Prime Focus Adds Graphic Dimension to Avatar
December 21, 2009

Prime Focus Adds Graphic Dimension to Avatar

Los Angeles, Calif. - Prime Focus, a global visual entertainment services group, has contributed a number of shots to James Cameron's stereoscopic 3D feature film Avatar. The movie, which stars Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, and Sigourney Weaver, hits theaters Dec. 18 and features numerous stereographic and "Holotable" displays, animated graphics, immersive environments, and other visual effects created by Prime
A team of approximately 90 was spread across Prime Focus' Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Winnipeg facilities, with president and senior visual effects supervisor Chris Bond and visual effects producer Chris Del Conte driving the project out of the LA office. Graphics Supervisor Neil Huxley art directed and oversaw the design of the motion graphics elements. The bulk of Prime Focus' work was done for the film's Bio lab and Ops Center, the bustling hub for military operations and one of the key environments in the film.

"Our experience working with stereoscopic 3D material, both on the movie Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D and through our proprietary View-D technology, more than prepared us for Avatar," says Bond. "Having the resources of our talented teams across Winnipeg and Vancouver at our disposal and set up for remote collaboration with our Los Angeles crew also meant we could ramp up at a moment's notice when we were awarded additional shots."

Prime Focus designed displays for the Op Center's Holotable over which the film's main characters discuss their missions and plans to mine a valuable mineral found on the planet Pandora. In one key scene, the film's
protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) bring up a three-dimensional hologram of the "Home Tree," where the Navi, Pandora's indigenous population, live.

Using the original live-action plate of a table with a greenscreen across the top, Prime Focus modeled the hardware that went inside the table, the projector beams, and added graphics projected above the table of the terrain, including the Home Tree. These graphics were designed in 2D in Adobe Illustrator, animated in Adobe After Effects, placed on cards in 3D and rendered in Autodesk 3ds Max. Prime Focus Software's Krakatoa particle system was used for the 3D terrain, which gave the images a scan-lined LIDAR-like quality, as if a satellite roving the planet's atmosphere captured the footage.

To make the Ops Center feel alive and bustling with activity, Prime Focus also designed interactive stereographic displays for dozens of screens, so every monitor screen had a sense of movement and depth. Each screen was composed of four-to-eight layers, rendered in different passes and composited together.

"Chris Bond and our pipeline team developed a custom graphics script we dubbed SAGI, for Screen Art Graphic Interface," shares Huxley. "This script takes Adobe After Effects renders and binds them to a 3ds Max assembly file, which would negate human error. Considering that some of our shots had 30 screens in them, trying to work out which graphic goes into which screen would be very time-consuming. SAGI helped us streamline this process so if James didn't like a particular graphic, we could easily swap it out. This enabled us to turn around client revisions very quickly. James would give us the change, the graphics team would address the note, render it through SAGI overnight, re-comp the graphic in the am and then watch it down in our Real-D theater in stereo 3D, do a quality check in stereo, and have it ready for James to check 24 hours after giving us the initial note."

The Prime Focus VFX team also created displays called Immersives that provided a 180-degree stereo perspective, allowing military personnel to control air traffic flow in 3D. Additionally, Prime Focus contributed CG helicopters, buildings, and atmospheric elements seen from the Ops Center and Commissary windows in several sequences.

Says Del Conte, "Much has been said about James Cameron's incredible vision as a director, his hands-on style and the very high bar he set for all his visual effects vendors, so playing a part in bringing Avatar to life has been a fantastic experience for our team."