Here's how 'Avatar: The Way of Water' turned Kate Winslet into an aquatic alien
Fans have described Winslet as "unrecognizable" in James Cameron's blockbuster sequel.
Avatar: The Way of Water isn't just James Cameron's long-awaited return to Pandora — it's also his long-awaited reunion with his Titanic star Kate Winslet. Twenty-five years ago, the acclaimed British actress shot to the top of Hollywood's A-list alongside Leonardo DiCaprio when they played doomed lovers, Jack and Rose, in the director's beloved historical romance. And Winslet is part of another power couple in The Way of Water, playing the wife of a Na'vi chief in the blockbuster sequel, which just sailed past Titanic to become the third highest-grossing movie of all time internationally.
But don't feel bad if you didn't clock Winslet the first (or even the second) time that you saw Avatar 2. Thanks to the magic of performance capture technology, the Oscar-winning star literally vanishes into her role as Ronal — the power behind the throne of the Metkayina tribe that inhabits Pandora's oceans — thanks to the magic of performance capture technology. And while viewers are generally able to discern Zoë Saldaña's profile in her role as forest warrior, Neytiri, or Sam Worthington's pronounced jawline as human-turned-Na'vi leader, Jake Sully, Winslet's appearance has been described as "unrecognizable" by many fans on social media.
Watch behind the scenes footage of Kate Winslet's Avatar: The Way of Water performance below:
But Avatar's visual effects chief, Eric Saindon, would beg to differ. "I think she is there," says the Senior VFX Supervisor at Wētā FX, the New Zealand-based company that brought The Way of Water to life — and is widely expected to pick up the Best Visual Effects statue when the Oscars are announced on Sunday. "You maybe don't read Kate as distinctly, but there's so much about her character that's distinct anyway, like the hair and the facial tattoos. But the elements that help sell her performance all come from Kate."
If you still can't spot Winslet in Ronal, Saindon suggests that you look more closely at her when she's speaking. "Ronal has Kate's mouth, and her nose a little bit," he explains to Yahoo Entertainment. "We always want to make sure we get the mouth as close to the performer as possible, because that's the key thing. We looked at the corners of the mouth and the way she tightens her lips against her upper teeth. Those are simple things you probably won't even notice if you're watching it the first time through, but if you really compare side-by-side footage of Kate and Ronal, you really see the subtleties that bring her character to life."
Like the rest of The Way of Water's cast, Winslet filmed her role in the Volume — a fully equipped studio where actors are outfitted in tricked-out suits that allow their performances to be captured by cameras that map the actors faces. That footage provides the VFX artists with a wealth of reference material for the intensive process of transforming the human actors into Na'vi. And one of the foundational decisions that Cameron and Saindon's team make at the outset of production is how much of the actor's face to preserve in their alien alter egos.
See the The Way of Water cast on set in a group performance scene:
"To be honest, we really let the actors bleed in as much as we can without losing the character," Saindon says of the conversations that go on during the design process. "You want to feel like you're seeing the character, but you also want to bring in as much as the actor as possible, because then you understand the performance so much better." He points to Saldaña and Sigourney Weaver — who plays Kiri, the Na'vi daughter of her human Avatar character, Dr. Grace Augustine — as notable cases of where a performer's distinctive traits are translated into their performance capture-enhanced character.
"Zoë does so much in her performance — particularly with her mouth — that you see her come through," he notes. "And there are subtleties in Sigourney's performance, too. The way she moves her eyes, for example, really comes through. If you look at pictures of young Sigourney, Kiri matches her very well."
In Winslet's case, Saindon's team designed a bust of Ronal — along with a plethora of other artwork — before the actress arrived at a Manhattan Beach studio to film her role when production began in 2017. "We had lots of studies of how Ronal might look and might do certain things, but we also wanted to leave it flexible to allow Kate to define the character, too," he explains, recalling that one of Winslet's earliest contributions was adding some "swagger" to the Metkayina leader and shaman.
"That walk that Ronal does when she first appears in the Metkayina village was all Kate," the VFX supervisor says. "A concept artist isn't going to bring that to the character — you have to let the actors do it. And our animators really study the actors to understand their subtleties, because sometimes those subtleties can look like mistakes. Their eye might flicker in a weird way, and they might think something got screwed up in the interpolation of the motion data. But then we're able to go back to the reference camera and see that it's definitely something that the actor did. When that happened, Jim would always say: 'We're keeping it.'"
Another moment that's pure Winslet is the look that Ronal shoots her mate, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), when he's weighing whether or not to let the fugitive Sully family stay with their tribe, despite the danger they pose. "That's the moment where I always think: 'So it's not just my wife that does that to me!'" Saindon says, laughing. "And that scene was performed with all of the actors together as a group. If Kate had done it on her own with a camera right in her face, you might not get the same moment. But because they were in a big performance capture group, you can see what they're all thinking without a word ever being said."
See "the look" Ronal gives Tonowari in Avatar: The Way of Water:
A larger question that faced Cameron and the VFX team was how to make the Metkayina tribe visually distinct from the forest dwellers represented by the Sully clan. Saindon says that the filmmaker took point on the design, which was influenced by New Zealand's native Māori culture. (Curtis is of Māori descent, as is Duane Evans Jr., who plays a Metkayina hunter.) Both the original Avatar and its sequel have been heavily criticized by some native groups for cultural appropriation, and Saindon acknowledges those concerns about representation.
"Jim tried to bring in a lot of that culture in a very proper way for people to understand that culture and respect it," he says. "He had a lot of people come in, like Cliff, to help him understand the proper way to do it. We spent a lot of time on that, trying to do it properly. I thought he did a very good job and that everyone was represented well."
Ronal's Māori-inspired tattoos were overseen by the film's costume designer, Deborah Lynn Scott, who is another Titanic veteran. "We worked with local tattoo artists that know the South Pacific style," Saindon recalls. "Those tattoos have all sorts of different meanings, so we had to understand what we were putting on there. There are no words or phrases in Ronal's tattoos, but they all point towards the shell she had on her head, communicating the understanding that she is the tribe's shaman. She also has one on her belly that signifies her pregnancy." (A mother of three in real life, Winslet has said in interviews that she loved playing a pregnant warrior.)
Ronal will return in the third Avatar film, which is currently set for release on Dec. 20, 2024 and will introduce another new — and potentially villainous — Na'vi tribe that Cameron has labeled the "Ash People." Saindon declines to elaborate on the filmmaker's remarks about this mysterious fire-based tribe, only confirming that the VFX work on Avatar 3 is well underway. (Performance capture footage for the third film was shot concurrently with The Way of Water.)
"Jim gave us some cut scenes three or four months ago so we could really start working on the new characters," he teases. "They have some very unique things about them and are going to be great characters with very different styles. We wanted all the time we could to start developing their look. There are also a lot of new environments that we haven't seen before — we're really going to get more of a look at Pandora. I'd love to say it's going to be easier to work on Avatar 3 after everything we developed for this one, but with every movie, Jim always adds more stuff!"
Avatar 3 also awards Saindon's team the opportunity to animate a sequence that Winslet has talked about for some time. During The Way of Water press tour, the actress revealed that she held her breath underwater for over seven minutes, setting a record for the cast, who had to film multiple scenes for both movies in actual water. That skill came in handy for a trip to the bottom of Pandora's ocean that Ronal will take in the next movie.
"It's a scene where she's walking along the bottom of the ocean — a very majestic walk," he says. "Kate's ability to stay under water that whole time just gave her more time to perform without having to worry about air. You can tell when actors are starting to run out of air, because they start to get that slightly-panicked feel to them. Whereas if you can hold your breath all that time, you have the time to settle in and do your performance. Kate gave us a lot to work with."
Avatar: The Way of Water is currently playing in theaters.