Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"Avatar" and ILM

Hi, folks. Here's my big "Avatar" post, and there will probably be a few more about James Cameron's film in the coming weeks.

The overwhelming global box office dominance of "Avatar" continues, and with it, more stories about the process of creating the world of Pandora and its inhabitants are hitting newsstands. The industry leader of visual effects journalism is Don Shay's Cinefex, whose magazine which has inspired legions of visual effects fans and professionals (myself included). Cinefex #120, the January 2010 issue, covers "Avatar," along with "The Road" and "2012."

As an aside, the magazine also features the most astounding quote I've read in some time. "2012" visual effects supervisor Volker Engel describes Roland Emmerich's script for the disaster film: "... we though it was the best script that we ever got from Roland. It worked on so many levels, not just 'let's destroy everything we can and make it visually fantastic.' The characters worked well, and there were some very emotional moments [in the script]." Did he just say that with a straight face?

An image from Roland Emmerich's "2012." A fast, efficient way to anger Todd Vaziri is to add anamorphic lens flares to a non-anamorphic film.

Jody Duncan's Cinefex article on "Avatar" goes into great detail on how Weta Digital interpreted James Cameron's vision, and is the definitive text on the film's visual effects. As described in the article, with about a year remaining to deliver the final picture, Cameron and Weta awarded some 600 shots to other visual effects shops, including Industrial Light & Magic, which took on over 180 shots. The ILM shots were carefully chosen as to not contain any hero animation work (which was being completed at Weta), and heavily featured vehicles, certain Pandora environments, and battle sequences. The division of labor was crafted to be as logical as possible-- but it still required an extraordinary amount of coordination and cooperation between Weta, ILM and other vendors who shared assets, in order to make the work as seamless as possible. In the final film, you might see two Weta shots, then two ILM shots, then Weta and ILM shots back-to-back. We spent a great deal of time ensuring a seamless blend of our work; our hope was that audiences felt no perceptible change in quality, texture or feel between the different vendors' effects shots.

Due to the overwhelming amount of innovation involved with Weta's work on the film, the vast majority of Duncan's article focuses on Cameron and Weta's collaboration, but only has a few paragraphs about ILM's involvement. We're very proud to have six our our images published within the article.

Since "Avatar's" release, several articles about the films' visual effects have appeared to supplement the Cinefex article. A snapshot of these articles includes: VFXWorld, Cameron Geeks Out On "Avatar," VFXWorld, "Avatar," The Game Changer, and 30 Ninjas, Three-Part Interview with "Avatar's" John Bruno.

And then there's this CNet article, which is the only article I have yet to find that specifically focuses ILM's work on the film: CNet: ILM steps in to help finish 'Avatar' visual effects.

That headline makes me squirm, since the reader might get the wrong impression, as if the folks at Weta needed 'rescuing.' Headlines, by their very nature, only give you the slightest impression of the story, and tease you to read on. But I pushed this squirmy feeling aside, chalking it up to my increased sensitivity to visual effects journalism.

For the most part, the article by Daniel Terdiman does a nice job of giving an overview of ILM's work. He interviewed ILM visual effects supervisor John Knoll, and even gave more details on our work than the Cinefex article. For example:

For the most part, the teams at ILM and Weta worked on different scenes, but Knoll said there were some in which the two companies handles different parts of the same sequence. An example, he said, was a scene in the film where a group of helicopters attack the giant "home tree," where the Navi, the humanoid alien race in the film, live. Knoll said that the effects in the scene were mainly put together by Weta, but ILM handled all the shots in which the camera looks back toward the choppers. In the scenes where the two effects houses both were charged with creating shots, the challenge was figuring out how to "checkerboard" the shots, Knoll said, especially because in some cases, ILM didn't know what Weta's work looked like. "You keep cutting back between ILM shots and Weta shots," Knoll said. "They're really intermixed. I was worried, because we had to get going and go pretty far down the line before we had any Weta shots to refer to. We were both doing development in parallel."

However, near the top of the article, there was this unfortunate paragraph:

Weta Digital... was a bit in over its head. For ILM, this wasn't the first time it had been called in to help rescue another effects house, but it may well have been the first time it did so for one as big and as accomplished as Weta. And while ILM's overall contribution to the finished film was minor compared to Weta's, the fact that "Avatar" came out on time and is being seen as a visual tour de force is certainly due, in part, to ILM's ability to come in and, if not save the day, at least contribute mightily to the day turning out well.

911 work by its very nature is a sensitive issue for effects houses. The situation is nothing new (effects houses have been collaborating to finish a film for decades), but with the current climate of filmmakers demanding ever-increasingly difficult work and studios continuing to shrink post-production schedules, 911 work is as frequent as ever. As aggressive as effects houses need to be during the bidding process, we all respect one another and realize we are part of the same family. We all understand that, in most cases, when an effects house becomes overburdened with an impossible-to-complete body of work, it usually has more to do with studios and filmmakers' failure to accurately predict the scope of the work (combined with inexcusably small effects budgets), rather than failure on the effects' houses end.

Thankfully, a few days after the original publication of the original CNet article, the controversial paragraph was significantly altered, along with the following end note:

For ILM, this wasn't the first time it had been called in to help aid another effects house, but it may well have been the first time it did so for one as big and as accomplished as Weta. To be sure, ILM's overall contribution to the finished film was minor compared to Weta's, but nonetheless critical in helping get the film to its final, finished state, Knoll suggested.

footnote: The fifth paragraph in this story was updated on December 22 to better reflect Knoll's statements of how and when ILM came to be involved in "Avatar" and what the company's impact on it was.

The new, altered fifth paragraph of the story gives a slightly more accurate description of how ILM came to work on "Avatar," but does not expand on the delicate sensitivities involved with 911 work in our industry. And the article still contained the unfortunate phrase "Weta was a bit in over its head." Perhaps, someday, someone will write an essay on this aspect of the visual effects industry. The issue of 911 work is not only emotionally heated but can be economically dangerous. No effects house wants to ever appear as though they cannot deliver work on time and on budget, without the risk of losing out on future studio work. The issue is a public-relations minefield, and will probably remain shrouded in mystery, silence, and remain in the shadows (yet openly and frankly discussed privately amongst visual effects professionals).

Back to the CNet story. Since its original publish date, the CNet article was apparently syndicated to other websites, several of which apparently decided to re-write the headline. After a copy of the article appeared on several dozen other news websites, we were quite shocked to read an article headlined "How ILM Rescued Avatar's Special Effects," which was a popular rewriting of the original headline (here's an example). Although the content of the article was identical, the headline, as it appeared in other venues, went from 'nearly inaccurate' to 'completely inaccurate.' ILM was brought on to help finish the movie, not to 'save' or 'rescue' the film. This wrong implication out in the world does nothing to help ILM's reputation. The syndicators' rewriting of an already painful headline was unfortunate.

And, to add insult to injury, some of the re-printed, syndicated versions of the article have the original, controversial, 'save the day' fifth paragraph intact. Ugh.

The artists at ILM were very proud and grateful to have made a contribution to James Cameron's vision, and were astounded and amazed by Weta Digital's extraordinary work. It's a shame that the CNet article had to unfold in a shoddy manner.

A much more detailed and tech-heavy exploration of ILM's work on "Avatar" took place in a recent FXGuide podcast. Make sure you listen to FXGuide's January 15 podcast, where Mike Seymour interviews John Knoll, and goes deep into the specifics of our body of work, as well as a lengthy discussion of stereo 3D techniques (scroll down to the "Avatar: ILM" podcast). FXGuide podcast host John Montgomery actually mentions the CNet article in his introduction to the interview, concurring that the tone of the article was not faithful to the collaborative spirit of the work.


geoff said...

great post!

shanep said...

Great post Todd.

I skipped 2012.

Congrats on the VES nom BTW.

ILM's work on Avatar fit right in with Weta's. The only thing I knew going in was that you guys helped with the Home Tree attack but everything seemed whole. No "switch off" or anything.

Blogmaster said...

Good explanatory post. I know a number of people who work at Weta, and the headlines really rankled. Weta have been conspicuously quiet on their Avatar work. Perhaps they have a deal with Cameron not to 'steal his thunder'?

Either way, great movie and well done to all the VFX guys involved.

Todd said...

>Blogmaster said...
Weta have been conspicuously quiet on their Avatar work. Perhaps they have a deal with Cameron not to 'steal his thunder'?

It's important to understand that effects houses are vendors-- the studio, if it wishes to be, can completely control the information and publicity surrounding their films. (In rare cases, effects houses are not even allowed to acknowledge their contribution to a certain film.) So, in Avatar's case, Cameron/Lightstorm/Fox have been extremely precise with their publicity campaign, and this includes the careful and deliberate rollout of visual effects publicity.

There are now dozens upon dozens of articles discussing Weta's extraordinary work on the film (with the Cinefex article leading the way), with several including interviews with Joe Letteri, Erik Winquist, and others.

Mark said...

Sorry, I'm italian and i don't think fully understand the article.

I have a question:

Finally, the ILM saved avatar, or not ?

ILM has worked on Avatar because the film was risk to slip... OR NOT ?

Carlknibb said...

No Mark, ILM did not save Avatar. Weta would have been just fine without any help. It was simply a matter of time running short that ILM and others were brought on board to help with non character shots.

Great post Todd, it's crazy that vfx houses are subject to the idiocy of the media aswell as being screwed by studios, when the fx industry has so much input into the creation of these massive money earners.

It's time for the revolution.

shanep said...

Unless fx companies own the characters and their work, no the revolution will not be televised. :P

joe_h said...

Regardless, Weta isn't fit to stand in the shadow of ILM. None of their character work on Avatar even touches the Davey Jones work by ILM.