Avatar/Weta Interview: The extra bits…James Cameron’s Avatar is now available as an Extended Collector’s Edition DVD and Blu-ray release. We take a look at the Blu-ray featurettes and talk to Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Wayne Stables, who was responsible for the incredible Tree of Souls sequence in the film.
The first thing to note about the 3-disc Blu-ray release is that everything is in glorious HD. On disc one you can find the original theatrical release plus two extended cuts of the film. There’s the 8 minute longer re-release seen in theatres and a 16 minute longer version containing deleted scenes, like the extended opening on Earth.
The featurettes available on the second and third Blu-ray discs are thorough explorations of the Avatarfilmmaking process and Weta’s visual effects work. ‘Capturing Avatar’ on disc two is a 98 minute doco covering the performance capture aspects, while the ‘Production Materials’ section showcases screen tests, visual effects progression reels, concept work and more. Disc three contains a number of featurettes on the making of the film, but the best stuff is in ‘Scene Deconstruction’. Here you can watch 17 scenes and toggle through the stages of shot production from template to final.
Watching the Avatar Blu-ray, you get a real feel for the amazing amount of work behind the film and the people involved. One such person was Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Wayne Stables who helped bring the Tree of Souls sequence to life. We spoke to him about this work and Avatar’s lasting (and future) legacy.
Stables: I think there’s one thing in particular that Weta does well – and perhaps all good visual effects companies do – and that is that it doesn’t know how to say no to something in terms of it being too difficult. That stems from the top. If you ever talk to Joe Letteri, Joe just doesn’t concede that anything is impossible in life. It’s that mentality that drives us through projects like Avatar.
fxg: The result was obviously an amazingly looking film with a bunch of breakthroughs, but I also think the story of the making of the film is a great story in itself. Were you conscious of documenting things and sharing aspects of the making of the film?
Stables: For me personally, to be honest, absolutely not because I was just too busy trying to get my work done! I do know what you mean, though. Working on it, it reminded me of working on Lord of the Rings. You knew deep down that this was one of those larger-than-life type movies and that it was pretty special and that we would be talking about the movie for some time, even if that was more of a subconscious kind of thing.
Stables: Well, it’s Jim Cameron, so I can’t imagine that there’s not going to be a huge technology leap. It’s kind of what he does. He pushes the boundaries and he sets a lot of challenges inside his films. I’ve heard comments about shooting in 60 frames per second and what not. It almost gives you a minor heart palpation thinking about that, but at the same time you think, ‘Yeah, that could be awesome’. I mean, imagine seeing things projected like that, it would be fantastic. So there’s the thought that, yes we will have to push our technology and yes it will be challenging, but it’s pretty exciting to think about what the results might be.
fxg: Can we talk about the extended scenes on the DVD – was Weta able to go back in and use its existing pipeline to make those shots possible?
Stables: Yes, very much so. We were able to use the same code-base and pretty much the same tools. Even though at Weta we may have improved on other technology since Avatar, we stuck with the same tools. And by the end of the film, we were a fairly well-oiled machine so that made pushing those shots through comparatively painless.
fxg: For the sequences you mainly worked on for Avatar – the Tree of Souls – which were amazing, what’s it like for you going back and watching those shots?
Stables: I always have a really firm rule in life – it’s easy to look back on the work you’ve done one year or two years ago and it’s really easy to cringe and pull your own work apart, but I always take a real pride in it. I know that we did the best at the time. I do look at it and try to learn from it, and there’s an awful lot I learned from Jim Cameron that I now take through to other films. I can look back upon it with a fair amount of enjoyment working with everyone at Weta too.
fxg: What were some of the major achievements you felt came out of that Tree of Souls sequence?
Stables: Technically, we definitely pushed the crowd system. I remember I worked on Helm’s Deep for The Two Towers many years ago and we only had really three variants of Uruk-hai soldiers. And they didn’t have facial animation or anything like that. On the Tree of Souls, a huge number of the background characters have got unique facial animation going on and all their bio-dot patterns are different and their clothing is varied. Even if at nighttime it may not be that apparent when you watch it, it all still adds to the feel of the scene. We also pushed things in terms of dealing with large data sets for the crowds, large environments, lots of foliage and having more than just one hero character in the foreground. It was really building on the technology that we had developed in the past.
fxg: I’ve heard you comment that one of the things you were weary of for the Tree of Souls was having to make a digital Sigourney Weaver, mainly because you absolutely revered her, and that she had to put trust in the artists and the artists in her. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Stables: Well, to me, it’s Sigourney. I mean, she played Ripley. I do take it really personally because I think that for a lot of actors, to them CGI is something that makes them raise one eyebrow and think twice about a digital representation of themselves. I’ve never been an actor myself, but I have to imagine it’s a pretty big step to take to allow somebody to take your performance and then adjust it and do whatever with it. So I spent a lot of time and thought and care and consideration into making sure that we really did respect the actors as people and craftspeople for that scene, especially for Sigourney who has such a great body of work behind her.
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By Ian Failes