By James Cameron

Behind the scenes

Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar had a long gestation period. James Cameron first wrote a treatment for the story way back in 1994, before he had even made Titanic. As he was working on Titanic, he announced that filming Avatar would be his next film.

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Cameron was supposed to begin filming Avatar in 1997. But he decided to postpone when he realized that the technology just wasn’t there in order to do his vision justice. Instead, he focused on making documentaries and developing the hardware he would need to make his dream project.

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Cameron felt the technology was ready, and that he could begin Avatar’s production. The only question now was whether he could convince studios the same. Fox gave Cameron $10 million to shoot a test scene, so that they could see if he really could pull it off.

Finally, in 2005

Time to Prep

Cameron did just that, and eventually was granted one of the largest film budgets of all time to realize the world of Pandora. He enlisted experts from fields as varied as linguistics to plant physiology to build out the universe he had in his head.

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Avatar’s new approach to virtual filming

No film had attempted to create quite such a photorealistic world on the scale that James Cameron did on Avatar. Cameron explained that he wanted the film to be “a true hybrid– a full live-action shoot, with CG characters in CG and live environments.” The goal, he said, was that “at the end of the day the audience has no idea which they’re looking at.”

In order to pull this off, Cameron teamed up with Weta Digital, the pioneering digital effects company founded by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. With Weta, and virtual-production supervisor Glenn Derry, Cameron did nothing short of inventing a new way to film.

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Avatar & performance capture

The footage from these face cams were paired with a software custom-built by Weta Digital, which tracked the muscles in an actor’s face. This data then built out an animated version of the performer’s expressions.

The other crucial visual element of the film is 3D. Avatar prompted a massive revitalization of 3D filmmaking, which had for decades been disregarded as a tacky novelty.

Filming Avatar in 3D

As excited as Cameron was for the 3D advancements he oversaw on Avatar, he was disappointed with the majority of 3D films that followed in its wake. According to Cameron, studio greed compromised the technology and made it look like a cheap, money-making scheme.

Avatar 2 filming underwater

James Cameron isn’t resting on his laurels when it comes to Avatar’s hotly anticipated sequel, The Way of Water. By all accounts, the writer/director is once more pushing film technology forward in order to realize his vision.

Shooting underwater means cumbersome camera rigs which often cause distortion on the image because the camera has to shoot through ports on the housing. To solve this, Cameron tapped DP and camera tech guru Pawel Achtel, who developed a 3D underwater camera that had never been used before on a feature film.

Cameron hired underwater specialists, including underwater gymnasts and world champion free-diver Kirk Krach, to teach the cast how to hold their breath for prolonged periods of time. Kate Winslet, for example, trained so that she could hold her breath for over seven minutes.

In the end, like its predecessor, Avatar: The Way of Water is a big gamble. As Cameron himself has said of the film, “If Avatar hadn't made so much damn money, we'd never do this— because it’s kind of crazy.”

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