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Video: 'Avatar's' performance captures

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msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/11/2010 9:49:27 PM ET 2010-02-12T02:49:27

When asked when 3-D with motion capture technology will become the prevailing format for moviegoers, David Edelstein of New York magazine replied, “Not this year, not the following year, but maybe 2012, right before the world ends. Maybe the coming of 3-D is the Mayan prophecy.”

He was pulling our legs, of course. He doesn’t really think the world will end in 2012, because if that were the prevailing opinion among movie people, they’d be selling advanced reserve tickets for “Avatar III.” And 3-D has made cameos in the industry over the years before James Cameron dusted off the concept and recharged it with “Avatar.”

But motion capture has altered the landscape while providing some incredibly creative people with new toys to play with.

“What I hope it means is that filmmakers now will be able to tell stories that they weren’t previously able to tell,” said producer Jon Landau, who shared a Best Picture Oscar with Cameron on “Titanic” in 1998 and worked in the same capacity on “Avatar.”

“There have been great stories in the minds of filmmakers and in the pages of literature that technology before was not able to find a way to tell,” Landau said, “Hopefully this will be a step in the process.”

Those who have seen “Avatar” know the basics of motion capture technology. It’s a process by which cameras and computers are able to mirror a human actor’s every nuance and transform the captured images into a digital reproduction.

So where do we go from here, short of the Mayan doomsday prophecy?

Actors must adapt
“It was just used to great result for the most expensive motion picture ever made,” noted Paul Debevec, who heads the graphics laboratory at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. “Where it’s going is that probably you’ll see more and more pictures shot less expensively. It will be less expensive to shoot a movie using the performance capture approach than to use real actors on real locations.”

But that doesn’t mean more actors on the unemployment line, he said. “Everybody’s profession in the movie industry is changing,” he explained. “Being adaptable is important for actors, just like cinematographers, set designers, and most importantly, directors. Actors are not threatened at all. Performance capture allows the actors to directly drive the digital character.”

Slideshow: The world of ‘Avatar’ Motion capture technology is wondrous, but the process is relatively cumbersome compared to what it will be someday when costs come down and the technology becomes more streamlined.

“Lighting, texture, shape, motion of whatever you’re filming will merge in the future,” said Demien Gordon, chairman of the board of directors of the Motion Capture Society and a pioneer in the field. “Ultimately one day it will all be done with a three-dimensionalized film camera. Right now, filmmakers do each process separately. Eventually, it will all be done with one pass.”

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In order for 3-D to become a widespread phenomenon across the country, more theaters will have to have the proper equipment.

“Right now the industry is handicapped by the 24 frames-per-second frame rate,” Landau noted. “Someone came up with that arbitrary figure a hundred years ago. That’s not the frame rate that human vision sees. It would be great to have in-theater projection that has 48 frames or 60 frames per second. It’s feasible. We’re already putting in digital projectors that are capable of doing that.”

3-D is the future
“Avatar” is only the latest and highest-profile example of the capabilities of motion capture technology. Many of the shots of Brad Pitt’s title character in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” were done with motion capture. Director Robert Zemeckis has been a leader in the field with 3D motion capture experiences such as “Beowulf,” “A Christmas Carol” and the upcoming remake of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”

George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic digitally recreated 100 percent of Michael Bay’s “Transformers 2,” much of it done with motion capture, and were able to manipulate the images in the computer so that the original footage was no longer needed, Gordon explained.

Rate the Oscar nominees“All the big-ticket effects houses have similar bags of tricks now,” he said.

But how will motion capture and 3D alter the movie-going habits of average folks? It’s a little too soon to tell.

“In the 1950s, when television first came out and audiences stayed home rather than go to the movies, Hollywood needed to show something on the big screen that audiences couldn’t get on the small screen,” Edelstein said. “Now our culture is more and more private, with DVD, instant downloads, even movies that are available on video that are simultaneously opening in theaters. Once again Hollywood is in a position to make the most money with event movies.

“With ‘Avatar,’ you get something you can’t get at home, you’re immersed in a huge new universe. What the technology is saying is that we’re one step closer to virtual reality.”

Then there’s the downside. “My fear is that it will become the only kind of movie that studios spend money on,” Edelstein said.

That is a completely different doomsday prophecy. For now, at least, when Hollywood looks to the future, it will probably be wearing 3-D glasses.

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. He lives in Los Angeles.

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