How ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Achieved Those Epic Aquatic Visual Effects

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is a sequel, but the VFX team had a mandate far beyond supplying “more of the same.” The follow-up to the 2009 original “Avatar” had many new demands — and these jaw-dropping innovations have helped make the film one of the top box-office films of all time.

Joe Letteri, heading up his team at Weta FX, tells Variety, “We were working on this film since the last one finished, identifying what we could do better. Then there was a big burst of research-and-development” about six years ago, when writer-director James Cameron delivered the scripts for this and three more sequels; that’s when they realized the full scope of the film, which takes place in water about 60% of the time.

For the first “Avatar,” they had developed a tool kit to simulate water.

“But we knew it wasn’t going to be good enough,” says Letteri. “In facial closeups, for example, you have water running down the skin. It’s a small detail and it’s very difficult to get it right; we spent a long time working on that one particular feature.” 

Things got even more complicated when the character was in a larger setting. “If you have a character who has droplets of water trickling down, and in the background you’re seeing the vast ocean — you can’t create both droplets and a big ocean at the same time; there are not enough computers in the world to do that. So you have to solve each one individually.”

While the 2009 outing used a lot of performance-capture, nobody had done that underwater. Letteri says with a smile, “In the first film, the character of Jake jumps into the water and swims a bit; we achieved that by pushing Sam Worthington around on an office chair. We knew that wouldn’t work with this film. We needed actors in the water to get the proper motion.”

So the actors performed in large tanks at the Lightstorm studios in Manhattan Beach, Calif., holding their breath so bubbles wouldn’t interfere with the VFX. (The film is a 20th Century Studios presentation of a Lightstorm Entertainment production.)

“In terms of performance capture, we’ve expanded our capabilities. In the first film, we could do three or four actors simultaneously. On this one, we had maybe 24, 26 onstage at any one time.”

It wasn’t just the scope that expanded; it was also the details. 

To capture facial expressions, Weta had developed a technique for Gollum in the 2002 “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” That system has become the industry standard. But, Letteri adds, “We started to see the limitations of it and I realized it was not going to give us the detailed performances we needed for ‘Avatar 2.’ ” 

So they wrote a new system, which became “a big cornerstone of the film,” he says. 

“Underwater capture gave us the body performances that you can’t get any other way. But we live and die by the closeup; we need to see what the actors are doing. That was probably the most detailed effort we put into it; we built a new facial-animation system for these characters.”

This film should dispel forever some actors’ concerns that they will be replaced by performance-capture. If anything, it opens up casting possibilities, with Sigourney Weaver playing a 14-year-old, a role she’s unlikely to get in live-action films.

Letteri is Oscar-nominated for “Avatar: The Way of Water,” along with Richard Baneham, Eric Saindon and Daniel Barrett. The film is also nominated for best picture, sound and production design. 

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