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5 ways tech will change movies forever

"We could measure exactly what Marilyn Monroe's eyes and eyelids are doing and process that"

To celebrate the release of Avatar’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray (which you can now pre-order from Amazon) Fox Movies kindly invited us out to Weta Digital, the special effects house that helped bring the Nav’vi to life, for a chinwag about the tech used to make the film. 

Here are five ways the film’s producer and Weta’s geeks-in-chief think gadgetry will change movies and the way they are made:

Sigourney Weaver’s character Dr. Grace Augustine in Avatar

1. The Best Actor Oscar will go to a lead playing a digital character

“I think it will happen soon. James Cameron and I were out with the Screen Actors Guild recently. There’s such a lack of understanding of the ‘virtual production‘ process, but they’re just starting to get their heads around it. When James said at Comic-Con 2009 that Zoe Saldana had rehearsed the part of Naitiri in Avatar for several months, people just laughed. But F Murray Abraham won an Oscar for Amadeus through make-up in 1984 – I think we need to get the acting community to accept this as the replacement for make-up.”

Jon Landau, Producer Avatar/Titanic

Using Mari software to turn each actor’s ‘alphabet’ of facial expressions into their ‘avatars’

2. Face capture will bring actors back from the dead

“I do believe it’s possible. You can tell a lot about what’s going on in the face from a few basic motions. If you see say Marilyn Monroe performing on screen, we could measure exactly what her eyes and eyelids are doing and process that. The contour of the eyelids tells you a lot about which muscles are active because it’s quite a unique combination, and it’s the same for the mouth. If we get those right we’re 90% of the way there.”  

Dr. Mark Sagar, Special Projects Supervisor, Weta Digital

One of the low-res templates that were passed over to Weta Digital to turn into a final shot 

3. The rise of 3D is inevitable

“3D is just the way humans perceive the world around them. In 150 years do you imagine people sitting around watching flat TVs on the wall? It’s the technology and understanding of the process that’s limited us in the past. When we saw the first versions of Avatar in template form James Cameron had already set up the 3D. It should be the way movies are made as long as it’s a consideration from the start. I think it’s no different from colour or stereo sound.”

Guy Williams, Visual Effects Supervisor, Weta Digital

The virtual stage at Weta Digital where actors were shot with a ‘virtual camera’

4. Augmented reality will revolutionise the way films are made

“Everything in Avatar was designed to take the idea of ‘live action’ filming and bring it into the digital world. With virtual production, you’re free to move between worlds and this gives directors a lot of flexibility. It’s no longer the director saying to visual effects teams ‘give me something that looks like this’. It’s them picking up the virtual camera and saying ‘here’s my shot – now go and make it look real.’”

Joe Letteri, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor, Weta Digital

Actors in motion capture suits on the ‘virtual stage’ at Weta Digital

5. Gaming and movies will start to merge

“I think you’ll see a sharing of assets and you’ll see both relying on each other to expand the worlds. Maybe if you see the movie it will enable you get to unlock a level in a game. Or if you play the game you’ll discover something that people watching the movie won’t get to see. But this whole idea of virtual production – where actors’ facial expressions and movements are captured as data rather than photographed, then fed through an animation ‘pipeline‘ so they can be integrated into a virtual world – is going to have an influence through all forms of entertainment, from video games, through television, through to live events”.

Jon Landau, Producer Avatar/Titanic