When it comes to Avatar, there are mixed opinions. Some people dig the 3-D. Others think it’s an overused and underwhelming device. Some say the story has been sacrificed in favor of the visuals. All I can say is that I’ve never seen 3-D employed in this manner, and I was blown away by not just the scope and depth of Pandora, but in the realistic weight and texture of the Na’vi characters. In 3-D, these 10-foot-tall blue creatures looked very real to me, from muscle definition in the face all the way down to the way they walk.
The day after my first Avatar screening, I spoke with Jon Landau, the film’s producer, and asked him why his CG creatures were a world apart from anything we had ever seen before (except perhaps Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films). “Some people don’t quite understand how this new process works, and it’s important when you start talking about characters and the quality of the performance. We’ve devised a system that is performance-focused, it’s about giving the actors the confidence that their performances will come through in their CG characters. And we did a test early on to prove this; a 35-second sequence of when Jake and Neytiri first meet that we developed as a prototype. It’s the sort of thing that was enough to convince someone like Sigourney Weaver, a true thespian, that it could work. The key to this is that it’s an image-based process for facial capture. They didn’t wear markers on the face or anything like that, they worked with cameras that filmed their face and then we could do a frame-by-frame, pore-by-pore analysis. The key for us was to make sure that models were built correctly, not just on the outside, but on the inside, that there would be something muscular to the bodies,” Landau explained. (Read Techland’s interview with James Cameron)
But he made it clear that developing this motion capture process was not simple, quick or cheap. Landau said the key difference in the case of Avatar was that a studio was willing to bankroll the needed research to make it a reality: “There were hurdles with the studio. The movie we were doing was not based on a TV show, it was not a franchise. It was about blue people with tails. And of course the studio asked us: Could you lose the tails, do they need to be blue? So the studio almost changed. But they always wanted to make the movie and find a way, and so part of what we said was: ‘Most movies have to run before they can walk, just give us the time we need to learn how to walk. Support us with the R&D.’ So for 12 months, they gave us the freedom and we showed them this prototype and this concept art and then we were able to prove to them what was possible.”
Landau says he knew this great motion capture experiment was going to work when he first sat down in a screening room with Sam Worthington, who plays Jake Sully. “He and I were alone in a screening room and we get to the scene where his avatar wakes up for the first time and I’m watching Sam and this grin comes across his face. And then he erupts in giggles and turns to me and says: ‘Jon, that was a good giggle, that character is me, that character has my soul.’ I knew then, if we can please Sam, we can please an audience.” (Read Techland’s Avatar review)
Then again, they’ve done more than simply please the audience. I’ve seen the film twice now, and when I look at the character of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), I see a fully formed performance – brimming with emotions and personality. To me, it’s not a blue glob of special effects to me, like Jar Jar Binks was; it’s an expressive, dynamic being. And I think it’s hard not to recognize Saldana for delivering one of the year’s most riveting performances – even if it was filmed in a medium, with a video camera strapped on top of her head. I wasn’t shy in telling Landau this, and then I had to apologize for sounding like a fawning fanboy. “No, from your lips to their ears,” he said. “I’ve been very excited by how much people are taking away from this movie, not just enjoying it at the theater but thinking and talking on their way out of the theater. And when you talk about Zoe, that’s not special effects. That’s her performance. It’s all there. Why can Eric Stoltz get nominated for Mask (1985), playing through all that makeup, but Zoe can’t because the skin is created by a computer. There is no difference, in my opinion, none whatsoever. She creates an unforgettable character.”
So now the same team that won over a studio, and then a global audience, with its fictional universe is throwing down the gauntlet to the Academy: Neytiri for best actress.