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.