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James Cameron Is Conquering New VFX Frontiers for the ‘Avatar’ Sequels

Producer Jon Landau shares how Weta is innovating tech for the Pandora family saga, and how Kate Winslet learned to hold her breath for 7 minutes.



20th Century Fox

It’s no secret that James Cameron wants to go virtual underwater for “Avatar 2” and “Avatar 3,” which he’s currently directing together (principal photography has wrapped). That not only entails Weta Digital conquering underwater performance capture but also the cast members (including Kate Winslet as free-diver Ronal of the Metkayina tribe) learning how to hold their breath.

IndieWire got a tech and storytelling update from Lightstorm producer Jon Landau during a recent set visit for “Alita: Battle Angel” at Weta in Wellington, New Zealand. “When you’re doing performance capture in a tank, you can’t be in scuba gear because the bubbles will distract,” he said. “Not only that but we can’t record what the mouth would be doing. So we had to teach everybody how to free breath hold.”

Read More: The ‘Avatar’ Sequels Sound Terrible, But You’d Be Insane to Bet Against James Cameron

The production hired world champion free-diver Kirk Krach to train the cast, with Winslet and Sigourney Weaver learning how to hold their breath underwater for seven and four minutes, respectively. (Winslet had practice on both “Titanic” and “The Mountain Between Us.”) “And we had to make them comfortable enough [to capture] their performances underwater,” Landau added.

The training began with sense memory exercises in Hawaii, where the returning cast members (led by Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Weaver, and CCH Pounder) got reacquainted with the performance capture process they underwent for the Pandora rain forest. “But this time we also did the water,” said Landau. “And we did the breath holding, not in the confines of a pool, but in the open ocean. We also did a night dive with manta rays. And there’s nothing more Pandoran that that experience of seeing these sea creatures that look otherworldly coming out of the dark and swimming by you at night.”



20th Century Fox

The major hurdle in conquering underwater performance capture, according to Cameron, is “the interface between the air and the water, which forms a moving mirror. That moving mirror reflects all the dots and markers, and it creates a bunch of false markers…so we’ve had to figure out how to get around that problem, which we did…with a lot of horsepower, innovation, imagination.”

Landau emphasized that, overall, there have been two major advancements since the first “Avatar” game-changer: “We are able to do much more lighting on the virtual production stage before the material goes to Weta,” he said. “And it’s a much more direct 1:1 correlation, so that we are really lighting with their package, at a lower-res, a lower proxy, but it will save them work downstream.

“But, again, as we’ve always said, these movies are more about the facial performance than anything else. And, on the first movie, we used a single, standard definition camera to record the facial performance. Now we’re using two HD cameras to record that performance, to make sure that we’re holding to as close as possible to what Zoe gives us. And with two CG puppets [one for the actor and one for the character], Weta is taking that to the next level. Then we can re-target it and adapt it.”

They’re still determining the frame rate issue (120 fps is the maximum) to deliver the best possible three-dimensional window into a world experience. “But high frame rate is a distribution presentation issue and not necessarily a capture issue,” Landau said. “We don’t record our movies in Atmos — we mix them in Atmos. So there will be scenes that we generate at a higher frame rate and scenes that we generate at a lower frame rate and we will play them all back at that higher frame rate.”

Read More: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Preview: How Weta Escaped from the Uncanny Valley

Story wise, Landau reaffirmed Cameron’s commitment to expand the world of Pandora to fit an epic, “Godfather”-inspired family saga about identity, legacy, and preserving the planet’s ecosystem. “And at the center of the ‘Avatar’ [sequels] is gonna be the Sully family. They now have kids and what are all of the dynamics of that? It’s also a mixed race family. So you’re dealing with all of these other issues and other clans. When you’ve been the one in the rain forest and you’re so adept at everything, and you suddenly go to a clan that lives on the reef, you’re now the fish out of water, and you’ve gotta learn and you’ve gotta adapt.”

“Avatar 2” will be released by Fox on December 18, 2020; followed by “Avatar 3” on December 17, 2021; “Avatar 4” on December 20, 2024; and “Avatar 5” on December 19, 2025.

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