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James Cameron wowed audiences with the stunning visuals he created for his hit 2009 movie Avatar. For the sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, the filmmaker wanted to thrill fans again, so he invented an entirely new technology. Here’s how it worked:
Written and directed by Cameron, 2009’s Avatar tells the story of an alien moon called Pandora and its blue-skinned natives, the Na’vi. They fight to save their rainforests and lands from humans trying to colonize and mine them. Cameron developed several new techniques and innovations to bring the film’s otherworldly elements to life, including performance capture technology.
Avatar: The Way of Water focuses on the waters of Pandora. Cameron developed an underwater performance capture process to capture the magic of the oceans and the fantastical wildlife that brings real performances to a digitally created fantasy world.
From the set of the sequels: @JimCameron directing the actors before they dive underwater for performance capture.
Fun fact: That layer of white on the water’s surface is comprised of floating balls that prevent lights from interfering with filming underwater. pic.twitter.com/dOBwS6qOXF
The filmmaker utilized a 900,000-gallon tank built specifically for the Avatar sequels to film the underwater scenes. The tank could be set up to mimic the ocean’s movement. After the cast performed underwater, additional details were added post-production.
“There’s not much there physically for the actors to work with, but I think that’s kind of overrated,” the writer/director explained in a chat with Robert Rodriguez for Variety. “What’s there for them to work with are the other actors. We give them props and wardrobe stuff to interact with and that sort of thing.”
“The actors rely on each other, and they have that in spades,” he added after noting how the cast had minimal distractions in the tank. “Actors who haven’t done it are very leery of it — rightfully so, with any new technology.”
With many details added in post-filming, Cameron let his Avatar: The Way of Water cast create new interactions not in the script. The 68-year-old explained how this performance capture process allowed the actors to be more creative.
“The beauty of performance capture is that we can get a bright idea on take five and do it completely differently,” he told Indie Wire. “We can completely restage the whole scene. You could play a scene that was meant to be played standing, facing away from each other, seated, facing each other all of a sudden because all I need is one good take, and from that, I can extract all my coverage.”
“Every take is a blank slate,” he added. “If somebody has an impulse to grab the other person and shake them, and they’ve never done that before, we haven’t shot a wide shot or a closeup — or anything. We’ve only done capture, and the capture creates a kind of a performance master.”
To prepare for the underwater performances in Avatar: The Way of Water, some of the cast, including Sigourney Weaver and Kate Winslet, had to get scuba-certified and train themselves to hold their breath underwater.
@fi_faNo5: “What was it like getting back into a water tank again with James Cameron?” #AvatarTheWayOfWater #Ronal pic.twitter.com/yM3zibseOT
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According to Cameron, Weaver had no trouble holding her breath for six-and-a-half minutes. The director told EW that Winslet “blew everybody away when she did a seven-and-a-half-minute breath hold.”
“One of my favorite memories was we had this circular tank, maybe 40 feet wide, with a big glass portal in it,” producer Jon Landau added. “I walked by one day, and I see Kate Winslet walking on the bottom of the tank. She’s walking toward me and sees me in the window, and she just waves, gets to the end of the wall, turns around, and walks all the way back.”
Avatar: The Way of Water is currently playing in theaters worldwide. The film is expected to hit Disney+ in February or March of 2023.