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Avatar Pushes Limits of Visual Effects
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Raymond Frederick Harryhausen
animator and special-effects wizard
who found ways to breathe cinematic life
into the gargantuan, the mythical and the extinct
who developed the blue-screen
and green-screen process
that allowed Dick Van Dyke
to dance with penguins in “Mary Poppins,”
the blue-skinned Na’vi
to live among floating mountains in “Avatar,”
and TV weather reporters
to point at sun and rain symbols
that only their
viewers can see
Eileen Mary Moran
visual effects producer
who helped create
the look of a bevy of blockbuster movies
— from the ethereal world of “Avatar”
down to King Kong’s 460 billion strands
of wind-rustled specially lighted fur —
3D animated feature
Special Effects Wizard,
Dies at 60
December 4, 2012
The New York Times
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Eileen Moran, a visual effects producer who helped create the look of a bevy
of blockbuster movies — from the ethereal world of “Avatar” down to King Kong’s
460 billion strands of wind-rustled specially lighted fur, — died on Sunday in
Wellington, New Zealand. She was 60.
The cause was cancer, her sister Janet Hamill said.
Ms. Moran worked closely with the director James Cameron on “Avatar” and with
the director Peter Jackson on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit,”
which is to be released in American theaters this month.
She had set out to be an actress, but that brought her only nonpaying jobs in
Off Off Broadway plays. So she became an assistant on a commercial, then moved
up to production manager for commercials. She found her way to Hollywood, where
she was hired by Digital Domain, a special effects house partly owned by Mr.
Cameron. There she worked on award-winning Budweiser ads, including the one in
which an army of ants lug a bottle of Bud down an ant hole.
In 2001 she joined Weta Digital, a visual effects company partly owned by Mr.
Jackson. She was a leader of the team that won an Academy Award for best
achievement in visual effects in 2010, for Mr. Cameron’s “Avatar.”
In a statement on Tuesday, Mr. Cameron said Ms. Moran had “shepherded some of
the milestone films of her generation to completion.”
Ms. Moran was a co-producer of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first of
three planned films based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit.” Illness
prevented her from attending the film’s world premiere on Nov. 28 in New
She helped ride herd on the team of hundreds that did the visual effects for Mr.
Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy: “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001), “The
Two Towers” (2002) and “The Return of the King” (2003). Among the other films to
which she contributed are “The Adventures of Tintin” (2011), “Fight Club”
(1999), “I, Robot” (2004), “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006), “Rise of the Planet
of the Apes” (2011) and Mr. Jackson’s “King Kong” (2005).
“King Kong” involved more than attention to each strand of fur. To replicate the
New York City of more than 70 years earlier, all buildings built after 1933 had
to be removed by means of advanced computer trickery and replaced with
three-dimensional images of the buildings that stood at the time. In a 2005
interview with The Gold Coast Bulletin, an Australian newspaper, Ms. Moran said,
“We had great aerial reference photographs taken in the 1930s, and we matched
our 3-D city exactly to the photographs.”
Each of more than 90,000 buildings was unique, down to smoking chimneys, fire
escapes and door knobs. The varying effects of weather on buildings of different
ages was noted.
Ms. Moran’s role in all this was broad. “I oversee the visual effects production
of the film,” she said in an interview with The Daily News in New York in 2006.
“I oversee the crew, review the work with the director and visual effects
supervisor, oversee recruiting, attend the visual effects reviews with the team,
review assignments and work, troubleshoot, communicate with each department,
ensure delivery, manage the budget.”
Eileen Mary Moran was born in Queens on Jan. 23, 1952, and grew up in
Lindenhurst, on Long Island. After studying drama at the State University of New
York at New Paltz, she returned to New York City to try acting before switching
to commercial production. Her sister said Ms. Moran had delighted in the
Budweiser creatures she helped create: beer-loving ants; three frogs who
croaked, in turn, “Bud,” “Weis,” and “Er”; and, of course, Larry the Lizard.
When a friend e-mailed her about a possible job on “Lord of the Rings,” she
traveled to New Zealand for an interview and, she later said, was surprised to
be offered a job. She quickly became essential in necessary tasks like ensuring
that trolls had credible dirt beneath their fingernails and that the eyes of
Gollum were appropriately bloodshot, Mr. Jackson told Onfilm, a New Zealand
magazine, in 2003.
In the Daily News interview, Ms. Moran described the moment that Gollum sprang
to computer-generated life: “It was hit or miss for a while, and then one day he
was there on screen and you just knew we finally had him and everything was
going to be O.K.”
Ms. Moran, a single mother, lived with her two children, Jack and Ava, in a
Victorian house in Wellington overlooking the Pacific. They survive her, as do
her father, John G. Moran, and three sisters: Ms. Hamill, Patty Mathes and
Of all the commercials she worked on, Mr. Moran said, her favorite was one made
for Guinness in 1996 and was based on the feminist slogan “A woman needs a man
like a fish needs a bicycle.” Her team scanned a real fish into the computer to
get the scaly texture right.
“Afterwards,” she said, “we made a great meal from the trout.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 4, 2012
An earlier version of this article misspelled
the name of the “Lord of the Rings” character Gollum as Golum.
Eileen Moran, Special Effects Wizard, Dies at 60, NYT,
He Doth Surpass Himself:
‘Avatar’ Outperforms ‘Titanic’
January 27, 2010
The New York Times
By MICHAEL CIEPLY
LOS ANGELES — James Cameron’s science-fiction epic “Avatar” has passed his
“Titanic” to become history’s highest-grossing film, with a sizable boost from
higher-priced tickets for 3-D and Imax showings.
“Avatar,” like other contemporary films, has also benefited from the steady
inflation of ticket prices —today’s average is $7.46, up from $4.69 in 1998 when
“Titanic” was in theaters — meaning that “Titanic” had to sell many more tickets
to reach box-office totals like “Avatar’s.” But “Avatar” remains poised to keep
going for weeks if not months.
Through Monday its ticket sales around the world reached $1.86 billion, edging
past the $1.84 billion in sales posted by “Titanic,” which came out in December
1997, according to figures released Tuesday by 20th Century Fox.
Fox released “Avatar” around the world; it split the distribution of “Titanic”
with Paramount Pictures.
Through Monday “Avatar” took in about $554.9 million in domestic theaters,
placing it just behind “Titanic,” with sales of $600.8 million, in the domestic
box-office rankings, and just ahead of “The Dark Knight,” a Warner Brothers film
from 2008, which took in $533.3 million.
The performance of “Avatar” is particularly striking because the film — a
leading contender in this year’s Oscar race — reached its summit so quickly.
“In just 39 days it has eclipsed the worldwide record,” said Paul Dergarabedian,
the president of Hollywood.com’s box-office division. “That’s extraordinarily
Mr. Dergarabedian said he thought “Avatar” would pass the domestic box-office
mark set by “Titanic” by the middle of next week, and that it is almost certain
to pass $2 billion in worldwide sales before the end of its run.
Privately, some involved with the film are guessing that final ticket sales will
go as high as $2.5 billion, though Fox has made no public projection. New Line
Cinema’s “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” No. 3 in the all-time
worldwide rankings, had $1.1 billion in ticket sales, according to
Fox said 72 percent of worldwide sales for “Avatar” came from 3-D screens. If
Mr. Dergarabedian’s estimates are correct, the movie has accounted for roughly
56 million admissions in domestic theaters to date.
That is about the same number of tickets that “Titanic” had sold at this point
in its theatrical run, he said.
But “Titanic” played and played, remaining in theaters until September 1998 and
racking up about 128 million admissions. “Avatar” still needs a very long tail
to surpass the number of viewers who saw “Titanic.”
To calculate the number of “Avatar” viewers around the world is impossible
without taking into account exchange rates and a patchwork of ticket prices and
viewing habits in dozens of countries in which the film has been showing.
Large-format Imax theaters have accounted for about $137.1 million of “Avatar”
ticket sales around the world, said Greg Foster, president and chairman of Imax
Filmed Entertainment. “There’s been only the most minimal drop-off,” he said.
Imax theaters are scheduled to continue showing “Avatar” until “Alice in
Wonderland,” another 3-D film, from Walt Disney, opens on March 5.
The world record is sweet vindication, both for Mr. Cameron and for Fox.
Skeptics had questioned whether Mr. Cameron could deliver on his promise of a
revolutionary visual experience, and whether Fox and its financial partners
would profit from a film that cost nearly a half-billion dollars to make and
While those questions are now settled — the film will make a profit and the
critics have been kind — the Academy Awards, scheduled for March 7, remain a
hurdle. On Sunday the Producers Guild of America gave its highest movie award,
sometimes a harbinger of success at the Oscars, to “The Hurt Locker.” A small,
independent drama about the Iraq war, it was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who is
Mr. Cameron’s ex-wife.
On Tuesday Tom Rothman, a chairman of the Fox film operation, said the global
success of “Avatar” carried a lesson beyond economics. “It tells you all of us
on the planet have more things in common than we have dividing us,” Mr. Rothman
He Doth Surpass Himself:
‘Avatar’ Outperforms ‘Titanic’, NYT, 27.1.2010,
Creates Sophisticated 3-D
July 31, 2006
The New York Times
By JOHN MARKOFF
PALO ALTO, Calif. — In a darkened garage here,
Steve Perlman is giving digital actors a whole new face.
A former Apple Computer engineer who previously co-founded WebTV Networks and
the set-top box firm Moxi, Mr. Perlman is now putting the finishing touches on
Contour, a futuristic camera system that will add photorealistic
three-dimensional effects to digital entertainment. The new system will be
introduced today at the Siggraph computer graphics conference in Boston, and
effects created with it could start appearing as early as next year.
The system could change the nature of cinematography in several ways, according
to leading Hollywood producers and technologists who are planning to use the
system. For example, it will make it possible to create compellingly realistic
synthetic actors by capturing the facial movements of real actors in much
greater detail than is currently possible.
David Fincher, who directed the films “Fight Club” and “Panic Room,” is planning
to use Contour next year when he begins filming “The Curious Case of Benjamin
Button,” a movie based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald in which Brad
Pitt will play a character who ages in reverse.
“Instead of grabbing points on a face, you will be able to capture the entire
skin,” Mr. Fincher said. “You’re going to get all of the enormous detail and the
quirks of human expression that you can’t plan for.”
The technology will let filmmakers transform the appearance of actors in the
computer, raising the possibility of a new form of digital video in which the
viewer can control the point of view — what is being described in Hollywood as
The Contour system requires actors to cover their faces and clothes with makeup
containing phosphorescent powder that is not visible under normal lighting. In a
light-sealed room, the actors face two arrays of inexpensive video cameras that
are synchronized to simultaneously record their appearance and shape. Scenes are
lit by rapidly flashing fluorescent lights, and the cameras capture light from
the glowing powder during intervals of darkness that are too short for humans to
The captured images are transmitted to an array of computers that reassemble the
three-dimensional shapes of the glowing areas. These can then be manipulated and
edited into larger digital scenes using sophisticated software tools like
Autodesk’s Maya or Softimage’s Face Robot.
“Steve is really on to something here,” said Ed Ulbrich, vice president of
Digital Domain, a Hollywood special-effects company in Venice, Calif. “The holy
grail of digital effects is to be able to create a photorealistic human being.”
Until now, realistic digital actors have required significant amounts of
computing power, at great expense.
“It’s been used in stunts and big special-effects scenes,” Mr. Ulbrich said.
“Now you can use it for two actors sitting at a table and talking. You have the
ability to tell stories and have close-up scenes that make you laugh and cry.”
Mr. Perlman’s system is a leap forward for a technology known as motion capture,
now widely used in video games and in movies like “The Polar Express,” which
starred Tom Hanks in various digital guises.
Motion capture cuts the costs of computer animation while creating more natural
movement. Today’s motion-capture systems work by tracking the locations of
hundreds of reflective balls attached to a human actor. This permits the actor’s
movements to be sampled by a camera many times per second. But the digital
record is limited to movement, and does not include the actual appearance of the
The difference offered by Mr. Perlman’s technology is in the detail. Standard
motion-capture systems are generally limited in resolution to several hundred
points on a human face, while the Contour system can recreate facial images at a
resolution of 200,000 pixels. The digital video images produced by the system
are startlingly realistic.
Mr. Perlman, who helped develop Apple’s QuickTime video technology, said the
computer-generated animation techniques pioneered by Pixar Studios were reaching
a visual plateau and, as a result, losing some of their audience appeal.
But an important hurdle to commercial success for the Contour system is whether
it will be the first low-cost technology to cross what film and robot
specialists refer to as the “uncanny valley.”
That phrase was coined in the 1970’s by Masahiro Mori, the Japanese robotics
specialist, as he sought to describe the emotional response of humans to robots
and other nonhuman entities. He theorized that as a robot became more lifelike,
the emotional response of humans became increasingly positive and empathetic —
until a certain point at which the robot took on a zombie-like quality, and the
human response turned to repulsion. Then, as the robot becomes indistinguishable
from a human, the response turns positive again. Critics were quick to point out
the eerie look of the characters in “Polar Express.”
“We are programmed from birth to recognize human faces,” Mr. Perlman said.
There are some limits to the new technology. For example, the Contour system can
capture eyebrows, mustaches and short beards, but it is not able to capture
freely moving strands. It is also not able to capture areas where makeup cannot
be applied, like the eyes or the inside of the mouth. The Contour developers are
now experimenting with plastic teeth molds with embedded phosphor powder.
If the Contour system can be commercialized, it will allow digital film
directors to easily and inexpensively control camera angles and generate
elaborate visual fly-throughs in movies. It will also lower the cost of creating
fantasy characters like Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
In addition to films, the new system will be valuable in creating more realistic
video games, Mr. Perlman said. A major video-game development company has
committed to use the system in future games, he said, adding that he could not
give its name at this time.
The Contour system has been developed by a small team of software and hardware
engineers that Mr. Perlman has assembled in the garage of his home in Palo Alto,
Calif., over the last three years. He rewired the garage to handle the power
requirements of the lighting system and a small graphics supercomputer that was
built from scratch. Contour will be distributed by Mova, one of a group of
start-up firms that Mr. Perlman has assembled since he left WebTV in 1999, after
it was purchased by Microsoft.
Contour is not the only attempt to develop more advanced digital cinematography
techniques, said Richard Doherty, a digital media consultant who is president of
Envisioneering Inc., in Seaford, N.Y.
“There are some upstarts in Los Angeles, but none have achieved the demonstrated
scale and performance that Steve has shown,” Mr. Doherty said. “This is the kind
of technology that is celebrated, and it is on the scale of the invention of the
Steadicam. He’s going to give that kind of freedom to actors and directors.”
Camera System Creates Sophisticated 3-D Effects,
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