“Avatar,” a 3-D space opera set on a planet straight off a Yes album cover, is Cameron’s ambitious attempt to smudge the line between live action and realistic animation by adapting video-game technology. To that end, Cameron affixed a camera to each actor’s head so that animators could capture each minute detail of an expression, right down to a tongue twitch.
“We actually had a head rig on ‘Devil May Cry,’ where we put a camera right in front of the actor’s face,” says Langdon, who played the lead character of the Capcom-produced game. “It just captures the best data.”
In turn, Langdon has borrowed an innovation used in “Avatar” called the iKam, a virtual camera that allows for “real-time capture.”
Previously, directors have had to wait until postproduction to view what the performance capture looks like in the animated world. The virtual camera allows on-set filmmakers to peer into a computer-generated 3-D environment during filming to see how the actors interact with their animated surroundings.
“You are able to take this device – which looks like a cross between a steering wheel, a PlayStation controller, and an iPhone – and ... look into the screen into the game world,” enthuses Chris Kramer, senior director of communications and community at Capcom, the Japanese gaming company behind franchises such as “Street Fighter” and “Resident Evil.” “It’s like holding a portal into an alternate dimension in your hands.”
As such, the cameraman is able to move around performers to create a more cinematic effect in video-game “cut scenes” (between-action interludes for exposition and dialogue). By contrast, other games look as if they were clinically filmed by cameras sliding along smooth rails.
“All the cut scenes were done in real time, but all those cut scenes have a rendered look,” says Langdon, whose chiseled cheekbones are curtained by center-parted blond hair.