Interview with Richie Baneham, Visual Effects Supervisor & Executive Producer of AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER

Dublin born Richie Baneham trained in Ballyfermot’s world famous Art College before moving to Los Angeles where he worked on films as diverse as ‘The Iron Giant’ & ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ & oversaw the animation of the character of Gollum on The Lord of the Rings movies.

For his work on 2009’s ‘Avatar’, Baneham, along with his colleagues won the  Academy Award for Best Visual Effects at the 82nd Academy Awards and the visual effects category at the 2010 BAFTAs. Richie’s latest project is Visual Effects Supervisor and Executive Producer of  AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, which has become a global phenomena, breaking box office records across the globe and it continues to enthral audiences in cinemas, where it is still showing nationwide.

We caught up with Richie to chat about his work on the movie and what advice he might have for young Irish animators starting out.

Congratulations on Avatar: The Way of Water.
I’ve had people say congratulations on the BAFTA or the award. Congratulations on the movie, you hit it on the head. Honestly, that’s, that’s the real win. The success of the movie and the acceptance.

You worked on the original, what was the difference working on Avatar: The Way of Water?
There’s a couple of fundamental differences. When we finished the first movie, we did a post-mortem. A mid mortem because nobody died. What we did is we went off to a retreat, we took our core group of artists, specifically from Weta and the stage, and we did this breakdown of, what could we do better? What we quickly realised is on the first movie, we were using a standalone system that really was meant, in a lot of ways, we were building things twice, we would create the files in template form. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the behind the scenes from the first movie.

I have, it’s been a long time.
But yeah, so we make our movie in template form, which was a very late 2000s look, of a video game almost. That really is what it is. But what it is, is it is very light, very fast. It’s a game engine that we you know, we could manipulate at the port, unfortunately, DCCP (Datagram Congestion Control Protocol). The long and short of it was, we would massage it to a point where we can edit and get, you know, shock construction and get it down to a very specific length and turn it over to Weta because the cost of rendering and I say cost, I mean calx that, you know, the sheer computing, or it takes to produce the images, was astronomical, and therefore you can’t waste on the back end.

So, we tried to get it as tight as we can, before we turn it over to our post effects vendor or Weta effects. That meant that I’m starting from scratch in a lot of ways. I am rebuilding those scenes in their system. Now, you know, USD has come along with universal scene description. But that isn’t really the answer, it really wasn’t really what the answer was, the process wasn’t mature enough. So, what we decided to do was embrace the relationship between Lightstorm Entertainment and Weta. So, we started to basically create most of our operations inside of their system.

So, the idea being the files that we produce to make the template is the file that they open to produce the final images. And I’ll be honest, Graham that in and of itself was a huge leap forward. I think the other big leaps forward are, the facial system that we had started, I had the pleasure of being involved as head of animation back when we did Gollum. That was the start of that facial revolution, a lot of those keyframe back then and then it evolved to being able to use more and more of the captured facial pattern.

We realised by ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ the rig was end of life, it really was. It was so much manipulation; we couldn’t expand out to an ensemble cast. Joe and the team started to develop a neural network solution that looked at the individual physiology, albeit more or less everybody has the same physiognomy. In other words, the muscle patterning, or the muscles in our face are very, very similar. You know, like anybody else, like any other parts of the body, everybody has biceps, triceps. However, they are different sizes and function differently. People are athletic and people are uncoordinated. You know, so the same thing with the face. It’s so individual, you know, so long story short, that’s the big breakthrough. I may have gone down a rabbit hole.

You spoke there on your work on Gollum and Alita, how has it been? You were there with the beginning with Gollum. You had ‘Alita: Battle Angel’, and now you have ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’. How’s it been for yourself as an animator?
Well, it’s sort of when I switched from 2D to 3D on ‘Iron Giant’. It looked like for all intents and purposes, I’d gone to the dark side, I’d gone from the pencil to a computer. And then when we move on from traditional keyframe animation on the computer to incorporate the capture, and then now motion capture and move into performance capture. Look, for me, they’re all tools, none of them are better or worse, they have a place, which is you ultimately make choices about the tools you use, depending on what you want to put on screen. Performance capture is not the answer for everything keyframe is not the answer for everything.

It’s the same thing as, would I make a show in 2D? Yes, I’d still make a show, if I truly believe the medium really was a better way to tell that story. And that is the long and short of it. So, whilst there has been an evolution, it’s not linear for me, it’s always about the best way. How do you get the best result for the least effort? And they say that we’re going to put maximum effort in, so the only way is to understand how do you get the best bang for your buck? You know, on the resource end, you have the animator’s times, the actor’s time, you know, it’s like everything else. It is a finite resource.

So, you want to spend it correctly, you might have a limited time with an actor. How do you squeeze every drop out of their performance, that’s what you want. Also going in as prepared as possible. The key is understanding what you are trying to achieve. Be as prepared on the day. There’s always room for improv, but you really need to know what it is you want to glean from those performances and what it means to the long-term narrative of the movie.

The animation is stellar. What was what was it like going into the water aspect of Pandora now, we had explored the forest and we explored the sky. Now we are going into basically the opposite.
It opened up a whole other slew of creatures, and how skeletal data lays out. And then the manipulation for us, we always try to find terrestrial references, obviously Payakan, who ends up being one of one of the audience’s favourite characters, you can look at him as a whale because he’s a whale like character. The truth is, for a lot of him, we used the sinusoidal motion. His tail, and from its size, that it’s more comparable to something like sea lion feet and become sinusoidal like a shark tail. So the motion vocabulary for that creature, when you take that character, when you think about it, he has to give an emotional performance, he has to connect with a teenage boy, we have to understand that he’s excited to have a friend.

And we must emote with one large eye and the soft tissue around it because you can’t frame his whole head, it is too big. You need to do it with body language, so it’s a unique challenge. Luckily, we were blessed with some amazing animators. There’s a guy called Eric Reynolds, who’s embedded with us, and then Dan Barrett’s team, down in New Zealand, just smashed it. We would go back and forth.

They would also work on the Ilu. They are for all intents and purposes, something between a stingray and a seal. And we’re looking for that, you know, serpentine motion as they navigate their way through a medium. When you think about it, that’s the differences. A buoyant medium like water is 100 times more dense than water.

And so now you have additional issues, which is, you know, how have you had to propel yourself through that through that medium? So, you are constantly looking at? What is the truth about the locomotion? Does it read? Does it feel like it moves like a real creature? Then, and I’ll be honest, we get in, we get deep into it. Again, we started to look at the muscle structures inside the wings. Stingray’s have an overlapping muscle system which has rigidity along the cartilaginous leading edge and now you see, you’ve pulled me down a rabbit hole again.

With the last question, you’re homegrown Irish talent, and we’re very proud of our homegrown talent. Do you have any advice for upcoming animators? After all, you came from Ballyfermot College of Further Education.
Yeah 100%, I’d say, the future is there, do not be afraid of embracing the madness. Be passionate about the work because the truth is, that passion will carry you a lot further. I often say when we’re hiring, I’ll take tenacity over talent.

I love talented artists, but I need people who want to be there, who are willing to go the extra mile and I’m not talking about just hours, I’m talking about spending themselves emotionally, to really try to make it as good as they possibly can. So that regardless of what you choose, be passionate about it and that’s, honestly, it’s a great way to spend your day. If you’re doing something I love, I know they’re long days, but it’s a great way to spend your day.

Interview by Graham Day

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is now showing in Irish cinemas