Through a combination of 3D cinema camera rigs, motion capture cameras and even virtual production, the titanic The director reinvents underwater filming.
For the past three decades, James Cameron has been obsessed with and primarily filmed in water. And with the upcoming release of Avatar 2: The Way of Waterthe titanic Director takes motion capture to a new level by developing an underwater mocap system and a 3D-based beamsplitter camera rig to create the iconic CGI Na’vi Characters.
Check out this video from Frame Voyager for more.
The journey starts
Cameron’s underwater journey began with the 1989 sci-fi drama The abyss. The director filled a decommissioned nuclear power plant with millions of gallons of water and used it as the main set for filming several key underwater scenes. The pool simulated the ocean floor of the deep sea, and the entire cast and crew had to be certified to dive in order to safely film the film.
The film had to start production even before the construction of the deep-sea research station set was complete, and production had to place black beads on the surface of the underwater tank to break up the surface reflection that would cause the film to reflect in that direction Camera.
The six-month schedule of 70 hours a week was a punishment, and Cameron almost drowned when his scuba tank ran out of air and he was forced to dart to the surface because a safety diver wouldn’t reach him in time. Perhaps inspired by this experience, actor Ed Harris accused Cameron of keeping safety divers out of reach to give him a realistic sense of terror as he swam across the ocean floor. The actor stated after the experience that he would never work with Cameron again.
But the lessons Cameron learned The abyss would continue to serve him well as he moved on to filming other underwater scenes, including from movies like the original Avatar, Alita: Battle Angel, Sanctum, and now Avatar: The Way of Water.
In between, Cameron made several real-life voyages to the wreck of the Titanic and the Mariana Trench in the Pacific as Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic, and developed deep-sea film lights and cameras for several documentaries.
But for Avatar: The Way of WaterCameron just wasn’t happy with how wirework was used to simulate the underwater activity of the Na’vi in the seas of Pandora. The actors and stunt doubles pretending to swim seemed flashier and more fake.
So Cameron filled a 900,000-gallon swimming pool and had free riders train the cast how to hold their breath for up to eight minutes. The actors were even outfitted with underwater jetpacks to make their swimming skills appear more fluid and alien.
Underwater shots in 3D
In terms of camera technology, Cameron’s team worked with Sony to invent a motion capture system based on the Sony VENICE 2 modular cinema camera.
“They listen to the filmmaker about what features they want in a camera, and they’ll go far and wide,” Cameron said of his career-long collaboration with Sony. “I know they will provide the engineering. If they say they can, they will.”
From the set of sequels: @ZoeSaldanaSam Worthington, Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis take a break from underwater performance capturing for a quick photo!
Fun fact: Much of the performance capture took place in this 900,000-gallon tank that was purpose-built for the sequels. pic.twitter.com/NSfqoZ6jXJ
— Avatar (@officialavatar) May 13, 2020
The system was able to capture the actors’ performance underwater by working in conjunction with motion control cameras, some of which were mounted above the surface while others were waterproof motion cameras mounted underwater.
There were also close-up cameras that were redesigned to be waterproof to capture actors’ facial response data.
The main camera is based on a pair of Sony VENICE cameras, reconfigured by Pawel Achtel, ACS, and used with a depth 3D underwater beamsplitter and Nikkor Nikonos underwater lenses designed for shooting underwater without optical distortion. Cameron chose 3D technology simply because we all have two eyes and playing the video in stereo gives the audience a realistic and immersive feeling of actually being there.
“DeepX 3D is the world’s first patented camera system designed for uncompromising acquisition of stereoscopic 3D images underwater when using submersible lenses,” Pawel said in a 2015 statement. “Unlike other underwater 3D beamsplitter systems that housing a beam splitter behind a flat port, DeepX 3D is fully submerged in water. This revolutionary design allows for wide viewing angles, no geometric distortions, and no chromatic aberrations associated with traditional designs. It offers virtually unlimited corner-to-corner sharpness. DeepX 3D is the only underwater 3D system that enables immersive, high-resolution stereoscopic 3D imaging underwater. It delivers more than an order of magnitude more detail than is possible with traditional housing systems.”
The challenge, however, was that using two cameras required the challenge of synchronizing the camera lenses and focusing them at the same time.
Cameron’s Fusion camera design benefited from two smaller VENICE cameras with a separate optical block and brain attached to a shoulder mount. Using a beam splitter to simultaneously film and align two frames simultaneously, the rig was very light at less than 30 pounds.
But even then, they had a problem with lens blisters while shooting underwater. To counteract this, cinematographers used Kodak Photo-Flo, a chemical gel that could be applied to the lens to relieve tension and prevent bubbles from forming.
Cameron even brought back the surface beads, this time made of white ping pong-like balls, to cover the surface and break up the reflectivity again.
But how did that work with the motion capture systems? The system used turned out to be an optical system that tracked the infrared spectrum, which could be picked up by the cameras due to the system’s opacity.
With these tools, Cameron was able to shoot the film in 3D at 8K with incredible detail and resolution. From there it was up to Weta Digital to create intricate hair physics to create the motion of hair moving underwater and CGI skin that sheds water when they surface at the surface.
For pure CGI footage, Cameron used a virtual camera rig to capture the motion capture data and overlay it with a virtual capture environment, tracking the real camera in virtual space.
FilmRiot’s Ryan Connolly shows roughly how this could be done in the following video:
Was it worth shooting in 3D, a technique that has always been considered more of a gimmick than a viable cinematic technique? Well, Cameron is working with Christie Laser Projectors to develop a 3D laser projector that projects a 3D image without requiring special glasses to enjoy it.
The projector will not be ready before then Avatar: The Way of Water hits theaters on December 16, but if Cameron can pull this off, three more sequels are on the way. All that remains is whether the sequel itself can live up to the hype and expectations of what’s to follow Record-breaking original, 13 years after it became the highest-grossing film of all time.
If it’s possible, imagine what Cameron will do for the upcoming films. We can hardly wait.