This Australian company 3D scans actors–and even chickens–inside its kitted up truck

Meet Avatar Factory. They can scan just about anywhere.

These days, so many of the films and series we watch contain visual effects. Everything from superhero fights and flights, to other more invisible effects, can involve digital doubles of actor or CG props, for example. These need to be built, and a starting point is often a 3D scan taken during filming.

Avatar Factory is an Australian company that carries out 3D body scans and prop scans using photogrammetry via its mobile, cross-polarised scanning truck. That means it can scan, well, almost anything just about anywhere. According to CEO and CTO Mark Ruff, Avatar Factory has scanned “talent, walking frames, cameras on tripods, shields, swords and even chickens!”

See the Avatar Factory truck in operation.

How does it work?

Avatar Factory’s truck houses what is known as a photogrammetry booth. It’s an array of digital still cameras and lights that surround an actor or prop and takes many photos from different angles all at the same time. The truck has recently been used for scanning actors and props on projects such as God’s Favorite Idiot, La Brea and Shantaram.

The photogrammetry booth is located inside the Avatar Factory truck.

During a scanning session, the actor walks into the truck, strikes a pose, or a prop is positioned in the truck, and the cameras are triggered. When the photographs from the cameras are combined together with specialised software, the result is a photo-realistic 3D model that can be then taken further into the VFX or CG world.

The booth inside Avatar Factory’s truck consists of 162 Nikon DSLRs. CaptureGRID software handles file management. In fact, the download of 162 cameras takes place in only 30 seconds. A set of radio with precise offset timing controls synchronisation of the system. And as part of any body scanning, Avatar Factory can also provide dedicated FACS or facial scans, with 50 of the cameras being tuned for the face and head.

3D model, meshed and textured, as derived from the photogrammetry scan.

So, the scan happens, what next? Avatar Factory will provide the scan data in just about any format a client requests. Typically, this is as OBJ or FBX files. “We have three workstations each with a Reality Capture Enterprise licence and can process up to 24 models in a day,” outlines Ruff, who was previously a Time Splice rig (bullet time) specialist. “We check every file for scale and orientation before delivery.”

What being mobile means

The truck Avatar Factory uses for 3D scanning is ready to shoot in around one hour upon arrival at any location. This also means it can ‘follow’ production as the shoot continues. Ruff advises that the ‘mobile-ness’ of the truck is possible because of its independent power options.

The truck set up in Byron Bay for filming.

“The truck has 3-phase power, either via mains grid or with our 33kVa generator,” says Ruff. “When we hit the trigger button, the flashes discharge, the cameras download, the computers are working hard and the flash heads re-charge. During this half-second instance we draw 43 amps per phase!”

Meanwhile, the truck is able to go wherever a grip or lighting truck can go, both at a studio or on location. One thing Ruff has found with production experience is that he might be bumping in when the main unit was exiting. “No need to bother them with supplying power. We can bump in and test at our leisure and be ready for production.”

Workstations inside the Avatar Factory truck.

“Also,” adds Ruff, “a facility like Docklands Studios Melbourne, for example, can be in heavy demand, with sometimes four productions occurring at the same time. There might be no studio space or even admin space to set up a scanning rig. So, just being able to bump in, shoot and leave on the same day can be of great benefit to production–no headaches.”

A key to success: cross-polarisation

Avatar Factory’s 3D scanning set-up is cross-polarised. This means that the lighting is polarised and the cameras are polarised. “The result,” explains Ruff, “is that light becomes de-polarised when it strikes the subject–the talent–that is, the cameras only see the light that is reflected off the subject and not the lighting.”

On the left, a still with no polarisation, compared with cross-polarisation on the right.

“This seems counter intuitive,” offers Ruff, “but lighting can get in the way of image making. The result is that even though the subject is lit from many angles, the background appears very dark or black.”

Meanwhile, since the lighting for a 3D scan needs to be very flat to help the process, Avatar Factory’s truck uses ceiling to floor lighting panels. “Most operators use strip light soft boxes which is not as flat as our ‘wall to wall’ lighting,” notes Ruff.

It’s a family affair

What you also get by having Avatar Factory (now an Ausfilm member) as your 3D scanning solution is a family team. “Kate, my wife, is data wrangler and checker,” details Ruff. “Chloe, the eldest daughter, is producer and talent interface. Amy, the youngest daughter, is the creative and does a great job on slating, documenting, unit stills and processing.”

The Avatar Factory family.

“It is a rare commodity in the industry. At the moment, we all live under the same roof. It might seem crazy to many, but it works.”

To find out more about Avatar Factory’s mobile 3D scanning in Australia, head to their website at

Brought to you by Avatar Factory: This article is part of the befores & afters VFX Insight series. If you’d like to promote your VFX/animation/CG tech or service, you can find out more about the VFX Insight series here.
Need After Effects and other VFX plugins? Find them at Toolfarm.

Leave a Reply