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Venturing on set of James Cameron's latest Avatar film [cnet.com] can be as meaningful as you'd expect.
Visual effects supervisor Eric Saindon [imdb.com] paid Cameron a visit in 2016, just after he'd left the New Zealand premiere of Pete's Dragon [metacritic.com]. If you don't know of Saindon, he's the creature expert behind not only Pete's pal, but Gollum [wikipedia.org]. His credentials are second to none.
Saindon's work with Cameron 10 years ago on the first Avatar led to what became a, well, friendly work lecture.
Saindon says, "I walked onto the stage and Jim came over to me and said, 'Hey, you're doing this Battle film?'"
In an alternative reality, Cameron would now be the director of Alita: Battle Angel [cnet.com], crashing into cinemas on Feb. 14 in the US. It's a story that isn't straightforward to describe.
Based on Yukito Kishiro's cyberpunk manga Battle Angel Alita, it follows Alita, a young female cyborg suffering memory loss. As she tries to piece together who she is, she gets up to various antics in Iron City, a futuristic metropolis populated by many an untoward character.
In 2005, Cameron had the choice: take on Avatar, what was then known as Project 880, or the adaptation of Battle Angel Alita. The doe-eyed Alita ultimately came second to the blue people with tails, and Cameron handed the project over to director friend Robert Rodriguez.
"I thought he was gonna do Battle Angel to be honest," Saindon says.
That didn't stop Cameron from discussing it on the Avatar 2 set. "So let's talk about how you're gonna do it," Cameron told Saindon. "What you're gonna do, what it's gonna look like."
Turns out Cameron had ideas in mind for how he wanted Saindon to not only build a believable CGI heroine but keep the character's over-proportioned manga eyes and translate them to the silver screen.
"So it was no pressure at all getting told what to do from Jim Cameron," Saindon says.
Even so, Alita was not exactly a walk in the park.
"To get her to another level where she still fits in with the other characters and doesn't look like a CG character, that was the biggest challenge of the whole movie," Saindon says.
With film audiences now extremely literate when it comes to good and bad CGI, Saindon had to figure out how to make Alita more relatable -- and less creepy.
"If we've done the job well enough... you know she's CG but you don't think twice about it," Saindon says.
The team played with the size and position of Alita's manga eyes to the point they have a bizarre collection of images showing the different stages of Alita.
To help on set, Alita actress Rosa Salazar [cnet.com] wore a performance capture suit, but that wasn't enough on its own to ensure Alita fit in with the in-proportion humanoid characters. It took rendering a digital version of Salazar -- and an orange -- for the character to click.
Saindon says in one of the first scenes they shot, Alita meets Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz [metacritic.com]), who offers her a piece of fruit. Alita, who don't forget has memory loss, bites into the unpeeled orange.
"Her whole body tenses up," Saindon says. "Exactly what you would expect if you bit an orange, that whole cringing, and the crinkled face."
Saindon and his team matched that part of Salazar's performance with their painstakingly built digital double, transferring her motions and subtleties onto Alita.
Luckily, it was good. It was so good, Salazar herself could hardly believe what the visual effects guys had created. "She looked at it, started laughing and said, 'That's me! But it's not me!' Even she saw the subtleties of her performance back into Alita," Saindon says.
Weta's new technologies are also being used on the four upcoming Avatar movies. They include developments such as shooting with two cameras instead of one, allowing visual effects artists to capture the depth of an actor's face and graduate the image from the 2D plane. Saindon and his team even created full hair simulations for Alita. That's a lot of attention to detail.
Saindon's also upgraded from Lord of the Rings, featuring the similarly big-eyed Gollum.
"On Gollum, his eyes were just two polygonal planes with displacement on them, so the eyes were quite simple geometry, just with a lot of shader tricks to give the depth and information to make the eyes look like a volume," Saindon says.
Alita, on the other hand, involved generating the fibres of her eyes, giving them proper shading, refraction and movement through the eye itself.
Saindon says his team used 50,000 polygons for all of Gollum. (Polygons are used in computer graphics to compose 3D images.) For Alita, each individual eye is 9 million polygons.
Saindon will be working on the upcoming Avatars at some point, he just doesn't know when yet. He's got another movie to take on next with Pete's Dragon director David Lowery called Green Knight, a King Arthur fantasy epic.
But before any of that, his previous boss has to approve of Alita.
"What's great is [co-producer] Jon Landau actually called me last night when I was sitting on the couch at home," Saindon says, thinking at the time Cameron would berate him with notes.
Instead, according to Landau, "Jim just watched the movie all by himself and he loved it.
"He had no notes and he loved it."
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