The credits for “Avatar: The Way of Water” list four editors: Stephen Rivkin, David Brenner, John Refoua, and director James Cameron (who, along with Alfonso Cuarón, is one of only two directors to have won an Academy Award for Best Editing). According to Cameron, this only hints at the massive amount of labor involved in assembling his epic adventure. “We had four editors who were run of show for five years, two other editors who were in for a year or a couple of years, and then a staff of about a dozen assistants split between Los Angeles and New Zealand,” Cameron told IndieWire. “It’s very edit intensive, and the reason is you basically edit the whole movie twice.”
Rivkin, who previously collaborated with Cameron on the first “Avatar” as well as the Cameron-produced “Alita: Battle Angel,” was on “Way of Water” for a total of seven years due to his role in pre-production, when he worked with the art department to put together demonstration reels for the studio. While some of his time was spent working on material for future “Avatar” films, for the most part those seven years were spent on “Way of Water,” which placed incredible demands on the editing team given the performance capture techniques Cameron was using to record his actors’ performances as reference material for the CGI characters that would ultimately populate the film.
“Our first task as scenes are shot is to go through the dailies with Jim, find out what takes he’s interested in, and create what we call a performance edit,” Rivkin told IndieWire. “This would be the actors in the volume, which is pretty much a blank stage. They’re basically acting in a black box, so we’re looking at the pure performances of these actors and how they relate to each other.” At this point in the process Cameron and his editors weren’t choosing shots or angles, but only the performance takes for Cameron to use later in the process when he created his compositions using a virtual camera, a process that allowed for much greater flexibility than traditional filmmaking.
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“We don’t have to be limited,” Rivkin said. “We can combine takes – one actor could be from take one and one actor could be from take three if that’s where their best performance is. Sometimes we would even stitch together performances from the same actor on different takes.” These performances were used to create what Cameron called “loads” to serve as material for the director’s virtual camera process. “It takes months to build the scene files,” Cameron said. “Then the actors have all gone on to other shows, or on vacation, and I’m using my virtual camera to actually start to shoot the coverage from those scene files that the editors have put together.”
“We create these files that are shootable at a later time to create the very best moments for the actor,” Rivkin added. “One of the amazing things is that any shot can then become a wide shot, a medium, a close-up, a dolly shot, a crane.” After around 18 months of performance capture, with the actors working parallel to the shooting to create the scene files, Cameron began his virtual camera process. “I start figuring out what’s a close-up and what’s a wide shot and this and that,” the director said, “and playing with the lighting and moving scenic elements around. Then the shots begin to actually come in and at that point you now have to edit everything again.”
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As Rivkin noted, the virtual photography took place months, sometimes years after the initial performances were captured, and this second edit of the material as shot by Cameron with his virtual camera is what was sent to visual effects house Wētā Workshop to be finished and rendered. Although Wētā created digital characters as avatars for the human actors, Rivkin is careful to insist that “Avatar” is not an animated film. “Performance capture is no different in judging the performance than how you would judge it for a live action film,” he said. “You’re looking at their delivery, their emotion, their eyes – how did they interact with other actors on the set? You’re still using the same criteria that you would use to evaluate any actor’s performance.”
“That’s the essence of this, and it’s what makes a huge difference between performance capture and animation,” Rivkin continued. “Animation is something where they create characters and usually an actor comes in to replace an assistant’s voice and create the character afterward. This is live-action filmmaking in the sense that it starts with the actor’s performance and it ends up fully rendered with the actor’s performance. When people say it’s animated, it’s not an animated film. It is a live-action film with real actors performing everything, and these actors did an amazing job.”
For Rivkin, one of the biggest satisfactions of working on “Way of Water” was seeing the performances come to life again in the final render created by Wētā after they applied the original face data to the virtual models, using every gesture and expression generated by the actors. “One of the most thrilling things is to see these performances that you put together months, sometimes years before come back in the final render where you’d see every detail in their faces and the performances that were originally chosen,” he said. Cameron added that the editing occasionally had to be refined after the effects work revealed subtleties in the performances that the editors hadn’t caught. “Every once in a while we’ll discover that we’re cutting right on the cusp of an expression change and we don’t really see that until we see the final expression come through the facial pipeline,” Cameron said. “So then we’ll extend the shot by half a second or a second. That’s a fun discovery when you realize that the actor’s doing something so nuanced that you didn’t see it in the editing process. That’s super cool.”