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James Cameron: ‘Every Take Is a Blank Slate’ in the Virtual World of ‘Avatar’

Toolkit Ep 188: Director James Cameron takes a deep dive into the technical innovations of "Avatar: The Way of Water" and how they benefit the performances and writing.

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, (aka AVATAR 2), Director James Cameron, Sam Worthington, on set, 2022. ph: Mark Fellman /© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Behind the scenes of “Avatar: The Way of Water”

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

When James Cameron wrote and directed “Avatar” in 2009, he introduced performance capture technology and other innovations that would change the movies forever, as his techniques were adopted and developed (though never surpassed) by the industry at large. Now he has done it again with “Avatar: The Way of Water,” a sequel that marks the first ever use of underwater performance capture and is even more impressive than its predecessor at marrying real performances (by a stellar cast that includes Cameron favorites like Kate Winslet and Sigourney Weaver) with a completely artificial digital world created in post-production. And as Cameron tells IndieWire in this week’s in-depth discussion on the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, all of this technology liberates the actors and him to make discoveries far beyond what is possible on a conventional live action film. “It actually becomes easier for the actors in a lot of ways,” he told IndieWire.

Cameron noted that the room for discovery that comes when the actors get new ideas or respond in unusual ways to each other and their environment is actually far more limited on a traditional film than it is with performance capture. “I think that once you’ve established your master shot, your happy accidents become quite limited,” he said. “But the beauty of performance capture is that we can get a bright idea on take five and do it completely differently. We can completely restage the whole scene. You could play a scene that was meant to be played standing, facing away from each other seated, facing each other all of a sudden, because all I need is one good take and from that I can extract all my coverage.”

The filmmaker said this encourages a greater level of creativity in the actors, because they’re not bound by choices they’ve made in previous takes. “Every take is a blank slate. If somebody has an impulse to grab the other person and shake them, and they’ve never done that before, we haven’t shot a wide shot or a closeup — or anything. We’ve only done capture and the capture creates a kind of a performance master.”

“Later, after I’m done with the actors, I’ll take that performance master and make a cut that’s actually kind of a master scene file, and then within that I do all my coverage. So I can do a slow Steadicam shot that arcs around everybody. I can plunk the camera down and just shoot them in a static frame. I can circle overhead, I can be in a helicopter half a mile away or I can be on a close up. Some of the scenes in the movie are basically take three, the whole scene. Other scenes are more complicated, where we really like what somebody did on a different take and they are compatible enough that we can take the two performances and put them into a master scene file. The key is to always honor the actors performances and the actor’s impulse in the moment. That’s critical.”

You can listen the full discussion above, or subscribe to the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast below.

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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