13 years passed between ‘Avatar’s’ because James Cameron had to be ‘Future-Proof’ for the next four sequels

When James Cameron directed Avatar in 2009, he created the performance capture technology that would change filmmaking forever, but by the time he began writing sequels in 2013, the demands of his story had already exceeded what was possible in the original film. In an effort to save time and money while creating unity across what will likely become four sequels, Cameron embarked on a years-long process where writing, design, and research and development were all done at the same time and fed into each other.

“We officially started the scriptwriting process in the summer of 2013,” Cameron told IndieWire. The next few years were a parallel process of writing four films, designing every creature, every character, every vehicle, every cityscape, every biome, and every habitat in those four films. The same period of time was also devoted to research, development, and technology. [development] To really future-proof ourselves across this whole block of movies, because I’d rather stop once for a big part and set it all up, and then work in a kind of rhythmic way forward from there where we don’t have to stop and retool at every stage of the game.”

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This has meant a long gestation for fans eager to see the continued adventures of the Na’vi, but if early reactions to “Avatar: The Way of Water” are any indication it’s worth the wait. For Cameron and his team, the biggest challenge was adapting performance capture techniques for the first film in an underwater environment. Shooting “dry vs. wet” was never an option, as Cameron wanted the actors to respond to the water’s properties with complete authenticity; And that meant figuring out how to achieve capture performance in a tank, which gave rise to a whole series of complex issues. In some cases, the simpler solution was the right one, as when the filmmakers realized that bubbles from scuba tanks interfered with the motion capture marks on the actors; After exploring several high-tech options, Cameron simply chose to hire camera operators with experienced free divers who could hold their breath.

The director found a similarly straightforward way of capturing the actors’ eye movements by using high-resolution head rigs that were attached to record 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 a kind of mask, or being naked in the water, but we ultimately ended up with very thin swim goggles—they’re a couple of bucks. They’re literally the cheapest goggles you can get. All of those high-tech ones have curved lenses and frames.” Pretty and all that, but these were like two little plastic cups for cereal and a rubber band, and they worked better. But it’s been a year of testing to see that they work better.”

“Avatar: The Way of Water” – Credit: 20th Century Studios

Twentieth Century Studios

In the original “Avatar” movie, performance capture cameras used infrared light to photograph the actors, something that doesn’t work in the sequel’s underwater locations. “You set up all these cameras in a big grid to shoot the tag suits from different angles and then you pop in real time a kind of 3D cloud where all the actors’ bones are basically,” said Cameron. “We use infrared cameras for that, but infrared doesn’t propagate through water at all, so what are we going to use it for now? We wanted to use something in the invisible wavelength, so the obvious thing was UV.”

The problem is that no one has ever used ultraviolet light the way Cameron intended, which means a long period of testing. “We built the cameras, we built the camera housings, we ran the tests, we learned from the tests, we built an actual production version of the camera with a UV LED ring that we parked in a test tank, then we built a larger test tank. Eventually, we built our own full production tank.” Which was 100 feet long and had a large wave machine at one end with the ability to create a 10-knot circular flow inside of it.”

One of Cameron’s most important R&D moves was getting his entire team to the Bahamas, where they ran tests to determine the motion of the aquatic creatures in the film and how the actors would ride them. “We tested life-size models of these creatures that can fly around the water at high speed and even get out of the water, fly over it and dive back in,” said Cameron. “It sounds kind of impossible, but we built it on the principle of a water jet—it was propelled by a high-performance jet ski engine.” Building on what the filmmakers learned in terms of ergonomics, they redesigned the creatures and fine-tuned the ride, testing how hair, weapons, and other factors respond to the creatures’ movements in the water. “Then we put everything back in the tank and taught the actors how to do it,” Cameron said. “It was a huge amount of trial and error to perfect it and then pass on that knowledge to the people and the actors.”

The good news is that Cameron’s tech is now ready for anything that comes along in the next three “Avatar” movies. “We’d probably write a book about how we understand all of these things, but the key to that is having a vision of what you want it to look like,” said the director. Even for James Cameron, the vision wasn’t fully formed. “This vision comes into focus, it’s not quite clear.” However, Cameron promises that now that the vision has evolved and the technology has grown to match, audiences will be happy with where the series picks up from here. “Believe me, you haven’t seen anything yet.”

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