When I got invited to take a tour of the Lightstorm Entertainment Manhattan Beach Stages in Manhattan Beach, California, I was aware there was going to be a show-and-tell of sorts, but I didn’t quite anticipate the scope and depth of the tour and the studio itself. Equal parts soundstage, production studio, and museum, I walked into the designated entrance to be welcomed by two life-sized statues of Avatar‘s two main protagonists, Jake Sully and Neytiri (portrayed by Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, respectively). That was followed by a rare sighting of two more life-sized statues of Rosa Salazar from Alita: Battle Angel (a personal favorite film of mine) in the film’s distinct style, as well as the actual vehicle props used and rode in the film.
Lightstorm Entertainment Executive VP Josh Izzo, who doubled as our guide for the day, informed us that all the props on site—from the Avatar sculpts, massive Aliens builds, to Terminator skeletons and everything in between—were actually used on their respective films. Lightstorm’s museum was a monument to the history and legacy of James Cameron’s vast and very precise catalogue. One of the highlights of the walkthrough was the Titanic exhibit where we actually got to hold one of the award-winning film’s Oscars statues and wear the actual Heart of the Ocean as worn by Kate Winslet (and, we found out, Adele as well!). The tour came to a head when we were handed over to James Cameron’s longtime producer and friend, Jon Landau, who caught us up to speed on all things Titanic—including that the iconic necklace was almost misplaced during the studio’s relocation shortly after the movie released—but also on the newly released Avatar sequel, The Way of Water.
Landau, the award winning producer of several billion-dollar movies, came through with no bravado, and instead shared a handful of great stories from his time in the film world. He led us to the MBS screening room, where we previewed scenes from the upcoming Avatar: The Way of Water home video release.
“Although I’m not showing you this today, part of what we’re offering in our bonus content are the auditions of our kids, of bringing them in so people can see them not as they appear on screen, but when we brought them in to test them,” Landau said, introducing a segment highlighting the intense performance capture process filmed on a soundstage called a Volume. “And this whole paradigm that we created was really about taking what people in the past had called ‘motion capture’—which to me was always missing an ‘E’ in front of it for emotion capture—and creating what we call ‘performance capture,’ Landau said. “Not only did we do the rainforest, but we also went to the oceans. We asked our cast…to train in breath-holding because it was important for us when we were capturing them underwater that we weren’t just capturing their movements, we were capturing their performances, and they needed to be comfortable doing that.”
It was clear from Landau that the Avatar team made every effort to ensure that the performances on screen were authentic and realistic. He described one instance of the cast swimming in the ocean at night and having a very serendipitous encounter with marine life.
“We did a night [scuba] dive and we went down and we sat on the bottom of the ocean, about 20-28 feet of water just with flashlights,” Landau said, stretching out his hands, looking up and reenacting the story. “And out of the abyss came these giant Manta Rays and it was like a Pandora creature coming towards us. They swam over us and Sigourney [Weaver] reached out and was able to pet one on its belly. And I always think of that when I see the scene in the movie where she sees the Pandora, you know, Ray and she reaches out to touch it. She was conjuring up that feeling to take into our performance capture volume.”
One of the most integral parts of the film is time—not just for the narrative, but also for the cast as well. Landau explained how the duration of production affected the younger cast members, which in turn affected shooting and what the performers brought based on that.
“The hardest was Spider (played by Jack Champion in The Way of Water). So Spider, we had to cast him for performance capture two years before we were gonna do the live-action filming, and hope that he grew into the Tarzan-like young man that we wanted him to become,” Landau said. “And he did that very gracefully and did it very well. And we shot half of his work in 2019, and we were coming back for the second half of his work in 2020. And the pandemic hit and we were shut down. Now what wasn’t shut down was Jack’s growth spurt. And he kept growing and he kept growing. And that was one of the challenges that people don’t think about on these productions.”
After running through the last reel, Landau took some extra time to receive questions from our group. Getting into the meat-and-potatoes of it, he revealed that, “we did 95% of [Avatar] two, three, and the first act of part four. Now why the first act? Only because in our narrative, there’s a big time jump there and we needed to do all the kids while they were this age because we can’t suddenly have them be older….”
When asked how much was cut from the overall film and included in the behind-the-scenes content, Landau explained that the backstory behind those decisions is a bit complicated.
“We recently released, through Dark Horse Comics, a story that was Jim [Cameron] thought, maybe, could be Avatar 2, but it wasn’t that. That whole story went to the wayside. How much did you actually cut out? We guesstimate. You know…the first time we did Titanic and screened Titanic, it was a half hour longer than it was. But the best news we got when we previewed Titanic was where people felt it was too long was during the sinking—which told us that the character story was working. So that’s something that we took away and we learned from…I wouldn’t be surprised if our battle sequence [in The Way of Water] at one point was 50% longer than it ended up being in the movie.”
Shortly after, we were escorted to the Volume, where a great deal of the production was shot, including the underwater scenes. The tank where shooting was done—as well as most of the more intricate set pieces—were already cleared out before our arrival, but certain elements remained, such as optical sensors integrated into the ceiling. We were greeted by the ever-enthusiastic Executive Producer and FX Supervisor himself, Richard Baneham—whom I had met during a The Way of Water press day Q&A session last year in December. Designated to give us the rundown on all the tech-specs of filming an immersive 3D blockbuster, Baneham started us off with a quiz.
“We use what’s called – and here’s your exam – an Inverse Bio-kinematic Solve: So ‘Inverse’ being inside-out, ‘Bio-kinematic,’ so it’s biologically based, and ‘Kinematic’ because it’s going to turn it into skeletal data,” Baneham said.
This, I found out, is a piece of the software they use for transforming the performance capture into the humanoid creatures we end up seeing on screen. Just how close does the Lightstorm team try to get the graphics to final before turning in the working files to WETA for polishing to perfection? Baneham pointed to a series of monitors featuring an underwater scene of the Na’vi rendered in a quality reminiscent of a late 2000’s video game.
“That is how it was delivered to WETA. Watch even how the light falls on these. So WETA are able to take as many passes as they need to bring it to a photographic reality. But the mapping and layout of it is there, like, for them, if you play that shot. Like, the devil’s in the details. You gotta get all of these little fish doing the right thing. So it’s made of layers and layers and layers of animation,” Baneham said.
Avatar: The Way of Water will be available exclusively to purchase on Digital March 28.
Elijah Isaiah Johnson is a writer/illustrator/animator. His most recently published works include the Amazon best-seller Nightmare Detective, Noir is the New Black, the Comixology Indie best-selling series Leaders of the Free World, The Formula and much more.