see a depiction of the final product via the virtual worlds technology. While the end result may look more like an evolution in CGI/live action films, it is the process that is revolutionary.

Cameron has always been interested in making advances in film-making technology. From his starts as an FX personnel, to the introduction of liquid metal and morphing, up to the recent enhancements to the realism of CGI, he has been working to help film-making techniques evolve to meld the physical and the virtual, to allow the storyteller to produce on screen what s/he sees in his/her mind. With the achievement of Avatar, that evolution took another step forward.

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  1. Monette says

    Excellent analysis. I got a better appreciate for the role of ‘avatar’ here – in how the effect of connecting the lead role in the movie with his avatar gave the audience the idea that they too could ‘hook up’ with one of them themselves. Neat!

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