Exploring The Technology Behind The Mind-blowing Visuals Of ‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’

Released in 2009, the sci-fi epic “Avatar” set a high benchmark for digitally rendered visual media as director James Cameron introduced the vibrant alien world of Pandora to the audience with a unique amalgamation of 3D, motion capture, and a virtual stage. There were instances where the technologies had been used earlier to great effect, in movies like “King Kong” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” to name a few, but the way Cameron pioneered their upgrade, adding his own innovations, was unprecedented. To project his vision onto the silver screen in “Avatar,” Cameron invented filming techniques and equipment such as performance capture using head rigs, a virtual stage called “volume,” fusion cam, and virtual cam, which all together contributed to an extremely immersive experience for the audience. For the next chapter of the Avatar franchise, Cameron upped the ante by choosing to move the setting to the ocean and sub-marine locations, an extremely challenging hurdle, especially when motion capture is involved. However, unsurprisingly, Cameron managed to outperform himself this time as well, as “Avatar: The Way of Water” has left the audience flabbergasted with its palpable underwater scenes, so much so that at times it felt like a zoological documentary. We will discuss the methods and innovations Cameron and his team utilized to achieve such a monumental feat.


Technological Innovations In ‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’

“Avatar 2” is one of a series of mega-budgeted franchise movies that deals with extensive underwater sequences. “Aquaman” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” were two movies released recently that depict the sub-marine world with their own distinctiveness. “Avatar 2” was unique in the sense that it had the arduous task of using motion capture in underwater scenes, and the director had good reason to back up such a decision.


Underwater Filming And Performance Capture

In order to portray convincing CGI, part of the real-life backdrop needed to be present, which kept the “fake” computer-generated portions in sync properly, as the filmmakers learned in the process of making this sequel. It also adds depth, lighting, and physics totally akin to reality. Earlier, the most common method of shooting extended underwater sequences was “dry for wet,” or shooting scenes by mimicking underwater sequences using wires against the backdrop of a blue screen. Initially, project executives suggested James Cameron use the traditional method of wire motion. To test out the results, Cameron put both his idea of the underwater shoot and the suggested method side by side, and the latter paled in comparison; hence, they took the harder route.

An underwater camera rig was built from a 3D beam splitter known as DeepX3D, which was invented by Australian cinematographer Pawel Achtel in 2015. Cameron sought Pawel’s consultation and utilized this rig to capture shots underwater, as this rig was the only viable option to achieve stereoscopic 3D image clarity in underwater sequences. Nikon’s 15mm lenses from the 1980s were used as “glass,” which are old lenses specially developed by Nikon for underwater photography. Using these two, the underwater scenes achieved clear, distortionless IMAX3D brilliance. Another advantage of using the DeepX3D rig was that it was relatively easier to use than even conventional camera systems, as it weighed only around 30 kg.

In order to shoot underwater, a 900,000-gallon tank was used in the studio, and all the actors had to learn free diving and breath control. Kate Winslet, who plays Ronal in the sequel film, reunited with Cameron after “Titanic.” She had to learn deep diving, and during the shoot, she broke the record for the longest breath held while shooting a scene by performing underwater for seven minutes (a record formerly held by Tom Cruise for “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”). Another challenge Cameron faced while attempting mo-cap underwater was light refraction, which created positioning problems with mo-cap markers. To tackle this, the tank was filled with white balls, which stopped the refraction and reflection problem without hindering the actors’ ascent to the surface. Cameron was so fastidious regarding the proper takes that scuba gear wasn’t allowed to be carried by the actors (as water bubbles might mess up motion capture), and mind you, actor Trinity Bliss who played Tuktirey in the movie, was only a child of 7/8 years old so the risk was ever-present. Underwater gymnasts were hired to help the actors hold their breath and make smoother movements underwater.


Redesigned Fusion Cam And HFR

Two Sony F950 stereoscopic cameras were combined to create a fusion camera rig for “Avatar” (2009), which was a unique invention as it allowed a free range of motion for the director on the virtual stage.

For the sequel, Cameron upgraded the rig by adding Sony Venice cameras, the company’s (Sony) first full-frame digital camera, which was specially made to meet the movie’s demand. The camera is capable of capturing images in 6K and also offers a higher dynamic range, making the images even more vibrant, rich, and detailed. The camera can be used by placing only the optical blocks on the rig, which aren’t encumbered by the main camera system’s weight. These cameras were attached with a 3D stereoscopic beam splitter system by utilizing the Rialto extension unit (Top Gun: Maverick). Combined together, this unit was called the Sony CineAlta Venice 3D. To stop bubbles forming in lenses, Kodak Photo-Flo was used.

Cameron also insisted on HFR, or high frame rate, to deal with the jitter or strobe effects in 3D during lateral movement of the camera or pans. Doubling the standard movie frame rate of 24 fps, Cameron opted to shoot the action scenes of “The Way of Water” at 48 fps.

Peter Jackson’s visual effects studio, Weta, was extensively associated with the project and had to oversee much of the post-production effects. Using PhysLight, a cutting-edge global illumination system, was utilized, which simulates one of the most realistic on-set lightings as seen in its previous uses during “The Batman” and “War for the Planet of the Apes.” Weta also used a photorealistic facial feature animation technique by growing pores on faces using flow maps. The result was extremely detailed features of Na’vi characters and Pandora’s Megafauna. 

James Cameron’s lifelong love for the depths of the ocean and his own documentary-making experience as an explorer made him obsessed enough to seek perfection while showing the world what underwater actually looks like. It can be understood how driven he was when it is revealed that, at some point, they even thought of using motion capture on a whale to track Tulkun’s movements. Perhaps his obsession with perfection when it comes to cinematography led him to reinvent underwater cinematography, yet again overcoming a hurdle, that he imposed on himself. We will eagerly wait for the upcoming sequels of the franchise to marvel at his genius of revolutionizing digital filmmaking yet again.


See more: ‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’ World Of Pandora: Metkayina, Tulkuns, And Marine Life, Explained


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Siddhartha Das
Siddhartha Das
An avid fan and voracious reader of comic book literature, Siddhartha thinks the ideals accentuated in the superhero genre should be taken as lessons in real life also. A sucker for everything horror and different art styles, Siddhartha likes to spend his time reading subjects. He's always eager to learn more about world fauna, history, geography, crime fiction, sports, and cultures. He also wishes to abolish human egocentrism, which can make the world a better place.
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