The software used in the making of Avatar

Avatar has captured the imagination of millions of people from around the globe. Creating a completely new world from scratch, one with hundreds of species of flora and fauna and breathtaking landscapes is a daunting task that Cameron completed with flying colors. Let’s see what companies and software were involved.

Updated on January 16 with more details. Also, in a new article I’m providing some details on the challenges and innovations involved in the making of Avatar.

Although usually only big names like Weta Digital or ILM are mentioned in the making of high-budget CGI, there are always tens of companies involved (possibly hundreds considering that work often gets outsourced), with thousands of digital artists, 3d modelers, animators and compositors working to bring the script to life.

It’s also too bad that many of the companies (the ones involved in the production and the ones making the software) do not promote their software more. Adobe was the quickest to show how their line of software was involved, even though it wasn’t really crucial to the project and this is why I decided to make a list and try to give proper credit to everyone involved.

Wireframe of a Na'vi
Wireframe of a Na’vi

For Avatar, these are the companies credited for the visual effects:

ZBrush study
ZBrush study

And here are the main software used:

  • Autodesk Maya (most shots)
  • Pixar Renderman for Maya
  • Autodesk SoftImage XSI
  • Luxology Modo (model design, e.g. the Scorpion)
  • Lightwave (low-res realtime environments)
  • Houdini (Hell’s Gate scenes, interiors)
  • ZBrush (creature design)
  • Autodesk 3d design max (space shots, control room screens and HUD renderings)
  • Autodesk MotionBuilder (for real-time 3d visualisations)
  • Eyeon Fusion (image compositing)
  • The Foundry Nuke Compositor (previz image compositing)
  • Autodesk Smoke (color correction)
  • Autodesk Combustion (compositing)
  • Massive (vegetation simulation)
  • Mudbox (floating mountains)
  • Avid(video editing)
  • Adobe After Effects (compositing, real-ime visualizations)
  • PF Track (motion tracking, background replacement)
  • Adobe Illustrator (HUD and screens layout)
  • Adobe Photoshop (concept art, textures)
  • Adobe Premiere (proofing, rough compositing with AE)
  • many tools developed in-house
  • countless plugins for each platform, some of them Ocula for Nuke, Ktakatoa for 3ds max, Sapphire for Combustion/AE.

The list of tools is not exhaustive and you can see there’s overlap in capabilities, depending on each company’s pipeline.

Armand Niculescu

Armand Niculescu

Senior Full-stack developer and graphic designer with over 25 years of experience, Armand took on many challenges, from coding to project management and marketing.

73 Responses

    1. Adobe’s video is the sole reason I wrote this post. They were very quick to showcase their products, but others did not follow.

      I was very surprised myself to see that Luxology Modo was involved in modeling.

      1. Multumesc. Makes perfect sense. But thank you for the shared info. I`m doing a weekly sketch and I want it to be animated. So Im stocking my PC with 3D animation software programs for my next semester at VA/Tech. Hopefully they`ll come in handy. It is interesting how avatar was made and how different companies teamed up but worked on different aspects of the project.

  1. Armand,

    Nice listing! Here’s a few more companies that had a part in the visual effects.

    Stan Winston Studios – Designed many props and the Ampsuit (Armored Mobility Platform). The ampsuit was modeled digitally first with Autodesk Softimage and then built at full scale (stood 13 1/2 ft. tall and weighed 1,200 lbs.) out of fiberglass, aluminum, and steel. The completed ampsuit had around 300 parts and was fully poseable.

    Frantic Films – Created the holographic displays. Frantic artists created graphics in Photoshop and After Effects, and then ran them through a proprietary tool to generate stereo layers for compositing in Fusion.

    Blur – Contributed four space shots for views of the mothership en route to Pandora.

    – sourced from Cinefex Avatar Jan. issue #120.

    1. Excellent info, Daniel.
      I did see Stan Winston Studios and Blur being mentioned but I just could not find any details about their involvement.
      I’m especially proud of Blur since I’m a 3ds max guy myelf (since the 3dstudio3 days on MS-DOS!)

  2. I’ve been looking for this information, because I use LInux and I was amazed by their cooled watered servers (Ubuntu) but I can’t understand how most of the software is propietary (eg Adobe, Autodesk, etc) and they (specificaly Weta Digital) were using linux…I thought they were using Blender, or something like that???????????

  3. @adario
    The 3D program, “Maya”, is also for GNU/Linux. Not all software for Linux is free software. Blender (free software) is very good, but Maya (paid) is more powerful. There are some cool animations on youtube using blender, one is “Big Buck Bunny” While it is great, nothing compares to Maya. The question, “Why Linux on the Weta Servers?”. Well, because Linux is stable, it can handle those thousand of processors interconnected. I know the HP supercomputer at UNAM (National university of Mexico), called “Kam-Ba-Lam”. It has a few thousands AMD cores. It also uses Linux (OpenSuse).

  4. houdini was also used.

    in the paragraph
    about Houdini:

    Houdini has been used to create stunning digital animation in blockbuster films, including: Avatar, 2012….. etc etc

    what houdini was used for i cannot find,
    probably vegetation distribution, but not based on data, just an educated guess..
    being procedural it would be highly efficient at doing such jobs.

    (although it could very well have been used for way more then just that…)

    1. Very interesting, I couldn’t find any reference to Houdini either, not even in Cinefex. It’s quite possible that one of the companies beside Weta/ILM has used it for specific effects.

  5. Hey Guys,

    i´m wondering if anybody of you could list the operating systems for each of the programs that were used? I´m just wondering how this is distributed into MacOS/Linux/Win/Other?

    I think it would be really cool to see it. Especially because some of the Software are compatible on both. . .right?

    Good thread,

    1. Thanks for clarification Robert. I did see that both programs were used but I couldn’t figure out the areas (I don’t know much about high-end compositing having used only AE)

    2. Wrong again. Nuke was also used halfway in the post production process. So Nuke is used for compositing. Please remove the previz.

  6. I found very infromative post here. Thanks for sharing. I have been wondering what softwares might have used in making this movie AVATAR and I got it here. Once again thanks.
    You could also check my Avatar design if you like:

  7. Newtek’s Lightwave was used almost exclusively to create the virtual sets for Cameron to travel through, also many of the final animations were created with Lightwave and imported into Maya…don’t fall for the Autodesk BS.

    More info can be found via this re-post of your list:

    Rob Powers, the first VFX guy hired for the film has info on his involvement:

    A thread on NewTek’s forums has input from the Lightwave guys on their work in setting up the shots for the film:


    1. I ain’t falling for nothin’

      In fact the very reason I wrote this article is that I was tired of Autodesk and Adobe’ BS. Adobe advertised every single piece of tech they had – even the fact that Flash was used to make the Avatar website. I am a flash developer, but come on… By this standard, I suppose we should include MS Word too as I’m pretty sure most of the specs (if not the main script itself) were written in Word.

      So I wanted to show just how many different programs were used and to what degree.

      1. Xfrog was used extensively by Weta and Framestore to model the plants.

        Weta did not develop a proprietary L-system, they used Xfrog. As did Framestore.

  8. I really cant believe that people are arguing about props!!!
    props can be made in any soft max lightwave blender maya

    What makes avatar special its character animation,Weta use Maya with renderman.

    As for comp i hear they use shake mainly but they want a full site lincense deal with Nuke
    so they are bullshit around about ocula.

    But movies are made by artist not software.

    Autodesk its a shitty company they destroy everything they buy,look mental ray they pretty fuckup the connection with Maya.

  9. And for populate the forest they use massive with rules around sunlight and bigger trees

    Anyway the biggest things in Avatar its face rigs they are amazing

  10. I spent several months working in the VAD (Virtual Art Dept) at Lightstorm on Avatar during the design phase.
    Lightwave was the main workhorse to build the virtual sets mainly because we had a ton of assets that had to be created daily based on concept designs given us by the concept artists. The fast worflow enabled us to keep up with massive workload.
    Much of what we created in 3d was inspected by James Cameron himself and would be appr oved by him and put into the sets under his direction. The virtual sets had to look as photoreal as possible and those were passed along to Weta for uprezing and placement. The movie itself was really made in the VAD and the shots we did were also passed onto WETA.
    Lightwave was definately the workhorse during this phase. We did also use Maya and Motionbuilder but most of what was done in Maya at that stage was mainly to help translate assets from LW into motionbuilder. Whether or not anything else could have kept up with the workload is debatable to some degree. I know that the Maya artists had a difficult time keeping up with a fraction of what we were doing with LW.
    The point here being that despite the hype I know what was used and how much it was used firsthand on one of the most important phases of the film. 🙂

    1. Thank you for your feedback, Larry. It’s fascinating when you have the chance to see the way software is used in a big production, as the small details may end up making a big difference in productivity and overall quality.

      I wish more people who were directly involved would chime in with their experiences. We all know it’s the artist, not the tool, when it comes to quality, but workflow, productivity and integration need to be factored in as well.

  11. Yeah well work flow is critical but a lot of the autodesk apps are intended for “team-ware” use where as a small handful of LW artists can run circles around entire squads or platoons if not more of maya artists. This is just reality.
    So I would think its more to do with the TOOL than the artist but LW is a tool that gets out of the artists way as much as possible and allows them to create and create fast. It factors in. Big time.

  12. Heres a screen capture of Pandaora in the realtime version.
    Basically here was the workflow:
    1. Receive stack of concept art for pretty much each and every plant. Usually it was a ton of material and we had to get thru it quickly so that James Cameron could see them in the realtime environment.
    2. Build the asset
    3. Render out that asset and print it out in color.
    4. Put printout on the wall for JC to critique.
    5. Change/redo/fix asset
    6. Get asset into full scene environment.
    7. JC would use virtual camera to create shots in RT environment with mocapped creatures/navi.
    8. RT sets would be altered or pieces moved to work with JCs shots.
    9. Realtime assets sent to WETA along with motion data for uprezzing etc.
    Basically the movie was shot on our end of the production process. As I said before, the sets had to look as close to final render as possible because everything we did directly drove what WETA produced in the end as opposed to them interpreting what we did. 🙂

  13. So what you are saying then Larry in short is that weta was basically handed a full movie already and then just put the final bits together and cranked out the high resolution material to the final output?
    And lets be clear here.. how much “character animation” was really done to the Navi? Everyone is jumping up and down about the character animation being done in maya but it seems that practically all of the humaniod character animation would have been performance/mo-cap’ed and not done by hand in any way except for some basic clean up? Would that be correct?

  14. This is a very interesting and very useful list here. Thanks for making this available. One question: I was surprised I didn’t find Flame or Inferno in the list, cause I’ve heard those are one of the best programs for such a thing. So, did they use it or not?

    1. There’s no way to know for sure. I did not find any mention of them on the companies’ websites or by talking with people involved in the various stages of production. However, I can’t rule them out – in the beginning no one mentioned Lightwave either.

  15. Of course all was made in Lightwave,Weta its very famous about just push the big render buttons

    Also all was made in mocap that’s why lots of movies look like Avatar.

    No to mention facial animation lots of studios can do at the same level.

    I ear also not Nuke or Shake was used,instead Tvpaint and ADpro with big Opalvisions.

  16. Are you trying to be funny George?
    Don’t believe us? Go to and look for Rob Powers interview with regards to Avatar and how pretty much everything started with Lightwave3D for that film.

  17. Sorry but this article its funny

    Of course also notepad was used to make the rough draft of the script

    Lightwave was used to model real time props,good and then?,props can be made in max,blender,imagine,turbosilver,sculp4d.

    What separates lightwave from max or silo as far poly tools?

    I really dont get the point.

    I understant lightwave fans but it just funny,main work was characters and even in the stupid and remote case that they where all made in lightwave,who cares?

    Artist behind rigs,Renderman shaders,comp,animation,lighters are the real tools.

    And again sorry but Weta uses Maya,for poly props like i said lightwave max silo have better tools.

    But people where amazed by chracters not by the box in the background,and i could guess that for complicated props zbrush deserves more credit than lightwave

    I wont bother again lightwave fans

  18. Well you are entitled to you opinion, George however I can say that while I was on BSG I thought about the other applications we could have been using (like XSI and Maya for example) and it would have been impossible to keep our air dates. And we won Emmy’s for that work, so… the reality is simply that the tools do make difference and Lightwave is well known for being a secret weapon in VFX. You can ignore that at your own peril.

  19. Just to mention on top of Nuke, Shake was still used heavily by veteran compositors in Weta Digital to do the final comp in putting together all the render passes.

    In terms of animation, Na’vi was most heavily relied on motion capture, and at early stage of production Weta Digital provided the basic mocap rigs (both facial rig for e-motion capture and body rig for rest of body motion capture) for principle characters to be enabled to be recorded onstage and be live-fed into James Cameron’s real-time virtual camera back in Lightstorm…but further fine tuning is always required by CG artists to clean up the data, and Weta Digital’s animators does step in to animate any gaps required to be filled in the areas where Na’vi interacts with environment objects as well as with other creatures. But in terms of overall performance and body language of characters are all kept almost perfectly intact by motion capture.

    As for all the tiny emotive nuances of each Na’vi’s facial expression that we see in final result of film, we have to give a huge thumbs up for the facial rigging team and modeling team back in Weta for coming up with such a pain-staking pipeline to transcend each principle actor’s emotion so perfectly to the big screen:

    When it comes to creature animation, motion capture data was used on horse (which turned into Direhorse in movie) that principle actors rode on, but most of other creatures were actually key-animated by Weta Digital’s animators (Viperwolves, Thanator, Banshees…etc.)

    A lot of softwares and plugins/scripts are actually developed in-house that is only available within company as well, because so many tools that the artists needed to create Avatar more believable just didn’t exist in the current software market. Some of them may be released as commercial package in the near future perhaps (such as Massive crowd simulation software was developed from Weta Digital since Lord of the Rings, and Nuke from Digital Domain since Titanic…etc.), and some may never be shared and be kept as the company’s secret weapon to tackle extreme-realistic CG results 😛

    And just to further clarify what Larry said….Lightstorm came up with all the previz that was pretty much near identical to final film (in terms of overall character’s position and movement, rough jungle setups, camera movement…etc.), because back in Weta Digital or in any other company, we would always start off setting up shots accordingly on these previz that were given to us. James Cameron constantly refer back to these previz as we started chucking in character models and lighting scenes, since he’s gone through all these previz and ticked off approval back in Lightstorm already. However once in a while, certain shots will always change along the production in terms of composition as we further put in all the details, and those we have to experiment ourselves back in Weta Digital in shots such as Well of Souls sequence which has a lot of extreme color pallete to deal with that needed countless ongoing trial and refinement to get the right balance by the artists along with supervision of CG supervisors, Joe Letteri, and James Cameron to get it right. But the truth is because of these previz produced by Lightstorm was already approved by James Cameron….Weta Digital, ILM, Framestore and other companies involved, were able to compare and rely on them as a reference to get all these countless shots signed off on time.

    All the companies involved in the Avatar have their own pipeline workflow (which usually takes years to be refined and continue to change from production to production) and each use their in-house setup to accomodate target goals and tasks given by the director, so however their technique and software use might be…so long they achieve their part of job, it’s mission accomplished, and a big thumbs up from Mr Cameron 🙂

    So at the end of the day, what matters is all these softwares mentioned were needed to use in different stage of production to finish Avatar on time with the best quality that James Cameron wanted to achieve in the given production budget and time. And most important of all, the hardwork and talents of all artists involved from different companies is the most valued and only through sheer amount of passionate direction and perfection driven by countless CG supervisors, Joe Letteri and James Cameron’s vision made this movie even possible to be achieved to this insane realism level.

  20. I guess people is not understanding the original point of this article. Is not about what CGI software package is better than other. Each developer, each designer, each producer can choose any particular tool for any given reason (budget, facility software of choice, licensing, etc..)
    I’ve been using software since the late 80’s, and I think the acquisition of Maya by Autodesk, reflects an important point, yes 3D Max is a solid tool, but Maya, Lightwave, Softimage, Blender and even Maxon Cinema 4D have some features that others don’t.
    Get over folks, is not about which should be the only tool use in the industry. This is about the lack of information available from the equipment manufacturers, post studios and software developers involved in such of big film production. I shared Armand opinion, they’re really low profile in showing their products features linked to this big movie.
    Excellent article!! Armand, I guess this is more in depth writing and analysis (with the contribution of every response) than some of the articles in print media (I.e: CineFX or Millimeter).

  21. I’m new to the movie editing thing. I’m mainly a web and print production person. I use Adobe CS3 and love it. So I’m sticking with Adobe when it comes to audio and video production. But all the products mentioned are good products and I agree that more software companies should speak up when they’re part of big things. Everyone thinks of Adobe because they promote their products the same way Apple does. Not saying they’re the best, but they try like hell to make you believe that they are.

  22. Thank you very much for all the information on this page. I’ve always been curious to understand how CGI has been used in movies. James Cameron seems to use them perfectly which is partly the reason why I like his movies so much. I’ve just started to understand this technology and would like to thank Armand as well as all the contributors (esp. Larry and Pompoko) for their inputs. I’ll make sure I post something if I find something relevant.. 😀

  23. If u say lightwave enables u creating tons of previz models in time .. well being a cg artist and being well accustomed to working with Maya,3DS max and Lightwave i dont see the difference it makes at this previz stage. It ud take me about the same time to create something in max or maya or lightwave ,ofcourse am talking of current versions. It just a matter of choice now. Yes years back we cud compare Max and Maya but current versions gives u pretty much same control either in modelling or animating. But yes then comes the rendering part where we may get an argument. But honestly on such big budgets with unlimited resources it should not matter (its my personal opinion ofcourse). Mentalray , renderman, Vray , Maxwell or whatever, just give me watercooled Linux based superfast rendering monster and i can make him spit fotorealism in GC at its best (at-least not perceivable by human eye ) using any of those renderer. The point is at this age .. its really really hard to say this is better and thats not when we are talking about industries leading software packages, Its just a matter of choice , familiarity with the package and (affordability for some me 🙂 ). Glad to see this post ..keep em coming.

  24. Nice list, however Nuke was definitely not for previz only. Weta used Nuke as their main compositor (not sure about ILM or the others), especially for the epic vista shots (See TheFoundry on Youtube). This was because Nuke has by far the best 3D system to handle 100s of elements as well as its stereoscopic abilitys.

    Also to answer Dony I believe Lightwave was used for realtime lowres environments not previz. This is because Lightwave 10 supports the use of the InterSense VCam created for Avatar and allows the director to move the motion captured virtual camera around the scene in realtime. Im sure Maya could also do this, but its built in to lightwave already. Plus Lightwave has the best out of the box renderer. As far as moddeling goes, Lightwave allows for more then 4 points per poly, allowing you to create very quick and lowpoly (non cpu intensive) objects.

  25. What a few of the people in the comments are missing is the fact that Lightwave and Motionbuilder were used in tandem to create the actual virtual sets that James Cameron saw in the viewfinder of his virtual camera. Lightwave created ALL of the assets for the realtime virtual sets and Motionbuilder was used because it has a more robust realtime OpenGL engine. Then, once everything was nailed down, the virtual sets were rezzed up or rebuilt in Zbrush and Maya and then rendered from there

  26. Another issue i’m curious about: which operating systems were used to run these software? mainly Linux (i knew about Ubuntu were used on rendering?), and Mac-OSX when some software were not available on Linux? (i’m asking this because i’m seriously thinking no one would be insane enough on using ms-Windows in this kind of work)

    1. Actually, much of the software listed is Windows-only. Macs are really not used very much in 3D, because until recently they lacked 3D muscle (I could be wrong, if anyone has quantitative data, please correct me).

      As for rendering farms, the distribution doesn’t really matter. There sure wasn’t any GUI, so no need for something like Ubuntu. RedHat, SuSe, CentOS or even Gentoo would be the likely candidates.

  27. This is the best movie I have in my life. I am also an animation student and I want to have this type of opportunity in my life.

  28. I am just curious to know whether all the work that was done in many modelling tools like Mudbox, Massive, Xfrog, Zbrush could have been done in LightWave or Maya itself ?

    Is it just because various modelling tasks were done by different companies, so many different tools for modelling were used?

    I was trying find out a comparison between various capabilities that open source softwares such as Blender offer as against proprietary softwares like Maya and Lightwave, but without success. Could somebody please provide suitable pointers in this direction?

  29. Very nice article. First, I’m impressed with Avatar film … and just know there’s so many software used to make it … anyway, behind of the software, the story is very good. And that’s its message. Thanks!

  30. That’s is a great and wonderful job performed by all the companies involved in the making of Avatar. Many thanks to james cameron for a wonderful script and also the entire crew. I’m an editor in Ghana and I would want to join the production house. Will I be admitted? I also want to communicate with any of the crew either editors , directors and more for more info.Please send your number via my email and I will call. My number is 02332425168100. Need your help

  31. really cool info…..nd im vry happy to hear dis maya played key role in dis gr8 movie….

    [email protected] (ID:118*47665)NEXTEL-JUNIOR GIVE

  33. The wonderfull new “Mari” (The Foundry) was used for many Textures.
    It’s just impressive and motivating this movie!
    For me, the best Film ever made and the story that you take with is beautifull and scary at the same time…
    What have we done to this planet…

  34. I thought you would miss MASSIVE .
    But My bad ! you listed all the important tools !! good article .

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