Avatar: The Way of Water or Why Other Blockbusters Look Amateurish

Though everyone saw it coming, Avatar: The Way of Water has officially received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. In addition to this, the film (or should we say the masterpiece) is a nominee in three other categories: Best Picture, Best Production Design, and Best Sound. But what is it that makes Avatar: The Way of Water stand out from other blockbusters? Moreover, what is it that makes them seem amateurish compared to Avatar?

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avatar the way of water

Illustration: Milica Mijajlovic

Visual effects – you either love them or you hate them. There can hardly be something in between. For this reason, all the effort that visual effects artists invest is not typically received with the same praise or fanfare as that of directors and actors. Although in the background, their work is equally vital, specifically when it comes to blockbusters which massively bank on visual immersion. After all, could you imagine motion pictures such as Dune, Star Wars, Avatar, and Top Gun: Maverick without all those visual effects? You possibly could, but the final picture would be, well, ripped off. 

Normally, if the story of the film is mediocre, no special or visual effects can make it stand out. Unless you are James Cameron and know how to turn a second-rate plot into a blockbuster.  

Jim Cameron – a blockbuster king 

Known for Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Titanic, and Avatar, James Cameron has been acknowledged as a pioneer of cinema. A film industry giant, the director of the Canadian origin was many a time acclaimed for raising standards with his cinematic endeavors. Among the top 100 films of all time, his two films are among the top three – Avatar (2009) as the first and Titanic (1997) as the third on the list. in terms of box office, the two films are unbeatable, having earned $2.9 billion and $2.2. billion respectively. The contestant that managed to get closer to the top amount is Avengers: Endgame (2019). With its box office of close to $2.8 billion, it positioned itself right between Avatar and Titanic. 

But what makes Cameron different from other filmmakers? Having read his interview with GQ magazine, one could conclude that those are devotion, perseverance, creativity, and balls. Even without perusing the interview, just by watching his films, you can see that the man is always ready to do whatever it takes to come up with what he wants. Even Kate Winslet, the Oscar-winning Titanic star revealed that she might never work with Cameron again. The reason? In addition to frequent colds, a kidney infection, and hypothermia due to having spent too much time immersed in ice-cold water, Winslet nearly drowned on set. 

Luckily, two and a half decades later, the two joined again for another spectacle, Avatar: The Way of Water. Given the scenes, one may think that Winslet is doomed to shooting in colossal water tanks, at least when working with Jim Cameron.  

Avatar (2009) 

James Cameron got the idea for Avatar way back in 1994, even before Titanic was filmed. The visuals for the film appeared in his dream (however cliché this may sound). But as the 1990s technology was too limited for what he wanted to portray, Cameron decided to postpone the making of the film until opportunities arose. That day arrived 12 years later, in 2006 when the filming of Avatar started. Nearly $237 million and three years later, the film was eventually released.  

To make Avatar, two primary filming techniques were used: live-action filming, amounting to 40%, and computer-generated imagery (CGI). The latter was implemented to shoot via computerized miniatures which were further morphed with a corresponding Na’vi character. By incorporating these two techniques, Cameron managed to make a unique and dazzling film.    

In the initial stages, non-critical parts of the film were made. The crew decided to do it that way to prepare for the animation work and then combine the two parts later in the future. In those stages as well, the cast played the roles in front of the camera specifically designed to record actors’ facial expressions and movements. Such a technique of shooting allowed for a more authentic transition from an actual screen to CGI and animations.  

What was achieved with these techniques? 

The dialogues and the plot of Avatar are not extraordinary; in fact, many would agree that they are rather mediocre. However, the message of the film is powerful, and Cameron wanted to convey it through visuals rather than (unnecessary) dialogue. The state-of-the-art technology and equipment used for shooting the film helped communicate the message, as they enabled spectators to pay attention to particular details.   

What is the message of the film you may ask. Well, as is the case with almost everything, it could be interpreted in several different ways, depending on the spectators’ beliefs and perspectives. Thus, scientists may have grasped it as ultimately possible at some point. More traditional people might have found the underlying issues less important, i.e., they might not have been concerned with the preservation of nature, nor did they believe it was mighty enough to revive a character.  

In addition to glorifying nature and focusing on its power, Cameron included the good vs. evil concept portrayed in humans’ readiness to demolish a planet and its magical environment only to get hold of its extraordinary resource. This way, Cameron incorporated his anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist viewpoints. Through the film, he overtly demonized giant (U.S.) corporations, highlighting how willing they are to destroy entire ecosystems to reap profit.      

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) 

Right after filming Avatar, Cameron knew he would make a sequel. More precisely, he has planned to film even four sequels, the first of which was released on December 16, 2022, right on the 25th anniversary of Cameron’s huge blockbuster, Titanic. Coincidence? Sure, if you believe in them.  

Getting back to Avatar: The Way of Water. Ever since the release (and it’s only been a month and a half), the film has grossed $2.12 billion worldwide. Taking into consideration the Titanic box office of $2.2 billion, Avatar: The Way of Water is bound to surpass the much-loved Titanic any time soon. But will it beat its predecessor, Avatar? Judging by how it’s ranked, the reactions of the general public, and its box office, chances are that it will.  

The exact budget for the film has not been revealed, but it’s estimated at $350 million, which makes it one of the priciest productions in the history of film. According to Cameron, it’s necessary to gross a minimum of $2 billion to avoid losses. Judging by its current box office and the short period it has been acquired, it could be said that reaching the necessary minimum was a piece of cake.  

Indeed, Avatar: The Way of Water is among only four films that accomplished this astonishing feat so far, two of which are Cameron’s. Yes, you’re right – Titanic and Avatar. It’s no wonder why the man holds a title of a blockbuster king.  

Technological and personal records 

To film Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron teamed up with the Weta FX studio he worked with on Avatar, as well as some of the cast: Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, CCH Pounder, Dileep Rao, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David, and Matt Gerald. Once again, Cameron collaborated with Kate Winslet, despite her being persuaded she would never work with him again.  

This time, Winslet was fascinated with the crew, cast, the film, and, well, Cameron, even though she was once again immersed in the water tank. She even managed to set a personal and possibly the world record – she held her breath underwater for an astounding 7 minutes and 15 seconds. This is a whole minute longer than Tom Cruise spent without breathing in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.  

Being a huge fan of water, Cameron once again soaked his cast in a 900,000-gallon tank, forcing them to master free diving and breath control (remember Kate Winslet’s record). Additionally, action sequences were occasionally captured in a somewhat smaller tank (250,000 gallons) furnished with a wave simulator which recorded coordinated shots below and above the water line.

shooting on set

Source: Polygon

The rig thing 

To film Avatar, Cameron and his team built a then-new virtual camera rig that enabled the director to visualize actors in the animated Pandora setting while they were on set. For Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron designed a camera system that incorporated Sony Venice cameras into 3D stereoscopic rigs. The state-of-the-art equipment was able to shoot in vibrant 6K. Combined with revolutionary lighting units and technologies, the rig could functionally simulate performance capture on set, thus enabling Cameron to picture what the finished film would look like while recording physical elements only.      

Out of 3,200 extremely different shots, 2,200 were underwater. To make them authentic, as the light is, normally, completely different under than above water, cinematographer Pawel Achtel (who worked with the director on Avatar as well) used a camera rig called DeepX 3D that he developed back in 2015. The rig was paired with underwater Nikon lenses from the 1980s, thus building the only camera system able to capture stereoscopic 3D when filming underwater. Compared to traditional camera systems, Achtel’s rig weighs about 66 pounds (33kg) and is therefore easier to maneuver. 

So, photographers and videographers, next time when the gear acquisition syndrome kicks in urging you to purchase the latest lenses, remember that your ones can make wonders too.   

Expectedly, this digital work called for massive computing power behind the scenes. Captures containing numerous sophisticated water-based effects demanded weeks to be fully processed on Weta computers. Millions of processor hours were necessary to complete the rendering of the finished film. The overall amount of data generated for Avatar: The Way of Water reached about 18.5 petabytes (PB), compared to only 1 PB for its predecessor. For the sake of illustration, 1 PB amounts to 1.024 TB or 1.048.576 GB.  

Bringing it all together  

In the interview with GQ magazine, Cameron briefly explained the entire process of producing Avatar. Firstly, so-called template shots were captured. In this case, templates were data-rich collections of visuals which shot fundamental visual elements of a scene. Those involved (human) actors’ performances, camera movements, and lighting. While making these sequences, the cast was wearing performance-capture suits covered in sensors that tracked the movement.   

For Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron used extra facial cameras to record subtle nuances in actors’ facial expressions. This provided animators with sophisticated detail to convert to the alien Na’vi characters.  

The recorded templates were forwarded to Weta FX creatives, technicians, and animators who added animations and animated elements to the raw footage. Due to this working technique, Avatar: The Way of Water significantly differs from animated films made and released by Pixar or DreamWorks. According to Cameron’s explanation, actors did what they did (and were great at that), but it needed to be translated into the 3D-CG character.  

For film fans, Weta FX isn’t unknown – it is a New Zealand visual effects studio established by Peter Jackson, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy filmmaker. 

Animation and automation 

A portion of the animation process was automated by implementing an intricate network of algorithms, primarily to save time. In contrast to the 2009 Avatar, which was about 70% – 75% computer-generated according to Cameron, the sequel is almost 90% animation. 

To make animations look more realistic and less fake, various techniques were implemented. One of them implemented flow maps to construct the layout of pores on character faces. Others were necessary to animate different water effects and make splashes and sprays look authentic, natural, and photorealistic. In fact, as Eric Saindon, an effects supervisor, estimated, there were as many as 1,600 different water simulations in the final version of the film. Digital shortcuts and tools are vital considering the amount of work necessary to bring Pandora to life on screen. Weta artists claim that even 57 new sea species were designed for the film.  

The performance capture technology that Joe Letteri and Richard Baneham, VFX supervisors, used in Avatar was re-imagined and upgraded for the sequel. The technology is known as FACS – Facial Action Coding System – and implements a neural network trained on muscle movements on the human face. Specific attention is paid to the manner that muscle, tissue, and skin move around each other.

An animated film, love story, or documentary?    

It can’t be denied that the underlying Avatar themes are crowd-pullers. The 2009 Avatar tackled ecological issues, highlighting the significance of being and living in harmony with nature. James Cameron stays dedicated to the conservation of nature, specifically the protection of oceans and marine life, striving to make the general public aware of the climate emergency.  

Besides dealing with topics critical to nature and ecology, Cameron tackled themes essential for the human species – love and family. With the spectacular scenery in the foreground, advanced camera technology in the background, and an underlying message about the climate crisis, Avatar: The Way of Water is a love story at its core. And that love goes beyond romance and relationships, it’s about love and care for the family.  

This is precisely what makes James Cameron the blockbuster king: he has always understood what audiences want.  

"Ever tried. Ever failed. Never mind. Try again. Fail better."

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