Mastering and delivering Avatar: The Way Of Water in multiple formats to cinemas worldwide required vendors to come together and execute the film in more than 1,000 versions. Adrian Pennington talks to the companies about the groundbreaking effort.
A delivery process that involved 1,065 unique versions of the movie has helped propel 20th Century Studios’ Avatar: The Way Of Water to more than $2.3bn in global box-office receipts. It makes James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment production among the most logistically complicated titles ever released.
In order to meet the global release on December 16 last year, Disney created new asset management workflows, developed a mastering process in the cloud and collaborated with suppliers on a scale no studio had previously attempted.
Kim Beresford, The Walt Disney Studios’ vice president of planning and motion picture operations, explained in February at the Hollywood Professional Association (HPA) Tech Retreat 2023 Super-session in Rancho Mirage, California: “The type of experience that Jon [Landau, producer] and Jim [Cameron] wanted the audience to have was partly about the best 3D version, partly about being able to fill the screen – whatever type of screen is at your local cinema – and partly to get the brightest amount of light onto screen based on what each projector could handle. It was all to have the audience really feel immersed. Those were the guiding principles.”
They started with 27 discrete picture formats to meet the basic specifications of theatres including Imax and Dolby Vision. That quickly multiplied with the addition of audio formats (Dolby Atmos, 5.1, 7.1), each in 51 languages supported with subtitles and 28 languages supported by dubbing. That number immediately doubled by delivering at 48 frames per second (fps) and required combinations of 2D, 3D and 24fps. There were even different colour grades for conventional digital projection systems depending on their light output. The aspect ratio of individual screens was another key variable.
“The first idea of a plan we had was 3,000 versions,” Beresford revealed. “But when we looked at the potential capability that exhibition might have, it turned out we didn’t need all those. Not every exhibitor can play everything in the way we thought they could, not all markets or versions were required. So we ended at 1,065 full-feature versions.’ By contrast, a typical Marvel blockbuster has around 500 versions.
“While huge, the 1,065 number might not have presented so much of a challenge but we were also dealing with a huge increase in data, says Rich Welsh, senior vice president of innovation at Deluxe, one of three vendors on the project. “The more data you have to move, the more time it will take.”
The project is estimated to have amassed 10 petabytes (10 million gigabytes) of data – more than 10 times a regular tentpole feature.
If the number of deliverables and volume of data were not tricky enough, the time to make and check all the versions was slashed from the industry standard 45 days between picture lock and worldwide release to just 16 days.
The reason for the tight window is given as the perfectionism of director Cameron. He and Landau had asked Disney ahead of time if they could lock the picture as close to release as possible.
“We had to manufacture more time,” said Mark Arana, vice president of distribution technology at The Walt Disney Studios, at the HPA event. “Since all the data was at Park Road Post Production in New Zealand, our main operations are on the US west coast and our vendors were mainly in Europe, as was our dubbing facility, we had to turn our operation into a 24/7 support model. Moving to a cloud-based workflow enabled everybody to receive content on time.”
Disney made the unusual decision to break the 192-minute film into 15 reels of around 12 minutes to allow the mastering and versioning process to begin before the final full feature was locked. After the data was received from Park Road Post Production in Wellington, the studio had to quickly churn out digital cinema packages (DCP) for each of the reels and send them to Deluxe, EIKON and Pixelogic for creation of local-language versions, 3D subtitles, and for quality control (QC).
While this mastering process was automated and managed by Disney software ADCP (Automated Digital Cinema Package), it was only possible after the technology was scaled up to the task. “For media creation and transformation, we leveraged Sundog – a tool that we needed to evolve to be able to scale” said Arana. “Partnering with Deluxe [which owns the Sundog technology] was a key part of that.”
The September 2022 re-release of the original Avatar film at 48fps was an opportunity to stress test the Sundog engine before it was scaled up to work on Avatar: The Way Of Water. Traffic-light approval system QC Assist was created to manage, track and synchronise assets across all vendors. “If any vendor QCed [quality controlled] a reel and failed the picture, then it failed that picture reel everywhere it was being used, explains Welsh. “Conversely, if a reel was signed off, then it was cross-correlated across all assets.”
This central quality control register enabled Disney to farm out the project to multiple geographically located facilities and vendors and keep track of it all. “None of this existed before” says Welsh. “The ability to co-ordinate work reel by reel into final conformed versions globally and across multiple vendors was new.”
Most films will have their 3D subtitle versions derived from the 2D one, but not here. The filmmakers wanted the 3D experience to be prioritised and therefore an inverse of the normal workflow.
“This was about micro-placement of subtitles, not just top, middle or bottom, but along the Z [depth] axis, explains Andy Scade, senior vice president and general manager of digital cinema services at Pixelogic Media. “Lightstorm were signing off on every 3D placement to ensure the 3D was as comfortable for the viewer as possible.”
Localisation, 3D subtitling and QC was split between vendors, with each performing similar work-flows. “It was an incredibly time-compressed project” says Jonathan Gardner, chief information officer at Eikon Group. “Usually, you would receive the whole finished film, QC, then distribute it. Here we were doing QC reel by reel. For every single version, we were doing 15 mini QCs, 15 mini validations, 15 subtitle placements – substantially more than doubling the amount of QC.”
You need to make sure you’re mirroring the director’s creative intent while ensuring the subtitles are legibleJonathan Gardner – EIKON Group
For the 3D subtitle placement, Gardner explains Eikon would map the translations over the stereo picture. “When you translate the subtitles into, say Portuguese, the text could be longer than the English version,” he says. “Or in Korean the subtitle needs to be placed down the side of the frame. This impacts the 3D experience, so you need to change the offset to make sure you’re mirroring the director’s creative intent for the shot while ensuring the subtitles are legible.”
As the final OCed DCPs came off the production line, they are packaged per territory and sent to the local distribution vendor, which would route them to cinemas by hard drive or electronic delivery.
“The data overhead was enormous,” says Gardner. “We upgraded all our storage systems and increased bandwidth throughout the building. We rewrote parts of our MAM [media asset management] to auto-generate tens of thousands of work orders, and built integrations into third-party systems for OC management. We had to maintain all these assets in a regimented state across all our infrastructure, and the only way to do so is by software and automation.
“We moved forward leaps and bounds in how we project manage at scale, which is a template we can take forward to other projects,” adds Gardner. “It was great for us operationally and solidified the efficiencies we knew we could achieve.”
Similar efforts were made at Deluxe. “We have worked reel by reel before but never with this complexity and timescale,” says Welsh.
Aside from QC executed in screening rooms, the rest of the vendors’ work was hosted and performed in workstations on media pulled from Amazon Web Services Cloud. Park Road delivered directly into AWS where all mastering of reels was automated by Disney and Deluxe technology.
“The use of cloud is relatively new in post-production,” says Welsh. “Avatar: The Way Of Water points firmly to the way forward for this type of work. It showed we could do a delivery pipe that was entirely in the cloud with huge advantages of scale. That we just did the biggest release of all time should answer any lingering questions about security.”
The achievement also lays the ground for even more technically ambitious projects that put clear blue water between theatrical experiences and the home. “We could go to higher than 48 frame rates and more immersive experiences,” says Welsh. “The door is now open”
Because co-ordinating QC and mastering is so complex, studios have traditionally trusted work per title with just one vendor – but not this time. As Disney’s Beresford testified, “The thing I am most proud of is the level of collaboration and innovation that everyone brought to the table.”
This article first appeared in Screen International April 2023