Tech makes journey to Pandora, and Hollywood, easier

Lo’ak and Tulkun in ″Avatar: The Way of Water.″ [20TH CENTURY STUDIOS]

At least two of the 2,000 artists who helped bring Pandora and the Na'vi to life in “Avatar: The Way of Water” have a Korean connection.

Choi Jong-jin, a computer graphic (CG) supervisior for the James Cameron film, is Korean. Korean-American Hwang Jung-rock was a senior facial artist for the production, connecting the actors with technology to their GC avatars.

Both came to the set with impressive credentials that allowed them to work magic, magic that may not have been possible when the first "Avatar" was made more than a decade ago.

Left, Choi Jong-jin, computer graphics supervisor for "Avatar: The Way of Water," and Hwang Jung-rock, senior facial artist for the film. [YEONGHWAIN]

Choi attended the Pratt Institute School of Art & Design in New York, worked with Geoge Lucas and was involved in the making of a number of blockbusters, including "Planet of the Apes," "The Avengers," "Iron Man 3," "The Hobbit," and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

Hwang went to Academy of Art University in San Fransico and worked on "Avengers: Infinity War," "Gemini Man," "The Revenant," "Transformers 3," and "Maleficient."

Both are now employed by Miramar, New Zealand's Weta FX, the Academy Award-winning company founded by Peter Jackson and known for digital effects in the "Lord of the Rings" fims.

Choi argues that it is easier these days to get involved in the CG side of major produtions as technologies allow artists to work remotely anywhere in the world. You no longer have to go to Hollywood to get to Hollywood.

The Korea JoongAng Daily spoke with Choi and Hwang in an online interview Monday to discuss everything from working with Cameron to the process of rendering the CG for “Avatar: The Way of Water."

The interview was arranged by Yeonghwain, which distributes the film in Korea.

Jake Sully and Neytiri from ″Avatar: The Way of Water.″ [20TH CENTURY STUDIOS]

Q: How did you come into contact with director James Cameron and what was the catalyst for working with him?

Choi: We did not meet personally, and I can’t say that we had a personal relationship with Cameron before we started the project. I was working at Industrial Light & Magic – owned by George Lucas at the time, and one of the world’s biggest CG technology companies – thirteen years ago. We had a screening of the first Avatar movie at Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, and we were blown away by the film. That was my first encounter with the Avatar series. I then later met Cameron professionally.

Hwang: Likewise, I didn’t have a personal relationship with Cameron, but we met professionally through a lot of virtual meetings because it was the pandemic era.

Q: How many people were involved in the process of rendering the CG for “Avatar: The Way of Water”?

Kim: About 2,000 people were involved. It wasn’t that all those people worked from start to finish, but the total number of contributors from Weta was about 2,000.

Q: What was the part that you paid the most attention to when rendering different characters, such as Jake Sully, Kiri and the Tonowari tribe members?

Hwang: The actors’ facial expressions are made in advance, but the most important aspect was the part where we tried to make the actor and character’s faces synchronize as much as possible. So Jake is a member of the Na’vi tribe, and the Na’vi have larger eyes than humans and a different nose shape. Therefore it wasn’t natural to introduce characters based on the features of the actor. In the case of Kiri, Sigourney Weaver, who is over 70 years old, played a 14-year-old character, so to make this look natural, Kiri’s guide shape was based on Weaver’s actual appearance from when she was younger. It wasn’t an easy task.

Jake Sully from ″Avatar: The Way of Water″ flies on a creature in the film. [20TH CENTURY STUDIOS]

Q: What was the most difficult part in working on “Avatar: The Way of Water”?

Choi: There has been a lot of developments in technology over the past 13 years since the first Avatar film was released. It used to be very hard to express the flow of water and the way light shines in waves and waterways – this is called “caustic,” in technological terms, the way water and waves form a pattern and shape when light is reflected. The caustic performance is much better nowadays. We could render caustic performance shot by shot, as if using a magnifying glass. So there was less difficulty in expressing the water and movement of waves in “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

Hwang: Technology to express facial elements have also advanced greatly. The movement of expression on faces used to be done through straight and linear lines, and afterwards everything had to be adjusted by hand. But now we have a technology called APFS, which can combine shapes on faces. The combination of curves is very natural with this technology and no manual edits are needed, so as a result I was able to spend more time studying the characters for artistic expression.

Q: The number of Korean artists in the CG industry going overseas and working on American projects is growing rapidly in recent years. Could you give your two cents on this phenomenon?

Choi: There certainly are a lot more artists from Korea working overseas than before. Due to the prominence of streaming services such as Netflix and series such as Marvel movies doing well, barriers have been lowered compared to before the pandemic. When I first started working on CG in the industry, the only route was to study abroad, graduate from an art college there and build your portfolio before applying to the big U.S. companies. But now it’s different. If you have a strong portfolio, you can apply directly from Korea. Remote work is also possible, so people don’t have to be physically in the U.S. to contribute to American projects. In a way, the pandemic has increased opportunity for artists.

Hwang: I want to clarify that we did not have more opportunities because of our Korean backgrounds, but that opportunities are now more equal regardless of nationality. We all come from different cultures and places, but we had the same choices to make artistically when working on “Avatar: The Way of Water.”