The Underwater Mo-Cap Of James Cameron’s Avatar Sequels Will Be Unlike Anything We’ve Ever Seen


James Cameron is clearly plotting something very, very special with his Avatar sequels.

In what is surely the textbook example of a tale that grew in the telling, Cameron’s franchise has now ballooned to five – count ’em five – instalments, with four CGI spectaculars slated for release between 2020 and 2025. As we speak, the illustrious filmmaker is hard at work developing Avatar 2 and 3, which are poised to dive deep into Pandora’s lush oceans over the next few years.

It’s a tantalizing story expansion that Cameron isn’t taking lightly, either, given he’s employing motion-capture technology…underwater. Now how’s that for pushing the envelope?

Speaking to Collider ahead of the NatGeo special, Titanic: 20 Years Later – incidentally, James Cameron recently paved the way for a Titanic reunion by casting Kate Winslet for the Avatar sequels – the director outlined the reasons why underwater filming can be so difficult.

Well, we’re doing it. It’s never been done before and it’s very tricky because our motion capture system, like most motion capture systems, is what they call optical base, meaning that it uses markers that are photographed with hundreds of cameras. The problem with water is not the underwater part, but the interface between the air and the water, which forms a moving mirror. 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. It creates thousands of false targets, so we’ve had to figure out how to get around that problem, which we did. Basically, whenever you add water to any problem, it just gets ten times harder. So, 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.

Capturing those performances underwater will add a real sense of authenticity to Cameron’s Avatar sequels, so it’s fair to say that the film’s underwater sequences will be unlike anything we’ve seen before. And there will be emotion, too.

We’ve done a tremendous amount of testing, and we did it successfully, for the first time, just last Tuesday [November 14th]. We actually played an entire scene underwater with our young cast. We’ve got six teenagers and one seven-year-old, and they’re all playing a scene underwater. We’ve been training them for six months now, with how to hold their breath, and they’re all up in the two to four-minute range. They’re all perfectly capable of acting underwater, very calmly while holding their breath. We’re not doing any of this on scuba. And we’re getting really good data, beautiful character motion and great facial performance capture. We’ve basically cracked the code.

As things stand, Avatar 2 will get the big blue ball rolling for James Cameron and Co. on December 18th, 2020. And after that? Well, viewers can look forward to Avatar 3 (December 17th, 2021), Avatar 4 (December 20th, 2024) and, finally (?), Avatar 5 on December 19th, 2025.