The director returns to Pandora with the first of four planned Avatar sequels, combining innovative performance-capture and his lifelong love for the ocean.
What do you do after making the world’s highest-grossing movie of all time, shattering the record you yourself had set more than a decade earlier? If you’re James Cameron, you take a breath and then dive headfirst into the deep end — literally. After topping the box office with 2009’s Avatar, his fantastic tropical saga of blue-skinned aliens and environmental messaging, the director vowed to return with not one but four planned sequels. He decided the first of these (in theaters Dec. 16, 2022) would be set primarily underwater, requiring years of technological research and months of training actors to hold their breath for lengths that would impress even a Navy SEAL.
Now Cameron is finally ready to welcome audiences back to Pandora with an ambitious aquatic marvel that’s been a literal decade in the making.
“It sounds kind of nuts, the process,” Cameron, 67, admits with a laugh. “I mean, if Avatar hadn’t made so much damn money, we’d never do this — because it’s kind of crazy.”
Listening to the filmmaker describe Avatar 2’s journey makes “kind of crazy” sound like an understatement. Cameron began planning the sequel by himself in 2012, bringing in a writing team in 2013 who helped outline four stories that would stretch across Pandora’s diverse geography and continue the first film’s tale of man versus nature. Filming on Avatar 2 (an official title has yet to be announced) started in 2017, with a story set about 14 years after the original: Former human soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Na’vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have settled down and started a family, and much of the film centers on their preteen offspring.
“Ultimately, the sequels are a story about family, and the lengths parents will go through to keep that family together and keep them safe,” producer Jon Landau explains. “I always say that Jim’s movies have universal themes — and really, there’s no more universal theme than family.”
Both Avatar 2 and 3 are mostly set in and around the ocean, introducing a new clan of reef-dwelling Na’vi called the Metkayina. Landau describes the new tropical beaches and shores of Pandora as a seaside paradise: “Bora Bora on steroids.” If the first film was all about the rain forest, with its cautionary tale about deforestation, the new entries are a love letter to Cameron’s first fascination, the sea. The Titanic director has long advocated for ocean conservation, and he completed a record-breaking journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2012. “I do the ocean thing when I’m not making movies,” he says. “So if I could combine my two greatest loves — one of which is ocean exploration; the other, feature filmmaking — why wouldn’t I?”
But setting a story below sea level presents more than a few challenges. The innovative performance-capture process designed for the first Avatar wasn’t intended to work underwater, so Cameron and his team had to engineer a way to accurately record the actors’ tiniest movements and expressions while submerged. That footage was then animated by artists at the multi-Oscar-winning visual-effects company Weta Digital. Much of the performance-capture filming took place in a 900,000-gallon tank (built specifically for the sequels), which could mimic the ocean’s swirling currents and crashing waves. “My colleagues within the production really lobbied heavily for us to do it ‘dry for wet,’ hanging people on wires,” Cameron notes. “I said, ‘It’s not going to work. It’s not going to look real.’ I even let them run a test, where we captured dry for wet, and then we captured in water, a crude level of our in-water capture. And it wasn’t even close.”