By David Weiner
Thirteen years makes a big difference. The visual splendor of AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER and its photorealistic characters, creatures and landscapes is light years ahead of the already incredible achievements of 2009’s AVATAR. Elevated by incredibly fluid (pun intended) and realistic underwater sequences (which required new advancements in technology to capture the super-wet mo-cap performances), gritty battle sequences, and sweat-dripping, pore-counting close-ups of our Na’vi heroes, the world of Pandora feels more realistic than ever before.
Back in 2016, I had the privilege of chatting with James Cameron for 45 minutes about the making of ALIENS for an exclusive Famous Monsters magazine 30th anniversary cover story. At the time, Cameron was already knee-deep in production on the first of several sequels to his 2009 box-office phenomenon that topped his own TITANIC. AVATAR was very much on his mind, and though I did my best to be respectful of the boundaries of our ALIENS interview, the topic of AVATAR did pop up, and much to my surprise he was game to share sequel details.
Perhaps the biggest revelation he shared with me, which was not common knowledge at the time, was that he was filming all of the AVATAR sequels not one after the other, but concurrently (I broke this news online right after our chat, and my Famous Monsters story was picked up worldwide — not too shabby!)
“It’s not back-to-back. It’s really all one big production,” said Cameron. “It’s more the way you would shoot a miniseries. We’ll be shooting across all [AVATAR scripts] simultaneously. So Monday I might be doing a scene from Movie Four, and Tuesday I’m doing a scene from Movie One,” he explained.
“We’re working across, essentially, eight hours of story,” he said. “It’s going to be a big challenge to keep it all fixed in our minds, exactly where we are, across that story arc at any given point. It’s going to be probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I’m sure the actors will be challenged by that as well.”
Working through any given scene on any given day, an animated Cameron gave the example, “It’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, this person hasn’t died yet, so you’re still in this phase of your life.’ It’s a saga. It’s like doing all three GODFATHER films at the same time.”
As far as the world-building visual technology was progressing for the sequels, Cameron gave an example using his recognizable centerpiece creature of ALIENS.
“If I could do the Alien Queen today with the techniques we used on AVATAR, she’d be spectacular. She’d be much more dynamic,” he said, adding candidly, “Now, where I would struggle is to make her as texturally real. But that’s all doable now.”
“On the new AVATAR films, I’m actually going to shoot more real-world stuff,” he revealed. “It may only be there as an example from which we then generate CG, or we may actually integrate some of those photographic elements. But I want more photography. … Like, if I was doing the Alien Queen, I would want photography to show the exact way that the slime drools off the curl of a lip and caught the light in a certain type of very low-key lighting. I would want to see that so that I can talk to the CG artist and say, ‘All right. Do that.’ … It always usually boils down to the lighting and the conception of the shot.”
When Cameron and I spoke in the spring of 2016, the box-office landscape was very different. The Disney STAR WARS cinematic universe was just ramping up — and 20th Century Fox had not yet been swallowed up by the Mouse House. The wave of AVATAR sequels were originally scheduled to roll out starting Christmas 2018, with subsequent installments planned for 2020, 2022, and 2023. It’s interesting to get a sense of where Cameron’s head was in 2016 in terms of battling the Evil Empire at the box office — and to see that his hubris was firmly intact.
“My original plan was to release [the AVATAR sequels] a year apart,” he said, pre-COVID. “But we’re opening that up. If for no other reason than that I don’t want to land on the same date as one of the STAR WARS sequels. That wouldn’t be fair to them. [laughs] No, that’s just good business. I don’t want to go head-to-head with STAR WARS. That would be stupid. And hopefully they won’t want to go head to head with us.”
Fortunately for Cameron, that potential threat appears to be off the table, as STAR WARS, for the next few years at least, appears to be solely the domain of Disney+ — and the studio now controls the release pattern of 20th Century film projects (after the sale of the rival studio was completed in 2019, Disney ultimately changed the name to 20th Century Studios). The combination of incredibly polarizing fan reception for THE LAST JEDI in December 2017 (belied by solid box office numbers), followed up by a less-than-stellar box-office the next summer for SOLO, led Disney to lean on Disney+ to house their STAR WARS storytelling (bolstered by the runaway success of MANDALORIAN and Baby Yoda, er, Grogu) as they develop new projects in a galaxy far, far away for the big screen.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cameron was forced to delay production on his AVATAR sequels like everyone else in Hollywood. He announced in the summer of 2020 that AVATAR 3 would be rescheduled to hit theaters in Christmas 2024, and AVATAR 4 and 5 is December 2026 and December 2028, respectively.
Now, the wait begins. Again…
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