By Mallory Pickard

Avatar, James Cameron’s film baby turned digital revolution, is more than just a frontrunner for Best Visual Effects at this year’s Academy Awards.  The debate over the film’s political leanings and general narrative depth is certainly valid, but contentions over the superiority of its digital effects are as far-fetched as Cameron’s high-tech vision must have seemed to Fox a few years ago.  With all due to respect to JJ Abrams’ brilliant Star Trek reboot and Peter Jackson’s low-budget beauty District 9, Avatar is not the frontrunner– it is the winner.  Its visual effects have jump started a filmmaking revolution that extends well beyond Hollywood– if you’re not quite convinced, read on.

Four individuals represent Cameron’s venerable dream team in the category.  Notably, all hail from Weta Digital, a Kiwi-based effects company founded by Academy Award winners Richard Taylor, Jamie Selkirk, and Peter Jackson.  Two of the four have previously won Visual Effects Oscars (Joe Letteri for Lord of the Rings and King Kong, Stephen Rosenbaum for Forrest Gump), one is a previous Visual Effects nominee (Andy Jones for I, Robot, who was nominated along with Letteri), and the film’s animation master Richard Baneham was also the animation supervisor for both LOTR: The Two Towers and Return of the King.

Letteri and Rosenbaum are long-standing colleagues of Cameron.  Both worked with the director on The Abyss, a hallmark sci-fi film that rounded up the Oscar for Visual Effects thirty years ago.  Tech entrepreneur Vincent Pace also joined the reunion when Cameron enlisted him to develop camera technology capable of capturing  2D and 3D shots instantaneously.  Pace originally helped develop the underwater lighting system that gave The Abyss its visual cutting edge.

For Avatar, Pace’s company developed groundbreaking 3D technology with camera lenses designed to emulate human eye movement.  Cameron contributed $12 million of his own money to the project as part of his mission to prove to Fox that Avatar was worth the investment.  Both Pace and Cameron now own the patents for the technology, which is quickly becoming a media revolution– unquestionably due to the fact that Avatar earned $1 billion in a little over two weeks.  Director Joseph Kosinski is already using Pace’s evolved camera for Tron Legacy, the anticipated Comic-Con sequel set for a December release.

The motion-capture suits used in the film were originally developed for Gollum, the now iconic “preciousss” anthropoid from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  But the large-scale motion-capture technology developed for Avatar generated more data than any film in history, including the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy–17.28GB for each minute of the film, according to Weta Digital.  The company consequently enlisted NetApp, Fujitsu New Zealand, HP, and BluArc to develop a 10,000 square foot server farm that requires more than 4,000 HP server blades and holds 104 terabytes of RAM (in comparison, your computer probably has 1-2 GB of RAM, and there are 1,000 GB in just one terabyte).

It would seem Cameron’s ambition to revolutionize visual effects via Avatar has not only affected the film industry and the moviegoer experience as we know it, but it has also led to innovative technological achievements that will continue to create opportunities for businesses and the entertainment industry on many levels.  Warner Brothers, Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks Animation now all have 3D films with 2010 release dates, and Warner Brothers recently announced that both parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows will be released in 3D.  Both JJ Abrams and Michael Bay are currently in talks with Paramount about making their respective Transformers and Star Trek franchises in 3D.  Additionally, Sony has announced that it will release its first 3D televisions this summer along with viewing capability upgrades for Playstation 3, which will enable 3D gaming, and ESPN has announced that 25 World Cup soccer games will be filmed in 3D, as will PGA Golf 2010.

Call it a big-budget FernGully, but keep in mind it is a certifiable game changer on many fronts– and quite frankly, the economy, the entertainment industry, and audiences needed that hit of innovative inspiration.  When Cristiano Ronaldo and Megan Fox are coming at you in 3D, you know who to thank.

Road to the Oscars series:

Podcasts – Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg, Adam Spunberg, and Phil Wallace

February 4: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

February 5: Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 8: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 9: Documentary Feature – Nate Freiberg

February 10: Foreign Language Film – Paul Popiel

February 12: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 15: Sound Mixing – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Sound Editing – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 18: Visual Effects – Mallory Pickard

February 19: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 22: Makeup – Christa Youngpeter

February 23: Costume – Steve Neumann

February 24: Art Direction – Christa Youngpeter

February 25: Film Editing – Steve Neumann

February 26: Cinematography – Paul Popiel

February 27: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 28: Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

March 1: Supporting Actress – Marla Seidell

March 2: Supporting Actor – Phil Wallace

March 3: Actress – Marla Seidell

March 4: Actor – Kit Bowen

March 5: Director – Adam Spunberg

March 5: Picture – Kit Bowen

March 7: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards!