Avatar: The Way of Water

February 22, 2023

In 2009, James Cameron introduced moviegoers to the fantasy world of Pandora and they took to it like a Na’vi to water. Avatar still holds the record for hauling in over $2.9 billion at the box office and was always destined for a sequel. Highly anticipated and with release delayed by the pandemic, Avatar: The Way of Water was produced on an estimated budget of $350 million but at time of writing has already surpassed $2 billion in global receipts.

The journey to screen began shortly after the success of the original film became apparent with the director, producer and co-writer re-signing actors Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang to reprise their roles, and later retaining the services of the key editorial team of Stephen Rivkin, ACE, and John Refoua, ACE, who were nominated along with Cameron for the Academy Award for Best Film Editing for Avatar.

Cameron also sought the extensive experience of David Brenner, ACE. The 20th Century/Disney film, produced by Lightstorm Entertainment, also stars Kate Winslet and introduces audiences to young actors including Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jamie Flatters and Jack Champion.

The screenplay by Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver reunites us with Jake Sully and Neytiri who are now loving parents – and the heads of the Omatikaya clan – doing everything they can to keep their family together. When human forces and massive destructive equipment land on Pandora, the Sullys and the rest of the Omatikaya are forced to flee and seek refuge at the home of the Metkayina clan, led by Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis).

Rivkin has spent over half of the intervening 13 years between releases working on the sequels in one form or other. Two years before production began in earnest he was involved in editing art reels and story reels using thousands of production design drawings and paintings.

“We were interested in trying to execute the film in story reel form to hone in the story and the scenes beforehand,” he tells CinemaEditor. “We never quite had enough time to complete this before we pulled the trigger on the capture.” The film involves groundbreaking use of technology including high frame rates, stereo 3D and visual effects to create stunning immersive visuals and rightly so but Rivkin is keen to emphasize that the film originates as with any live action drama with the actors’ performances.“The performance capture originates with the principal actors acting out every single moment. Even our previs is based on performance capture of our stunt troupe.”

The editing process is nonetheless multifaceted and in many ways different to conventional dramatic storytelling. After performance capture, the editors make a careful scene-by-scene review of the reference camera dailies with the director, selecting specific takes from each actor. This selection is not limited to the actors in the same take, as Rivkin explains. “Jim has often said that some actors peak at five takes, others at 10 or for some their best is the first take. When you have more than one actor in a scene that can become an issue if you are truly after the best performance. Now we have the ability to take any actor’s best moments and put them in the same scene.

For example, we can combine an actor from take 1 and another from take 3 in the same scene file. That is revolutionary in itself. The best performances determined through dailies review are curated and cut into a performance edit. Each scene is then broken down into sections (called ‘loads’). These go to an internal lab at Lightstorm where all the digital files – with the virtual characters in their wardrobe, props and the environment – are prepared.

Then the second phase of production and editing begins. This is virtual photography, where the shots are created that will comprise the scenes in the final film. It is in effect a scene-by scene playback of the performances that were carefully preedited. It should be noted that during this ‘virtual camera’ process, no actors are present and the shots are created from the playback of scenes.

“The blueprint for the shots to be turned over, includes the lighting, environments, virtual elements, characters and the performances, and it is all done in this template stage where virtual cameras are created and the scenes are edited for a second time. Once those scenes are cut and approved by Jim they go off to Weta FX to be fully rendered.”

In 2019, during the Avatar capture schedule, Rivkin also co-edited (with Ian Silverstein) the Cameron-produced Robert Rodriguez directed sci-fi Alita: Battle Angel, an example of a live action film with a prominent central CG character. While Avatar: The Way of Water features many scenes like this, the film also is composed of virtual scenes with live action characters inserted into them. This was a key workflow difference between the original Avatar and the sequel. To achieve this, the editors’ work on the virtual scenes acted as a shot-for-shot guide needed by the live action photography unit to integrate the live action elements into the CG scenes.

“We had many more scenes in this film than in Avatar that featured a combination of live action characters and virtual characters. So, we created a template or virtual cut that had liveaction characters in CG form that would ultimately be replaced
by live action photography.

“That was an added complexity. Sometimes it went the other way around where live action scenes were shot for virtual characters to be brought in. We had to have a plan for how we were going to do that too. All these preliminary phases had to be designed, the live action shot, edited, and approved before sending to Weta for final render.”

After Weta’s rendering, editorial could finally see all the original performances in full detail. “All the facial performance detail, the eye movement, every nuance, is derived from the original facial capture and is now driving the CG models reproducing the exact performance of the actor.” Live action scenes were photographed natively in stereoscopic 3D but editorial was monitored and cut in 2D. Rivkin says, “3D is something that we look at much later.

We learned from Avatar that there are times when 3D can be difficult to watch when there are quick cuts but one of the key reasons for the high frame rates is to reduce the amount of strobing and blur in camera moves. Jim is the final judge of how much of the film he wanted to be exhibited at a higher frame rate.

It didn’t really impact the editorial process.” Avatar: The Way of Water was also filmed at high frame rates of 48 frames a second, partly to eliminate the artifact of strobing. The director would choose what individual shots benefited from the higher frame. In broad strokes, all underwater scenes were created at the higher frame rate, as were selected shots during action sequences. There were even shots in non-action sequences that the director chose to improve with the high frame rate.

Each of the editors would work on key sequences, but would often leapfrog onto each other’s scenes to keep up with the demand for sequences to be prepared and turned over. “Generally, the idea was that an editor would stick with a scene from carefully reviewing the dailies to building the performance edit and following it through final virtual camera edit but many times we’d have to tag team and hand off scenes to each other if we were inundated with other scenes that had to be completed.”

When COVID-19 hit and the whole team was under lockdown they started working remotely. They would meet virtually, share edits and virtually jump on each other’s Avids to review their work together. “When Jim decided that the best thing to do was to move the rest of the virtual photography to New Zealand, where the live action shoots were scheduled, then we each rotated physically traveling to Wellington to be close to set. Then the last year, we pretty much worked remotely from L.A. for the remainder of the virtual photography and editing.

“We had a New Zealand and an L.A. crew and could work in either place regardless of where we were. If one of us was in New Zealand with Jim shooting virtual cameras it was sometimes preferable to trade scenes.

“Those of us who weren’t physically present could also log into Avids in Wellington and be on the stage via Zoom while Jim was shooting. We’d be able to cut the same way as if we were all in the room. That was pretty amazing. Primarily we would stay with certain sections that we had worked on but it’s also true that we worked on the show collectively and showed each other our work. It was very collaborative.”

Part of the extensive pre-production was to understand the story arc and character arc of not just number 2 but sequels 3 and 4 as well. All editors were tasked by Cameron with reading the scripts to understand the ramifications of what it would mean down the line to change something in Avatar 2.

“We very much had to keep in mind what was coming and that this is not one film but a series of films that tell one grand story.” Principal live action photography was scheduled to shoot on sets with the actors for a number of scenes in Avatar 3 and the beginning of Avatar 4, notably those scenes involving Jack Champion, the actor who plays Spider, Sully and Neytiri’s adopted son.

“We had to prepare each scene for live action in virtual form, shoot and edit those combined with live action to make sure we had what we needed before the sets were struck. It meant we were working on three movies for a while but eventually it settled down. Once the live action blocks were in the can, we could focus on finishing Avatar 2.”

Besides the significant complexity of the production, the sheer time involved was also a challenge. “You might work on a normal movie for a year and the last three months will be crunch time but because of the necessity to always be feeding Weta with scenes to work on we were in final delivery deadline mode for years at a time,” Rivkin explains.

“You can imagine how challenging a state of constant deadline was. There was always pressure to get things through our internal process and onto Jim for him to do an editing pass and final sign off with the editors. All of the vetting of performance capture reference material for each and every character had to be done on every single shot by our army of assistants who were just so dedicated and talented and without whom we would literally not have been able to do this no matter how much time we had.”

The constant pressure to turn over shots may have been fatiguing at times but it does mean much of the legwork for the next in the series has been done. “I think we learned things on Avatar 2 that will be extremely helpful going into 3 and 4. It is still going to be a huge challenge but we know more than what we knew going into number 2.”

Sadly, David Brenner passed away in February 2022. He was 59. The editor who won an Academy Award for his work on Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, is paid tribute to in the end credits of Avatar: The Way of Water.

“David was so much a part of our Avatar family. His contribution is significant to this film,” Rivkin says. “It is especially painful that he is not here to see all this hard work come to fruition. We deeply appreciate his dedication and artistry, as well as justbeing a great person. His work will live on in  this film.

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