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Patents Of Avatar: How Weta Makes Water Look Wetter – Patent



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I’ve been in the patent profession for over 20 years, and
sometimes it’s nice to be reminded why the whole system exists
in the first place. Happily for me, I recently had such a reminder
in the somewhat unlikely form of the official trailer for Avatar 2, or
more properly ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’.

The trailer looks spectacular, and there is a snip at 1 minute
22 seconds which has drawn a lot of attention. A Na’vi
character (i.e. a giant blue alien), manipulates combinations of
leather and woven fabrics which are partially submerged. These
fabrics, along with the hands of the character, look incredibly
realistic. There has been debate as to whether these can possibly
be digital effects, given the realism achieved, but blue skinned
actors are hard to find, and that doesn’t look like body
paint.

So how is it done?

Here is where the magic of the patent system comes in. The
patent system is designed so that, in exchange for fully disclosing
an idea so it is available for the future of humankind, a
short-term monopoly is provided. Thus the curious can learn what
might otherwise be kept as a trade secret.

Returning to Avatar, the renowned New Zealand agency, Weta
Digital, worked on the digital effects and in the first half of
2020 Weta filed a bunch of patent applications relating to
modelling virtual fluids. Excitingly, these are now published for
the world to see.

Watching the trailer, you can see the character’s hand slap
down into the water before seconds later a fantastical creature
burst through the surface, dripping wet. Now take a look at
Weta’s patent for generating thin
film interfaces. Figures 3A and B in particular are not a bad
visual match for the trailer and if you want to know what’s
going on, it is all set out for you. At its heart, the application
describes that the fluid is conceptually divided into a bulk fluid
and an ’emitted fluid’. The bulk fluid can be simulated
relatively economically in terms of the processing resources, but
if an image portion representing a fluid is within a threshold
amount of an interface between an object and the fluid, the
so-called emitted fluid is simulated, and more complex processes
apply: for example, surface tension, capillary wave patterns,
oscillating droplets and thin film dynamics may all be
considered.

Despite the visual accomplishment of the imagery, a key
component of patentability can be making efficient use of computing
resources, which is clearly the case here: the complex processes
are only applied where they will be visually impactful.

But how about the wet fabrics? Well you can read about that here. This hints that the
secret sauce may be modelling the fabric as particles linked by
forces and setting up a simulation that weakly couples the fluid
and the fabric, such that each can be modelled separately (and
computationally efficiently).

There are many other applications in Weta’s name, each
providing an enticing piece of the puzzle leading to the
astonishing visual results. This really feels like a case where
patents provide a peek behind the curtain which feels almost
illicit, laying bare the secrets of the world’s foremost
digital artists in a space we can all reach. You could almost say
they’re like seeds of a sacred tree (that’s an Avatar
thing, by the way).

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