James Cameron’s Avatar sequels are revolutionizing underwater filming

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James Cameron is not just a filmmaker, he’s also an inventor. For example, he invented an entire acting career for Sam Worthington. He performed that bit of creation of course with Avatar, his record-breaking 2009 sci-fi adventure that still reigns as the box office kingpin with its $2.78 billion in the bank. One of the reasons why Avatar made so much money was the fact that audiences kept turning up to see its revolutionary 3D effects. And for the upcoming Avatar sequels, Cameron is once again up to his old inventing ways, but this time he’s a following the advice of a certain crustacean named Sebastian and going “under da sea”.

As previously reported, the four upcoming sequels – yes, FOUR – will be further exploring the alien world of Pandora, including several aquatic civilizations. And filming the actors, whose motion-captured performances will eventually be used to digitally create their alien characters, while they’re underwater is ground-breaking stuff, as Cameron explained to Collider:

Well, we’re doing it. It’s never been done before and it’s very tricky because our motion capture system, like most motion capture systems, is what they call optical base, meaning that it uses markers that are photographed with hundreds of cameras. The problem with water is not the underwater part, but the interface between the air and the water, which forms a moving mirror. That moving mirror reflects all the dots and markers, and it creates a bunch of false markers.

It’s a little bit like a fighter plane dumping a bunch of chaff to confuse the radar system of a missile. It creates thousands of false targets, so we’ve had to figure out how to get around that problem, which we did. Basically, whenever you add water to any problem, it just gets ten times harder. So, we’ve thrown a lot of horsepower, innovation, imagination and new technology at the problem, and it’s taken us about a year and a half now to work out how we’re going to do it.

We’ve done a tremendous amount of testing, and we did it successfully, for the first time, just last Tuesday [November 14th]. We actually played an entire scene underwater with our young cast.

L-R: Britain Dalton (Lo’ak of the Sully Family), Filip Geljo (Aonung of the Metkayina Clan), Jamie Flatters (Neteyam of the Sully Family), Bailey Bass (Tsireya of the Metkayina Clan), Trinity Bliss (Tuktirey of the Sully Family), Jack Champion (Javier “Spider” Socorro), and Duane Evans Jr (Rotxo of the Metkayina Clan)

Of course, just working some techno-wizardry is only half the equation as you need your actors to hit their cues and be on the spot underwater as well or all this innovation will be for nothing. You can’t keep resetting these lunky rigs every few seconds as actors need to readjust or retake their scene. Luckily, Cameron’s young cast is also pulling off some very impressive physical feats to go along with his filmmaking ones.

We’ve got six teenagers and one seven-year-old, and they’re all playing a scene underwater. We’ve been training them for six months now, with how to hold their breath, and they’re all up in the two to four minute range. They’re all perfectly capable of acting underwater, very calmly while holding their breath. We’re not doing any of this on scuba. And we’re getting really good data, beautiful character motion and great facial performance capture. We’ve basically cracked the code.

I’ve got very good cardio – deceptively amazing cardio for a man my size, even if do say so myself – but I can’t even contemplate holding my breath underwater for four minutes, much less still playing a big part in a movie while I’m doing it. And there will be a lot of that as there will apparently be underwater scenes in all four sequels. However, as Cameron continued, the bulk of the aquatic action would take place in Avatar 2 and 3. This would explain why the filmmaker is currently busy filming these two sequels back to back and will finish their combined post-production before going back filming Avatar 4 and 5 consecutively again.

In case you were wondering when you will get to see the fruits of all these labours, the current schedule has Avatar 2 pegged for 18 December 2020, Avatar 3 on 17 December 2021, Avatar 4 on 20 December 2024, and Avatar 5 on 19 December 2025. That should also give Cameron enough time to perfect that glasses-free 3D technology he’s also working on. That and a new career for Sam Worthington.

Last Updated: November 22, 2017

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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