How ‘Avatar: Way of Water’ solid, crew made underwater scenes

Within the long-awaited sea-quel “Avatar: The Way of Water,” now in theaters, James Cameron delivers on his promise to discover Pandora’s glittering oceans 13 years after the historic success of 2009’s hybrid live-action/movement seize epic “Avatar.” However bringing the blockbuster follow-up to life required the Oscar-winning filmmaker, cinematographer Russell Carpenter and a staff of actors, specialists and technicians to realize the “impossible” but once more.

Their largest problem? Trace: It covers 71% of Earth’s floor.

In 2013, Cameron, armed with hundreds of pages of notes increasing the world of Pandora, selected the aquatic setting and set a staff of writers to pen the sequels. However Jon Landau, who has produced all of Cameron’s movies since “Titanic,” instantly foresaw an issue: The technological processes wanted to seize actors taking part in Na’vi on dry units didn’t but exist for capturing them moist. “Right away we started doing R&D,” he mentioned, “because no one had ever done performance capture underwater.”

Set years after the occasions of “Avatar” in a brand new nook of Pandora, “The Way of Water” finds ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Omatikaya warrioress Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their 4 kids taking refuge with the seafaring Metkayina clan, the place they need to adapt to ocean life to outlive. Characters swim, bond and battle beneath the floor for greater than half the movie, gliding astride smooth ilu mounts and alongside the huge, whale-like tulkun.

They dive out and in of the ocean whereas racing at excessive speeds, commune and talk whereas floating far beneath the floor and interact in harrowing motion sequences — all of which the solid and stunt groups carried out, outfitted with particular moist fits and facial seize digicam rigs, whereas free diving within the water.

Practically a decade after its conception, Cameron’s sequel required innovation on par with the unique: the event of a brand new, underwater cinematic vernacular, and the expertise to seize it. Right here’s how they pulled it off.

‘Our movies are big movies’

For digital manufacturing supervisor Ryan Champney, the way in which into “The Way of Water” started in his bathtub.

Champney, whose credit embody the Cameron and Landau-produced “Alita: Battle Angel,” had labored on the primary “Avatar”’s Simulcam system, which allowed Cameron to see CG components built-in into stay motion in actual time, in addition to the robotic eyeline expertise that permits human actors to play reverse bodily, pre-programmed representations of their 9 ft. tall Na’vi co-stars on set.

Coming aboard the sequels in 2012, Champney was a part of a small staff tasked with constructing on expertise used within the first film and translating it right into a water setting with out shedding the nuances of an actor’s efficiency within the movement seize course of.

“Most movies get greenlit, there’s a couple of months of prep and there are limits to what you can get done,” he mentioned. “And I think Jim has this ability to be like, we’ve got to do this — whether or not other people adopt this, let’s push things forward.”

At first, manufacturing experimented taking pictures dry-for-wet, with performers in movement seize fits rigged on wires within the air, approximating in-water motion. For sure, Cameron didn’t go for it. “We did A-B comparisons to show to Jim and said, ‘Can you tell the difference?’” mentioned Champney. “He said, ‘I don’t need to. We’re going with the underwater solution.’ He didn’t even look at the test.”

Experiments at dwelling, then in Landau’s swimming pool, established strategies for waterproofing cameras in submersible housings. However the water itself introduced new points. “We quickly found out that the infrared gets absorbed in water, which is normally how we do motion capture, so we had to go to ultraviolet light… that would transmit through water but would also be picked up by the camera sensor,” “ said Champney. “There wasn’t a lot of information out there on the topic, so it was a lot of trial and error.”

As methodologies clicked into place, checks graduated to greater and greater places — a scuba coaching pool the place a single determine may very well be captured in 3D; a big out of doors tank that might maintain extra performers.

Within the course of, mentioned Landau, “we realized that the performance capture system that worked above the water wasn’t going to work under the water. We needed to create two different volumes, as we call it, but they had to work in sync with one another, because we need to be capturing someone jumping in above and capturing them below and making all those things work together.”

Whereas Landau declined to disclose the price of the analysis and growth section for the sequels — the primary has an estimated finances of $350 million — he credit studio twentieth Century Fox with assembly the manufacturing’s distinctive wants. (The primary “Avatar” scored a lifetime gross of $2.92 billion, nonetheless the reigning field workplace champ of all time.)

“I learned a lesson on ‘Titanic’ where we didn’t push to get the R&D money enough for the sinking of the ship from different angles, and it caught us a little bit by surprise,” mentioned Landau. “That lesson taught me that if you push for the R&D money now and you do it right, you’re going to end up with a much more efficient process.”

“Yes, our movies are big movies,” he mentioned. “But I honestly believe that if you look back at the movies that we’ve done, at the end of the day for what is up on the screen, they were done as efficiently as anybody could possibly do them.”

‘Now work on the part that broke’

After the proof-of-concept stage, two huge tanks have been engineered at Cameron and Landau’s Lightstorm Leisure hub at Manhattan Seaside Studios, one used for coaching and extra intimate character scenes. The bigger second tank — the “Swiss Army knife of water tanks,” measuring 120 ft. lengthy, 60 ft. vast and 30 ft. deep with a 250,000 gallon capability — was outfitted with highly effective wave and present machines, used to seize the movie’s extra action-packed sequences involving Na’vi characters.

Efficiency seize cameras have been arrange across the tanks’ perimeter together with security cameras for monitoring these within the water. To regulate gentle reflection from above, the water’s floor was coated with small, white floating balls, impressed by an L.A. Instances article Champney examine shade balls deployed within the Los Angeles Reservoir to cut back evaporation, and from the same methodology Cameron used on his 1989 movie “The Abyss.”

“Once we got it working, they started putting in vehicles and safety divers and waves and everything else. I was like, ‘OK, we didn’t test any of that.’ But we made it work!” mentioned Champney. “That’s the good thing about Jim. He pushes it until it breaks and comes back a little bit, and then he says, ‘Now work on the part that broke.’”

To seize the underwater motion with enough readability, it was not attainable for anybody within the tank to make use of scuba gear, as a result of air bubbles would possibly intervene with the accuracy of the sensors. So how may Cameron hold his solid within the water lengthy sufficient to seize their performances?

The answer was each easier and extra difficult than the options: Everybody — together with new and returning actors like Worthington, Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and Kate Winslet, reference digicam operators, grips, and the protection divers accompanying every actor — must work whereas holding their breath below water, requiring in depth coaching, extra security procedures, and ample time.

‘It’s the most important diving film of all time’

“This is unlike anything ever done before,” says Kirk Krack, the skilled free diver and coach who educated actors, stunt performers and crew for months main as much as the “Avatar” shoot. “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.”

An opportunity assembly on a shared flight years earlier had given Krack, a veteran free diver who labored on the 2009 documentary “The Cove,” the chance to introduce himself to Cameron. “I walked up and said, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained,’” Krack remembered with a smile. “My name’s Kirk. I’m a free diver, and I’m going to hand you my card and say, ‘How long can you hold your breath?’”

It could be a number of years till Krack bought the decision, whereas free diving the shipwrecks of Truk Lagoon in Micronesia. Assembly with Krack in Los Angeles shortly thereafter, Cameron laid out his “Avatar” pickle.

“He tells me about the project, the different films, how [‘Avatar’] 2 is 60% water, 3 is 30%, 4 and 5 will be 15%,” mentioned Krack. “How the new Na’vi of the ocean are called Metkayina, they’re free divers, and the problems they’ll have with capture because of the bubbles. They’re thinking of rebreathers instead of scuba systems, and do I think free diving could do it? I said, ‘Absolutely. And here’s how I would do it.’”

Krack’s answer was to show solid and crew to carry their breath utilizing technical free diving strategies. This is able to imply augmenting breath holds with using enriched oxygen mixtures earlier than or after a dive, to cut back danger of hypoxia and velocity restoration.

Working with actors within the coaching tank, Krack helped get “Avatar”s stars so comfortable in the water they no longer thought about the fact that they were diving. “You can’t be breath holding and free diving and trying to bring your character to life when you’re just becoming a breath holder yourself and you’re looking like your cheeks are [puffed out],” said Krack.

He and the actors considered how their characters would move relative to the ocean and their ease in it, and rehearsed scenes underwater to build an experiential base they could tap into during filming. An in-water workflow was established: actors would turn on their own camera rigs for each take, go through a safety countdown, dive down and find their marks with Krack’s help, then perform their scenes.

“It was like a microcosm of a rocket launch,” describes Clampney. “‘Safety team go, reference cameras go, hydraulics go — is everyone good?’”

Between takes Cameron would give notes, which Krack would help translate using nonverbal cues, and they’d try to quickly reset. “He’s Michelangelo. Just, you know, painting with 1,500 people,” said Krack. “He is going to get it until it tells the story, the physics make sense, the movements make sense. Whereas most other directors or studios might just say, ‘Eh, close enough.’ And that’s what will make this the biggest movie of all time.”

He’s Michelangelo. Just, you know, painting with 1,500 people.

— “Avatar: The Way of Water” free diving professional Kirk Krack

Over an 18-month efficiency seize shoot that started in 2017, Krack’s staff, actors and crew logged greater than 250,000 free dives. At its busiest, the tank set had 26 folks underwater on breath maintain with motorized water automobiles standing in for Pandoran sea creatures zooming across the area.

However certainly one of Krack’s proudest moments was watching Weaver, who was 69 years outdated when she started free diving coaching, outlast a stunt diver on breath maintain whereas performing an scene as her new Na’vi character Kiri, {the teenager} Jake and Neytiri have adopted into their household.

“It’s like holding your breath and running,” mentioned Krack, who marveled as Weaver saved going for 3 minutes earlier than heading again to the floor. “She was so immersed. She was her character. She did this massive breath hold on this huge active metabolic scene. I’m super proud, and that’s a testament to all the work she put in.”

Swimming, a lot much less free diving with out respiration equipment or scuba tanks, didn’t come intuitively at first to actor Bailey Bass (“Interview with a Vampire”) earlier than she was solid within the sequels as Tsireya, a Metkayina teen who calls the ocean dwelling.

However for 5 months Bass, then 13, educated alongside her co-stars to breath maintain for a number of minutes at a time. Given her character’s consolation within the water, she additionally underwent scuba certification in Hawaii earlier than filming her position over the course of two years as one of many “next generation” Na’vi characters launched in “The Way of Water.”

“It was about getting to a point where you can have a calm breath hold and really be comfortable underwater,” mentioned Bailey, now 19, who additionally discovered that yoga observe helped. “Having the calmness of yoga allowed me to have longer breath holds and just chill out and meditate underwater.”

By the point back-to-back efficiency seize for the second, third and fourth movies concluded, free diving had develop into second nature to the solid. “I was more comfortable underwater than I was running on land,” mentioned Bass.

The common size of a dive for efficiency seize was 4 minutes, she mentioned. To a non-diver, which may sound daunting. However Bass discovered it liberating. “When you’re underwater and you’re swimming and you’re there, just you and no sound, it’s so freeing,” she mentioned. “I would love to do it again.”