Bringing life to ‘Avatar’

By Joel Crabtree, Special to the BDN
Posted Dec. 17, 2009, at 6:18 p.m.

It’s a long way from Maine to Pandora, a fictional world created by James Cameron, the Oscar-winning director of “Titanic” and “Terminator.” But that’s just where two Maine natives ended up.

Bangor-born Eric Saindon, who spent a portion of his childhood in Glenburn, and Winterport native John Clisham have dedicated much of the last three years toiling away on the sci-fi epic “Avatar,” which hits theaters today.

Cameron’s latest project stars Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, a Marine who has been paralyzed from the waist down. Sully is given the opportunity to walk again “driving” an Avatar, a body that is a hybrid of a human and a Na’vi, the indigenous species populating Pandora. Military crews from Earth begin to encroach on the land of the Na’vi in search of priceless minerals. The Na’vi and the humans clash and Sully is forced to choose which side of the battle he’s on.

Saindon, a visual effects supervisor for Weta Digital in New Zealand, said the scale of “Avatar” was the most challenging part of the project. “There were so many shots and so much to do in this,” Saindon said. “It was pretty much a full-generated jungle and planet, basically. And we had three years to do it.”

About 10 years ago Saindon landed his job at Weta Digital, the special effects brainchild of a group of New Zealanders including director Peter Jackson.

Saindon was brought on to work on “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

“[I] thought it was going to be a one-year project. My wife thought it was going to be a one-year project,” he said. “We just never left.”

Clisham, who described his role at Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment as a vague umbrella that anything electronic hangs under, said that much of the director’s inspiration for “Avatar’s” visual effects came from Gollum in “Lord of the Rings.”

Cameron had the idea for “Avatar” years before “Titanic” got the greenlight. When Cameron pitched the idea to Digital Domain, the company he worked with at the time, it was rejected because it was considered too high a risk, Clisham said.

He said seeing Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” movies reinvigorated the director’s vision for the project.

“I remember back when we did our prototypes, like an early test, I heard the name Weta constantly from the very beginning,” Clisham said. “And it was because of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and a lot of the ‘Kong’ stuff too.”

The Fusion Camera System, which Cameron helped design on the documentaries “Ghosts of the Abyss” and “Aliens of the Deep,” enabled the director to shoot “Avatar” in 3-D.

To create the data for the film’s effects, the actors wore markers and sensors for cameras to capture their movements in real time. Cameron watched what the actors looked like as 9-foot blue aliens through a virtual camera.

“[T]hat allowed us to see what we were getting. And then we would turn that data — that raw mo-cap [motion-capture] data — over to Weta Digital.”

For “Avatar,” Saindon worked early mornings and late nights up until late November when Weta completed its part of the film. The movie’s 3-D effects posed a challenge for the crew.

“You can’t do the cheats that we can do on a regular 2-D movie,” Saindon said. “So in like ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Kong,’ if something was not fitting in the ground properly or in the wrong depth plane, you could just stick something in front of King Kong’s foot or put a little bit of smoke in front to hide where they’re actually sitting in space.” Everything in “Avatar” had to be precise.

The Weta Digital crew spent the first two years figuring out the process to finish the film. The last year was spent on labor-intensive rendering.

Clisham said, “The amount of detail that’s really been focused on the actual 3-D” is what separates “Avatar” from other 3-D movies.

On the live-action shoot in New Zealand, Cameron’s crew had a portable 3-D screening room for every take. Cameron or the director of photography could go into the “pod” and see exactly how the take looked instantly with two cinema-grade projectors.

Clisham noted that gadgets such as the pod make working with Cameron “really freakin’ cool.”

Clisham began working for Lightstorm as an intern in 2002. He was hired on in 2005 to work for the company’s Sector Five division.

“[T]here’s so much technology around,” Clisham said. “There’s never been a problem where it’s like ‘you guys can’t get this or can’t get that.’ ”

When Clisham started working with the camera on the motion-capture set, he was intimidated by Cameron’s presence. “It was like ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve heard the stories about what he’s like on set. He’s going to rip me apart. I’m toast.’ He wasn’t that bad. He’s just really into it. Probably the most focused person I’ve ever seen.”

Saindon, who teleconferenced with Cameron nearly every day while working on the movie, said it is the director’s knowledge of the technical side of filmmaking and his understanding of every shot’s importance that separates him from other filmmakers.

“Jim really can push the boundaries because he really knows what could be done,” Saindon said, “and then he wants us to go a step further usually.”

That step further could bring more accolades to Weta Digital during this year’s awards season. Weta has been nominated for several Academy Awards in the past and won four.

Saindon said that the awards are fun and humbling, but the real reward is working on something that the whole world has the opportunity to see.

However, Saindon still hopes “Avatar” and Weta will be recognized at the Academy Awards. “I think it’s pretty amazing work,” he said. “Avatar” was announced last week as one of the 15 semifinalists for Best Special Effects at the Oscars.

Weta Digital just began work on Stephen Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” and the crew also plans to return to Middle Earth with Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Hobbit.”

“It’ll be fun to go back to Middle Earth again. And get back to Gollum and back to all those characters,” Saindon said.

Clisham hopes to return to the director’s chair with a follow-up to his Xbox Live short film “Janitor,” which he made while working on “Avatar.”

“A lot of people told me I was insane for trying to do that in the midst of ‘Avatar,’” Clisham said. “Now that I actually did it, it opened a lot of doors.”

Clisham is looking to direct a $3 million to $4 million horror movie in the near future. But for now, he said, “It’s all ‘Avatar’ all the time.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/12/17/living/bringing-life-to-lsquoavatarrsquo/ printed on September 15, 2014