‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ VFX Team Reveals the Secret to One of the Film’s Most Eye-Popping Shots

TheWrap Magazine: The “Avatar” sequel’s VFX team explains how live-action photography was used in a shot of Jake Sully gripping a leather strap

This interview with “Avatar: The Way of Water” visual effects supervisors Richard Baneham and Eric Saindon and Weta FX director Joe Letteri first appeared in a special section of the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

When James Cameron began working on the story of “Avatar: The Way of Water” and subsequent sequels in the early 2010s, his visual effects team started scripting their own way forward. “At that point it was mostly the functional technical stuff—how do we build a system that Jim could use live?” said visual effects supervisor Richard Baneham, who added that testing on the new systems didn’t start until 2016. “This is coming from Jim’s desire to treat the digital world and the real world the same,” Weta FX director Joe Letteri added. “He wanted to use the camera like a real camera, see his actors, see the lighting, art-direct the shots, move sets and dressing around. This was the core of building all of that together. And it paid off because it carried over into to the live-action shoot.”

Among the many breakthroughs the team achieved was a way of doing depth compositing and moving eyeline systems that were all integrated when shooting the live action portions of “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

“When you’re doing compositing, the old way of doing it was in layers,” Letteri said. “But if you imagine a character walking around a tree within one shot, at one point they’re in front of it and another they’re behind it. We created a neural network to train for what we were shooting.”

While every shot in “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a significant achievement (with everybody agreeing that the facial performances were the big, subtle breakthrough), one shot in particular made Twitter lose its collective mind trying to figure out how the VFX team did it. It’s a shot where Jake Sully cinches a leather strap around his wrist as he sits on a dolphin-like creature called an ilu.

As it turns out, it was an uncanny mixture of live-action plate photography and complex visual effects work. “Some of that was an actor with blue hands doing the leather bit shot on a buck in water,” Letteri said. “And then we did a lot of rotoscoping and re-creating the water to fit it back around the hands. We did three shots like that. One of them was CG and two had live-action elements.”

“We actually shot that in a kid’s pool,” visual effects supervisor Eric Saindon said. “And what we ended up using out of it was in between where everyone was guessing. We replaced the arm and the body and we had to get an ilu in there. The reality falls between the Reddit conversation and the recent articles that said it was all live-action.”

Like any good magic trick, this one is impossible to figure out.

Read more from the Below-the-Line issue here.

TheWrap magazine below the line issue cover
Avatar The Way of Water magazine cover Below the Line issue