Behind the Scenes Look at the Motion Capture Technology Used in AVATAR

Neytiri CGI AVATAR director James Cameron’s own research and needs for creating a realistic alien world in the blockbuster movie lead to him developing a performance capture camera. In AVATAR, motion capture is achieved with several cameras positioned around a huge sound stage as well as special equipment on the actors themselves. Here's a look at the motion capture and computer generated imagery (CGI) technology Cameron pioneered and how it works.

Guest post by Christian Cawley

How was James Cameron able to create the amazing effects in AVATAR? AVATAR saw the adoption of new cinematic techniques – and in some cases the development of new technology – in order for director James Cameron to apply his unique vision of the world of Pandora to the cinema screen.

The world of Pandora was the result of years of development and artistic conceptualizing. The key to the success of AVATAR are the Na’vi, their design and how the actors playing them were able to portray the most realistic intelligent alien society seen on screen to date, not by applying makeup or prosthetics, but by simply acting out their moves in front of special motion capture equipment.

Capturing Movement and Performance

In order for James Cameron to realize his vision for AVATAR, motion capture technology transformed Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and others into members of the blue-skinned, Amazonian Na’vi race, the indigenous people of Pandora.

Whether the actor concerned was playing a Na’vi or a human avatar designed to look like a member of this tribal society, filming of scenes featuring the blue-skinned creatures had to take place in very different surroundings to those usually encountered by actors and actresses.

Traditional movies use a sound stage for shooting scenes; for AVATAR, James Cameron introduced a motion-capture stage, an area made up of several motion capture cameras designed to record and transform into digital information both the movements of the actors and their facial expressions.

Performance Capture – AVATAR's Crowning Glory

Motion capture is only half of the story. Bringing together an enhanced form of the motion capture technology used to create Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy with James Cameron’s virtual camera system allowed the motion of the actors to be instantly recorded, converted into digital information and relayed to the director as an augmented reality on a monitor. With this, Cameron was able to alter angles and look around the whole virtual landscape while in front of him the actors went about their business in front of an array of positioned cameras.

Performance capture, AVATAR’s real star, allowed the actors to display emotion and speak, move their heads, blink and so on while apparently looking like a member of the Na’vi but without applying a single drop of makeup.

Director James Cameron pioneered a brand new type of camera specifically designed for this purpose. Worn by the actors like a skull cap, the device is equipped with a small boom that hangs over the forehead and places a camera around 6 inches from the actor's face.

This improved method of capturing facial expressions was then recorded digitally and used later on by animators to deliver the most revolutionary computer generated imagery (CGI) performances seen on film.

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Were you aware of the CGI effects in AVATAR while watching the movie or did you just get lost in the story?


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