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'Avatar' Poses DI Challenges

The techno-star of “Avatar” is its remarkable breakthrough in 3D presentation for both live action and CGI-generated images.
James Cameron's "Avatar" is not only a monumental leap into the potential future of 3D digital cinema, it was also shown in up to 4,000 3D cinemas worldwide from one of the most challenging digital intermediates ever mastered. In fact, the digital post facility responsible for creating that DI, Modern VideoFilm in Glendale and Burbank, Calif., actually served as the central hub for gathering all the visual effects and live action shots and conforming the whole feature in both 2D and 3D to accommodate all the delivery formats that this film's record production budget and multi-venue international release strategy demanded.

"We were running two systems at the editorial stage going 24/7 for over 8 weeks to make the release date," said Mark Smirnoff, president, studio services, at Modern VideoFilm. "A major portion of this undertaking was coordinating all the final color correction that was done primarily by Skip Kimball on the Fox lot backed up by Eric Biddinger inside our own facilities. At times they were using three Blackmagic Design's DaVinci Resolve real-time grading systems coordinated through one giant fibre-optic Storenext SAN storage system. The Resolve was powerful enough to let us grade the left and right eyes separately or when seen together on various Christie and Sony 3D projection systems."

The Dec. 18 release date for "Avatar" impelled the project with relentless pressure. "It was a work in progress right up to the end," said Roger Berger, supervising senior editor at Modern VideoFilm. "We had elements coming in from all around the world. Then we had to deliver it in aspect ratios ranging from 2.40:1 cinema widescreen to 1.78:1 [16:9] for domestic HD and European digital television, and even IMAX Digital and film versions."


The techno-star of "Avatar", of course, is its remarkable breakthrough in 3D presentation for both live action and CGI-generated images. "Even though there was a Visual Effects Stereography Supervisor, Chuck Comisky, on the set controlling both the convergence and the camera's interocular distance during performance capture, we continued adjusting the 3D conversion throughout the grading process with Comisky's help." Berger said. "When a sequence of shots changed or their pace was accelerated, the audience could suffer eye strain fatigue if the 3D convergence was not adjusted properly. So we would constantly tweak the point in Z-space to which the eye is drawn to make the experience as comfortable as possible for the audience."

One unique aspect of portraying the oversized, blue Na'vi denizens of the distant moon Pandora in "Avatar" was the need to position sub captions translating their language on the screen in the third dimension.

"The placement of those captions was always changing in the 3D environment to accommodate the backgrounds over which they were burned," said Berger. "Sometimes we even had to dynamically change their position on a cut to maximize their legibility while floating within the 3D space."

Overall, the greatest challenge in creating this massive 162 minute DI was managing the over 150 terabytes of material needed to put it together. "If you think of one 162-minute movie, this would be daunting," said Modern VideoFilm's Smirnoff. "But we had to keep this workflow running in real time with nobody waiting for rendering. And, of course, we had to output the results in all those different versions working from multiple editorial timelines simultaneously. That pushed even our technology to new limits."

Given that amount of data involved, as important as the Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve system was to the visual look of "Avatar", Smirnoff credits the Quantel Pablo systems for maintaining the required DI workflow within Cameron's deadlines.

According to Steve Owen, director of marketing at Quantel, that is a reflection of the growing maturity of the three Quantel Pablo 4K systems equipped with the 3D toolset that Roger Berger employed at Modern VideoFilm.

"They make the 3D pipeline as productive as the 2D pipeline has been for years," Owen said. "Since about 2003, the creation of 2D Digital Intermediates has been a known and efficient process. But now facilities need to be able to provide quotes for similar services in the 3D realm so they can conform, grade, and create deliverables in all needed formats out of the same room without moving the vast amounts of needed data from one system to another. As a result, Pablo helps make 3D profitable."


Milton Adamou is a freelance DI colorist who works in Los Angeles, New York and London and was instrumental in helping both design and implement the stereoscopic 3D tools which exist today for both Pablo and iQ, Although he did not work on "Avatar", Adamou has used the system on 3D releases such as last year's "Garfield's Pet Force" and is a consultant with Quantel on Pablo's capabilities.

"Working in 3D has traditionally been about compromise," Adamou said, "because the projector has to divide the amount of light it can push onto the screen through the left and right 'eye' channels. But if you want to color your 3D movie in 2D space, most DI systems cause you to lose half the light. Pablo can output one of those 'eyes' into both channels to maintain the brightness, thereby making it far easier to work between 2D and 3D effortlessly. 'Avatar,' of course, had to be released worldwide in 2D and 3D using multiple formats as well as ultimately to home theater via disc or streaming, and this capability has increased the efficiency of creating all those deliverables in the 3D world."

So "Avatar" will help determine whether a 3D production with this kind of investment can provide an ROI that makes it a commercial success not only in its theatrical release but also in all its subsequently marketable incarnations.

"James Cameron and everyone involved have really raised the benchmark for 3D production," Quantel's Owen said. "They have demonstrated the highest promise of today's 3D and now it is up to everyone else to realize its potential."