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December 2009 12 W hen we think about the fi rst fi lms to convince directors that visual eff ects created with computer graphics could open their imaginations, two fi lms immediately come to mind: James Cameron's e Abyss, in which a transparent CG character communicated with an actor, and Cameron's Terminator 2, which starred a digital, liquid terminator and is lauded as the fi rst movie to show the power of a digital pipeline. Both fi lms won visual eff ects Oscars, as did Cameron's Alien before, and Titanic after. Titanic, released in 1997, still holds the record for the largest box-offi ce revenue: $1.8 billion. It was the last feature fi lm Cameron had made. Until now. e long-awaited and highly anticipated Avatar, written, directed, and produced by Cameron and released by Twen- tieth Century Fox, pushes digital fi lmmaking into new worlds. It will immerse audiences in an alien environment, one created entirely with computer graphics and projected, in theaters so equipped, in stereo 3D. Cameron used a Pace Fusion 3D camera to fi lm the live-action segments, but they comprise a small percentage of the fi lm. Weta Digital created the alien planet Pandora and the CG characters and creatures that inhabit it, animating the characters using data from actors' performances on motion-capture sets. Will it have the same impact on visual eff ects as did Cameron's earlier fi lms? "It certainly changed the way we do things," says Joe Letteri, senior visual eff ects supervisor at Weta Digital. "We had to go through a complete re-tooling and re-architecting." Now a partner at Weta, Letteri has won visual eff ects Oscars for two episodes of e Lord of the Rings and for King Kong, along with an Oscar nomina- tion for his work on I, Robot while at the New Zealand studio. In particular, Letteri notes, the studio revamped systems for real-time facial motion cap- ture and muscles, created methods for growing a rain forest in which most of the movie takes place, implemented new lighting techniques, built a compositing pipeline to handle stereo 3D, and more. "We could not allow ourselves to cheat anything," he says. "Everything had to be done correctly; there was no place to hide."

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