Editing James Cameron’s multiple ‘Avatar’ sequels at once unsurprisingly sounds like a nightmare

avatar the way of water
via 20th Century Studios

James Cameron has once again confounded his critics with Avatar: The Way of Water. Prior to release, the sequel had been met with skepticism over whether audiences really wanted to return to Pandora after so long. Well, the latest figures put The Way of Water at a $1.1 billion global box office haul, with its $760m international box office meaning it’ll pass Top Gun: Maverick later today to become the highest-grossing international release of the year.

This will likely cause a huge sigh of relief over at Disney and 20th Century Studios, as they’re already hard at work on three further Avatar movies. Creating The Way of Water alone was a gargantuan task involving numerous technological breakthroughs, and, with filming on the subsequent entries already partly complete, assembling this series sounds like a headache.

Cameron went into detail on how all this is edited together in an interview with IndieWire, confirming that it was a five-year process involving four editors (Stephen Rivkin, David Brenner, John Refoua, and Cameron himself) and multiple versions of the movie:

“We had four editors who were run of show for five years, two other editors who were in for a year or a couple of years, and then a staff of about a dozen assistants split between Los Angeles and New Zealand. It’s very edit intensive, and the reason is you basically edit the whole movie twice. … I start figuring out what’s a close-up and what’s a wide shot and this and that, and playing with the lighting and moving scenic elements around. Then the shots begin to actually come in and at that point you now have to edit everything again.”

The Way of Water being largely CGI and created with virtual performances also means the editing team have a lot more room to work with than on a traditional live-action project, as editor Rivkin explained.

“We don’t have to be limited. We can combine takes – one actor could be from take one and one actor could be from take three if that’s where their best performance is. Sometimes we would even stitch together performances from the same actor on different takes.”

Rivkin was also at pains to emphasize that this doesn’t make it an animated feature:

“Animation is something where they create characters and usually an actor comes in to replace an assistant’s voice and create the character afterward. This is live-action filmmaking in the sense that it starts with the actor’s performance and it ends up fully rendered with the actor’s performance. When people say it’s animated, it’s not an animated film. It is a live-action film with real actors performing everything, and these actors did an amazing job.”

Audiences around the world clearly agree, and while it’s looking very unlikely that The Way of Water will match Avatar‘s performance (which it should be noted is the highest-grossing movie of all-time), it’s now certain to go down as one of the biggest hits of recent years, which bodes very well for the box office potential of the many Avatar sequels coming soon.

Avatar: The Way of Water is now in theaters, with Avatar 3 confirmed for release on December 20, 2024.