Rarely has a movie studio been under more pressure to get the vegetation right.
It was late spring in 2009, and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) had just been asked to get a planet’s worth of virtual vegetation designed and rendered – quickly – for a science fiction film due in theaters in a short six months.
The customer? The famously exacting James Cameron, director of some of the biggest feature films of all time.
The movie? Avatar.
Richard Bluff, ILM Digital Matte department Supervisor, was in charge of getting Cameron the vegetation he wanted.
“James Cameron wasn’t going to settle for anything less than what he’d been envisioning,” Bluff said. “He would talk about specific twigs and branches not being there, he would want a certain branch moved up three inches.”
Cameron and his team had spent two years pre-visualizing Pandora, the lush planet where the movie takes place, and they’d asked ILM to help put their imagination on the big screen. Their vegetation designs were precise down nearly to the pixel, Bluff said, and they weren’t going to settle for anything less than perfect. “You guys better be able to match everything,” Bluff recalled being told.
Matching Cameron’s requirements wasn't going to be easy, Bluff knew. “Our old methodology of doing trees was never going to work,” he acknowledged. “We’d never been asked for such specific vegetation designs, and nothing we had on hand was up to the task.”
Enter SpeedTree Cinema
“I knew within 15 minutes that this was what we were looking for,” Bluff said. “In the past, we had never been able to control down to a leaf or a twig, where with SpeedTree we could. We were able to grow and manipulate a tree to the exact specifications of a film where literally every scene had been meticulously pre-visualized by Mr. Cameron’s team.”
Once Bluff’s team knew SpeedTree was the tool they would use, they set to work, quickly churning out the trees they needed by the dozens. “Starting in the morning with five models from your library, one of our artists had 40 trees done by lunchtime,” Bluff said. “Those 40 trees comprised about 80 percent of the trees we needed for the entire film.”
Soon after, Bluff brought his work to Mr. Cameron, presenting a 23-second long flyover of the planet Pandora. “A hush fell over the screening room,” Bluff recalled. “The first thing Mr. Cameron wanted to know was ‘how are you doing your trees?’ He was shocked at the match to his original vision.”
SpeedTree was simply the best choice for our work on Avatar. It’s as simple as that.
That initial footage ended up comprising the first 23 seconds of Avatar, which was released in December 2009 and became the first movie to earn $2 billion in box office revenue. The movie was nominated for nine Oscar® Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and won three, for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects.
“SpeedTree was simply the best choice for our work on Avatar,” Bluff insisted. “It’s as simple as that.”
What challenges was ILM facing when you first considered using SpeedTree?
How long did it take you to evaluate SpeedTree?
Did the decision to use SpeedTree facilitate the rapid development schedule?
Without SpeedTree, how would you have accomplished your trees “by hand?”
Does your production pipeline include SpeedTree with any other 3D applications?
We were able to manipulate our trees to the exact specifications of a film where every scene had been pre- visualized by Mr. Cameron’s team.
Did you use any of the assets provided in the Tree Model Library, or did you create your own trees from scratch?
Can you provide any technical details on how SpeedTree fits into your workflow?
Were there any other key features of SpeedTree that were crucial to development?
Were you supported by the SpeedTree staff during your evaluation?
Do you expect to use SpeedTree again?