How Did Avatar Do That? The Answer is Skin-Deep

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How did James Cameron achieve the dazzlingly nuanced computerized performances of Avatar? The answer, at least partially, lies in makeup. Where an expensive and labor-intensive system using reflective beads had previously been the industry standard for digitally mapping an actor's emotional landscape, Cameron had determined early on that he'd use paints instead -- offering far more comprehensive coverage, and, he hoped, a huge leap forward for the medium. The only problem was that the paints didn't exist.

Enter makeup department head Tegan Taylor. A veteran Hollywood makeup artist, she came to Avatar with extensive motion-capture experience, having worked with Robert Zemeckis on earlier experiments in the genre like The Polar Express and Beowulf. But what Cameron and the effects artists at Weta Digital were asking for would require some ingenuity.

"I needed products that would last all day long," Taylor told Movieline. "Not bleed, not move around when the actor sweats, and also made in highly recognizable colors for our computers to capture them."

The result was MoCap Fx: a line of phosphorescent facial paints that were highly reflective, waterproof, and in a bold array of colors that the cutting-edge lenses could easily identify. (A never-before-seen Avatar makeup-test photo is pictured above.) Pair them with a head-mounted camera, and suddenly every one of Zoe Saldana's flirty sideways glances or cries of anguish was preserved intact in her Na'vi counterpart.

"I like to think of it as 'Digital Makeup,' not augmented animation," said Steven Spielberg, who used Taylor's makeups and skills in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn -- another Weta Digital production. "It's basically the actual performance of the actual actor. And what the audience is simply experiencing is 'Digital Makeup.'"

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As revolutionary as the advancements are, the role of makeup in performance capture films has yet to be entirely understood -- much less lauded -- by the establishment. Avatar surprised no one when it took the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, but it wasn't even nominated in the makeup category. (Those honors went to the latex-heavy creatures of the Star Trek universe.) Taylor thinks it's just a matter of time, however, before mo-cap makeup artists are given their due.

"I think the industry is a little slow to embrace the new technologies," Taylor said. "Perhaps it will take a little while for the industry to kind of catch up to where technology is leading us all, because we're all evolving into a new kind of filmmaking."

"It also would have been nice if James Cameron won for Best Picture," she added. "But maybe in the future."

Perhaps for Avatar 2?

"Yes!" she replied.

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