Avatar 2 The Way of Water: Breaking the Frontiers of CGI
From actors diving in a 900,000 gallon tank to photorealistic underwater CGI, Avatar: The Way of Water spared no expenses in creating the most immersive cinematic experience ever. In fact, it was so expensive it’s labelled the “worst business case in movie history”. Taking 13 years to make, Avatar 2 was so ahead of its time that technology needed to catch up with it.
Featuring extensive underwater sequences, the production team needed to create proprietary technology to make these underwater shots realistic. Known for their innovation, Wētā FX, a visual effects company, was the brains behind the cutting-edge visual effects in Avatar 2.
Similarly, as a Singapore VFX studio, our team at CraveFX also takes pride in experimenting with new technology to create the best immersive experiences. For maximum realism, animation and motion graphics studios often have to keep up with the latest tools to meet creative needs. Even Disney is constantly evolving their animation styles and technology!
Unlike 2009, when Avatar was first released, CGI is now everywhere. So what makes the CGI and visual effects of Avatar 2 so special?
Well, you might first need to jog your memory…
If you’d watched the original Avatar back in 2009, no one would fault you for having a vague
recollection of what happened in the first movie. 13 years later, Avatar 2 takes audiences back to the lush forests of Pandora, a moon in Alpha Centauri. The events take place after the human invasion on Pandora in Avatar 1.
Jake Sully, human spy turned Na’vi, has started a family with Ney’tiri. As the head of the Na’vi rebellion, the humans are on the hunt for Jake. To keep his family safe, Jake seeks refuge with the reef people of Pandora, leaving their forest home and officially adopting the way of water.
Through the eyes of the family, we see the beauty of Pandora’s seascapes and equally stunning sea creatures. In fact, Wētā FX created 58 new species of sea creatures just for this sequel alone, replete with alien reefs and plants. The result was an alien aquatic life so realistic you’d think you were watching a wildlife documentary.
Unlike the forest Na’Vi clans we saw in the first movie, this time we meet the reef people (Metkayina) – an entirely different Na’Vi race.
The reef people (Metkayina) have a stockier build as compared to their slim forest counterparts (Omaticaya). Instead of having a thin tail, they have a broad fin that propels them in water. Their skin also has a wave-like pattern instead of the tiger stripes that mark the Omaticaya.
They have a much lighter blue-green skin complexion when compared to the deep blues of the Omaticaya. These genetic differences add to the intricate worldbuilding of Pandora and it would not have been possible without Wētā FX, who transformed the wetsuited actors to their on-screen avatars.
Making A Splash In Movie History – Groundbreaking CGI
Creating Photorealistic Water Simulations
Like the movie characters, the team at Wētā FX also had to study the way of water – the way water trickles down different surfaces, the way light refracts underwater, the way water interacts with hair and skin.
To make this as physically accurate as possible, they referenced footage of water rippling, waves hitting rocks and the movement of underwater plants. Director, James Cameron, also provided his own deep-sea dives as material for reference. An unfortunate friend of the team was frequently dunked in water to study the effects water had on curly hair!
The result was an extremely realistic portrayal of wet hair:
Of course, it doesn’t just stop at wet hair. This shot of water interacting with different fabrics was especially impressive.
Everything here is animated with CGI but it looks so real. From the way water is trapped in the tiny weaves of the fabric to the glossy sheen it forms over wet leather, the extensive research on water clearly paid off. The wet skin also looks extremely realistic and since water is interacting with so many different elements, it’s a complex undertaking – a huge understatement.
Wētā FX created over 1,600 different major water simulations. The technology used was so revolutionary that the team filed several patents for water effects!
This dedication to their craft was so “people could watch the film and be swept away, and forget that [Wētā FX] did anything,”said effects supervisor Eric Saindon. This mindset created a hyper realistic experience that audiences will remember Avatar 2 for.
Underwater Motion Capture
In Aquaman, a “dry-for-wet” technique was used to mimic actors being underwater. Actors would be suspended from wires to feign weightlessness. They’d make swimming motions in the air to pretend they were in the open ocean. However, James Cameron thought this wouldn’t look realistic enough. In classic fashion, he did something no one has ever done before.
“Wet-for-wet” was used in Avatar 2, filming took place underwater in a 900,000 gallon tank and actors were submerged in it. The tank could simulate underwater waves and currents, creating a more realistic experience for both the crew and audiences. The deep depths also meant that actors had to take diving lessons and hold their breaths before and during underwater takes.
You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that amongst the cast, Kate Winslet held the longest record for holding her breath: 7 minutes and 14 seconds. After all, she survived the Titanic.
Although Avatar 2 relied on cutting edge technology, sometimes old-school techniques also came in handy. Filming underwater led to plenty of complications and one of them was the problem of light. The studio lights kept interfering with the performance-capture data and disrupted filming.
To combat this, polymer balls were spread over the tank’s surface to diffuse the light safely. This technique was previously used in The Abyss (1989), to create the illusion of a completely dark ocean.
You’ve probably heard of colour grading, which adjusts the colours of film to create a specific look. Motion grading follows a similar process; motion is adjusted to curate different looks. Movies are usually shot in the classic 24 frames per second (fps) as this lets motion appear natural to the human eye. A higher frame rate like 60fps makes motion look smoother but also comes with its own set of issues, namely unnatural movements.
It’s almost unheard of to toggle between different frame rates as the jarring differences would take away all immersion. One moment, the footage could be buttery smooth and in the next, it’ll look jittery and laggy.
As you can guess, this was done in Avatar 2. To maintain the immersion, TrueCut motion software was used. This software takes existing footage that was shot anywhere between 24 fps to 120 fps and converts it into a variety of different speeds. This creates different looks while ensuring that the movie still looks cohesive as a whole!
Being 13 years apart in technology and tools, how does Avatar 2 hold up to its predecessor?
Avatar 2 vs. Avatar 1: The Showdown
The most obvious CGI improvements would be in the eyes and skin. The skin in Avatar 2 is a lot more textured, with greater depth and detail. You can see skin creases, under eye crinkles, even individual hair follicles on the eyebrow. The eyes were already impressive in Avatar 1, but the CGI in Avatar 2 boasts more details.
In shots featuring landscapes, there is greater depth in the CGI and you can see multiple layers. You’re not just seeing the foreground shot of the vines, you’re also seeing the distant mountains all the way at the back. This perception of depth gives the world a much grander scale and it makes the scenery more realistic.
In this shot in Avatar, there are a lot more layers in its CGI. It’s also covered in fog, which creates an ethereal look but is also used to mask details. The clearest difference is seen in the vines, which look less realistic than the one in Avatar 2. Though it holds up well, the lighting looks more unnatural on those vines and the details are not as elaborate.
In Avatar 2, the money shot is probably in their extensive water sequences. The level of detail here is astounding, you can clearly see the texture of water rippling across the ocean, the difference in lighting, the different shadows that are cast. The seabed is huge and for its scale, it’s impressive that the CGI was rendered in such sharp detail.
Worth the Budget?
Here’s why Avatar 2 was labelled “the worst business case in movie history”. Though the actual budget for the movie is unknown, estimates lie between a range of $250 million to $460 million. It’s easily the most expensive movie ever made.
To break even, the movie needed to earn at least $2 billion dollars. For comparison, only 5 movies have crossed the $2 billion threshold worldwide. Avatar 2 would need to knock out Avengers: Infinity War ($2.04 billion) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($2.07 billion) just to make a profit!
With all that money spent, the results were quite phenomenal. Avatar 2’s visual effects were literally out of this world and even in 2022, the CGI is in its own league. Personally, it’s a movie that’s worth going down to the theatres for because it offers an exceptional cinematic experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else.
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