alex hessler


In 2005 I first heard about an unnamed James Cameron project. There were rumors that his next movie was going to be called “Battle Angel”, a space opera of epic proportions. Soon, however, the grapevine revealed that it wasn’t Battle Angel in the works, but Avatar. The word was Weta was handling it, that it would be mostly cg, and that photo realism was the goal. As an ambitious visual effects artist, I kept my ear to the ground for when the team would start ramping up, and synched my application with that.

On March of 2008 early shading and lighting td’s were being picked up by Weta, so I fired off my demo reel and cv and waited to hear back. After a very long 3 months, I got a phone interview and then an offer to work as a Lighting Technical Director.

I started in October 2008 and got assigned a lead position quickly. Working with my friends and Weta’s open atmosphere allowed me to pick up as much responsibility as I could handle.

My first sequence, which was almost solely lit by ex Framestore TD’s, was the wake up scene. This is the only scene in the movie where Jake and Norm’s avatars appear on a previously filmed plate. That is, the background is not computer generated. The most rewarding aspect of this scene is that it allowed for traditional visual effects lighting and compositing. I had done this for years in London, so it was an exciting test. Weta’s lighting tools were up to the job, and we achieved a realistic look without much revision.

My second sequences is where Jake bursts out of the door into the yard. This sequence involved a lot of shader palette and look development. The primary shading team was busy working on plants (a lot of them), so hard surface work was left up to the sequence leads. Pipeline changes also threw a spanner into the works. We got it done though, and I was especially proud of the sequence’s uniquely challenging shots; Jake eating the fruit and scrunching his toes in the dirt.

Next was the “love scene”. I wasn’t the primary lead on this, but was able to run the opening one-off shots on my own. These involved the swimming scene, and lots of bioluminescence. Lighting the night time biolum shots was a really unique experience. No key, rim or fill direction needed to make sense. It was just a beautiful rave club light show.

My final sequence was where the humans were being paraded back onto the shuttle to leave. I really pushed the golden hour look but orange light and blue skin doen’t get along well, so it was a balancing act. The biggest challenge of this sequence was the sheer number of animated characters on the screen. One of the shots had over 100 characters + props which all had to be version managed. Managing shadow data with all of the moving models into the distance was also a challenge.

If you saw the movie, I hope you enjoyed it. Check out the trailer here:

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