Los Angeles Times
‘AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER’
James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel isn’t so much a marriage of concept, production design, cinematography, sound, costumes, acting and visual effects as a new creature with the DNA of each.
“We get involved pretty early, because we’re helping with character design, we’re helping building out the world,” says visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri. Fantastic environments and action aside, the film’s ultimate success is determined by whether it can make viewers forget they’re watching nine-foot-tall, blue aliens and see the actors’ performances instead.
“This new facial system is the key,” Letteri says. “It allows us to look into what the face does [inside], so we understand better what the actors do. We built a neural network that can analyze the performances. That was a real breakthrough. If you move one muscle on your face, muscles on the other side of your face move; they’re all connected [underneath].”
They scanned the actors through a range of facial expressions and speech exercises. Cameron sat with actors and went through their entire performances with eight cameras trained on them. The resultant data — “tens of thousands of frames we fed into the system,” says Letteri — powered the engine that translated human performers into Na’vi characters.
“There’s a shot of Kiri when she’s been captured in the forest in the rain — it’s Sigourney Weaver playing a 14-year-old — it shows how this new system can express an actor’s performance through any character they want, even if it’s not how they look now. We live and die in the close-ups.”