As Avatar make-up tutorials pop up online, Tegan Taylor, the film’s department head make-up artist, shares how she helped bring James Cameron’s vision to life
When I got the call in 2007 to be Department Head Make-up Artist on James Cameron’s new feature, Avatar, I knew that I was being invited to be part of something very special. The crew kept very quiet back then because we knew that what we were working on was amazing. When Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldana came in for their final screen tests that summer, it was clear that things were finally underway.
I had worked on a number of 3D features in the past, so I was no stranger to the task at hand, but the requirements for Avatar were very, very different. Amazing virtual cameras had been designed for each actor to wear on their head. These cameras captured detailed footage of each actor’s facial movements and eye movements. In the past, we used hundreds of reflective beads to capture this data, but to support the advanced computer system in place for Avatar, it was decided that paints would be used instead.
When I first began my work on Avatar, the products I needed simply did not exist, so I created a virtual make-up lab, MoCap FX®. There we created make-up effects compatible with the advanced computer systems being utilized. Using pigments with fluorescence and phosphorescent properties, I designed customized formulas that were highly visible and keyed to our virtual software. All of the products I used on Avatar were designed exclusively for the process to accommodate James Cameron’s intensely focused directing, including our unique application brushes and portable mixing trays.
We started the process by painting a detailed “grid,” consisting of hundred of specific marks, on each actor’s face. The grid mapped out the actor’s individual facial structures, allowing us to capture their unique facial movements. Once the grids were in place, we scanned the actors’ faces and had them perform a variety of facial movements, which we then recorded to capture their expressions. Whenever our actors worked, their grids had to be absolutely identical to the first images we scanned, so we transposed their grids onto clear vacuform masks which we then used as a templates. Each day of filming, we painted the identical grid back onto the actors’ faces with special phosphorescent paint. Because placement and symmetry were so important, it was crucial that our make-up artists were highly skilled and detail-oriented.
The experience of working directly with James Cameron was amazing. He is a perfectionist in every sense of the word, and he expects everyone to be on his or her mark at all times. Not only is he a brilliant director, but he is a talented artist as well, and he had complete respect for the work everyone on the cast and crew were doing. I worked on Avatar for two years, and it was an experience I will never forget.
Tegan Taylor’s digital capture credits also include A Christmas Carol, Beowulf, The Polar Express, and Monster House. Currently she is working as personal make-up artist for actress Eliza Dushku.
Photograph courtesy Tegan Taylor