The gigantic sci-fi blockbuster was created on one of Hollywood’s most abstract film sets

The gigantic sci fi blockbuster was created on one of Hollywoods

Where a dense blanket of fog shrouded the wonders of Pandora, gigantic trees and soaring mountains appear. If we delve even deeper into this fascinating place, we discover an incredible one Variety of plants and animals
– and not just on land and in the air. Breathtaking panoramas that are rarely seen in cinemas are also revealed under water.

Avatar: The Way of Water amazes with every new image. 13 years after the first Na’vi adventure with Jake Sully, Neytiri and Co., the blue-green planet Pandora has lost none of its fascination. In the long-awaited sequel, the fantasy world seems even more tangible, even more articulated. At the A look behind the scenes however, the epochal 3D blockbuster looks downright desolate.

Sci-Fi Blockbuster: The Avatar 2 set looks like a gymnasium with parallel bars and a trampoline

The origin story of Avatar: The Way of Water takes us to that most abstract set in the current film landscape. No sunny sandy beaches and forests: Instead of the blue Na’vis, as we know them from the screen, come actors in strange suits, who move through large halls and water tanks as if they were in physical education.

In the video you can take a look behind the scenes of Avatar 2:

Avatar: The Way of Water – Featurette Acting in the Volume (English) HD

Avatar: The Way of Water has a long production history. Director James Cameron has been talking about the sequel since the early 2010s. Early concept art dates back to 2014. After an extensive pre-production, the first take of the 2017 fell unusual and challenging filming. 18 months Cameron filmed his cast in the so-called Volume.

Attention, danger of confusion: The word volume is currently associated with two different types of studio environment in the film sector. On the one hand we have the volume made famous by the Star Wars series The Mandalorian. Actors can be found here huge LED walls ones that – in contrast to green and blue screens – already come up with ready-made backgrounds.

Not the technology: The core of Avatar 2 is the acting of Sam Worthington and Co.

In the case of Cameron, the volume describes the studio environment in which the Avatar sequels will be shot in New Zealand. Specifically, we are dealing with one great hall to do in which various objects are set up over which the cast members in performance capture suits move. In the making-of video linked above you get an impression of everyday life in the volume.

What is performance capture? This is a method for detecting movements. Using trackers, facial expressions and gestures are recorded by the computer and transferred to digital 3D models. These trackers are built into suits. In addition, there are numerous reference points in the actors’ faces, which are recorded by small, pre-tensioned cameras. The process was made socially acceptable by Andy Serkis’ Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies.


Avatar: The Way of Water

Before blooming Pandora comes to life with all its imaginative plants and animals and the three meter tall Na’vis appear, only the spectacle exists. Leading actor Sam Worthington describes this process in an interview with Moviepilot:

We noticed in the first part that the performance capture technique is very acting-friendly. We don’t think much about the technology behind it. We only think about each other. And we can actually see the virtual world while we’re filming. That’s the difference between us and other films, we’re already immersed in the world even if we’re on a gray set.

So the actors are not completely disoriented. Various objects represent Pandora’s landscapes in the volume. In addition, cast and crew have the opportunity to view all recordings in real time on the computer in the environment in which they will later appear in the finished film. This Simulcam system was already developed for Avatar – Pandora’s Journey.

The performance edit is created from the collected recordings.

Complex creation process: James Cameron has to cut every Avatar film twice

What is the performance edit? Immediately after the shoot, Cameron and his editors look at the daily recordings, filter out the best performances and combine them into a raw version that is still very raw. Sometimes in this performance edit there can even be actors from different takes in one take.


Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar: The Way of Water was edited in offices in New Zealand and Los Angeles. Four editors are listed in the film’s credits along with Cameron. There are also many other assistants who carefully go through, archive and process the collected material. However, the film that we see in the cinema is made only months lateras Cameron revealed to IndieWire:

“[Die Entstehung eines Avatar-Films] is very cutting intensive. The reason is that you basically watch the movie cuts twice.”

What Cameron captures in the volume is really just the acting performances. This is an important detail, especially for a blockbuster that, at first glance, is defined almost exclusively by its technology. Cameron spends an incredible amount of time with the best possible performances out of the stars before he starts shaping the film.

The Way of Water: The most complicated thing about Avatar 2 was shooting underwater

What does it all look like with the underwater scenes? Avatar: The Way of Water takes us into the depths of the ocean. Water-heavy films like Aquaman resort to blue screens and ropes with Jason Momoa and co. hanging on and pretending to swim. For long-time diving expert Cameron, on the other hand, it was clear from the start that he wanted to shoot most of the second Avatar chapter under water.

Avatar: The Way of Water was filmed at Lightstorm Entertainment’s Manhattan Beach Studios in California two large water tanks erected – one for action scenes, one for quiet moments. Cameron has already filmed in such tanks in the course of Abyss and Titanic. The problem with Avatar: The performance capture process and the Simulcam system could not simply be used underwater.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, producer Jon Landau explains:

We realized that performance capture that worked above water doesn’t work underwater. So we had to [zwei verschiedene Systeme für] create two different volumes that work in sync with each other. Because when someone jumps into the water, we have to capture it from both the surface and underwater.


Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar 2 Virtual Production Supervisor Ryan Champney says:

The infrared that normally enables motion capture in performance capture is absorbed in the water. So we had to move to ultraviolet light. This is transmitted in the water, but it is also detected by the camera sensor. Since there was hardly any information on the subject, we had to try a lot ourselves.

The last hurdle: Although it would have been possible to provide the actors with oxygen tanks thanks to performance capture, this was not an option for the shoot. The reason: The many small air bubblesthat come out when you breathe, interfering with the camera sensors. The main cast had to undergo scuba diving training and hold their breath for up to six minutes during filming.

Accordingly, not only cameras for filming were positioned around the water tanks, which were equipped with machines for wave movements and other special effects. All the talents in the water have been observed via security cameras. Last but not least, the entire water surface was covered by small white floating balls to avoid unwanted light reflections.

The Avatar 2 that we saw in theaters was made months after filming

After filming the volumes and completing the performance edit, Cameron began working on a virtual camera to rummage through the recordings. Previously, there were no fixed settings. Whether Avatar: The Way of Water shows only the face of a character or the entire world of Pandora, Cameron only decides in post-production during the second cut of the film.


Avatar: The Way of Water

Everything Cameron filmed on location in the volume is flexible and can be changed as needed changed, adapted and expanded will. This is where the image compositions and camera movements are created that transport us to Pandora. Or as Cameron puts it:

[Mit der virtuellen Kamera] I’m trying to figure out what is a close-up and what is a long shot. I play with the lighting and move landscape elements back and forth. This is where the actual settings come from. And at this point everything has to be cut again.

When this second cut was finally correct, the journey continued Weta Workshop, where all digital effects were formulated and completed. Nothing can be seen of the gray sports hall, which sooner or later raises the question of whether Avatar: The Way of Water can still be described as a live-action film and not as an animated film.

Editor Stephen Rivkin clearly disagrees in the IndieWire interview:

There is one big difference between performance capture and animation. In an animated film, you create characters [komplett im Computer] and usually an actor comes in afterwards to replace an assistant’s voice and give the character its character. [Bei Avatar: The Way of Water] But we’re dealing with live action because it all starts with the actors’ performances […].

Cameron keeps emphasizing how working with a real cast is important to him with whom he can talk on set about the development of the characters and their relationships with each other. Even if this set doesn’t look all that exciting, the emotional drama surrounding Jake Sully’s family that makes Avatar 2 so important is born right here, between parallel bars and trampoline.

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Did the implementation of Avatar: The Way of Water convince you?