With 3D, High Dynamic Range, high frame rates and 4K capture, the sequel to the most successful movie of all time is intended to open a window into another world, writes Adrian Pennington. 

Thirteen years after its release, Avatar remains the number one grossing film of all time at more than $2.8 billion worldwide. It is as widely lauded in the industry for its ground-breaking use of virtual production technology which has helped develop more sophisticated performance capture techniques and being able to view actors and CG assets live on set with a ‘virtual’ camera.

Director James Cameron and Edie Falco on set of 20th Century Studios' AVATAR 2. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights R

Director James Cameron and Edie Falco on set of 20th Century Studios’ Avatar 2

Source: Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved

Avatar: The Way of Water will have some way to go just to break even on its reputed $350-400m budget (much of which is calculated to be spread across three more follow-ups) but already the film is being talked about as a major Awards contender, notably in technical and craft categories including cinematography, production design, VFX and editing.

Cameron himself is no stranger to sequels, having written and directed two of the most successful of all-time: Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Planning for a follow-up to Avatar began as soon as it became apparent just what a huge hit it had become. In spring 2010 the filmmaker, producer Jon Landau and other key heads of department met to review what aspects of the filmmaking process had worked best, and what they could have improved on. That exercise led to a decision to explore the story world further and resulted in 1500 pages of notes – too many to tell in one film alone.

Screenwriters including Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (who both scripted The Planet of the Apes reboots) were hired to shape the notes into an ambitious series of four films. The process took months but Cameron wanted to have all four screenplays completed before moving on to production.

“I wanted to map out all the stories and then get the economy of scale of capturing the actors across multiple films and then filming the live action,” Cameron said in the Disney film’s production notes. “The thinking was we could consolidate the different stages of production together—performance capture, live action and then post-production.”

Rather than create a host of new planets and moons, Cameron chose to continue to explore more new biomes and cultures of Pandora itself with the Avatar sequels. He reasoned that the moon could contain a range of landscapes—just like Earth. Pandora is after all a metaphor for our world.

The director has spent much of the intervening decade underwater himself pursuing environmental and exploration projects including setting a solo deep diving record of 35,787’ to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2012. Seemingly at home in the sea as on land, Cameron appears to want to take the legacy of filmmaker and aquatic pioneer Jacques Cousteau to another level.

Avatar - The Way of Water: Production design

Production Designer Dylan Cole was tasked with designing everything relating to natural Pandora and the Na’vi, while PD Ben Procter was charged with focusing on the environments, vehicles and weapons of the film’s human industrial/military unit called Resources Development Administration (RDA).

(L-R, Front to Back) Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, Kate Winslet, and Cliff Curtis on the set of 20th Century Studios' AVATAR THE WAY OF WATER. P

(L-R, Front to Back) Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, Kate Winslet, and Cliff Curtis on the set of 20th Century Studios’ Avatar: The Way of Water

Source: Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved

That’s unusual in itself since most films have one production designer who manages everything that goes in front of the lens. “Dylan and Ben weren’t just designing for movie two—they were designing across the whole metanarrative,” Cameron said.

Cole gave the reef people (the Metkayina clan) a slightly different shade of blue than the Omatikaya, with a different physiology (large hands, wider chests and rib cages) and thick protuberances of fin-like cartilage beneath the skin.

A mammalian species called Ilu was conceived as “a cross between a bi-plane version of a manta ray fused onto the long neck of a plesiosaur with the canard wings of a European jet fighter.”

By contrast, the creatures called skimwing are amphibious with a design inspired in part by the flying fish, but with a very different head shape and bright Pandoran wings. “The design can’t just look cool,” Cole said. “It needs to function as if it were real.”

Avatar - The Way of Water: Underwater performance capture

Setting much of the film underwater proved no barrier to attempting what no-one had done before - performance capture underwater. The key to it was to actually shoot underwater and at the surface of the water so actors were seen swimming, diving and emerging from the water realistically. “It looks real because the motion was real,” Cameron said.

(L-R) Tsireya (Bailey Bass), Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in 20th C

(L-R) Tsireya (Bailey Bass), Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in 20th Century Studios’ Avatar: The Way of Water

Source: © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

At Manhattan Beach Studios in LA, the home of Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm, they built a water 120 ft x 60 ft and 30 ft deep to hold more than 250,000 gallons of water complete with a wave machine. This was the films’ underwater Volume.

“We could create wave interaction with the creatures and people surfacing, getting hit by a wave and trying to say their lines and trying to breathe at the same time,” Cameron said.

Two six-foot diameter ship propellers drove a 10-knot current in the tank – an effect that looks faster on film thanks to the high frame rates. The tanks had windows for reference cameras to film underwater, while camera rigs also recorded the facial performance of the actors – underwater.

For the performance capture technology to work underwater the water itself needed to be clear. Initial plans to have the camera crew wear SCUBA gear while shooting in the tank had to be ditched because the breathing apparatus created disturbances.

“Every one of those air bubbles is a little wiggling mirror,” Cameron related, “and the system that’s trying to read all the marker dots on the actor’s body can’t tell the difference between a marker dot and a bubble.”

That left only one option: Everybody who was working in the tank including actors and crew working a camera or holding a light had to hold their breath. They even employed free diving expert Kirk Krack to help. Kate Winslet apparently was able to hold her breath underwater for over seven minutes.

Part of the solution involved covering the surface of the tank in small white balls that prevent overhead studio lights from contaminating the performance capture system below, while still allowing anyone below to surface safely through them should the need arise.

As soon as the characters emerge from the water the action continues ‘on the ground’ which necessitated a separate adjacent volume capture stage at Manhattan Studios ringed by cameras recording data in 360-degrees.

Once the performances were captured Cameron and the team then shot out the scenes including with characters clad in CG costume with digital props and CG environments, using virtual cameras on stage in Wellington, NZ.

Fusing the performance capture data from the underwater scenes seamlessly with the ‘air bound’ scenes was among the production’s trickiest problems.

Cameron explained:

“The computer’s taking data from one volume, data from the other volume and in real time, integrating all that information. [It’s] showing me on my Virtual Camera people coming and going, swimming up, getting out onto a dock or diving in and swimming underwater. Obviously, the software to do that took quite a while to get worked out, but the end result was amazing.”

Avatar - The Way of Water: Cinematography

Performance capture of the lead actors including Kate Winslet, Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington and child actor Jack Champion began as early as September 2017 and ran for roughly 18 months, with Cameron and the cast working on scenes for all four of the sequels.

Director James Cameron and crew behind the scenes of 20th Century Studios' AVATAR THE WAY OF WATER. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2022 20th Century S

Director James Cameron and crew behind the scenes of 20th Century Studios’ Avatar: The Way of Water

Source: © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Russell Carpenter ASC who shot Cameron’s True Lies and won the best cinematography Oscar for Titanic was tasked with designing an interactive lighting scheme that would combine CG with live action. Virtual lighting for the film took a full year in prep alone.

“Our lighting that we did in the live action scenes had to merge seamlessly with whatever environment we were in, whether it was a dense jungle, or underwater, or in the RDA facilities,” said Carpenter.

The lighting team built a system of moving lights, which could be operated remotely, allowing them to make extremely precise strikes of light exactly where they should be.

Acquisition was made natively (ie: not postprocessed) in 3D and 4K using Sony Venice cameras in their Rialto format (CineAlta Venice 3D) which enables the sensor block to be separated from the camera’s processing hardware – handy for stereoscopic pairing. Data was fed through a pipeline at various resolutions and frame rates including 3D 48fps in 2K and 4K, 3D 24fps in 2K and 4K, and 3D 24fps in HD for Cameron to monitor on set.

In turn, this necessitated viewing feeds of the live action on stages in Wellington, NZ from multiple 3D camera systems, simultaneously.

“We are shooting stereoscopically from one 3D rig, often two rigs and sometimes three stereo pairs simultaneously and everything is processed instantly,” explained Geoff Burdick, SVP of Production Services & Technology for Lightstorm Entertainment.

A screening room adjacent to the stages and a mobile projection pod built into a small trailer housing a Christie Digital 3D projector was set for projecting DCI compliant dailies.

Massive amounts of data were being pushed around live on set. Burdick said: “We needed HFR and high res and everything had to be in 3D. This may not be not the science experiment it was when shooting the first Avatar but the sync for 3D at those higher frames and resolutions is still an issue.

“In effect, we are seeing it in a theatrical environment instantly. We look at every set up, every rehearsal, every take and every feed live as it is shot on-the-fly in 2D and 3D. We are looking at back focus, actual camera focus and lighting. We can see the good with the bad at the point of acquisition and we address issues live.”

The production is also using a variety of additional Sony cameras including multiple Alpha mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, PXW-Z450 and PXW-X320 camcorders, and the waterproof RX0 camera.

Avatar - The Way of Water: HFR

High frame rates alternate between 24 and 48 with the director dialling between the two in the final picture, using the higher speed to smooth the motion in faster action sequences and toning it down during slower dialogue scenes. This was likely done using a postproduction process called TruCut Motion with which Cameron recently remastered Avatar and Titanic.

Director James Cameron and actor Sam Worthington behind the scenes of 20th Century Studios' AVATAR 2. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2022 20th Century Studios

Director James Cameron and actor Sam Worthington behind the scenes of 20th Century Studios’ Avatar 2

Source: © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Pixelworks’ motion grading software is a form of frame interpolation without the dreaded soap-opera effect that can make narrative movies look like video. The technology allows filmmakers to dial in the motion, with any source frame rate, shot by shot, in post. You can also defer the desired shutter speed until post. The software then ensures that these creative choices are delivered consistently to screens.

The process does not touch the colour grade but it can begin before colour grading, if required. Being able to subtly ramp up, to a wide pan of a dramatic landscape for example, without the viewer noticing the jump is happening retains suspension of disbelief without the judder of fast pans which are accentuated in stereo 3D.

Avatar - The Way of Water: Editing

With Cameron, the editorial team led by Stephen Rivkin, ACE, John Refoua, ACE (both Avatar alumni) and the late David Brenner, ACE, selected the best performances for each moment of a given scene into ‘performance edits’, in preparation for the Virtual Cameras to create specific shots.

This was a technique that Cameron helped pioneer in 2009 and has since evolved into full blown virtual production enabling him to integrate CG versions of live action performances into a CG environment.

“I could see everybody where they’re supposed to be, above or below the water, and I could talk to them over the diver address system,” Cameron said. “They were acting to real-time direction based on what I was seeing on the virtual camera.”

Once the Virtual Camera shots were edited into cut sequences, the CG shots and live action performances were turned over to Weta. In effect, the editing team were pre-editing sequences including all CG lighting, CG props, CG costumes, characters, creatures and environments ahead of the live action photography. It’s a hybrid form of the craft that merges the editing techniques of pacing and shot selection used to create wholly animated films with the flexibility of honing the story based on performance and multicam footage captured on set.

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A notable advance is the ability for Cameron to be able to select any moment in any one of multiple takes by an actor and use that to build the scene. Without performances being captured as data this would be impossible but means that in ensemble scenes, for example, he could select take 1 from one actor, take 10 of another and take 15 of a third – which represent the best performance of each actor – and build a scene seamlessly.

Avatar - The Way of Water: VFX

For the first film, Weta had developed an image-based facial performance capture system, using a single SD head-rig camera to record the actors’ facial expression and muscle movements including eye-movement. This head-rig has been upgraded to HD for the sequel with two HD cameras designed to capture an even higher fidelity performance.

Concept art from 20th Century Studios' AVATAR 2. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

 Concept art from 20th Century Studios’ Avatar 2. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Source: ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“We look at every actor and every performance at a frame-by-frame level to make sure it matches [with the VFX],” said Senior VFX Supervisor Joe Letteri. “To me, it always comes down to the characters and the ability to be in the moment with them. Having that performance as detailed as possible [helps us] make sure that that’s what we see in the final shots.”

Every element of the lush exotic world needed to be created and rendered digitally. More than five years of R&D went into writing new software and methodology for the sequel which claims significant breakthroughs in lighting, shading, and rendering of scenes set under water.

Solving, accurately, how water moves was the biggest challenge and ranged from the movement of water when a huge creature moves through it to when the tiniest raindrop lands on somebody’s forehead, trickles down into their eyebrow and down their face. It was an incredibly complex problem, but they weren’t starting from scratch. Cameron had first made water simulations on Titanic.

“The beauty of it is, if you can solve water for this movie, you can do all water anytime until the end of time,” he said. “So, these tools become incredibly important for the effects industry at large.”

With a combination of live action, and CG, one of the most difficult things to conceive let alone execute is the interactive lighting. We were also shooting this in 3D at High Dynamic Range at 48 frames per second. Russell had to embrace all those things

Avatar - The Way of Water: Costume Design

Although the vast majority of Na’vi costumes were only going to be realised digitally on screen by Weta FX, many of the costumes and much of the jewellery were fabricated by costume designer Deborah Scott as real, tangible items.

On set of 20th Century Studios' AVATAR 2. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

On set of 20th Century Studios’ Avatar 2

Source: Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“One of the reasons that we’ve made the garments to completion is that the motion of the garment cannot be understood without having a whole piece,” she explained. “If something’s heavy or feathery or light or stringy, the way these things move in air, standing at a breeze, underwater, you really have to have the sample to see what happens to it.”

Letteri added, “If someone walks and moves their arm, the cloth folds and wrinkles and bends with them. If their costume is made out of lots of little pieces like beads and strings or feathers or woven bits, that all has to go through this really detailed physical simulation to make it behave as if it were a real piece of cloth.”

Cameron said he’s determined to make sure the sequels are entertaining and laden with spectacle. At the same time, he’s imbued them with themes that are important to him—environmental stewardship and the importance of family.

“With Avatar and where I’ve chosen to take the story and open up the landscape and the characters that I’ve brought in and some of the questions that get asked, I don’t feel there’s anything that I need to say cinematically that I will not say across these four films,” he said.

Avatar - The Way of Water: Shooting out Avatar 2-3-4

Not only has much of the performance capture been already made for some of the principal actors but many scenes have already been shot for Avatar 3 and some for the fourth in the series. Film productions usually shoot all the scenes on set before striking it but this time they were shooting scenes spanning later sequels so as not to have to rebuild the set.

Right from the start, editing too had to take into account the story and character arcs spanning multiple movies, since any change to a character in The Way of Water would impact on Cameron’s global vision for the story span in Avatar 4 which is not due to hit screens until December 2026.

A fifth film is planned but yet to be greenlit.

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