Much has been made of the downright staggering technical magic shown in Avatar: The Way of Water, and it’s hard to argue with director James Cameron’s decision to wait more than a decade for proper cinematic technology to emerge before working on its underwater sequel.
In an exclusive interview with TechRadar, Daniel Barrett, Senior Animation Manager at Wētā FX, explained the method behind the magic of The Way of Water’s uplifting visuals, and we asked an experienced animator how he and his team made very specific shot – the one that caused admiration on the Internet after being placed in the first trailer of the film. Check it out via the tweet below.
This CGI is crazy… pic.twitter.com/tbafxgyhUxMay 10, 2022
“It’s almost human” – we read in one of the comments under the post. “It could just be a guy painted blue,” reads another. Best answer of all: Pretty sure it’s not CGI. Cameron actually went to Pandora to film this movie.”
For context, the shot in question shows Jake Sully Sam Worthington tightening the reins on a skimwing, sea-dwelling version of the Metkayina Clan mountain banshees ridden by Omaticaya. But how much – if any – of what we see in the two-second clip is real, and how much is computer generated? Fortunately, Barrett has the answers.
“We shot it practically,” he explains. “At the time, there was talk of whether this shot would happen [used for] reference, or whether it was meant to be in the movie. It looked really good what was done – but it was just the hand that was practical. So we had the challenge of connecting this arm, the middle arm, to CG’s arm, which was connected to CG’s body, which was sitting on the CG glider. And then we also had practical water that had to be connected to CG water. So it’s a mix. Hand and water around [the shot] is practical. The rest is digital.”
CG water? Not surprisingly, Cameron’s sequel had to exceed $2 billion to break even.
A different kind of challenge
Warning: Major spoilers for Avatar: The Way of Water below
For Wētā FX, a New Zealand visual effects company founded by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson in 1993, Avatar: The Way of Water was the biggest challenge. Animators like Barrett had to use all their experience to raise the bar set by Cameron, whose extensive use of techniques to capture underwater performances presented entirely new visual effects obstacles.
Were there any particular sequences that made Toruk fear Barrett and his team? “Technically, there were some water intakes that worried me,” he tells us. “Many shots of the boat were a concern because we knew we were working in parallel with the effects team. You can do your job, hope the water surface stays the way it is, hope the wave phase stays the way it was when you started animating. But you also know that it needs to be simulated, and the water simulation now affects the boat’s environment. You can get into a little loop. So lots of boat shots [were challenging]”.
“There were also some big scenes,” continues Barrett. “Tulkun’s return to the village – there was an awful lot going on in those shots. But personally for me, one of the harder sequences to work with – and I don’t want to be too maudlin – was [Neteyam’s] death on the rock. I found it really difficult. When I saw it in the cinema, I was a bit immune to it. But the first 20 times were very, very hard to watch.
“The performances are just strong. Take Zoe [Saldaña] for example. It’s not just the raw emotions you see in her at the beginning. Later, when Jake begs her to do what is necessary for the other children, her determination is seen to grow. Sadness never goes away, but resolution comes, and it’s very subtle.
“So for me [as an animator], it’s exciting to get to the point where you feel like you’ve found everything she has. Those more subtle shots are really the most satisfying moments.”
Avatar: The Way of Water is now showing in cinemas around the world.