Avatar: The Way of Water Pipeline Uses Blackmagic Design

12 January, 2023

— As the newest and much anticipated sequel to Lightstorm Entertainment’s “Avatar” series began pre production, the team understood that while the story and visuals would need to be taken to the next level, so would the technology that supported it. “Avatar: The Way of Water” would push the skills and capabilities of the most advanced production pipeline, so Geoff Burdick, Lightstorm’s senior vice president of production services and technology, began looking for ways to handle the new demands. —
Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” tells the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri and their kids), the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure. Produced by Lightstorm Entertainment’s James Cameron and Jon Landau, the film was directed by Cameron and distributed by 20th Century Studios.

Managing a massive pipeline that comes with an “Avatar” production is more than just data processing; it’s also providing the tools to evaluate content as it’s being shot. “We evaluate live camera feeds in a manner as close to the theatrical experience as possible, so we can make real time decisions on set,” said Burdick. “This saves time during shooting, benefits Weta Digital, our visual effects vendor, and helps streamline our post production and mastering process.”
Production intended to shoot 4K HDR at a 47.952 frame rate which would support the stereoscopic process but feeding that amount of data on set was a complex ask at the time. “We needed to enable that spec through our entire production pipeline, involving real time feeds to our DCI compliant ‘projection pod,’ which we used to view live camera feeds in 3D 48fps in both 2K and 4K, 3D 24fps in 2K and 4K, and 3D 24fps in HD,” said Burdick. “Obviously, there wasn’t a lot of existing hardware available to support that.”

Burdick and his team contacted Blackmagic Design early on, explaining their goals. “There were no instant answers, but they understood the vision, and had ideas as to the best pathways to make it happen,” added Burdick.

Working closely with the production’s 3D Systems Engineer Robin Charters, Burdick and his team began to drill down on every aspect of functionality. They chose to incorporate the Teranex AV standards converter, Smart Videohub 12G 40x40 router, DeckLink 8K Pro capture and playback card, UltraStudio 4K Extreme 3 capture and playback device and ATEM 4 M/E Broadcast Studio 4K live production switcher as the management hardware for the various feeds.
“During live action photography in 2019 and 2020, the Blackmagic team was in constant contact, ensuring that every piece of their hardware performed perfectly,” noted Burdick.

The pipeline, with real time conversions handled by the Teranex AV and fed through the Smart Videohub 12G 40x40 and the ATEM 4 M/E Broadcast Studio 4K to provide playback and review throughout the set, worked seamlessly. While being able to review footage immediately, the value of having a multi resolution playback system also served as a necessary quality control solution.

“This is very important as we move into shooting higher resolutions, frame rates and dynamic ranges, with exhibition technologies capable of displaying all this and more,” said Burdick. “As critical as the cutting edge technology is, it’s all in service of the story. The goal is for people not to notice the tech. When the audience loses themselves in the movie, we know we’ve succeeded.”

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is now in theaters.

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