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James Cameron Says Microsoft’s Role in ‘Avatar’ Was Key

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Director James Cameron relied on Microsoft technology to store the massive amounts of data generated during the filming of “Avatar.” As technology’s role in moviemaking expands, Microsoft looks to be a player in film’s digital revolution.

By Jake Siegel
February 5, 2010

James Cameron
James Cameron pushed digital filmmaking to new levels for “Avatar.” The result was massive amounts of data, which prompted him to seek Microsoft’s help to handle it.

Five years ago, Nadine Kano visited James Cameron at the offices of his film production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. Kano, a senior director in MSIT’s Product Group Strategic Initiatives (PGSI) team, had flown to Los Angeles to explore whether Microsoft could help on the director’s latest project. On her way to Cameron’s screening room, she walked past large replicas of the T-1000, the android assassin from “Terminator 2,” and the nightmare-inducing Alien Queen from “Aliens.”

She was feeling increasingly excited about what Cameron had to present.

Cameron hit the lights and showed a short clip in 3D.

When it ended, Kano sat stunned in the darkened theater. “I had just seen the future, one in which every movie would be in 3D,” she said.

“I told Cameron that I believed the transition would be as big as the transition from black and white to color that started with the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ I knew we simply had to support Cameron’s vision.”

A team of believers, including Kano, relentlessly pursued Microsoft executives to back Cameron’s upcoming film, code-named “Project 880,” with Microsoft technology. That same brief test scene of a lush, computer-generated jungle was what would convince Twentieth Century Fox to green-light Cameron’s project, which ultimately became the film “Avatar.” The decision proved to be a wise bet—”Avatar” recently surpassed Cameron’s “Titanic” as the highest-grossing movie of all time.

If the record audiences flocking to “Avatar” sit through the credits, they’ll see proof of Microsoft’s involvement when the “Special Thanks” message rolls across the screen.

The acknowledgement is for what Cameron and Lightstorm dubbed Gaia, the Digital Asset Management (DAM) system that served as the hub for all the digital content and metadata generated during the production. Essentially, the entire movie was turned into data that was almost exclusively housed on Gaia. Microsoft built the data-collection application from the ground up for “Avatar,” and it proved essential during the making of the film, said producer Jon Landau.

“Without Gaia, we would not have been able to do the production,” Landau said in a phone interview with MSW. “Gaia was the backbone that everything else ran on top of.”

Gaia will play a part in Cameron’s future films, he added. Lightstorm and Microsoft have just signed an extension to their original agreement that cements their working relationship. “We will not do a production without Gaia,” Landau said.

The agreement between Microsoft and Lightstorm underscores the digital shift that’s under way in Hollywood, a shift that means IT will play an ever-expanding role in moviemaking. Microsoft is well aware of the enormous opportunity digital filmmaking presents, said Raj Biyani, general manager of the PGSI team in Microsoft IT.

“Look at ‘Avatar’ and how it was built,” he said. “Essentially, it was an IT project.” The problems that filmmakers increasingly will face—keeping track of massive amounts of data, enabling large numbers of people to access that data, and coordinating among production crews that are literally on the other side of the world, as they were during “Avatar”—are all perfectly tailored for a cloud-computing solution. In Biyani’s mind, that solution is the Windows Azure platform. With it, he thinks Microsoft can become a major player at the outset of the digital filmmaking revolution, of which “Avatar” is only the opening salvo.

Scene from 'Avatar'
In “Avatar,” every blade of grass, every cloud in the sky, every vine in the jungle existed digitally and had to be stored somewhere. According to Landau, the production generated more than a petabyte—or one million gigabytes—of information.

“I think the future of filmmaking is all digital,” Landau said. “We then have a quandary that never existed before: how do you maintain and manage all your digital assets? In the future, I think all films are going to need their own version of Gaia.”

Building a DAM
To bring to life the lush, luminous world of Pandora, Cameron had to push 3-D technology to new levels, going as far as working with Sony to invent a new camera. The result was a dizzying amount of data—every blade of grass, every cloud in the sky, every vine in the jungle existed digitally and had to be stored somewhere. According to Landau, the production generated more than a petabyte—or one million gigabytes—of information. “That’s a lot to handle,” he said.

Cameron knew he had to be able to quickly and easily access all that information or risk disaster, he told a Microsoft film crew in 2008. “I always have this horror that the best thing we create winds up like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of ‘Indiana Jones,’ being put away in some warehouse where we never find it,” he said.

So he reached out to Microsoft for help. Cameron’s relationship with the company started in 2002, when his associate Maria Wilhelm, a longtime technology executive and former senior vice president at Netscape and AOL, approached him about joining Bill Gates on stage at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles to launch Windows Media Player 9. Wilhelm knew that Cameron’s documentary unit, Earthship Productions, was relying on Microsoft technologies in the creation of the marine-focused, 3-D “Ghosts of the Abyss,” released in 2003, and would continue to employ Microsoft technologies in the production of “Aliens of the Deep,” released in 2005—both technology experiments, as Cameron also characterizes the films. Evolving his digital tool set on the documentaries, Cameron felt confident that technology had finally advanced to the point where he could realize the technically ambitious “Avatar,” which he’d written years before.

At the start of the new millennium, though, things had changed. “Even before we got into ‘Avatar’ and really knew what we were doing, we identified that we really are in a digital age in terms of filmmaking,” Landau said. “So how do we manage and make best use of all of those digital assets on any given production?”

Mike Bayman, program manager in Lifestyle Marketing, was Microsoft’s key point of contact with Lightstorm as the two sides puzzled it out. Bayman attended the early meetings where Cameron outlined his bold vision for “Avatar.” “[Cameron] said that he wanted to be able to make the most realistic computer-generated world ever,” said Bayman.

For “Avatar,” Cameron filmed the actors as they wore “motion capture” suits, which were covered with sensors Bayman described as “ping-pong balls” that fed the actors’ movements into a computer. That allowed Cameron to direct the computer-generated characters in real time through use of a virtual monitor.

In a virtual production, nothing is photographed. Instead, performances—down to the tiniest facial expression—are captured as data, Landau said. At that point, the data needs to be cataloged and stored before being shipped to the production crews that will edit the virtual environment.

Enter the Digital Asset Management (DAM) system.

Raj Biyani, Tony Scott, James Horner, and James Cameron
Microsoft is well aware of the enormous opportunity digital filmmaking presents, said Raj Biyani (left), shown here at the film’s premiere with Microsoft CIO Tony Scott, composer James Horner, and director James Cameron.

The initial goal was to build a DAM system that would capture the artwork coming out of preproduction and squirrel away as much of it as possible, said Tim Bicio, Lightstorm’s chief technology officer. Bicio had worked on the “Matrix” sequels for five years, so he was familiar with the DAM concept. The scale and scope of “Avatar” was much larger than anything he had worked on, though.

Then, early in production, Landau approached Bicio and told him to build a stage application.

What does a stage application do? Bicio asked.

Well, it manages the stage, the producer said.

It was a huge shift, and it made Gaia central to the production, Bicio said. “Think of it as a court reporter for the stage. Every single take was recorded in our system.” Stage operators would record the scene, the setup, and the take number. They would also add information about each take: what moved, what was Cameron’s intent for the scene, and whether he liked it. Essentially, Gaia stored the history of the film. “The stage app was probably our biggest success,” Bicio said. “We were liable for everything being stored correctly and recorded correctly, without losing any of it.”

Bayman said it took some time before Gaia took shape. Ultimately, developers from Microsoft Consulting Services wrote a custom .NET Framework application running on SQL Server that was able to serve as the hub of the entire virtual production. It could handle all the metadata attached to every second of motion capture; it could instantly notify art and sound teams when data was ready to be edited; and it could let the New Zealand-based special effects team, Weta Digital, access the data across the world.

Bayman said the best compliment he heard about Gaia came from Bicio during the cast and crew screening of “Avatar.” “He came up to me and said, ‘You know what? People can say what they want about .NET and Microsoft, but we never lost a single piece of data over years of production.’ I thought that was pretty telling.”

The Future of Filmmaking
“Avatar” is still dominating the box office, but Landau said he’s already being asked what comes next for Lightstorm. His reply: “On the next movie, we want to do it faster and cheaper.”

Gaia will be one tool the production company uses to keep costs down. According to Biyani, the future DAM systems Microsoft will deploy for Lightstorm will only get better.

Nadine Kano, Jon Landau, Raj Biyani, and Maria Wilhelm
Nadine Kano and others pushed Microsoft executives to work with Cameron on “Avatar.” Here, Kano (left) mingles at the premiere with producer Jon Landau, Raj Biyani, and Lightstorm’s Maria Wilhelm.

“If you think about the challenges that digital filmmaking will present—storing, cataloging, accessing petabytes of data that need to be accessed by multiple entities in different geographic locations—you realize that the cloud would be a fantastic solution,” he said. “And with Microsoft’s Azure Platform, we have a solution to this problem.”

Biyani said that Windows Azure and the power of cloud computing will enable film productions to be much more efficient as large, scattered teams work with tremendous amounts of data. In essence, he said, Microsoft will be able to set up the IT infrastructure so that studios can make movies faster and better without worrying about technology. According to Landau, that is the role IT should play in the future of digital filmmaking. “That’s exactly the goal: to allow people to do their artistic jobs, to take the technical burden away from them.”

The digital revolution is still in its infancy, but Landau believes it will eventually spill over from the movie theater and into the home. Just like people post videos on YouTube now, they will be able to use virtual cameras to create their own 3-D worlds. And, just like with “Avatar,” IT will enable art.

“What I believe ‘Avatar’ has done as much as anything is it’s opened a small crack in the door to let other filmmakers know that stories that could not be told in the past can now be told,” Landau said. “No longer do they reside in your imagination or only in the pages of great literature, but you now have the technology to realize them.”


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