Here's What We Know about the Super-Secret Tech Behind 'Avatar 2'
It’s the most hotly anticipated sequel in Hollywood and also its biggest gamble.
James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi spectacle Avatar grossed $2.78 billion at the box office for Fox, but it will be 12 years since the original release when Avatar 2 premiers in December 2021. With a billion dollars spent on production spanning all 4 planned sequels, Disney will be fingers crossed that there’s audience appetite for more tales from Pandora.
You would be a fool to bet against it. If anyone can shepherd a franchise into profit and longevity it’s the Marvel-Lucasfilm-Mouse House. Naysayers at the time of Avatar’s debut were quickly silenced by the astonishing traction that the film’s fusion of 3D cinema and high concept storytelling galvanized.
The sequels are equally anticipated in tech circles for their approach to production. The original was a bonafide groundbreaker in pushing forward virtual production techniques, such as the use of a virtual camera for the director to visualize CG characters and backgrounds in realtime on a live-action set. Only in the last few years, with the advance of game engine renders and LED screens as backdrops, has this become standard on films like The Jungle Book or shows like The Mandalorian.
The secrecy surrounding not just Avatar 2's plot but production technology is all part of building a sense of excitement ahead of release, as producer Jon Landau knows only too well when posting behind the scenes shots on Instagram. Recently more information has been revealed.
Cameron committed to shooting the sequels in high frame rates almost as soon as Avatar released but has never committed publicly to the new film’s exact specification.
Until now. In an exclusive interview with IBC, the European counterpart to broadcast and film trade show NAB, Cameron’s production company Lightstorm Entertainment goes on the record to state that Avatar 2 and 3 (which are being shot and produced in parallel) are captured in 3D 4K at 48 frames a second and in High Dynamic Range.
“Massive amounts of data is being pushed around live every minute,” says Geoff Burdick, senior vice president of Production Services & Technology, Lightstorm Entertainment. “We needed HFR and high res and everything had to be in 3D. This may not be the science experiment it was when shooting the first Avatar but the sync for 3D at those higher frames and resolutions is still an issue. Alerting camera to issues is a big part of our job.”
Burdick goes on to explain that the issues he is particularly looking out for during the live-action shoot center around stereo capture, such as ensuring parity between left and right eye lenses (on up to 3 stereo pairs shooting simultaneously), whether an iris is mismatched, if the zoom is offset, or there are rotational axis issues.
“There are critical camera adjacent monitors for our DP and focus pullers who are working in convergence and dialing in interocular and can look perfect but my small team and I see the same feed live and I can radio to Jim that we have an issue. Nobody would have seen that without this set up.”
The setup he refers to is a mobile screening room that simulates the theatrical environment right at the point of capture. The ‘pod’ houses a Christie Digital 3D projector capable of projecting DCI compliant dailies to a large screen. While it’s not unusual for high end shows to screen dailies in this way, it is probably the most state of the art example since this is being projected in 3D.
The 3D rigs are comprised of multiple 6K-capable Sony Venice cameras, with the optical blocks disconnected from the camera body by a cable at distances of up to 20 feet. By lowering the weight and improving ergonomics, Cameron and DP Russell Carpenter can wield the cameras with greater flexibility and freedom.
Burdick also describes the workflow enabling the data to be transported around set. The glue is a series of Blackmagic Design boxes that take the signal directly from the Sony Venice cameras and convert it into multiple combinations for thorough on-set reviews. These include 3D 48fps in 2K and 4K, 3D 24fps in 2K and 4K, and 3D 24fps in HD plus SDR and HDR variants.
While the film’s final theatrical release format has not been announced, it is my understanding that Avatar 2 will only have certain select scenes shown at a high frame rate. Instead, and unlike experiments by Ang Lee (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Gemini Man) which were given a 120fps full picture release, Cameron intends to master only sequences of his film at HFR 48fps.
This would chime with his recent commentary to Collider that HFR is of primary use to smooth motion blur of action sequences or fast pans caused when playing back stereoscopically at 24fps.
“I have a personal philosophy around high frame rate, which is that it is a specific solution to specific problems having to do with 3D,” Cameron said https://collider.com/avatar-sequels-no-hfr-james-cameron/. “When you get the strobing and the jitter of certain shots that pan or certain lateral movement across frame, it’s distracting in 3D. To me, [HFR is] just a solution for those shots. I don’t think it’s a format. I think it’s a tool to be used to solve problems in 3D projection.”
The one plot point that has been widely shared is that significant scenes will take place underwater. Not just CG water, but with the actors trained to hold their breath for up to four minutes, while wearing performance capture suits and no scuba breathing gear.
The problem with filming this is not the underwater part—Cameron has extensive experience, including shooting the actual Titanic in the 3D documentary Ghosts of the Abyss—but the interface between the air and the water, “which forms a moving mirror,” he explained to The Independent.
“That moving mirror reflects all the dots and markers, and it creates a bunch of false markers. It’s a little bit like a fighter plane dumping a bunch of chaff to confuse the radar system of a missile. We’ve thrown a lot of horsepower, innovation, imagination and new technology at the problem, and it’s taken us about a year and a half now to work out how we’re going to do it.”
Part of the solution involved covering the surface of the tank in small white balls that prevent overhead studio lights from contaminating the performance capture system below…while still allowing anyone below to surface safely through them should the need arise.
The interview with Burdick just pertains to the live-action shoot on stages at Wellington, New Zealand. There are two other major stages of the Avatar 2 production; a performance capture of all the principals, which was filmed first and finished for actors (including Kate Winslet as long as two years ago), and a virtual production (at Manhattan Beach Studios near LAX) in which performance capture assets animated at Weta Digital are used by Cameron and his editorial team (including 5 lead editors) to shape the narrative.
This aspect of production, including the use of game engine tech, is still being kept behind closed doors.
Also worth noting that, should Avatar 2 take a bath at the box office, sequels 4 and 5 may not be greenlit by Disney.