Blogs > News-Herald Food and Travel

Food and travel captivate Janet Podolak, who chronicles both for The News-Herald. Get the back story of her three decades of stories here. Guest bloggers and fellow News-Herald staffers also periodically share details of their trips.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Making of Avatar in New Zealand

Just 11 years ago, Brett Purmal was about to graduate from Mentor High School. Today he’s one of the youngest animators to work on the hit film AVATAR. He’s now hosting his mom and dad, sister, uncle and assorted significant others in New Zealand, where he lives and works with WETA, the New Zealand digital production company. The photo here shows Brett, at left, with animation director Andy Jones at the wrap party.
Brett’s mom, Kathie, executive director of the Lake County Historical Society, is emailing me about their adventure Down Under, and I am extrapolating some of the details for this blog.
Brett, who knew he wanted an art career since he was in third grade at Garfield Elementary, first hooked up with WETA at a job fair, of all places. His employer first became known for its work on “Lord of the Rings.”
Brett originally came to New Zealand to work on “King Kong” and is now one of the youngest animators for AVATAR, which he hasn’t yet seen except in the dailies.
“He skipped the crew viewing in Wellington because he got tickets in Sydney to see it on the world’s largest IMAX screen,” ” Kathie wrote. He’s learned a lot from experienced guys who have worked for the world’s top studios, he told his mom. “This film exposed him to ‘facial animation’ — the primary reason James Cameron came to WETA.”
Although best known for Titanic, writer-director Cameron has been fascinated with aliens since he was a kid, Kathie learned from her son. “He planned AVATAR for years, but wanted the animated faces to exactly replicate the real actors’ faces, line by line. It was not until he saw Golum in ‘Lord of the Rings’ that he realized the technology was now available to do that. He worked with WETA more than three years to prepare for this film. The technology began with his own company, Lightstorm, which developed the ‘facial performance capture’ technology.”
Brett was happy to be back at WETA after a two-year absence working for Electronic Arts in Vancouver, B.C., his mom wrote.” “He missed working on feature films. This time he arrived with his significant other, an Australian girl he met in Vancouver. They have bought a home overlooking the harbor in Wellington. We’ll arrive for our first viewing on Christmas Eve.”
Brett told her that Cameron was very hands on during the making of the film. He was very passionate and focused on every detail. As the film neared the animation deadline, 12-hour days gave way 18-hour days. Thirty seconds on the screen (a long time in the film world) could take up to a month to animate. However, true to WETA tradition, every Friday at 6 p.m. was “Beer O’Clock” time and everyone headed down to the party room for drinks and munchies provided by WETA. Great time to unwind and relax — made even more interesting by the fact that the animators were from the US, France, Japan, Germany, England, Korea, France.
Traditionally, the animators get listed at the end of the credits, but in AVATAR, Animation Art Director Andy Jones is listed at the beginning. Jones was art director for Titanic and Cameron brought him to New Zealand for this film.
Brett told Kathie about his AVATAR experiences as they were driving back to the Auckland airport to pick up his sister, Nickie, her significant other, and his uncle Kim who would have flown 20 hours from New York.

“By this time, we were pulling into Auckland airport and changing from a rental car to the official holiday party bus — a 12 passenger monster— to accommodate all of them and their luggage,” Kathie wrote. “Brett quickly decorated the inside with a string of pirate flags, added a blow up kiwi onto the front bumper, put reindeer antlers on the windshield wipers, santa hats on our heads and with Christmas carols blaring from the speakers, we came gliding into the International pick up area.”
That's Kathie, wearing red and in the middle.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

12,000 miles to New Zealand

After a 17-hour, 12,000 mile flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, Kathie and Dick Purmal now are in New Zealand with their son Brett, a digital animator on the film AVATAR. “Our carrier was Australia, a new carrier Down Under owned by Sir Richard Branson,” Kathie writes. Both got $650 round trip fares from LA to Sydney, and while en route watched three movies, four TV sitcoms and a documentary on individual screens at every seat. “You can even chat seat-to-seat so if there is a really good-looking guy you can log on, figure out his seat, type in a conversation and hit send, crossing your fingers that he’s as bored as you,” she writes. She said the seats are wide but have little leg room.
During the night they crossed the international date line, losing Wednesday, Dec. 16 entirely.
After arrival in Sydney on Thursday, they needed to fly another three hours to Auckland, at which point they discovered their luggage was 20 pounds overweight — all Christmas gifts.
“We landed in Auckland and there he was,” she writes. “All 6 foot, 3 inches of him, decked out in an AVATAR tee shirt, shorts and a Santa hat: Our son Brett.”
(It's midsummer Down Under)
Brett surprised them with the news that they had another four-hour drive ahead of them. They needed to catch a ferry for their surprise destination and their bed for the next two nights. If they missed the ferry they would have an additional 90 minute drive in the dark over dirt roads, they learned.
Heather, Brett’s significant other, who was tracking their progress on Google, told them by cell phone that at their current rate of speed they would miss the ferry by 15 minutes.
“Brett pushed the car to the limit, flying around switchbacks on the dark mountain roads north toward the Bay of Islands,” Kathie wrote. They zoomed to the ferry landing and boarded, only to discover that it was just a five-minute ferry ride.
They soon reached the beach cottage Brett had rented for them in the village of Russell. “We were in the Bay of Islands in the north of New Zealand,” they learned, before falling into bed.
“It’s a tiny town like one that might be found in New England, but the backdrop is Tahiti. It’s a magical place,” she writes. After a good night’s sleep the Purmals went exploring into the hills and down along the coast, passing “exquisite little beaches tucked into nooks and crannies and rock outcroppings.”
As they passed a local school Kathie thought she saw a play house. “Turns out the New Zealand government strongly believes the original Maori culture needs to be preserved,” she wrote. “So schools have these miniature Maori learning huts where students of Maori descent can go to learn the songs, stories, dances and other expressions of their culture. Is this not a great idea?”
Their small group boarded a boat to follow the Cream Run, which replicates the trips boats from Russell made to the outlying islands to deliver provisions and mail and pick up cream from the various island farms.
“They announced that should we come upon a pod of wild dolphins we would stop so people could don a wet suit and jump in with them,” she wrote. “About ten minutes later, there they were, leaping, playing and grinning at us.” She said a group of young women got into wet suits and went into the boom net, a large net suspended off the side of the boat that was lowered into the water. The girls - who were swimming above the dolphins without seeing them- were instructed to “look down” by those still on the boat. ”In the end, the girls returned to the net, half frozen because the water was about 60 degrees,” she wrote. “We watched while the dolphins swam to another boat and proceeded to leap and swim with their divers.”

Next: The Purmals are joined by the rest of the family and learn more about Brett's role in the making of Avatar.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Vegas now, avatar bound

Brett Purmal,son of Kathie and Dick Purmal of Mentor, was a digital animator for the hit film Avatar. His parents will spend the holidays with him in New Zealand where the film was produced. Kathie, executive director at the Lake County History Center, has promised to email me so I can keep readers up to date with this blog. Read Mark Meszoros' review of Avatar in Friday's TGIF.
Traveling Down Under is especially challenging over Christmas with gifts in tow. The Purmals had to repack after they learned that they could carry 70 pounds of luggage from LA to Sydney, but only 50 pounds from Sydney to Auckland. "We’re down to two changes of underwear, blue jeans and tee shirts," Kathie writes.
An overnight in Las Vegas was in their plans to help moderate the jet lag. Sydney is 12 hours ahead of us and one day later.
"First surprise- all car rentals in Vegas require boarding a large shuttle bus to the “major car rental center.” Being thrifty travelers, Dick booked a company called “Fox” Car Rental. Unfortunately, they were not at “Major Car Rental Center”- however, a quick reread of our email directions determined we needed to go to the shuttle curb for the“Fox” van. Highly recommend these guys. Very accommodating, good equipment and only $12 per day.
Then came the “Timewarp”

We drove down the Las Vegas strip for the first time in 30 years. We couldn’t look eft and right fast enough andfeel like you arein the center of a Mardi Gras parade. Huge, larger than life images on both sides of Las Vegas Blvd. Near our hotel, the MGM, the new “City Center” is opening this weekend. It is a huge complex of high rise condos, condo hotels (the Mandarin Oriental and others) and thrown down Las Vegas Blvd. in front of these buildings looks like a bunch of children’s blocks, on their sides, edges, sitting flat, but covered with amazing graphics boasting that these are actually stores (Tiffany, Gucci and the like).

There is the Venetian, looking like someone had ripped it from the dirt of Italy. The detail on the buildings is amazing. Construction is still going on everywhere. Between all the lights and sites, we by-passed the MGM as we couldn’t figure how to get in and kept going down the blvd. A hint of the past on the right as we came to the old familiar Riviera. Looking small and user friendly, we almost expected old blue eyes to walk out. Turned around and called the MGM Mirage (not Grand)- it’s now covered in green panels so it glows in the night. They gave us landing nstructions and we headed down Tropicana Ave. to the entrance. From the moment we pulled in, all was taken care of. Car attendant: appeared immediately. Baggage: no problem. A cart appeared out of the night with instructions to call when we got to our room. We walked into the incredible lobby like a king and queen and were immediately hit with an incredible aroma. Roses- hundreds of roses- done in giant red balls, looking like Christmas ornaments.

The lobby was decorated for the holidays in white and gold. Check-in was smooth and friendly and all the people in line looked so very normal. No European royalty, but zillions of Asians having a grand time in large groups. All for $39.95 per night. I now realize why retired people travel out of season. We have a room on the 24th floor, overlooking the lights of the city. They added a package for $20 per person per day for their “All Day Buffet” pass. This gives you complete access to the MGM Grand Buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We headed down to dinner and the casino after check-in. (Dinner alone was $60 for two)

Timewarp #2- no quarters- no ka-ching of money- no handles to pull!!! Refined, quiet, what’s going on? Watching folks at the machines, we realized we had no clue how to use them We have a bachelors and masters degree between us and we were confounded. Dick- the daring one- finally realized people were putting cash into the machines and pushing buttons. This he could do, only he pushed the wrong button Never hit MAX PLAY unless you know what that means. $5 was gone in a flash.

We wandered and watched,finding a lot of hilarity and noise at a table with little horses on sticks having a race. You bet on the winning horse #1 & #2- (we had to ask) But it took quarters-- all ten pounds worth I had brought from Cleveland. But a crazy group of 20 something cowboys (the rodeo is in town) had taken over the table. Eye lids heavy - off to sleep.

Dick and Kathie Purmal