Avatar: The Way Of The Water – Environmental stewardship and The importance of family

Thirteen years ago, writer-director James Cameron introduced moviegoers to a world unlike any they’d ever seen with his breathtaking epic Avatar. Now, the visionary filmmaker invites audiences on a brand-new cinematic journey with the highly anticipated Avatar: The Way of Water, a generational family epic playing out against the brilliant colors and the majesty of an expanded Pandoran landscape.

Making a sequel to the most successful movie of all time is a daunting challenge, but if anyone could do it, it would be James Cameron, who has before written and directed two of the most successful and beloved sequels of all time: Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Director and Writer James Cameron behind the scenes of Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. Photo by Zack Fellman. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

In all his films, James Cameron creates an immersive experience in which audiences will feel like they’re alongside the characters on their adventures. But that’s never been truer than in the case of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which stands as a new creative zenith for the singularly talented filmmaker who, yet again, pushes the boundaries of cinematic storytelling. By expertly utilizing enhanced 3D technology, Cameron transports filmgoers inside the narrative, enabling them to truly experience the richly detailed environments of Pandora and allowing them the opportunity to traverse its majestic terrain alongside brave and bold heroes Jake and Neytiri.

“We make movies for the big screen,” says producer Jon Landau. “Why do people turn to entertainment today? To escape. And you can only escape so far on your mobile device, or on a home big screen. When you go to the theater, you get lost in the images on screen, the characters, and the world of that movie. There’s nothing like it.”

The experience is, even more, transporting given the stunning imagery and compelling story Cameron and his collaborators were able to conjure using groundbreaking technology, offering audiences a breathtaking—and heart-pounding—escape as they’ve never seen before. “With 3D, High Dynamic Range, high framerate, we’re able to present a higher quality image today than we could on ‘Avatar’ by far,” Landau says. “It goes beyond what was possible before, and we do all of this to service the narrative storytelling. It’s a window into another world.”

“You go into a movie theater, and you’re being transported to a fictional fantasy world. The more you can suspend your disbelief, the more fun it is. There’s almost a contract between the movie and the audience—we’re all just gonna join hands and skip off to Pandora together. It’s gonna be fun.”

Director and Writer James Cameron behind the scenes of Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

Avatar was a world that had been with Cameron for a long time

He had written an early treatment for the original film in 1994, even though the means to realize his vision did not yet exist. Embarking on the production more than a decade later, the trailblazing filmmaker brought the wealth of knowledge he had amassed on the sets of his earlier triumphs—including such unforgettable blockbusters as Titanic, The Terminator, T2, Aliens, True Lies and The Abyss— to Avatar, creating a live-action film that transformed motion capture into performance capture and pushed visual effects technology to a new and astonishing frontier.

Yet, at every turn, Cameron took care to ensure that the revolutionary technology invented for the movie never overwhelmed the performances and emotions of the characters or the sweep of the story.  

Given all they had achieved with Avatar, and with the idea of sequels beginning to percolate in their heads, Cameron and his longtime producing partner Jon Landau took the unusual step of convening the key below-the-line principals who had helped realize the film for a technology summit. In February of 2010, they all met at a Santa Barbara, Calif., hotel, to review what aspects of the filmmaking process had worked best, and what they could have perhaps improved upon. The gathering yielded a trove of insights, which Cameron mulled as he contemplated a future on Pandora.

“I don’t think that ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ would’ve been possible if we hadn’t done that exercise,” Cameron says now.

(L-R): Jake Sully (voiced by Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana) in Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

Once Cameron decided to explore further stories set on the lush alien moon, Cameron sat down and began writing a plethora of ideas

With more than 1,500 pages of notes and story beats, Cameron and Landau realized that there was more than one story to tell. They brought on an elite group of top Hollywood screenwriters to work with Cameron in transforming his story notes into the four films that would continue the adventures of Jake, Neytiri, and the new family they created together.

There was no shortage of ideas, and the process took months to home in on the exact stories for not just one sequel but for a series of subsequent movies, all wildly ambitious yet all anchored around one central theme: the importance of family.

Says Landau: “I tell people that Jim writes movies with themes that are bigger than their genre, and that’s why his movies resonate with people—and there’s no greater theme, universally, than family.”

The filmmaker wanted to have all the screenplays for all the follow-ups completed before moving on to production.

“We had to write four movies before I could start on the first sequel,” Cameron says. “I wanted to map out all the stories and then get the economy of scale of capturing the actors across multiple films and then filming the live action. The thinking was we could consolidate the different stages of production together—performance capture, live action and then post-production.”

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

With the story in place, Cameron and Landau challenged the film’s key department heads to come up with methodologies and new technologies that would allow Cameron to both create even more expressive and engaging characters on the screen and to set them in a world that, despite its fantastical design, would come off as real.

The result was that as production began Cameron had at his disposal a completely new suite of technology tools

. “The stuff we’re working with now is so advanced compared to the first film,” Cameron says. “Now does that make a better movie from an audience perspective? Absolutely not. The broader audience only cares about a story, the characters, and how the film makes them feel. I keep that in mind first and foremost every single day.”

Landau explains that each sequel’s story comes to its own conclusion and emotional resolution, but when looked at as a whole, the four “Avatar” sequels will create an even larger connected epic saga.

Rather than feeling the external pressure associated with making a sequel to a giant box-office hit, the filmmakers put pressure on themselves to just make the best movies possible.

“There’s pressure every day that you make a movie, but the pressure is the pressure that we put on ourselves,” Landau says.

Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine, Director James Cameron, and Joel David Moore as Norm Spellman behind the scenes of 20th Century Studios’ AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Photo courtesy of Mark Fellman. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“We want to push the boundaries of storytelling and captivate audiences. All that does is make us work harder.”

In devoting years of his creative life to the Avatar films, Cameron says he’s determined to make sure the sequels are entertaining and laden with spectacle at the same time they’re moving and emotional.

At the same time, he’s imbued them with themes that are important to him—chief among them, environmental stewardship and, of course, the importance of family.

“With ‘Avatar’ and where I’ve chosen to take the story and open up the landscape and the characters that I’ve brought in and some of the questions that get asked, I don’t feel there’s anything that I need to say cinematically that I will not say across these four films,” he says.

Rather than create a host of new planets and moons, James Cameron chose to continue to explore more of the moon Pandora itself with the Avatar sequels

He reasoned that the moon, which orbits a gas-giant planet called Polyphemus in the Alpha Centauri-A star system, could contain a range of landscapes—just like Earth.

“Pandora is another character in the movie,” says producer Jon Landau. “We’ve been using Pandora as a metaphor for our world, and we could travel our world for ages and not see all the wonders that it holds. So, Jim made the decision to keep the story set on Pandora and to explore new biomes and new cultures. Based on his love for the oceans, my love for the oceans, we settled on the oceans as the next sounding ground for our stories.”

Cameron turned to Production Designer Dylan Cole to design everything relating to natural Pandora and the Na’vi, while Production Designer Ben Procter was charged with focusing on the environments, vehicles and weapons of the human characters.

“Usually, you have one production designer who manages everything that goes in front of the lens,” Cameron says. “But there were two worlds in collision in this story: the human world, which is highly technological and highly recognizable to us, and the world of Pandora, the Na’vi, the creatures, the plants, everything. Dylan and Ben weren’t just designing for movie two—they were designing across the whole metanarrative.”

“In designing the oceans of Pandora, we knew we had a massive challenge,” explains Dylan Cole. “For one, our director James Cameron knows more about the ocean than anyone.”

He’s referring to not only to Cameron’s record-breaking solo dive to Earth’s lowest point in 2012, which he documented in the 2014 National Geographic film “James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge,” but also to his life-long passion for the sea.

Beyond even that, Cole’s task involved creating an ecosystem that would have shaped the Metkayina clan’s entire way of life. The characters themselves are a slightly different shade of blue than the Omatikaya, and they have different physiology, with large hands, wider chests and rib cages, and thick protuberances of cartilage beneath skin, almost like fins, that extend down the sides of their arms and legs to help them swim. They also have wider tails to help propel their bodies through the water. Explains Cameron: “The Metkayina clan, the reef people, have adapted to ocean life, so they look quite pronouncedly different.”

© 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved

For Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron and his team had to go back to the proverbial drawing board to determine how to capture performances underwater, something that had never been done before

“The key to it was to actually shoot underwater and at the surface of the water so people were swimming properly, getting out of the water properly, diving in properly,” Cameron says. “It looks real because the motion was real. And the emotion was real.”

The behind-the-scenes team constructed an enormous tank at the Manhattan Beach Studios where Cameron and Landau’s production company, Lightstorm, is housed. The tank could hold enough water to allow the filmmaker to replicate real-world oceanic conditions. Standing 120 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep and holding more than 250,000 gallons of water, the massive tank functioned as the films’ underwater “Volume,” as performance-capture stages are known.

“That became our complete Swiss army system,” Cameron says. “We could do waves breaking on the shore and have people trying to get out of the water while they’re getting hit by waves. We could create wave interaction with the creatures and people surfacing, getting hit by a wave and trying to say their lines and trying to breathe at the same time.” A propeller system dubbed “the racetrack,” which consisted of two six-foot diameter ship propellers, was used to drive the current in the tank. “It was only a 10-knot current, but we were able to make it look much faster for the film,” Cameron says.

© 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved

For the performance capture technology to work underwater, however, the water had to be clear. So, although Cameron had initially thought the crew photographing the actors might be able to wear SCUBA gear while shooting in the tank, the breathing apparatus created disturbances in the water. “You can’t have a lot of air bubbles,” the filmmaker explains. “Every one of those air bubbles is a little wiggling mirror, and the system that’s trying to read all the marker dots on the actor’s body so it can capture their motion can’t tell the difference between a marker dot and a bubble.”

That left only one option: “Everybody who was working in the tank was holding their breath,” Cameron says. “If there was somebody down their holding the light, they were holding their breath. If they were operating a camera, they’re holding their breath. The actors, of course, had to be holding their breath.”

Director James Cameron on set of 20th Century Studios’ AVATAR 2. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

To help them become give compelling performances underwater, the cast studied free diving with internationally recognized expert Kirk Krack. “The actors really enjoyed it,” says Cameron, noting that while every member of the ensemble proved adept at free diving, Winslet took to the water with astonishing ease. Says Cameron, “Kate enjoyed the freedom of being able to express herself underwater. She was able to do a static breath hold for something like 7 minutes and 20 seconds. I’ve been a free diver for 50 years, and I think the longest I’ve ever held my breath was 5 and a half minutes.

Performance capture for “Avatar: The Way of Water” began in September of 2017 and ran for roughly 18 months, with Cameron and the cast working on scenes for all four of the sequels. “For the actors, it’s a very pure process,” says Cameron. “They’re not distracted by anything. We just roll. Sometimes we’ll record for 10 to 12 minutes straight. It’s a creative sandbox, and I find as a director, I’m much more attuned to the actors’ emotional states.”

After Cameron and the editorial team picked the best performances for each moment of a given scene, Cameron then employed a revolutionary Virtual Camera to create the specific shots. The Virtual Camera allowed the director to shoot scenes within his computer-generated world, just as if he were filming at a real location or on a Hollywood soundstage. Through this Virtual Camera, the director would see not Zoe Saldaña, Sam Worthington or Sigourney Weaver, but their giant blue characters in the world of Pandora. “I could see everybody where they’re supposed to be, above or below the water, and I could talk to them over the diver address system. They were acting to real-time direction based on what I was seeing on the virtual camera,” Cameron says.

Director James Cameron and actor Sam Worthington behind the scenes of 20th Century Studios’ AVATAR 2. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

JAMES CAMERON (Director, Writer, Producer, Editor) is an acclaimed filmmaker and explorer. As director, writer and producer, he is responsible for some of the most memorable films of the past three decades: “The Terminator,” “Aliens,” “The Abyss,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “True Lies,” “Titanic” and “Avatar.” 

“Avatar” is the highest grossing film in history with more than $2.8 billion in global box office, beating the previous record holder, Cameron’s own film “Titanic,” which held that record for 12 years. Cameron’s films have also earned numerous nominations and awards, most notably “Titanic”’s 14 Academy Award® nominations (a record) and 11 Oscars® (also a record), including Cameron’s own three Oscars® for Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Editing. Both “Titanic” and “Avatar” won the Golden Globe® for Best Director and Best Picture. “Avatar” was nominated for nine Academy Awards® and won three.

Over the last 17 years, Cameron developed cutting edge 3D camera systems for movies and documentaries, as well as for broadcast sports and special events. He was at the vanguard of the 3D renaissance that has transformed the movie industry in recent years. He also developed unprecedented deep ocean exploration vehicles, lighting and 3D camera equipment. Most recently, Cameron led his eighth deep ocean expedition to some of the deepest trenches in the world. On March 26, 2012, he set the world’s solo deep diving record of 35,787’ in the Challenger Deep in a vehicle of his own design. 

Cameron is a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, and recipient of their most prestigious award, the Hubbard Medal, as well as the Explorer’s Club medal for Explorer of the Year. Cameron is also passionately involved in sustainability issues, having founded the Avatar Alliance Foundation to take action on climate change, energy policy, deforestation, indigenous rights, ocean conservation and sustainable agriculture.

His production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, installed a one-megawatt solar array on the roofs of their soundstages at Manhattan Beach Studios to generate all the power for the “Avatar” sequels. James and Suzy Amis Cameron, both environmental vegans, founded the Plant Power Taskforce to promote awareness of the impact of animal agriculture on the environment and climate.