Motion Captured: Avatar Behind the Scenes

James Cameron’s Avatar franchise has set the bar for representing hybrid alien-human characters. USV grad Allen Stetson (class of ’99) described how he and his team at WETA Digital are helping move the upcoming four announced Avatar sequels through production.”I have a super bizarre, unique role with the company in that I am specifically dedicated to the Avatar franchise.” He credits USV for stimulating his in-depth appreciation for entire production pipelines and all of the talents and tools that mix along the way.

Image source:

“My role is on the motion capture side of it,” said Allen at a recent SIGGRAPH conference. “I’m helping to put together the pipeline. My team is on site troubleshooting throughout the process. I make sure James has what he needs when he needs it and the toolset is up to speed.” As Senior Scenematic Layout Director, “You need to be able to prepare 3D assets from “nothing” (from artwork) through to an actual capturable, movable state, and to have good data that can be passed along to the shot work that happens further down the pipeline.”

Allen credits the communication skills he started to develop as a child as preparing him for his current role behind the scenes. “I was making movies at home and I enjoyed being on stage, appearing in musicals. Communications capabilities grow through practice. I continued to develop my communication skills at USV, with the various projects and presentations that were required as part of coursework there. Also, during my internship, I had to be in meetings with rooms full of pros. Even as a student, I had to learn to act like a professional.” Now Allen serves as the liaison between WETA and James Cameron’s production company, where he is called upon to leverage both his technical understanding and his ability to communicate the technical issues faced by the team.

“When I was at USV, we were all generalists who knew the beginning, the end and everything in the middle of entire pipelines, and obviously, that has served me very well. It pays off to be able to prepare the models that you then texture, or rig, or animate, or whatever is needed in the workflow.” He points to the expansion of the digital effects industry in the past 10 years in which the demand for talent was so high that many teams sought out specialists who knew, for instance, only cloth and really knew how to work with computer-generated cloth. He adds, “Now I feel like we are shifting back to more of a generalist world.”

Allen has some advice for students who are thinking about entering the world he lives in, where art runs on top of software. It’s a world where everything is technically driven. “If you have a passion for painting, then it’s important to set up macros in Photoshop. As a modeler, you’ll have to understand the topology and what’s happening underneath those models. Being able to write scripts in Python or whatever scripting languages you use can help you expedite your workflow and increase the number of things you can get done within a given timeframe.” On the communications side of it, Allen recommends being open to new approaches and new opportunities. The industry (and everyone in it) rides waves that come and go. “I originally wanted to be a lighter, and now I am so thankful I paddled out and a wave came up that took me in a different direction. It’s a good idea to entertain taking that wave wherever you might paddle. I’m very, very happy landing where I have landed.”

Subscribe to the Newsletter