How ‘Aquaman’ Director James Wan Created the Underwater World: Rigs, Wigs and Visual Effects

“If I was going to play in this arena for the first time, I wanted to make sure that I give it my all and so I would agonize with my visual effects team over every single shot,” director tells TheWrap

James Wan is best known for his low-budget horror hits like “Saw” and “The Conjuring,” but most recently, he took on a $200-million project, “Aquaman,” in which he had to create a whole new underwater world.

“If I was going to play in this arena for the first time, I wanted to make sure that I give it my all and so I would agonize with my visual effects team over every single shot — how it looks, how things moved, to like the tiniest sort of detail that an audience might not even pay attention to,” Wan said in a Q&A with TheWrap. In fact, he added a cute little tidbit to one scene that you might have missed (more on that below).

In the interview with TheWrap, Wan also talked about the difficulties of making a movie that takes place underwater, the visual effects process involved and whether he wishes he would’ve been able to make the origin film before the character of Aquaman first appeared in “Justice League.”

“Aquaman” stars Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman and Willem Dafoe. Wan directed the film that will hit theaters on Friday.

See below for TheWrap’s interview with Wan.

I’m most curious about how the heck you did all the underwater stuff.

It wasn’t easy. I can tell you that this was a fun movie to design from a design perspective, creating the whole world and all that, but shooting it was a pain. Shooting, the way we did it, was pretty straightforward. We shot it using this technique we call dry for wet. It’s literally what it sounds like: We shot against blue screen in the soundstage but we put the actors on these really cool rigs. These rigs were hooked up to harnesses and it was a rig that basically helped to simulate floating or swimming underwater. Then we go in there with visual effects to finish things off, like the hair, and add movement to the costume so it looks like everything’s sort of billowing. The hair was the hardest part to try and get right. All the characters are wigged because they all have very interesting hair in the film, but what we had to do with the wig was we had to tie the hair down, like, so it was really flat… The hairline has to be practical, so we literally had to, like, glue actual hair to the actor’s head. Then, CG would come in and add these floating strands and all that and it took a lot of effort and a lot of time to get the look right and it wasn’t easy.

At the shooting end of it all, it was not the most comfortable thing for the actors to be in the rigs. It puts a lot of pressure on the body. It was a big problem for Jason because he’s so big and he’s got so much weight to him that it’s not pleasant for the guys because a lot of the pressure goes around the crotch region, so it wasn’t as cool as it was for the girls. The guys were always in constant pain — knowing that the actors were in a lot of pain and very uncomfortable, but then I needed them to act like this is a very normal thing for them, that moving and swimming in the water is naturally how it should be for them. So they had to do it — they have to be in pain, but they have to not show that they were in pain.

What do you think was the hardest scene to shoot?

I would say any of the underwater stuff was really difficult and of course the big action set pieces.

At Comic-Con, you said we didn’t get a trailer as soon as everyone was expecting because the VFX took a little longer than you had anticipated. How detailed was the CGI process and was it more demanding than your previous films and maybe other DCEU films?

Definitely. I mean, “Furious 7” had a lot of visual effects in that but I’ve never made a movie like this before, and by that I mean I’ve never made a world-creation film like this before, where I really relied very heavily on the digital tool of filmmaking in terms of visual effects and stuff like that. I’m a very meticulous and detailed filmmaker, so if I was going to play in this arena for the first time, I wanted to make sure that I give it my all and so I would agonize with my visual effects team over every single shot — how it looks, how things moved, to like the tiniest sort of detail that an audience might not even pay attention to. To give an example: There’s a shot in the movie where Jason and Amber swim into a sunken galleon, they land in the galleon and just off to the corner of the screen you see this little crab pick up a gold coin and steal it and run away with it. It’s like little things like that that doesn’t affect the overall narrative of the movie, but for me, it completes the world that I’m trying to build and so it’s that tiny little thing that makes it special for me.

How did you make sure you didn’t fall into the things that people have criticized about some previous DCEU films? Particularly the heavy overuse of CGI and visual effects.

Listen, I don’t know how to do Atlantis without CGI. That’s the bottom line and with this kind of movie, you gotta go in and just embrace that. I wonder if people go into a Pixar movie and go, “That’s too much animation. ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ has too much CG.” That’s how I approach it. I approach my movie like it’s an animated movie. So if you go into that with that mindset, then I think you know what it takes on a different vibe. And ultimately, I think the biggest thing is people criticize a CG movie if that’s all there is to it. And so the key is to make sure that there are other things in it — to make sure that there’s a human story, that human-emotion element, and those are the things that ground you to the real world. If an audience feels like they’re grounded to the real world because they can relate to the characters, then you can take them on this crazy adventure into the most outrageous sort of world that visual effects can help you create, and people would still feel like they’re part of that journey and not be taken out of it. It’s very important for me that I look at CG or visual effects as just another piece of filmmaking tool for me to tell my story because the telling of the story is the most important thing. I’m always trying to find different visuals and unique things to create my world with and so, yeah, it has a lot of visual effects — but have you seen visual effects like that before? That’s the key: to make it unique.

Did you draw any inspiration from James Cameron’s version in “Entourage”?

No, I’m sorry to say that to you “Entourage” fans out there. No, if anything, I probably was inspired more by Cameron’s “Avatar” than his “Entourage.” I love James Cameron’s work, though.

Did you take anything from all your horror films, like “Saw,” and bring it to this movie? 

I don’t necessarily have like one specific thing that I can point to. I feel like every movie I make is an education for me. I learned from one film that I then carried with me to my next movie. Storytelling is storytelling. That’s what I keep saying, you know — it doesn’t matter what genre you make your films in or how big the budget is, storytelling is all the same. It’s about creating characters that people care about and a story that engages people. It’s all the same, but obviously in a movie like this, I have bigger toys to play with.

Do you wish you would have had the option to do the origin film first before maybe “Justice League”?

To me, I still feel like even though “Justice League” happened before this one, I figured that I could still do it. I could still make my origin movie but in a roundabout way. He went off and played with the Justice League for like two seconds, or as Jason Momoa said, that’s like one weekend in “Aquaman.” We follow him in this one as he goes through this hero’s journey to become the Aquaman as we know him, and so, in that respect, that was kind of cool, to tell an origin story that was a little bit different to what you’ve already seen from the other films.

What’s next? Would you want to do a sequel to “Aquaman”?

I say it’s not up to me to decide if sequels get made. It’s up to the audience. Let’s get this one out first.

I know you’re executive producing “The Swamp Thing” TV series  — do you want to do more of the superhero/anti-hero canon?

I see “Swamp Thing” more like “Beauty and the Beast” and that’s the way I approach it — it’s about this guy who has turned into a monster, but he’s still trying to hang on to his humanity while trying to retain his love for this woman. And so, that’s more like “Beauty and the Beast” for me than a superhero film. It’s going to be more like gothic horror romance. Shades of horror, shades of romance, set in the Louisiana swamps.

What’s the first thing you will do when this whole press tour is over, when the movie’s out, the box office numbers are in? I know you’re gonna nap today!

That’s what I’m gonna be doing from now until, like, next year — just sleep.