AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER’s VFX Set a New Standard for Sci-Fi World-Building

Avatar: The Way of Water is an outstanding feat of world-building, largely due to the visual effects on the film. A sequel to the 2009 Avatar film, The Way of Water is the long-awaited second installment in a planned five film series from director James Cameron. Set on the planet of Pandora with its nine foot tall aliens known as the Na’vi, the Avatar The franchise explores the tensions between them and their imperialist invaders: humans. The first film gained critical acclaim for its achievements in visual effects; however, public opinion on it derided its familiar, Disney’s Pocahontas-type story. But, The Way of Water surpasses its predecessor’s visual splendor. The film uses its spectacle as the basis for a new type of genre storytelling with VFX leading the way.

Spoiler Alert

The Way of Water focuses on the interactions between different Na’vi tribes and their environment on Pandora. The film introduces a new tribe, the Metkayina. They live on a different part of the planet near a coral reef. In contrast to the jungle-dwelling Na’vi from the first film, the Metkayina are powerful swimmers and divers. They have a unique connection to the plant and animal life underwater. Therefore, a significant part of The Way of Water‘s run time is devoted to exploring the Metkayina’s underwater environment. The film’s gorgeous visual effects makes this environment feel like a real, living ecosystem. And this comes to life thanks to the research that the VFX team did on similar ecosystems on Earth.

Several Na'vi look on in awe of a gorgeous and seemingly impossible vista on Pandora in Avatar: The Way of Water.
20th Century Studios

In this way, The Way of Water‘s visual effects achieve an unprecedented sense of immersion between the film’s environments, human characters, Na’vi characters, and animal characters. Instead of using VFX only as a means for providing an exciting visual spectacle, The Way of Water‘s effects directly place the viewer in the world that it has created, which came through an innovative and novel approach. The film was shot stereoscopically, in 3D, with specific attention towards guiding the viewer’s point of focus. During a film press conference, producer Jon Landau described the team’s approach to 3D as “a window into a world, and not a world coming out of a window.” The stereoscopic process mirrors human vision, capturing the world through two different “cameras” aka human eyes. The brain then composites the two images into one three-dimensional picture.

Additionally, the film’s immersive feel began in production. Wētā FX devised a new Simulcam that bridged the difference between live action and CG. This Simulcam provided a layered composite image through an eyepiece while shooting. It could show how characters could fit in front of, or behind, layers on-screen. This layering was a crucial difference, especially in a film with so many CG characters walking around CG environments. Landau explained it as the difference between showing “a weatherman in front of a screen,” versus having a “weatherman” [walk] through the clouds.”

Jake Sully the Na'vi flying on the back of a creature that can also swim in water in Avatar: The Way of Water.
20th Century Studios

Because of this, The Way of Water feels lightyears ahead of the egregious, flat-looking CGI of recent blockbusters. In visualizing how characters move and interact between layers in their environment during production, The Way of Water prioritizes building an immersive world. But even as The Way of Water strobe for immersive realism, it wasn’t afraid to create a hyperreal environment during its action scenes. During certain fight sequences in the film, the frame rate increased from the standard 24 frames per second to 48 frames per second.

This increased the amount of visual information the audience took in with characters’ movements, lending a hyperreal effect to the action. Lightstorm Visual Effects supervisor, virtual second unit director, and executive producer Richie Baneham explained that this decision was motivated from “an experiential standpoint.”

With characters moving more quickly, capturing the scene at a higher rate brings more attention to their bodies in motion. Like the characters fighting for their lives, the audience switches into a state of hyper-awareness about what is taking place. This sporadic use of high frame rates evidences The Way of Water‘s mastery of VFX as a malleable cinematic tool. And, this decision is even more impressive considering most of the characters are CG and the stereoscopically shot footage. Why? Because this drastically lengthened the rendering process. But as impressive as this is, it’s grounded by a clear artistic goal of making the intangible feel real. The “experiential” element is the key ingredient to The Way of Water‘s VFX.

The water-dwelling members of the Na'vi in ​​Avatar: The Way of Water.
20th Century Pictures

Yet another way that The Way of Water‘s VFX sets a new standard is in the interactions between CG characters and human characters. Spider (Jack Champion), a new human character, fits seamlessly into CG environments. His interactions with Na’vi characters feel authentic thanks to new technology developed to aid the actor’s performance. Many films that use motion and performance capture today with an actor playing a non-human character utilize a tennis ball. The creative team mounts it on or around the actor’s body to show other actors where they should look.

This ensures that the eyelines between all the characters in the scene remain consistent. This is crucial when you have, say, six foot tall Thor talking to eight foot tall Hulk. The tennis ball allows for actors in the same scene to respond to each other’s performances; however, neither of them are able to look directly at each other’s faces. This can have an unnatural feel for the actors.

Jake's avatar stands among bioluminescent plants in Avatar
20th Century Studios

The Way of Water devised a solution to this problem, which came in handy for Spider’s tense scenes with Quaritch (Stephen Lang). The team created a “Spidercam” rig that mounted a screen with Lang’s live performance at the correct level. They could move the “Spidercam” around the set to match Quaritch’s movements. This ensured that Champion could react to Lang’s performance in a much more natural way that mimicked a “one-to-one performance live on set,” according to Senior VFX Supervisor, Joe Letteri.

The actors’ performances in The Way of Water got a powerful boost by this setup, lending a more believable feel to their characters’ relationships in the film. It is a compelling case for how this new technology can be used as a world-building tool, rather than just a plain spectacle. The film’s fresh approach to VFX builds the audience’s emotional investment in the characters and their environments. It makes Pandora feel like a real, living place. Beyond the film’s jaw-dropping action scenes, The Way of Water succeeds visually because Pandora is a world worth building in the first place.