Cameron told IndieWire that the follow-up to “Waterway” will arrive at a faster pace because “we don’t have to stop and rework at every stage of the game.”
When James Cameron made Avatar in 2009, he pioneered performance capture technology that would change filmmaking forever, but by the time he began writing the sequels in 2013, the demands of his story had already exceeded what was possible in the original film. Seeking to save time and money while creating a unity that could become four sequels, Cameron embarked on a years-long process in which writing, design, and research and development occurred simultaneously and fed into each. other.
“We officially started the script process in the summer of 2013,” Cameron told IndieWire. “The next few years were a parallel development of writing four films, designing every creature, every character, every vehicle, every cityscape, every biographer, every settlement in those four films. That same period was also about R&D and technology [development] to really future-proof ourselves in that whole body of films, because I prefer to stop once for a large part and prepare everything, and then work in a kind of rhythmic cadenced forward from where we don’t have to stop. and recycle at every stage of the game.”
That meant a long gestation period for audiences who wanted to see Navi’s continued adventures, but if Avatar: The Last Airbender The biggest challenge for Cameron and his team was to adapt the performance shooting techniques of the first film to the underwater environment. Shooting wet from dry was never an option, as Cameron wanted the actors to react completely authentically to the properties of water; it meant figuring out how to achieve the tank’s performance capture, which posed a whole host of complex problems. In some cases, the simplest solution ended up being the right solution, for example when the filmmakers realized that the bubbles in the scuba tanks interfered with the motion capture cues of the actors; After researching various high-tech options, Cameron decided to simply hire camera operators who were experienced freedivers who could hold their breath.
The director found an equally simple method of capturing the actors’ eye movements with high-definition head devices attached to capture every nuance of their expressions. “We didn’t know how we were going to deal with the eyes,” he said. “We didn’t know if it was going to be some kind of mask or just bare water, but in the end we ended up using very, very thin swimmers’ goggles. they cost two dollars a pair. They are literally the cheapest glasses you can get. All the high tech ones had curved lenses and nice frames and all that, but these were like two little plastic cups and a rubber band, and they worked the best. But it was a year of testing to find out what worked best for them.”
20th Century Studios
The performance cameras on the original Avatar used infrared light to film the actors, which wouldn’t work in the sequel’s underwater locations. “You put all these cameras in a big grid to shoot the marker suits from different angles, and then you put in a kind of 3D point cloud in real time where basically the bones of the actors are,” Cameron said. “We use infrared cameras for this, but infrared does not spread through water at all, so what are we going to use now?” We wanted to use something at non-visual wavelengths, so the obvious one was ultraviolet.”
The problem is that no one has ever used UV in the way Cameron envisioned, which meant a wide range of testing. “We built the cameras, we built the housings for the cameras, we did tests, we learned from the tests, we built a real production version of the camera with a UV LED ring, which we stood in a test tank, and then built. larger test tank. Ultimately, we built our full production tank, which was 100 feet long and had a large wave machine at one end with the ability to generate 10 knots of circulating current inside it.”
One of the most important steps in Cameron’s research and development was taking his entire team to the Bahamas, where they conducted tests to determine the movement of the film’s aquatic creatures and how the actors would ride them. “We tested models of these creatures that could spin around the water at high speeds and even come out of the water and fly across it and then dive back in,” Cameron said. “It seems kind of impossible, but we built them on the water jet principle, propelled by a high-performance jet ski engine.” Based on what the creators learned ergonomically, they redesigned the creatures and fine-tuned the riding process by testing how hair, weapons, and other factors responded to the creatures’ movements in the water. “Then we brought it all back into the tank and taught the actors how to do it,” Cameron said. “It was a tremendous amount of trial and error perfecting it and then passing that knowledge on to the stuntmen and actors.”
The good news is that now Cameron’s technology is ready for whatever happens in the next three Avatar movies. “We could probably write a book about how we figured this all out, but the key is to have a vision of what you’re going to look like,” the director said. Even for James Cameron, the vision is not fully formed. “That vision comes into focus, it’s not crystal clear.” That said, Cameron promises that now that the vision has evolved and the technology has grown to match it, audiences will be excited to see where the series goes from here. “Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”