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Image for 00 Why Did Avatar 2 Take So Long Hero

Why Did Avatar: The Way of Water Take So Long to Make?

11/22/2022 • 4 min read

Thanks to Marvel Studios, it's common for filmmakers to plan sequels in advance, or to at least have ideas in mind as they are making a movie. As is the case with so many other aspects of filmmaking, James Cameron, the writer and director of the AVATAR movies, takes this to an extreme.

Cast your mind back to late 2009 when AVATAR became a monster hit. Even then Cameron had ideas in mind for sequels and had casually talked about the idea since 2006. Now it is 2022, and AVATAR 2, a.k.a. AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, is just about to open. Movies can take a long time to make but that gap between AVATAR movies — especially when everyone knew a sequel was absolutely going to happen — is unusually long. So why did AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER take so long to make?

James Cameron's Obsessive Attention to Detail

It would be easy to answer that question by saying James Cameron is a perfectionist and leaving it at that. But there’s a lot more nuance to the situation. In fact, several of Cameron‘s approaches to creating AVATAR sequels seem to relate directly to things that other movies and movie studios have not done very well.

Take the writing process, for example. Writing on the AVATAR began as far back as 2012. Around that time the number of sequels bloomed from one to four. That would make five AVATAR movies total if they all come to theaters.

Cameron even completed and threw out an early draft for the first sequel. (That script has been adapted to comics, so you can read it via Dark Horse's "Avatar: The High Ground" collection.) Eventually, Cameron worked with a collection of writers. He and those writers worked on several sequels simultaneously. In the end, four sequels were written and submitted to the studio in 2017. Writing all four of those movies took four solid years of work, which is certainly a long time.

But many tentpole movies go into production without a completed script, and that process is sometimes reflected in the final film. It’s easy to see why Cameron wanted to do things differently. While the sequel scripts may change a bit if audiences have a strong reaction to a particular element in THE WAY OF WATER, those scripts are basically finished. All the related character designs have been done for a long time.

The Demands of Underwater Moviemaking

And then there’s the actual filming of the movie. Cameron set much of AVATAR 2 underwater, which is likely the product of his lifelong fascination with underwater exploration. That interest has been reflected in his movies all the way back to the beginning of his career when he directed his first feature, PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING.

Creating effective and believable underwater environments for AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER took years. Performance capture work began in New Zealand back in 2017. That performance capture process wrapped a little over a year later. But then there was still a lot of live-action filming to be done.

Performance capture work also requires a massive post-production process, which was handled by WETA Digital, the company co-founded by Peter Jackson and which became famous for work on THE LORD OF THE RINGS movies. The effort seems to have paid off, as the footage from AVATAR 2, especially on the big screen in 3-D, has blown audiences away.

The filmmaker has not minced words when talking about the value of actually shooting under water with actors who have trained to hold their breath. Multiple movies have either recently been released or will soon be out in which the underwater sequences were mostly simulated. Asked about the difference we'll see in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, Cameron said "Oh, I don’t know, maybe that it looks good? Come on! You want it to look like the people are underwater, so they need to be underwater. It’s not some gigantic leap — if you were making a western, you’d be out learning how to ride a horse."

So when you wonder why AVATAR 2 took so long to make, maybe the answer isn't that James Cameron is a perfectionist — it's that everyone had to learn to breathe underwater!


AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER opens on December 16.


All images courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

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