The Day I Joined The Na'vi
Posted on Monday November 15, 2010, 13:37 by Phil de Semlyen in Empire States
I’m crouched in the middle of Weta Digital’s performance-capture stage (or ‘volume’) in Wellington, sporting a full motion-capture suit and trying my darnedest to channel my inner Andy Serkis. Acting is definitely not my forte and yet I’m about to perform a scene from Avatar in front of the man who produced it. Yikes. The scene is from Avatar’s newly extended Collector’s Edition and sees Na’vi Jake (that’s me) exploring a long-abandoned Na’vi classroom, the scene of a brutal SecFor massacre in Pandora’s recent past. There are stingbats dangling menacingly from the ceiling, violently overturned benches and bullet holes peppering the wall. I know this only because I’ve just watched the scene in Weta’s 200-seat cinema, an opulent, Arabian Nights-style screening room just down the road at the effects house's post-production centre. All I can see in front of me are the two benches, a copy of Doctor Seuss’ The Lorax on the floor and a piece of plywood that, via the genius of mo-cap rendering, will be magicked into a CARB rifle.
Twenty two of Weta’s top technical bods watch on from behind banks of NASA-like monitors, gearing up to turn me into a Na’vi. There are also eight cameramen, two fellow actors, a director, and a large crowd sniffing a dramatic catastrophe to rival Jonah Hex. Oh, and James Cameron’s boss, Jon Landau. Wellington, we have a problem. “And rolling!” bellows the director…
This isn’t the Volume – that’s a few thousand miles due east in LA’s Playa Vista – but it’s the next best thing. Weta Digital’s HQ, in Wellington's leafy Miramar suburb, is known affectionately as ‘Wellywood’ in these parts. It's the place Gollum, King Kong and an entire race of Na’vi call home. We’re in Weta’s newest development, an old paint factory converted into a state-of-the-art, bells-and-whistles, mo-cap mecca. Okay, most of those whistles are for me – swiping at an imaginary stingbat, I’ve just put my (and Na’vi Jake’s) head through the schoolroom wall – but the technology is frighteningly impressive. Every move I make appears simultaneously on eight flat-screens in front of the director, giving him live feeds from all eight cameras. Even James Cameron didn’t have that at his disposal shooting Avatar. But then James Cameron had Sam Worthington (for whom I’m rapidly developing huge respect), and not a hapless journalist whose last acting performance, as a camel in a primary school Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, left deep psychological scars on all concerned.
Despite the rubbishness of my acting – my decision to mosey over and start flicking through The Lorax seems to have drained the scene of its dramatic impetus – it’s an incredible experience. Thanks to the 50 passive markers dotted around my mo-cap suit, my movements are immediately translated to Na’vi Jake in videogame resolution. I can see my loose-limbed, blue alter ego move languidly across a 50” monitor. The painstaking job of rendering facial expressions comes later in the process (to ensure the ‘e-motion capture’ is flawless, Weta met with each Avatar cast member individually during post-production to talk through every beat of every scene), but I haven’t yet produced an expression worthy of saving for posterity. Luckily my fellow actors, Weta veteran Jed Brophy, who played uruk-hai Sharku in the Two Towers, and an Australian TV reporter who’s making a credible Grace Augustine, are taking up the slack by fending off a surprisingly off-piste SecFor assault on the other side of the schoolroom, while I take a load off on one of the benches. If Jake had been this tentative in the movie he would have been elevenses for a viperwolf in seconds.
I’m intrigued by performance capture not just for the Kool-Aid technology driving it, but for the way actors have reacted to it. For every Meryl Streep, who famously confused mo-cap and stop-motion, there’s a Sigourney Weaver fully embracing it. “She’s an Oscar-nominated thespian,” Jon Landau told me, “and she loved it”. As Serkis recently predicted, it’s now front and centres for all actors. “Avatar has truly dramatically altered people’s perceptions,” Serkis told Empire, “there’s a real buzz out there”. If there’s scope for a camel in Avatar 2, Mr. Landau, I’m there.