Everything you see in Avatar: The Way of Water is mesmerising, to say the least. From Pandora’s newly introduced CG creatures to the realistic water, the sequel film of Avatar (2009), directed by James Cameron is an absolute triumph of visual effects. Much of the film’s breathtaking shots came from WÄÂÂÃ‚Â“tÄÂÂÃ‚Â� FX, the studio behind some of the film’s splashy scenes. Their Visual Effects Supervisor, Pavani Rao Boddapati has been a part of Pandora’s decade-long journey since the original film and the sprawling sequel was her return to the exosolar moon. That is when she wasn’t working on films like The Hobbit Trilogy and Maze Runner: The Sorch Trails.
In an exclusive chat with Filmfare, Pavani Rao Boddapati opened up about working with James Cameron, Avatar’s underwater world and more.
Avatar is the highest-grossing movie of all time. Did the anticipation around the film affect you?
That feeling first came in 2009 when I came to New Zealand from Los Angeles to work on the first film. I’m a huge Pandora nerd. Every time there was a Pandora-themed project, I was the first person to sign up. In 2018 when I started on Avatar 2, it was hugely exciting. I want to work on every single movie Jim’s (James Cameron) making.
When it comes to such a massive project, do you ever feel like you’re nearing completion?
We knew that it was going to be a project that has been in the works since 2009. There’s a technology that was developed so we already knew that it was going to be a very complex film. So 3,000 shots and 2,200 water shots are a very big number for a visual effects project. We started five years early to deliver this project. Out of which 2 years were just research and development. So all we did was evaluate what kind of shots we had to work on, plan for it and shoot references. We knew when we finally started that we had the recipe and the crew to get this project.
What are some of the cues you got from James Cameron and his team?
It’s very extensive and it’s very collaborative. This was a collaboration that began with Dylan Cole the concept art director, Deborah Lynn Scott and the crew we’ve been working with since 2009. They give us something and we can always go back with our shots and designs. Jim is extremely accessible in New Zealand while shooting the movie. We’ve had a lot of discussions. The goal is that we’re a part of a bigger picture and we need this movie to hit Jim’s expectations. To give an example – Deborah Lynn Scott, our costume designer would often shoot very extensive references of movement study like adding air or water and whenever we did the CG version of those costumes, we would always be in touch with her to discuss when we put the costume on to check if the colour is right or if the movement is right in the water.
What does a typical piece of feedback from James Cameron look like?
Jim is very generous with praise. There are things he would say when he loved the shot. It was pretty quick when he loved it – there was no critique and you’re through. But he would say “you nailed it’ or “bingo bongo” and every time he said something like that, the crew would go crazy because it meant that he was loving the shot.
Avatar: The Way of Water has so many underwater sequences. How challenging was that?
We knew that with this movie the water was going to be a major part of the 2,200 shots and in the last five to six years we started working on getting the water right. There are a lot of movies that came out in the past couple of years featuring water and the audience critique was important. Humans are very sensitive and anyone can figure out if the water looks fake. You don’t have to be a visual effects artist or know films to realise that. You see that it’s wrong and people can immediately tell. So the first underwater sequence that we worked on is where Jake Sully’s kids dive into the water and they are learning how to breathe. That was going to be our first shot at fantastical world-building. I remember when I watched Avatar (2009), the sequence where Jake follows Neytiri into the forest and it’s all lit up and I thought what is this place? I want to go there. And this underwater shot was meant to be that. It’s the first time you go into the water and you see these beautiful corals and kids swimming and you want to be there and feel like you are there in stereo. We did a lot of work into making the water look believable and also making it look like you’re in there with stereo. So we used a high frame rate, added tiny particles, and put gel on the camera. And Jim, who has spent so much of his life in water, was there to tell us “Well that looks like something I’ve seen in real life”. That was one of the first sequences and the one we put a lot of time and effort into creating this beautiful moment.
It takes something like an Avatar sequel to get audiences into a 3D theatre. Do you think the medium has been losing relevance?
There have been a lot of projects that aren’t native 3D. They’ve had a stereo that’s converted in post where the movie itself wasn’t designed to be stereo. I think what’s unique about Jim’s movies is that he designs the movie in stereo. It’s not a post-conversion, it’s not an afterthought. He has designed every single shot to be an immersive experience. So for me, that’s a very successful stereo. When we could get these crude templates from Jim of hots that are representative of a camera or performance, the first thing we do is to put on our glasses and see the visual representation of the shots. And we see exactly what he’s trying to do, there are little nuances with depth perception, where the characters are, little particles in the water and even the high frame rate. That is also something that Jim has used very successfully in the film. Even in Avatar which was not high frame rate – looking at the movie, at things which usually strobe, underwater scenes usually look a bit chunky, the 48fps combined with the stereo here is hugely successful because it’s designed with that in mind.
What can we expect from the sequels?
I haven’t read the script because I want to be surprised by it when I start working on it. But I’ll tell you this, before 2018, Avatar was the most beautiful movie I was involved in. But now I’ve changed my mind and I think The Way of Water is the most beautiful thing I’ve been involved in. And I’m sure if we have a chat after the next sequel, that’s gonna be the most beautiful movie I’ve worked on. These are just great films and I’m very happy to be a small part of the big picture.
Avatar: The Way of Water is currently in theatres.