Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with production designers Dylan Cole and Ben Procter about Avatar: The Way of Water and how they constructed Pandora’s oceanic depths.
One thing becomes abundantly clear when talking with the department heads who brought Avatar: The Way of Water to the screen. No one could cheat when it came to creation, and few shortcuts were ever accepted during production. To hear these folks tell it, no one understands the ocean better than James Cameron. The Abyss, Titanic, Ghosts of the Abyss, Aliens of the Deep. Has any other filmmaker spent so much time underwater?
Production designers Dylan Cole and Ben Procter immediately felt the pressure to deliver when concocting Pandora’s oceanic world and the Metkayina tribe who hold it sacred. Both men worked on the previous Avatar and were prepared to surpass the demand required on a set steered by Cameron. Every t needed a cross. Every i a dot. If they missed anything, their director would spot it.
“We’re held up to very high standards because we’re working for someone that knows the ocean better than most people on this planet,” says Cole. “So many conversations before we even got to design were just about visibility and color and light falloff and color falloff. We needed to design within those contexts. You can’t just create some underwater vista that’s miles wide because you will never see it. We were designing for like fifty to a hundred feet, even ten to a hundred feet, and we would push that a tiny bit, but we tried to stay very true to the reality and physics of real water.”
Cameron doesn’t approach his Avatar films as big CGI spectacles, and the virtual stage is merely as important to him as the live-action stage. For the water sequences in the first film, they shot dry-for-wet, with actors on wires pretending to swim, and digitally recreating those sequences in post. For The Way of Water, Cameron shot wet-for-wet, plunging his actors into massive tanks minus scuba suits since the bubbles they expelled would mess with the cameras.
“Working with water physically was a big challenge as well,” says Procter. “I mean, we did the water motion capture, which of course, was a system pioneered by Ryan Champney and others within Lightstorm [Entertainment]. And it had never been done before. It requires all kinds of crazy, practical things that nobody even would’ve predicted. The performance had to be in an enormous tank that took these great big sets. We had to figure out how to build and install and de-install and do it all safely.”
On the water’s surface, the crew placed white ping-pong-like balls. Their purpose was to counter the light penetrating from above, which would also interfere with the performance capture. This allowed all departments to zero in on how the liquid behaved as a separate entity, so they could fully replicate it digitally within the virtual stage.
“You have to figure it out as a whole,” says Cole. “Jim always said, ‘Water is water no matter what, and we’re not going to cheat it.’ So, knowing that, we started to think of the ocean as a whole. From the sea floor up, from the sand and rocks and coral to the exotic hundreds of species of coral to the hundreds of fish we had to do. From the tiniest bait fish to the largest apex predator.”
For the sequences in which the Sully family learns to pilot the Ilu creatures, the actors were positioned in tanks designed to reproduce high-velocity movement. Cameron would replicate what occurred to Sam Worthington‘s facial muscles onto his Na’vi double as they were propelled through the water. To accomplish these shots, one tank wouldn’t do.
“The idea was that we would engineer these custom tanks specifically around the motifs and elements that Jim knew we would need,” says Procter. “Whether it’s a giant wave engine at one end of it, whether it’s the racetrack mode where you could flow water around the whole thing to create a wind tunnel, so you do all the animal riding performance stuff in the correct flow of water.”
In a lesser movie, the digital artists could fake the physics. There was no such luck on Avatar, with James Cameron standing over their shoulders. If Sam Worthington couldn’t hold on for dear life in the racetrack tank, neither could his character. Other creators would simply animate a way to make it happen. Not Cameron.
“Humans can’t necessarily grab their spear and lift it forward in twenty-knot current,” continues Procter. “You think you can, but you can’t. So, all the things that animators on a different style of movie might think they can get away with, you can’t because Jim insists on using so much physicality in the way the movie is made.”
Na’vi were not the only Pandora residents the crew dunked into the tanks either. Procter and Cole needed to build stand-ins for the Ilu, the Scimwings, and even those bloody big Tulkun whales. They couldn’t feign how the actors interacted with them. Their relationship had to be as tactile as everything else.
“It was real from one end to the other,” says Cole. “When they’re riding the Ilu, we had them on these Jetovators, which is what you see people floating on in the bays. We put those sideways in the water and were blasting people around in the tank. There’s a section of the Ilu, a full-size body cutout, that they’re holding onto. That’s so all their contact points are accurate. So, yeah, when they’re riding around, they’re riding around on an Ilu with all that power.”
The star Tulkun, Payakan, demanded the most attention of any Pandoran. Jake Sully’s son Lo’ak encounters the rogue sea beast around the film’s midway point and quickly becomes a central figure in The Way of Water‘s action sequences. Cole and Procter created multiple substitutes to fabricate his presence in the tanks.
“For something like Payakan,” continues Cole, “we had multiple approximations for him. We had one system that was just the fin that Lo’ak rides on. Then, as he was being dragged through, we had a floater. We had an eye-line for his big eye, or eyes, on one side. We even had to build a full set for the scene where the kids are trying to pull the pinger out of him. There were some other scenes of them on his back where it’s literally a sculpted giant chunk of foam that approximates all the plating and the blowholes.”
Procter also marvels at Cameron embracing 48 frames per second for much of Avatar: The Way of Water‘s action, especially how it relates to the oceanic scenes. The higher frame rate removes another layer between the audience and the film, increasing the immersive sensation they attempted with the first Avatar. Despite spending years working on the movie, when Procter watches it today, he’s still pulled inside the fantasy. Or, reality, as it were. As they made it.
“Because of the high frame rate,” he says, “you’re just really staring right at it. The whole thing reminds me of some insane theme park experience almost. It’s so present. You’re so much looking at events really happening in front of you that it feels more like witnessing a live performance than it does looking at a conventional film, which I think is part of what makes it so special.”
This week, Dylan Cole and Ben Procter received Academy Award nominations (along with Vanessa Cole) for their work on Avatar: The Way of Water. They don’t do what they do for the little gold statue, but the recognition is nice. They’ve already devoted a decade-plus of their lives to Pandora, and they’re still in its trenches, putting the finishing touches on Avatar 3, due on December 20, 2024.
All Procter can say about that is, “A lot more coming.”
Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theaters everywhere.