Shooting Avatar

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Wed, 12/09/2009 - 19:00 -- Nick Dager

For Vince Pace the CEO of his own eponymous production company Avatar began with a six-page email from James Cameron describing the kinds of 3D shots the famously precise and demanding director was imagining for the film. Pace who has worked with Cameron since The Abyss in 1989 was not surprised by such detailed instructions from the director. And he also knew that the technology needed to execute some of those shots simply didn’t exist. Pace and his team set to work developing several new 3D camera configurations which was an added challenge he says because “I had Hannah Montana at the same time.” When he first began working with Cameron Pace says he realized immediately the amount of work that would be involved and he also recognized that there was a tremendous opportunity there for him and his company. But it would only work for Pace if they had what he calls “a parallel agreement.” That meant that he would work with Cameron not for Cameron. “I didn’t want my company to be at the service of a single director ” Pace says. He says Cameron understood and accepted the arrangement immediately. That working relationship has enabled Pace Technology to grow. The company recently moved into new offices in Hollywood Burbank Los Angeles and continues to thrive. Although Avatar was filled with many challenges Pace says “It hasn’t consumed us.”  The company had five 3D productions running simultaneously in 2009 and 2010 is already shaping up as a busy year. The job description in many ways is different but in some ways is always the same: “Trying to meet the demands of Jim Cameron and all the directors we work with.” For Avatar says Pace “The 3D had to be transparent ” this despite the fact that Cameron’s shooting style includes a lot of movement within shots. “We were inventing technology ” he says. Pace calls the proprietary 3D Steadicam he and his team developed one of the major highlights of the effort. It uses beam splitting to accomplish the 3D effect and enables the camera operator to use the Steadicam in essentially the same fashion as always. Says Pace “Shooting 3D successfully is more than just putting two cameras together.” He credits the people and companies he’s been working with for a decade and names specifically Sony and Fujinon. “These are people we were with back in 2000 ” says Pace. He calls the Sony F950 camera “the backbone of Avatar.” The shoot also used the Sony F23 because Pace believes it has the same depth of field as the F950. The shoot also used a few Sony HDC 1500 cameras. In addition to the beam splitter 3D Steadicam that Pace Technology developed for Avatar another highlight was what Pace calls “a techno-crane wide angle system.”  The was used for several interior shots to give the rooms in his words “That grand feeling.” While he welcomes the fact that more filmmakers are starting to shoot 3D he cautions them that there is a lot to learn about both the technology and the techniques required to shoot it successfully. “It’s not just two cameras with duct tape ” says Pace. Pace says Avatar will open on more than 7 000 3D screens worldwide a number he termed “a very healthy screen deliverable.” Pace firmly believes that as the number of 3D screens grows 3D movies and other 3D content will increasingly become less a novelty and more mainstream fare. “Stereoscopic 3D will be the normal course of business.” While he will continue to work on feature films he is excited about the possibilities of shooting a wide range of alternative content in 3D. Ask him to name one and he immediately says “Sports.” “The train has left the station for digital cinema and 3D ” Pace says.