Avatar artist Rob Powers on how passion fuels creativity

As art director on films like Avatar and Tintin, Rob Powers turned his passion for the ocean into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Like so many artists, the original 1977 Star Wars film captured my attention and led to my fascination with science fiction and visual effects, but for me another huge inspiration comes from nature and the ocean. The two would eventually intersect in my career.

As a small child I grew up by the sea – the intricate ecosystems that exist there truly fascinated me. I checked out every library book possible, covering everything from the various species of tropical fish to marine invertebrates and corals from around the world.

I learned the animal's names, characteristics and lifecycles – I was obsessed and driven to learn everything possible on the subject. I watched every documentary on marine life available and spent hours reading the books and looking at the colourful photos of sea life. It was my passion.

Change of course

Fast forward ten years into my visual effects career, where my love of nature (and technology) set me on a course I could never have predicted – a chance meeting with director James Cameron.
My friend and producer Chuck Comisky arranged a meeting that would give me a shot at working on one of Cameron's upcoming feature films.

My first meeting with James Cameron was iconic. Up to that point, he had been meeting with 3D computer animators who knew their way around the latest Siggraph white paper techniques or how to write a shader for the latest buzzword rendering software – artists who opted to focus on impressing him primarily with their mastery of the technology. So while interviewing for a 3D animation and design position on Cameron's film, I demonstrated my mastery and technical knowledge of the software tools, but something else emerged.

While sitting across the table listening to Cameron's vision of the film, he mentioned that the Spanish Dancer was a major reference for the graceful motion he wanted to see in the extraterrestrial aquatic creature for the film. It was at that moment that my lifelong passions were realised in my art. I caught myself enthusiastically offering up the details on the habitat, brilliant colouring, and sinusoidal swim motion of the Spanish Dancer marine flatworm. For a split second I'm certain I saw a slight twinkle in his eyes.

You never know when your passions can serve as an asset that sets you apart from everyone else

That one moment turned into an incredible five-year creative journey that allowed me to work closely with Cameron as the first CG artist to join his team and as a member of his hand-picked inner creative circle dubbed the Malibu 5, referring to the first five members to join the Avatar film team. With this opportunity I was able to witness and influence the birth of amazing innovation for the production industry.

What’s more, as the supervisor and creator of the industry's first Virtual Art Department for Avatar, I was able to directly participate in the evolution of virtual production workflows, which also opened the door to working with other iconic directors.

My passion for the creatures of the ocean allowed me to know something other artists didn't, at a time when I absolutely needed to know it. Your mission is to find out what that thing is for you. And if you ever hear me suggest getting a tropical fish aquarium, you'll know what I really mean. Passion fuels creativity.

Words: Rob Powers

Rob Powers is the president of LightWave 3D Group. He is also a member of the VES, Art Directors Guild, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Virtual Production Committee. This article originally appeared in 3D World issue 182.