Once Again, MotionBuilder Will Be the Go-To Virtual Production Tool

Lightstorm Entertainment's Jon Landau took the stage briefly at Autodesk's SIGGRAPH user group event last night in Anaheim, CA, to talk about planned virtual production techniques for Avatar 2. He said the system will work much the same way it did for the first film — only much, much better.

"It wasn't previs," he said, recalling the "Simulcam" system that made the film's virtual world visible in the viewfinder of a live camera shooting it. "It was vis vis. If the camera shook, we wanted the camera to shake. If the actor stuttered a line, we wanted the actor to stutter the line." And he showed clips of the servicable but almost charmingly lo-fi imagery that was viewed on set, and communicated director James Cameron's intent to the visual effects team that had to execute on it.

The question the Avatar team asked itself after that film was finished, Landau said, was, "What would we do different?" The crew wanted to send more detailed imagery, including lighting, to Weta directly out of MotionBuilder. Better images would also make for better decisions in editorial, he noted.

The collaboration between Lightstorm, Autodesk, and Weta is a "work in progress," Landau said. But he did show some footage that was generated during live capture at Giant Studios in November 2012. It was a dramatically richer, more detailed template for the final VFX work. Landau called it "our first foray" into a second-generation virtual production system.

Right now, that footage represents what can be provided to Weta to guide VFX development. But the next step, Landau said, is to get the "Simulcam" footage to look that good while the film is being shot — to allow Cameron to actually light his virtual scenes during the shoot. The tech isn't there yet. But they're working on it.

In time, Landau said, the pioneering work on the Avatar films will provide a template for other filmmakers, who will leverage similar technology on lesser budgets, bringing old-school production techniques to very modern, VFX-heavy projects. "That's very exciting," Landau said, "We're about preserving the filmmaking experience."