"hat do you do after making the world's highest-grossing movie of all time, shattering the record you yourself had set more than a decade earlier? If you're James Cameron, you take a breath and then dive headfirst into the deep end — literally. After topping the box office with 2009's Avatar, his fantastic tropical saga of blue-skinned aliens and environmental messaging, the director vowed to return with not one but four planned sequels. He decided the first of these (in theaters Dec. 16, 2022) would be set primarily underwater, requiring years of technological research and months of training actors to hold their breath for lengths that would impress even a Navy SEAL.
But setting a story below sea level presents more than a few challenges. The innovative performance-capture process designed for the first Avatar wasn't intended to work underwater, so Cameron and his team had to engineer a way to accurately record the actors' tiniest movements and expressions while submerged. That footage was then animated by artists at the multi-Oscar-winning visual-effects company Weta Digital. Much of the performance-capture filming took place in a 900,000-gallon tank (built specifically for the sequels), which could mimic the ocean's swirling currents and crashing waves. "My colleagues within the production really lobbied heavily for us to do it 'dry for wet,' hanging people on wires," Cameron notes. "I said, 'It's not going to work. It's not going to look real.' I even let them run a test, where we captured dry for wet, and then we captured in water, a crude level of our in-water capture. And it wasn't even close."
Many of the cast members prepared for the plunge by getting scuba-certified, culminating in a field trip to dive with manta rays in Hawaii. But when it came to filming, air bubbles and scuba technology would have interfered with the performance-capture process — so each actor had to train with professional divers until they could free dive, holding their breath for minutes at a time. Cameron says 72-year-old Sigourney Weaver, who's returning in a top secret new role after dying in the first film, could easily hold her breath for six and a half minutes, while new cast member Kate Winslet "blew everybody away when she did a seven-and-a-half-minute breath hold." Avatar 2 marks a reunion between Cameron and his Titanic star Winslet; here, the 46-year-old Oscar and Emmy winner plays one of the Metkayina, a mysterious character named Ronal."