Avatar movies filmed in New Zealand to use 'never-seen-before' film technique

As Avatar was the highest-grossing movie on the planet for a decade, a sequel was a given.

But of course filmmaker James Cameron never does things by halves and he's been working on four Avatar movies.

Three of those have been in production in New Zealand this year, but so far there have been only a few clues about what's in store for fans. Which is just the way he likes it.

Cameron spoke to his Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger on a public Zoom call from Wellington this week and not even Arnie was able to get much out of him.

"I can't tell you about the story... but in terms of what I can release... I believe in the mystery and the great reveal," Cameron said.

One thing he did tell Schwarzenegger was that shooting on Avatar 2 was 100 percent complete and 95 percent done on Avatar 3.

"We are very lucky as we chose this as our production site years ago, we made our first film here in NZ and it turns out it's ranked as either the first or second best country in the world with it's covid response - so we are very fortunate." 

Avatar producer and collaborator Jon Landau has also been neck-deep in the production in Wellington and was able to give us more of a glimpse into the new Avatar to come. Images of the film's concept art have been drip-fed to fans and they show a very watery Pandora, but what that means for the production itself is only now becoming clear.

"Technology enables us to tell stories that cannot otherwise be told," he told Newshub.

"We are advancing everything we did on the first movie to a new, higher level - and there are some paths we've never gone down before, such as performance capture in the water."

Actor Kate Winslet knows a thing or two about water, she survived the icy seas of Titanic with James Cameron over 20 years ago. Now she takes another deep breath diving into Avatar 2 - and I mean a really deep breath.

"Kate Winslet was able to do a static breath hold on some mixed air, they call it, for over seven minutes."

Seven minutes! And if like me you were wondering what 'mixed air' is? It's what freedivers use to train with, to help them dive further for longer. Now, they're using the same technique with the actors on Avatar.

"That's not just about technology, that's also about training the actors to feel comfortable on a breath-hold dive underwater for long extended periods of time," said Landau.

"We have several different tanks but one of the tanks we have is a circular tank that has windows that you can see into. And I walked by the window and there was Kate walking on the bottom, just walking on the bottom rehearsing for a scene, and she waves to me. And I thought that was pretty amazing.

"Sigourney Weaver doing multiple performances underwater for extended periods of time, Sam and Zoe, all of them had to do this."

So my next question, if these actors are performing underwater, how are they communicating with each other? And on this Landau was infuriatingly but understandably cagey.

"I wanna be careful here, we've not talked alot about this yet, I don't know that we're ready to... But... we understand the rules of physics and people will not be able to vocalise underwater because people can't do that. But there are ways divers have of communicating underwater and ways that other people have of communicating. So, we're looking to ground everything we do on our films, we believe it's science fact while other people might see it as science fiction."

When it comes to the Avatar sets, Landau says there are "too many" to count.

"We could not fit all of our sets in Stone Street Studios [in Wellington]," he said.

"We had to break up some of our set work to Auckland, where we filmed in Kumeu Studios. We had to break some of our sets here in Wellington to another facility we found, which is a warehouse, because the sets were so many and so vast."

Avatar 2 reunites many of the original cast, including Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver. Along with Winslet, other new additions include Kiwi actors Cliff Curtis and Jemaine Clement.

We'll have to wait some time before we find out where they both fit in to this new Avatar narrative, the film is still two years away from release, scheduled to land on December 16, 2022.