Before filming Avatar: The Way Of Water began, New Zealand star Cliff Curtis traveled to Hawaii with the cast to learn how to play a semi-aquatic alien surrounded by real coral reefs.
The idea was to give the cast a taste of what it’s really like to live and play underwater, in one of the world’s most fragile environments.
Curtis spent hours submerged, learning to free dive and holding his breath for longer and longer periods of time.
It was during a night dive into those crystal clear waters that he had what Avatar producer Jon Landau would describe as “the greatest Avatar experience you can have in real life, on Earth”: Curtis was surrounded by a school of giant manta rays.
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“To be honest, it was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life,” says Curtis (Te Arawa, Ngāti Haiti), on a Zoom call from Sydney with his co-star, Sam Worthington.
“I remember rehearsing Whale Rider, our little movie from home, with the director [Niki Caro] and keisha [Castle-Hughes, the film’s lead] and we had a room with a chair, and that was what we had to rehearse. We couldn’t go to Hawaii and night dive with manta rays.”
It’s been 13 years since audiences last traveled to Pandora, the mythical world at the heart of director James Cameron’s eco-minded sci-fi epics, but, for Worthington, it’s as if he’s never been outside. He started talking about sequels with Cameron in 2013. four years after Avatar broke box office records left and right. She was shown the production designs and first drafts of the scripts in 2015 and began rehearsals, the Hawaiian portion of the production, as early as 2017.
For Curtis, however, this is my first time as part of the Avatar family. It’s been a “dream come true” for the 54-year-old actor, whose credits range from intimate New Zealand dramas like the dark horse, Muru and Whale Rider, to big-budget special effects bonanzas like Fear the Walking Dead, Sunshine, and Meg.
He feels, “Blessed, grateful, all superlatives, really,” to have been involved in Cameron’s sprawling passion project.
“It’s been the best time for me creatively, in my acting career, as a storyteller. It’s got everything you could hope to have in one project. It’s on the top of the mountain, really.
“I was incredibly inspired by the first film. I was honored to be a part of this one, and to bring to it part of my heritage, informed by being Maori and part of the culture of Oceania and Polynesia.”
Avatar: The Way of Water will debut in New Zealand theaters on December 14.
Curtis plays Tonowari, the leader of a semi-aquatic alien people called the Metkayina, a Caribbean/South American/Pasifika-inspired society we first meet in The Way of Water.
He has said before that he drew on these Maori ancestors to create the Tonowari, envisioning the Metkayina as some sort of mythological, idealized version of ancient Maori culture. But his imagined fight against human colonizers is also a metaphor for all the struggles indigenous communities face in the real world.
“There is a very strong influence of the native cultures of South America [in the Metkayina]. It’s really about introducing those fundamental values of humanity that have been largely forgotten and discarded.
“If you go to the Amazon right now, they’re fighting to save their forests against foreign interests who need that land, who do whatever they want to get the resources. That’s really happening on our planet right now. So even though we re in Pandora, far, far away, and even though I am of Polynesian descent, these conflicts for indigenous peoples, in many parts of this world, are present.”
Tonowari’s emotion may be real, but his appearance is entirely CGI, his turquoise cat-like features mapped onto Curtis’s actual face and performance, using motion capture or motion capture.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Cameron wanted to up the difficulty level a bit, shooting much of the motion capture action in massive deep-sea tanks located in Wellington and Auckland, the first film to use motion capture under Water.
In fact, Landau says he prefers the term “e-motion-capture,” because they pushed the technology to the limits to capture not just the actor’s movements, but their entire performance, including their expressions and emotions.
“Everything you see in the water, we did it for real as actors. We all learned to freedive, which is a technique that slows the heart rate, calms the brain, allows you to get more oxygen into the blood and be calmer. underwater and not drown,” says Worthington, who reprises his role as ex-grunt Jake Sully, the human/giant blue alien-boy-cat hybrid hero from the first film.
“I did a scene with a little boy that was hard enough to do on dry land, about a father and son trying to connect, we just did it at the bottom of the 30-foot tank.
“That in itself is something special and unique that Jim has brought to this story because it gives it a level of authenticity that will immerse audiences and make them believe in this world.”
Over the course of filming, the cast’s lung capacity increased to the point where they could spend minutes underwater at a time. At a point, co-star kate winsletwho plays Curtis’s on-screen wife, Ronal, crashed a new Hollywood underwater record of 7 minutes and 13 seconds holding his breath underwater, sinking the record of 6 minutes for Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
It meant they could be underwater doing not just the action sequences, but the emotional moments as well.
“The idea is that you take it [Hawaii] experience, and bring it back to our sound stages and our water tanks. We are bringing pieces of what we remember and remember in the [less inspiring] place where we filmed”.
It’s quite a leap, from the warm blue waters of the Pacific to an icy tank in a studio in windy Wellington: “Because pretty much, when we shoot, we’re back in a room with the chair,” says Curtis, the best of it. , says Worthington, is that it gives actors a chance to put their imaginations to work.
“We know the world that’s going to be created digitally: we can see it, we have the technology. But it’s about us believing in this situation, no matter how extreme.”
“The whole methodology behind it is play. That’s how it’s designed. It’s what we learned in the first movie. It’s the truth, the absolute truth between two people in imaginary circumstances. And whether you’re 30 feet underwater or in an increased gray volume [a tank-like virtual set where backdrops are projected onto led walls for performers to play against]it’s about connecting.”
At its core, fancy special effects aside, Avatar 2 is a movie about “a family that has to connect and is going offline,” a family that loves the weird and wonderful world they live in and fights to save that world.
“You’re seeing it through the eyes of teenagers, you’re seeing it through the eyes of an 8-year-old, you’re seeing it through the eyes of a mom and dad, and that hopefully gives you to the audience a way of in.”
As director and storyteller, Curtis credits Cameron with “an incredible job” of creating that space for the actors, despite the often “daunting” technology.
“He was able to point us to where we needed to be emotionally for the scene to work. Then we took his cue and jumped in, right? We just go.”
Avatar: The Way of Water hits Kiwi theaters on December 14.