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The making of Avatar 2 looks like absolute hell

James Cameron tossed his cast into the deep end of performance capture

the cast of avatar 2 swims in a tank full of plastic balls Photo: 20th Century Studios
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

The first thing I did in ninth grade was sign up for water polo, in hopes of establishing a workout routine and meeting upperclassman friends. The plan was a disaster! A grueling mix of swimming and getting smacked in the face, water-polo training involved miles of laps at 5:30 a.m. and endless treading drills. Thankfully, I only spent one semester holding 5-gallon water-cooler jugs above my head as I scissor-kicked for dear life.

The latest behind-the-scenes photo from the set of Avatar: The Way of Water, in which Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, Kate Winslet, and Cliff Curtis float in a giant pool while wearing performance-capture suits, brought back all the memories. Swimming, treading, and acting? The only reason I’m not curled up in a ball in a fit of anxiety is the appearance of a foam noodle.

Soon after 2009’s Avatar became the highest-grossing movie of all time (a mark finally eclipsed in 2019 by Avengers: Endgame), director James Cameron let slip his vision for the sequel. The original movie follows protagonist Jake Sully (Worthington) and his alien companion Neytiri (Saldana) across the jungles of Pandora. The follow-up was meant to explore the oceans and life beneath the surface. Cameron’s entire career — from The Abyss to Titanic to a handful of documentary projects that submerged his cameras thousands of feet below sea level — has been driven by his love for exploration of the deep, and the Avatar sequels (there are now supposedly going to be four, planned for 2021, 2023, 2025, and 2027) promise to push that love to new extremes. According to a tweet accompanying the new image, much of the performance capture for the sequel took place in this 900,000-gallon tank, built specifically for Cameron’s production.

In 2017, in the lead-up to production, Cameron spoke frankly about the hardships of his ambitious shooting style. “We’ve done a tremendous amount of testing,” he said. “We’ve got six teenagers and one 7-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.”

That sounds exhausting to me, and I’m only reading it.

In May, the official Avatar Twitter account premiered another set of behind-the-scenes photos from the Avatar 2 shoot, which showed a slightly less glamorous side to the filming.

actors in a water tank for avatar 2 with james cameron barking orders overhead Photo: 20th Century Studios
james cameron directs swimming actors wearing noodles in a giant water tank for avatar 2 Photo: 20th Century Studios

The tweet also offered an explanation for why Saldana, Worthington, Winslet, and Curtis were surrounded by white balls while wading in the water. In water, the clash of air and liquid can create reflections that create false markers for the motion-capture cameras to detect. Adding a layer of balls to the surface of his shooting tank prevents the light from creating the disruption, while also allowing the actors to, you know, come to the surface and breathe and survive. In his 2017 interview, Cameron called the solution “a little bit like a fighter plane dumping a bunch of chaff to confuse the radar system of a missile.” Fun!

Everything about Avatar: The Way of Water is reminiscent of Cameron’s late-’80s work on The Abyss, which also used a primitive version of the ball technique to cut down on reflections. On the downside, the movie is legendary for being one of the more grueling shoots in Hollywood history. Star Ed Harris nearly drowned. So did Cameron himself.

Way of Water appears to be a much safer, much more technologically savvy production than The Abyss. For one thing, Saldana, Worthington, Winslet, and Curtis are smiling. And Cameron has a track record of surviving these self-imposed gauntlets to make true marvels — though it’s mind-boggling to think we’re getting four Avatar sequels, the audacity is worth gambling on.

But the director is looking for realism from his 10-foot-tall swimming blue aliens, and take it from me: A pool noodle can only do so much. Especially if your water-polo teammates are smacking you with it. Not cool, guys.

Update (Oct. 26): Avatar: The Way of Water continues to be deep well of unsettling on-set anecdotes. Earlier this month, 71-year-old Sigourney Weaver revealed to The New York Times that her role in the sequel required her to train with the coach of elite military divers in order to hold her breath for six frickin’ minutes. On Monday, the official Avatar Twitter account tweeted a photo of Winslet sporting an underwater cape while filming Avatar 2. According to a previous Hollywood Reporter interview with the actress, her longest breath hold lasted seven minutes and 14 seconds.

“I play a water person,” she told THR. “I am a water person.”

The making of Avatar 2 continues to look like absolute hell.

Kate Winslet wearing an underwater cape while filming Avatar 2 Photo: 20th Century Studios