According to one of James Cameron’s closest colleagues on the creation of the Avatar movie, game development techniques were fundamental in the creation of the world’s most successful movie.
"Jim [James Cameron] had total control when making Avatar; the most control a director has ever had over their film, or at least over a CG-based work," suggested Nolan Murtha, digital effects supervisor at movie studio Lighthouse Entertainment, which created Avatar. Speaking at today’s Imagina conference in Monaco, he added. "To give that control, we had to employ a number of video game development tricks."
"Previously it took months for a developer of a CG movie to see how their vision actually looked on-screen once they had started work," Murtha later told Develop. “Thanks to game development technology and methodology, with Avatar Jim could make changes in realtime, adding to the scenery while the actors were still in front of him”.
For the Avatar movie’s creation, a special ‘virtual camera’ was used that relied on many techniques that will be familiar to game developers. By pointing the custom built device at his actors performing in an undecorated mocap studio, Cameron could immediately see a low grade version of how the final film would look via a screen on the back of the camera. Panning around the studio with the contraption, Cameron could see, for example, a complete virtual rainforest filled with aliens.
Apparently hugely enthusiastic about the potential of gaming, Cameron could then use game development techniques to tweak the details his movie ‘live’, adapting scenery and other assets on the fly.
"It is fair to say that films are becoming like games, especially from a tech standpoint," Murtha told Develop. "It’s great, it means we can capture performance, rather than animate, and it means a director can see how his film will look far sooner."
In the same conference session, Ubisoft Montreal’s animation project manager Xavier Rang revealed how closely the developer worked with Cameron to create the Avatar game.
“Cameron played our game in development, made suggestions and even sent someone over from the film production team,” explained Rang, speaking through a translater. “I’ve never in ten years working with games seen that. It was amazing. Sending such an important person showed Cameron’s commitment to the game. He was open minded to games too, and some of our assets like some armour made it into the movie.”
"I have never shared so much knowledge and skill," he later added. "The connection we had with Cameron was a development adventure."