Avatar: The Way of Water opened in theatres last month to much fanfare. Director James Cameron finally delivered on a visual spectacle for the sequel to the hit 2009 sci-fi film.
The original racked up over $2 billion at the box office, mostly because of the beautiful world of Pandora that Cameron crafted on the silver screen. Avatar became both a genre-defining film as well as a benchmark for future sci-fi films to break when it came to the visuals.
With the release of Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron and his team have further pushed that benchmark redefining how a sci-fi film can look. The sequel took things to the next level when it comes to environments, character animations and more. But how did the filmmaker pull all of this off?
To know more about it, we recently caught up with Pavani Rao Boddapati, a VFX Supervisor at Weta Digital. Pavani worked on the film as part of the team that brought Pandora and the Na’Vi to life.
Avatar 2 and the journey before
As part of her work, Boddapati is responsible for “delivering a portion of the movie in all its aspects.” She shared that her team worked on the scenes following Jake Sully and his family’s retreat from High Camp and the mesmerizing sequences involving the Lagoon right after.
Boddapati has been part of the VFX industry for a long time now. She even had a hand in the making of the original Avatar back in 2009. The industry veteran dubbed herself a true “Pandora Nerd,” and when news broke about Cameron developing future projects, Boddapati immediately asked to sign her up.
Importance of effects, complexity, and the bleeding edge
The New Delhi native stated that her love for projects like these stems from the importance of visual effects. Unlike most other projects, the effects play a major part in telling the story. “It’s not an extravaganza to see some technology. It’s basically a beautiful movie, and I like the fact that we are contributing with visual effects to tell the story.”
Boddapati further talked about how complex a film like Avatar: The Way of Water is. She explained how most sci-fi films tend to have 5-10% of shots that are dubbed Level 5s on a scale of 1-5 with regards to complexity. Most of the remaining shots ranging from 1-4 around complexity and challenges. When Avatar 2 came on the block for VFX studios to make their bid, many at Weta Digital came to the realization that the film mostly had Level 5 shots. With 3200 shots in total, this was the biggest visual effects project that the studio had ever undertaken.
Boddapati also mentioned how the film sits on the cutting edge of technology. Many of the sequences couldn’t have been developed a few years ago. “A lot of aspects couldn’t have been done ten or even five years ago, and we developed the technology as we worked on this film to make it happen,” she said.
This CGI is insane… pic.twitter.com/tbafxgyhUx
— b°rk (@boomborks) May 10, 2022
Twitter debates and the Way of Water
In the lead up to the film’s release, a major Twitter debate ensued about a particular shot in the Avatar: The Way of Water trailer being practical or CG. Boddapati told us that her team worked on those shots. She further shared how she and her team had a chuckle on how Twitterati could not figure out the right answer for the discussion. For those expecting an answer on whether it’s real or visual effects, Boddapati remained mum as her team has no intentions to stop the debate anytime soon.
When asked upon the usage of practical or CG shots, Boddapati clarified that VFX studios like Weta Digital made decisions to go with the latter, if there’s no drop in quality when compared to the practical shot. “Sometimes it was easier to just replace the whole thing with CG because it would look pretty much like the plates,” she said.
The one major difference that Avatar 2 had from the original is the new water elements of Pandora. Boddapati shared how the water sequences were the crux of the film, with 2200 of the 3200 shots featuring those elements. She stated, “You’ve got things that are crashing with huge waves. And you also get the camera really close to characters, where you see a bit of water coming down their hair. So, we knew that the technology needed to cover this entire range.”
Building blocks of Avatar 2 including the water shots and motion capture tech
Furthermore, Boddapanti also talked about how the scale changes with the involvement of 9 ft. tall Na’Vi. She outlined that the waves seen in the film can easily wipe out a coastal city on Earth. The VFX team needed reference footage to create these shots. They used drones to capture the required footage from the coasts of New Zealand. “We shot extensive footage of everything from a very close camera – We had an actor coming out of the water beads of water running down their face.”
Along with the impressive water simulations, Boddapati also delved deeper into the revolutionary performance and motion capture technology used in the film. “This idea of facial capture and performance capture – It was done a little bit for Alita: Battle Angel, which was the project that we were involved with just before this,” she said.
“If you see the capture of Kate Winslet underwater, you can see her facial performance and her body performance matches,” Boddapati exclaimed. “The performance was captured with such detail that we didn’t have to do much with it.”
19 petabytes and the genius of James Cameron
Speaking of groundbreaking technology, Boddapati talked about how she wished to have the current rendering technologies when she worked on the shots in the first film. She stated, “The rendering took such a long time, and now the technology has reached the point where we could do 2200 of those in three years.” Furthermore, she also revealed the massive difference between the scale of the two films. “I remember maybe a couple of months from the delivery, the data impact of Avatar was one petabyte, and we all got a cupcake at work. And it was such a big deal,” she recalled. “On this one, we hit 19, and no one blinked.”
Boddapati also gave major praise to Cameron and his vision for the film after working alongside him on the project for five years. “He’s an amazing filmmaker to work with. He’s very collaborative. It’s a masterclass, that’s what I call it,” said Boddapati. “Sometimes we listen in on him talking to other supervisors or other staff, and there’s a beauty in how he describes a shot or there’s an intention in how he has captured the performance of a specific take.”
Avatar 3 and the future
When asked on whether it will be harder to vow audiences with Avatar 3 following the release of Way of the Water, Boddapati pointed out how technology has caught up for filmmakers like Cameron to tell stories like the Avatar sequels. When it comes to the sequels, Boddapati said that there will be improvements to make the immersive experience even better. These improvements will make the moviegoing experience much more fun.
Avatar 2: The Way of Water is currently on pace to be the highest grossing film of 2022, as it slowly inches towards the box office figures posted by the Tom Cruise-led Top Gun: Maverick. Moreover, Boddapati, Cameron and many others have already been chugging away at developing the third film in the series, which is all set to release on December 20, 2024.