Hailed for its innovative approach to the art of filmmaking, James Cameron’s stunning 3D epic Avatar was recently recognized by the American Film Institute as one of its 2009’s Moments of Significance for its impact on the world of the moving image.
According to AFI: “James Cameron’s pioneering effort to unleash the human imagination was fully realized in 2009 with the release of Avatar, a film that firmly established itself as a landmark in the way stories are told. With an army of technological wizards at his side, writer/director/producer/co-editor Cameron called upon the forces of art and technology to create new tools for storytelling that are groundbreaking in both scope and scale. The magic of the motion picture – and the transfer of its power to television and now video games – has always found its truest power in its immersive qualities, and with Cameron’s advances in CGI and 3D, Avatar enters AFI’s almanac as an achievement that will have profound effects on the future of the art form.”
Avatar has broken all box office records to become the biggest grossing movie of all time. It also collected three Oscars for art direction, cinematography and visual effects.
Much has been written about the bleeding- edge technology used to bring Cameron’s story to life, along with the Na’vi people and all of the richness that makes up the lush planet Pandora.
A combination of live action 3D cinematography, CGI and using performance capture, new tools and workflows were pioneered to realize the story. Avatar also had a simultaneous worldwide release in both 2D and 3D (including Imax) using three different aspect ratios, requiring roughly 10 versions of the film for North American release alone, in addition to the foreign language versions.
To meet many of the steep 3D postproduction challenges, Cameron relied on Modern VideoFilm and its three Quantel Pablo systems, with 4K and 3D real-time capabilities. The Quantel Neo control surface was also used.
The work completed on Pablo includes conforming and Stereo3D checking, adjustment and quality control. Crucially, the Pablos also handled all the Stereo3D English subtitling required for the Na’vi language used by some characters in the film. Modern VideoFilm conformed promotional materials as well as the estimated 10 North American versions in the Pablos. Work ran for nearly seven months, starting in June 2009.
Quantel began working with industry leaders early on to provide the tools needed to forward the Stereo3D market. Pablo’s precursor, iQ was used at Modern VideoFilm to complete James Cameron’s 2003 3D Imax film “Ghosts of the Abyss.”
Quantel has been working to forward and refine its toolset as 3D advances. For Avatar, the powerful Pablo uniquely allowed the artists at Modern VideoFilm to work in Stereo3D in realtime, with the same tools that they rely on for 2D postproduction. The system also offered extensive project management tools, as well as Quantel’s signature “Resolution Co-existence,” feature set, enabling Modern VideoFilm to successfully complete this groundbreaking production.
“The biggest job was to manage the thousands of shots that made up this movie. There were many different versions and we had to keep the reels and cuts current with editorial,” explains Roger Berger, Modern VideoFilm Supervising Editor and Lead Pablo Artist on Avatar.
“We were editing 24/7-updating lists, updating reels, updating versions, visual effects shots were coming in,” adds Mark Smirnoff, President of Modern VideoFilm Studio Services. “It was organic. We did not follow the traditional workflow.”
During production, a Pablo had as many as 12,000 clips online. In the end, the production consumed about 150 TB of SAN storage. In addition to completing the film itself, Modern VideoFilm met the demand for finishing movie footage for promotional events, each typically 10 to 20 minutes in length, all before the shots were finalized for the movie.
“The organizational tools on the Quantel system were really powerful in managing this massive amount of shots,” Berger says. “We do have other tools that do 3D but the Pablo is our tool of choice for solving all of the problems that get thrown at us. I couldn’t imagine doing Avatar without working in Stereo with the real-time results.”
DI artist Craig Price added that one of the organizational tools that was especially helpful was the Pablo’s ability to produce multiple timelines. “This is a feature on the Pablo whereby you can have several concurrent streams of video running at that same time,” he explains. “Within each stream you can edit an effect. What it meant for us is that we could run a confidence tape from editorial to see what they had cut, and then take the thousands of shots and line them up against the confidence tape. What made this more essential than normal is that we were doing this in Stereo. We needed the Pablo’s multiple timeline to be able to do that.”
For the Pablo artists, the system’s creative toolset was equally important to completing Avatar.
“Quantel really looked at 3D from top to bottom,” says Price. “Traditionally in stereo you edit for one eye, meaning that you are not seeing your end result until you are finished. But the Pablo tools enabled us to know that what we were doing was right, as well as deal with convergence issues, right then and there. It was not a factor of time savings, it was a factor of ‘I got the job done and it’s right.“
Berger adds that a big advantage was not just the 3D tools, but the fact that they were built into a familiar system. “There are a bunch of toolsets that we are used to using in terms of editorial and compositing that we have had for a long time, and what Quantel has done is given us the tools in Stereo. It is not that there is one tool, it’s more the fact that all of the tools that I’m used to using, I can use in 3D. And it didn’t require relearning.”
Modern VideoFilm found that Quantel’s Resolution Coexistence feature was particularly useful on “Avatar,” which involved multiple resolutions during the course of production.
Resolution Coexistence means that material of any resolution, color space and bit depth can be loaded into the Pablo without the need to re-start or partition the disk. Different material can then be combined in the same project and on the same timeline instantly saving time and disk space while delivering high quality results.
“Avatar was mastered in 2K, but there were some challenges in terms of mixing resolution,” Price says. “There were a number of shots that in this case, particularly because of the Imax distribution, had renders in resolutions such as 3K and 4K.
With the Resolution Coexistence offered by Pablo, we could run different formats in a timeline without it being a problem.” Adds Smirnoff: “That is not a new tool, but that has always been a leg up for Quantel.”
“Avatar” required subtitles-even for the English language versions of the epic, as they were used to translate the Na’vi language used in the film. Subtitling for a Stereo movie can be a complex process as the subtitles must sit at the right place in 3D space to avoid conflict with the 3D content. The Pablo’s realtime Stereo3D toolset enabled the subtitles to be viewed instantly and repositioned in 3D space in realtime.
“Since there are no rules in 3D subtitling, every one we did, we had to figure out every position,” Price relates. “Subtitles tended to appear in slightly different locations in the frames, depending on the different levels of convergence.”
In some cases, the team changed the parallax of the Stereo3D subtitle within a single shot. For instance, in one shot the translation follows Neytiri’s mother as she walks toward the camera while talking to the Na’vi people. “As she walked forward, we didn’t want her walking through the subtitle. So we tracked the subject first and changed the parallax during the shot,” Price explains.
Adds Smirnoff: “Subtitles were constantly changing, even between versions. Since it was released in different aspect ratios, the versions required changes to the locations of the subtitles within each shot.”
3D Goes Mainstream
With a record number of Stereo 3D features slated for release in 2010, and many more in production for 2011 and behind, the 3D theatrical market is poised for growth. Meanwhile, with major consumer electronics manufacturers launching 3D TV sets for the home, it looks like the market for Stereo3D postproduction services will only grow.
As Avatar opened, the Blu-ray Disk Association (BDA) finalized and released its technical specification for a 3D Blu-ray format, enabling the consumer launch of 3D capable Blu-Ray players and disks. The broadcast and cable industries are also starting to act. For instance, the UK’s Sky Broadcasting is slated to launch a 3D channel later this year, supporting movies as well as sports and other entertainment content.
Smirnoff reported that testing for the creation of 3D home entertainment deliverables has started, and the Quantel Pablo has been central to this effort as Stereo3D postproduction services become a requirement of the emerging market.
Copyright Quantel 2010.