Entertainment – Making the digital world appear real
In the making for over a decade, Avatar – estimated to have cost almost $500 million (including marketing) – has raked in over $1 billion till date. The sci-fi film owes much of its box-office success to the mind-boggling computer-generated imagery (CGI) and 3D imagery which does not fail to impress despite having seen films like The Matrix, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter and Shrek.
Traditionally, the digital world (like the Na’vi and the avatars) would have been added after the actors’ motions had been captured – a post-production task. James Cameron and his team, instead, created a “virtual” film camera which was integrated with a monitor which enabled him to see the characters on the screen, as they would appear in the film, and react with the digital surroundings and direct them.
Avatar was also filmed with newly-developed stereoscopic cameras – equivalent of two cameras strapped together, each providing a slightly different perspective on the scene, mimicking the way human eyes view the world in three dimensions. Other technological innovations included “The Volume” – a motion-capture stage six times larger than any previously used, and an improved method of capturing facial expressions which enabled full-performance capture. Actors wore customised skull caps fitted with a tiny camera positioned in front of their faces. The cameras captured their expressions and transmitted them to computers.
Moreover, to create the human mining colony on Pandora, production designers visited the Noble Clyde Boudreaux drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico and photographed, measured and filmed every aspect of the rig. It was then replicated on screen with CGI.
Digital visual effects at the Hollywood level require an incredible technology infrastructure that includes both hardware and software. For instance, a single frame of a film, once scanned and stored on a disk, consumes around 10 megabytes (MB) of disk space. All shots of The Patriot (by CFX), for instance, consumed 1.6 terabytes (TB). Moreover, individual artists need high-end desktop machines to work on and render individual models and layers. To render any animated 3-D figure or any effect like water or smoke, the computer’s processor (CPU) must generate millions of polygons, lines and points, and then light them correctly. It must do this over and over again for each frame of the shot.
In the case of Avatar, New Zealand-based WETA Digital – the company behind Gollum and The Lord Of The Rings – put together the hi-tech machinery. It had over 800 employees just working on effects, and 10,000 quad processing machines rendering farms alone – around 40,000 processors.
Meanwhile, with technological advancements like digital 3-D, animators make you believe you’re looking into a 3-D space rather than at a 2-D screen. Human beings have binocular vision – each eye sees a different image, and the brain combines them into a single, unified picture. To view three dimension, one needs 3D glasses too.
Old 3-D movies used glasses with tinted lenses to create a 3D effect. They used anaglyph images which include two colour layers in a single strip of film shown from one projector. One layer is predominately red, and the other is predominately blue or green. To watch the movie, you wear 3-D glasses with one red lens and one blue or green lens. Because of the differences between the two, the brain perceives them as one image with three dimensions. However, the final image isn’t very clear and some people experience headaches, eye strain and nausea.
At Disney World, Universal Studios and other 3-D venues, the preferred method (as also with Avatar) uses polarised lenses because they allow colour viewing. Two synchronised projectors project two views onto the screen – each with a different polarisation. The glasses allow only one of the images into each eye because they contain lenses with different polarisation. The polarised glasses allow only one of the images into each eye because each lens has a different polarisation.
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