The Look of Avatar: The Way Of Water
After 13 years of nail-chomping anticipation, James Cameron’s Avatar sequel finally premiered with an epic splash! Just like the original film, it transports audiences to a world of breathtaking beauty and wonder. Avatar: The Way of Water picks up 15 years after the events of the first film on the moon, Pandora.
Now, we follow the Sully family, comprising Ney’tiri (Zoe Saldaña), Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), and their five children, as they travel from the jungle of the first film to an underwater paradise. With the return of the resource-hungry humans determined to reclaim what they lost, the Sully family together with the Metkayina (Na’vi who reside in the water region) fight to protect their home and way of life.
While the first film was 162 minutes, The Way of Water is a 192-minute technical marvel that improves upon the groundbreaking 3D technology and motion-capture CGI of the original. James Cameron returns to the themes of environmentalism and anti-colonialism while focusing on another region of Pandora’s lush and abundant world.
The Advances of the Avatar Sequel
The visionary director is obsessed with topping each film and did not disappoint with The Way of Water. Cameron and his army of filmmakers pushed the bar of digital cinematography, performance capture, and VFX technology to bring audiences as close to the underwater world as the screen could possibly allow.
With all the sequels out there, audiences are not used to waiting over a decade for their next fix. However, Cameron needed the blueprint (script) for the next five films of the Avatar franchise before he could commit to production. And over the course of the past 13 years, Cameron and company not only shot one movie but all of three and the first act of a fourth film. So, at least you probably won’t have to wait for another decade-plus for a follow-up film. Fingers crossed.
- Tech Specs
- The World
- Production Design
- Costume Design
☵ THE WAY OF WATER TECH SPECS ☵
- Runtime: 3 hours 12 minutes (192 minutes)
- Color: Color
- Aspect Ratio:
- 1.85 : 1 (3-D version)
- 1.85 : 1 (IMAX version)
- 2.39 : 1 (theatrical ratio)
- Camera: Sony CineAlta VENICE 3D
- Negative Format: X-OCN RAW
- Cinematographic Process:
- Digital Intermediate (4K) (Master Format)
- X-OCN RAW (common-third) (source format)
- Printed Film Format:
- D-Cinema (also 3-D version)
- DCP Digital Cinema Package (4K)
☵ THE WORLD ☵
Pandora is a paradise full of nature and lifeforms that mirrors the best parts of Earth. There’s an incorruptible bond between Pandora and its inhabitants. While it looks and feels like a planet, Pandora is actually a moon in the Alpha Centauri System. Cameron describes it best: “the Garden of Eden with teeth and claws.”
What truly makes this world magical is what the Na’vi understand as Eywa — their deity. All the tree and plant life on Pandora communicates through a neuron-like communication system that effectively functions like a massive brain that has achieved moon-wide sentience.
In the first Avatar movie, the story was set in the jungle region home to the Omaticaya clan where the humans settled to extract its precious resources. However, The Way of Water is much different from the jungle, with an entirely new environment full of diverse flora and fauna, including a new clan of Na’vi known as the Metkayina.
Yet, the wonderment and awe established within the first film not only continue into the sequel but blossom in an entirely fresh and authentic way. Everything from the wildlife and foliage to the culture and craftwork of the Na’vi is completely unique to the water environment and adds yet another rich layer to the world.
A Culture in Harmony with Water
The beauty of this kind of world-building is how authentic it feels. Even though this is a sci-fi film full of alien species, it feels like the filmmakers shot right on-site. You can’t see the seams between the digitally created sets and the live-action performances thanks to top-notch performance-capture technology.
If audiences don’t look away from the screen, they will actually believe that they are submerged deep underwater with a whale-like creature swimming right at them. That’s the power of high frame rate 3D. And that’s the magic of the visual effects coupled with the expert lighting that creates a gorgeous underwater glow from the Director of Photography Russell Carpenter.
When talking about what ‘the way of water’ means to GeekCulture, producer Jon Landau described it as a cultural philosophy of the Metkayina clan.
“They live in harmony with the water, they exist based on the way of water, something that has the ability to give life, to take life.”
The filmmakers wanted to present this philosophy to their audience to help them consider how we should treat our own oceans. The exotic underwater world of Pandora is a new destination but also a way to show how to live in harmony with water.
☵ PRODUCTION DESIGN ☵
Production designer Dylan Cole and co-production designer Ben Procter split the enormous load that the Avatar sequels demanded. Cole took on the monumental task of building the world of Pandora while Procter was in charge of the design for Earth.
However, both came together to construct vehicles, ships, and animals, in addition to the worlds. In the first film, the jungle was inspired by the life in the oceans while this ocean-dominant ecosystem is motivated by land-based life.
“We amplified the coral and played with scale,” Cole tells Variety.
The sapphire color palette was obviously motivated by the ocean so other colors had to shine bright for color differentiation.
The Metkayina clan bonds with the tulkun sea creatures not unlike the Na’vi of the first movie who paired with the dragon-like mountain banshees. Like a cross between whales, seals, and sea turtles, the tulkun are highly intelligent and emotional creatures that can also carry a tune with their Na’vi counterparts.
The art department created a practical fin for the actors to work with and a spot for the eyes to provide an eye line.
“Sometimes we were dragging the fin through the water so you could have the proper resistance,” Cole tells IndieWire,” and then other times when all the kids are climbing on him, we built a set that approximated his back with the blowholes and the plating, so that we could set that in the tank and they could perform on that.”
There’s also a Jonah and the whale moment of the story where one of Sully’s sons enters the inside of one of the tulkuns. The experience is like “an enchanted cave from old fantasy stories,” only it’s alive.
It was up to Cole to bring such fantastical creatures to life and essential to building this other section of Pandora’s world. He had to consider everything from how they would move in the water to how they functioned in the ecosystem with predators like the akula, a shark-like beast.
Cole took inspiration from the creatures of Earth. Snakes terrify the production designer so he allowed this fear to motivate his design of the akula. That’s why the akula’s mouth accentuates like that of a rattlesnake, and as it opens the top bifurcates.
When it came to the construction of the vehicles, the large “sea dragon” vehicle appealed as a technological and predatory metaphor. Procter was the mastermind behind the design. The main challenge: getting them to float.
The look was only part of the equation while buoyancy took some time and plenty of tests. Cameron not only wanted one of the boats to run but jump waves. So, Procter and team made a 1K-horsepower, 42-knot boat that was used for photography. The data taken from the tests was implemented into the computer-generated dynamics.
☵ COSTUME DESIGN ☵
Deborah L. Scott returned to Pandora as its costume designer for The Way of Water. Not only has Scott worked with Cameron before, but she won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for her work on Titanic and dressed such icons as Marty McFly and the Amazing Spider-Man.
All together, Scott’s work on the Avatar sequel took about two and a half years. For a project of this scale, that may come as little surprise. Scott began designing the costumes for the film just 8 months before performance capture.
Over the course of past Cameron productions, Scott developed a short hand with the director in their collaborative process. So, when Scott jumped into the project, she was prepared to hit the ground running. In fact, while working on Avatar 2, she was simultaneously working on Avatar 3.
RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT
Scott constructed digital costumes for every character. In an interview with Looper, she says, “The clothing is quite complex — it’s got a lot of layers. It’s a 3D map that we handed them.” Scott and her team (of 100 artisans and designers at its largest) conducted research into indigenous cultures while considering how her original design would function underwater. They crafted everything including costumes, props, accessories, and wigs. In the end, each and every garment took 200 hours per design.
In an interview with Filmmakers Academy, Scott outlined the differences between the Omaticayan (forest clan) of the first movie and the Metkayina (ocean clan) of TWOW. While both Na’vi cultures weave, the Met style of weaving for the Omaticayan is more complex and decorative.
Since both cultures pull from their environments such as skins and grass, they are different from one another. And the Metkayina use seaweed, coral, and shells whereas the Omaticayan use bark, pinecones, and seeds. The tattoos of the Metkayina are unique to them and while both clans have black hair and similar eyes, the ocean clan stands out with wavier hair and different color eyes.
The designs for Pandora are all grounded in our world here on Earth. Scott and her team used human ingenuity to inform their designs.
“Once you understand your cultures and use our true, well-researched, real-world to inform,” she says, “you can use the depth of your imagination and the imagination of the people that you are creating to go anywhere.”
In the nature of indigenous peoples, the textiles are hand-crafted. They used the natural materials that they could find as well as what Scott calls “natural fantasy.” For instance, a flower is a flower to humans but the flowers of Pandora are unique and individual. This same concept was the basis of all other materials — i.e. the skin of a beast on Pandora has its roots in earthly leathers.
COSTUME DESIGN WITH PERFORMANCE CAPTURE
“When you shoot performance capture for so long,” says Scott, “you need to make sure that the actors know if they interact with their clothing. They have to know what they’re touching. It’s not like a T-shirt; the costumes are more complex, so if they need to hold their shawl or whatever, they need to have those reference pieces.”
During her research, she discovered what materials to use for each specific costume — “front, back, and center.” With the evolution of performance capture technology, the costumes had to accommodate it. While developing the technology for markers to track the performances, Scott realized that they would be able to read every bead and knot.
“It gave me this freedom to make the costumes as complex or simple as I wanted.”
— Deborah L. Scott
During the performance capture process, the costumes weren’t necessarily fully realized. However, Cameron would give each actor an idea of what their character looked like and what they were wearing. Then, they provided reference costumes such as ponchos and capes to inform their performance and how they moved.
They bounced back and forth between CG and live-action performances, sometimes concentrating on one or the other. Since they were shooting two movies out of order, they had to adhere to deadlines for both.
The actors were very involved in the costuming strategy, as well. For instance, Stephen Lang helped develop the military unit patch design for “Project Deja Blue” with Scott and Cameron. Sigourney Weaver would get lost in Scott’s office, which functioned like a showroom, and imagine what certain objects and textiles meant to her character.
According to Scott, while the designs were inspired by indigenous cultures, they weren’t focused on any one tribe. They conducted research on cultures that live by water all across the world and found similarities between coastal regions in India to Africa. Their jumping-off point, however, was Fiji, Polynesia, Tonga, and Hawaii.
☵ THE WAY OF WATER CINEMATOGRAPHY ☵
Avatar: The Way of Water is a spectacular visual marvel that was the result of new cameras, technical methodologies, and algorithms to pull off. In fact, the technical achievements outshine the story to such an extent, it’s the experience of the world that truly mesmerizes audiences.
The cinematography of the film is a combination of carefully crafted camera moves, lighting, and layers of animation with algorithms by Wētā — some of which we will highlight below. All together, Cameron considers the process a “template.”
The film sparks the next chapter into the 3D format. (So, if possible, you should really make an effort to see the film in theaters.) The stereoscopic 3D system for the Avatar sequel was created by bolting together multiple Sony Venice cameras that deliver high dynamic range.
The Way of Water was lensed by DP Russell Carpenter, who worked with Cameron on his other top-grossing movie of all time (Titanic). Carpenter brought the sci-fi fantasy to life with an army of animators, motion capture artists, and graphics experts.
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While films have traditionally shot at 24fps, Avatar 2 was shot at both a high frame rate (HFR) in addition to 3D to provide the realism needed to make the world come off the screen. Now, this isn’t the first film to shoot at HFR for that ultra-realistic look. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy was the first film with a wide release to be filmed at HFR.
HFR is traditionally valued more in the video game space where upward of 60fps is preferred. Where the HFR of the Hobbit films was criticized as it didn’t fit the Middle Earth aesthetic, it serves much better with a sci-fi world that is placed in our own distant reality. The way Cameron employs the HFR is sparing, using it for high-octane action sequences but shifting down to 24fps for dialogue exchanges.
There were many challenges that the filmmakers faced with 3D. HFR is a method to help combat such challenges, however. For instance, fast camera moves don’t work well and CGI doesn’t look as good under the bright conditions needed for 3D glasses and muddy imagery. Shooting at 48fps fixes this problem by increasing the clearness and smoothness of motion in darker, frenzied circumstances.
CAMERA & LENSES
The camera system was constructed for a pristine 3D IMAX underwater experience free of distortions, artifacts, and aberrations. In addition to the Sony Venice, the camera system to capture underwater performances was devised by cinematographer Pawel Achtel from the 3D submersible beam splitter, DeepX 3D.
For the ultimate results, they chose Nikonos 15mm lenses. What makes the Nikonos stand out is that they are tried and true lenses designed by Nikon specifically for underwater photography. There’s no need for a lens mount, lens servo motors, or lens ports as the camera is attached inside the house and the lenses are mounted outside.
Pawel described the reasoning behind the Nikonos to Y.M. Cinema Magazine:
Traditional underwater cinematography faces limitations in resolution with dome and flat ports and heavyweight that required the use of cranes to get in the water.
Rather than an underwater beam splitter system housed behind a flat port, the filmmakers submerge the DeepX 3D completely underwater for optimal sharpness without chromatic aberrations or geometric distortions. And the imagery can meet and surpass 4K.
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Historically, the challenge of replicating water through CGI was an imperfect solution to the real thing. And today, it still isn’t perfect. We know how water looks and feels and can even perceive the most subtle differences between computer-generated water and real water.
Rather than suffer any lack of detail through digitizing water, James Cameron implemented a reliable workaround that would yield the results he demanded. This involved shooting their motion-capture performances underwater.
When describing the process, Cameron explains, “The key to it was to actually shoot underwater and at the surface of the water so people were swimming properly, getting out of the water properly, diving in properly. It looks real because the motion was real and the emotion was real.”
Cameron hired Peter Zuccarini, one of the most prolific underwater cameramen to swim the oceans. On the underwater adventure, Into the Blue (lensed by Shane Hurlbut, ASC), Zuccarini was dragged by a shark and swam into the cursed crocodile-infested waters of the Amazon while filming The Motorcycle Diaries.
While Cameron employed futuristic camera systems, like the Virtual Camera, to choose angles and compositions, he still wanted a real camera operator for a “baseline of reality” as Zuccarini describes.
Zuccarini wielded the 180lb 3D Sony Venice camera system developed specifically for the film. The camera system employed two Venices in a box that shot through a beam splitter.
The grips helped with the weight of the rig with lines to time the stops.
UNDERWATER PERFORMANCE CAPTURE
The filmmakers wanted the experience for their actors to be as authentic as possible so they could get real performances. They didn’t want to do “dry for wet” and instead decided to be the first to work with performance capture underwater.
What started as experiments at home, then to Landau’s swimming pool, moved to Landau and Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment production company at Manhattan Beach Studios. They constructed two special kinds of tanks that recreated oceanic conditions. The larger of the two was massive in size — 120 feet long x 60 feet wide x 30 feet deep, and it could hold upward of 250,000 gallons of water. A 10-knot current was driven by a system comprised of two ship propellers (6 feet in diameter) anointed “the racetrack.” This allowed them to also work with waves.
Through trial and error, they discovered how light absorbs infrared underwater. Since motion capture typically uses infrared, this posed a problem for the filmmakers. They then went with ultraviolet light in order for the camera sensor to pick up while also disseminating through the water.
They placed performance capture cameras around the tanks along with safety cameras to monitor everyone working in the water. To help control the reflection of light, they added a layer of white ping-pong-sized balls that floated at the surface.
The Challenges of Underwater Cinematography
In fact, everyone who entered the tank learned how to hold their breath for extended periods of time. From the actors to the camera operators to the person holding the light, they had to be able to hold their breath for a sufficient amount of time. So, they hired world-class freediving camera operators.
That’s because scuba gear was out of the question since it caused too many air bubbles that acted like “wiggling mirrors” according to Cameron. This also made it impossible for the performance capture technology to read the marker dots on the actors’ bodies since it couldn’t distinguish between bubbles and dots.
VIRTUAL CAMERA TECHNOLOGY
When it was all said and done, Cameron had devised two unique volumes (performance-capture stages) — one for the water and one for the air that sat on top of one another. Then in real-time, the computer processes data from both volumes, fusing them together, and integrates the information into Cameron’s Virtual Camera.
The Virtual Camera is a camera system far before its time. Once Cameron chose his favorite performances with the editorial team, he used the Virtual Camera to shoot scenes “within a computer-generated world.” He could see the actors as their characters and provide direction in real-time over the diver address system.
Underwater camera op Peter Zuccarini likens his contributions to ingredients in a soup that will later be constructed by Cameron in post:
It was essential that the filmmakers convey the physics of the water correctly. The artists at Wētā used much of Zuccarini’s camera moves when building shots and markers were placed on the camera operator and his camera just like the actors. That way, they could build from his natural movements rather than from scratch.
☵ UNDERWATER STUNTS ☵
Since much of the film takes place underwater, the cast underwent training with professional free diver, Kirk Krack. Much like the cast of another blockbuster this year, Top Gun: Maverick, the cast of Avatar 2 were responsible for performing under trying conditions and even switching on their own cameras.
Learn more about the Look of Top Gun: Maverick.
When describing the Avatar sequel compared to other water-centric movies, Krack says, “It’s the biggest diving movie of all time because it’s shot wet for wet — this isn’t Aquaman hanging on a wire with a fan in their hair. This isn’t some [VFX artist] programming what they think swimming looks like… There’s never been a movie that has done what this underwater unit did to the level we did it, to the realism of the reality we’ve done.”
In addition to instructing cast members on how to hold their breath for prolonged amounts of time, he also advised that they use enriched oxygen mixtures to reduce hypoxia and speed their recovery.
Alongside the actors, they developed motions for how the characters would move in the ocean. There they worked on rehearsing scenes and establishing a workflow, which involved the actors switching on their cameras, adhering to safety procedures, and finding their marks.
Virtual production supervisor Ryan Champney likened it to the moments before a rocket launch: “Safety team go, reference cameras go, hydraulics go — is everyone good?”
Krack translated the direction from Cameron with non-verbal cues. Altogether, the actors and crew, including Krack’s team, logged over 250,000 free dives! They captured over three movies worth of performances, after all.
☵ THE WAY OF WATER VFX ☵
James Cameron trailblazed new VFX technology and techniques from his earliest successes with The Terminator and Terminator 2. Some techniques Cameron perfected over the course of multiple films. For instance, the liquid metal villain from the Terminator sequel resulted from cutting-edge special effects first implemented in The Abyss.
For all his efforts, Cameron received awards such as an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Southhampton for his contributions to underwater filmmaking and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Visual Effects Society.
The original Avatar was filmed in photorealistic “stereoscopic 3D.” There was a 60/40 percent split between CGI imagery and traditional live-action imagery. Much of the CG animation implemented new motion-capture techniques with physical actors who wear suits outfitted with markers. That way, computers and overlay digital animation recorded their movements.
The most convincing CGI merges the real with the fake, whether it’s real people or places. You could apply this concept to lighting, as well. Take Dune, and how they shot in the deserts of Jordan and Abu Dhabi for authentic lighting with sand screen (instead of green screen) and used helicopters to inform their sci-fi flying vehicles.
Learn more about how the filmmakers achieved the look of Dune!
While there are layers of animation and algorithms employed to bring the Na’vi and their world to life, it’s far from pure animation. More specifically, the real world informs the animations and the performances. In an interview with GQ, Cameron explains that previously captured data involved steps powered by artificial intelligence to translate into 3D-CG characters.
This was not a simple process and took an incredible amount of time and trial and error. One legendary example involves a single effects shot going through over 400 revisions. This kind of attention to detail ramped the cost excessively high and propelled the film’s late release.
Facial performance replacement (FPR) lets Cameron digitally rework and select facial movements best suited for the performance. The technicians transfer the data from the physical performances to their digital counterparts. This technique also allows filmmakers to change lines of dialogue following principle photography without reshooting scenes.
Picking up from the process with the Virtual Camera, the technicians organized the shots into cut sequences with Nuke, After Effects, and other proprietary project files. Then, the filmmakers sent the files to the experts at Wētā FX for implementation. Their senior effects supervisor Joe Letteri and Richard Baneham of Lightstorm collaborated with a team to preserve the performances frame by frame.
Cantina Creative collaborated with Ben Procter to conceptualize graphics and stereoscopic holograms to populate Pandora and the RDA. Early in the process, they assisted with laying out the sets and blocking action. This allowed the humans and CG characters to interact effectively with holograms, like the HoloFloor, a primary feature of the RDA’s Op Center.
According to the film’s producer Jon Landau, the first film was about being photographic and didn’t necessarily need to be photo-real in the sci-fi world of Pandora. However, with advancements over the last decade, they realized they must raise the bar and “deliver something that is 100% photo-real.”
☵ WATCH AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER ☵
Avatar: The Way of Water is currently playing in theaters. After that, it will most likely be available on your friendly neighborhood streaming service.
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