From Bora Bora to Pandora: How Avatar: The Way of Water Built a Whole New World

Meet Wētā FX’s Pavani Rao Boddapati, who was the visual effects supervisor for director James Cameron’s latest film
From Bora Bora to Pandora: How Avatar: The Way of Water Built a Whole New World

The Visual Effects Sequence Supervisor at Wētā FX, Pavani Rao Boddapati, is a self-proclaimed “Pandora nerd”. She moved to New Zealand to work on Avatar as a Lighting Technical Director. Then, as a computer graphics (CG) Supervisor, she delved deeper into director James Cameron’s universe with Avatar: Flight of Passage (2017), a 3D flying-simulator ride for Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park. In 2017, Rao Boddapati joined the Avatar: The Way of Water team and has since completed a decade in Pandora. Along the way, she also worked on the CG of The Hobbit trilogy (2012–14) and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015). A member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Rao Boddapati spoke to us about the elaborate filmmaking process of Avatar: The Way of Water.

Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

As a VFX Supervisor, what does your job entail?

My responsibility is to deliver the sequences that my team is handling. In this movie, I worked on all the Metkayina world-building sequences. My job is…it sits between Jim's (director James Cameron) vision, creatively producing those images, driving the technology to be able to produce those images and keeping the budget in mind. I sit between all of those three things and it's a long project so staying inspired was a big part of it as well.

Which did you prefer creating, the forest (from the prequel) or the sea?

The water. That was the appeal for me, it's very complex. Two thousand and two hundred water shots we did on this film. That is the largest number probably attempted at Wētā FX. I wanted to learn more about water, and be a part of the team that built the technology.

What is the process of transforming a script into visuals?

What we get from Lightstorm (the production company founded by Cameron and Lawrence Kasanoff), is a 'template' that has got a very crude representation of the performance from the actors and the environment they are in. It's not going to be detailed, it's just very crude to show, ‘okay here's the colour’, ‘here's an opening’, and ‘this is how the camera moves’. We have a team that sits at Lightstorm that helps produce these and works with Jim directly. When we start on the VFX, we start with these crude images that give us a good indication of the final product, and what kind of complexity we need to build combined with all of the art we get from the art directors and Jim. We take these very crude images and convert them into the high-res (resolution) images that you see in the film.

Since the Avatar world is fictional, how are the briefs provided on how something is to be designed?

We have some art directors who are at Lightstorm. We have Dylan Cole, Deb (Scott), who does the costumes and we have Ben Procter. Our art team spends a lot of time figuring this thing out so I'll just use a very small example. When you go to these underwater shots, there are hundreds of corals in them and none of it is on planet Earth. They are all fantastical, they are all Pandoran. So when we get a design from Lightstorm, Michael Smith, our art director and Dylan will work together and say, “Well what's the equivalent on Earth? Is there another thing that looks like it?” This is our process at Wētā FX for almost every project that we do. We always try and find a close representative of something on Earth. We even do a motion test, we'll find open source footage or we go and shoot something or… here's a coral that moves that looks very similar to what we need to do, so this is what we will give our simulation artists. Our process is to ground ourselves in something real, so the visual effects artists in the departments have some idea of… 'here's a thing that looks similar’ but then combine those things to produce an out-of-the-world Pandoran object or creature.

How is the water made to look realistic?

There's been many movies and audiences are usually very critical of how the water looks. The world is full of oceans, depends on which one you are trying to match. We knew in this movie, in the 2,200 shots, there's actually a variety of water bodies we are going to see. It's not one water. So we had some research papers which collected samples of water from different oceans and water bodies in the world. We were able to make a 'shader'. Imagine we were going to shoot all of this for real. We were going to go to Bora Bora and the Bahamas, to Antarctica and shoot this movie. What is it that the water has that's unique? … We built a shader that had all of those dials. The most important aspect is the stereo because you're (the audience) not looking at the stuff in 2D. You need to look at it in stereo at your monitor and say, “Well if there is no particulate, then it's going to look fake.” But sometimes Jim would say, “There's a Tulkun… this Tulkun is so big that you need to have this extreme clarity water that you only get in Antarctica.” And that's okay, we kept the ability to hack it when it didn't need to look real or we needed to do something unique. The thing that makes this water real is we actually referenced real water bodies around the world and found an equivalent for everything. The kids swimming in the water is shallow water, it was three to seven metres. Tropical atolls like Bora Bora, Fiji, and the Bahamas, are all three to seven metres. We shot extensive footage, and Jim shot extensive footage himself. We had a crew go out there and shoot footage and we studied it until we were able to match it.

What kind of creative agency does the VFX team exercise?

For all of the shots, we get this crude template, so from that point of view, we collaborate very closely with the art directors and with Jim. So everything… just looks like a four-pixel image and we turn it into a 4K image. Starting from the design, the scale, and the detail that makes it real, we have a team who gets all of that stuff while keeping in mind Jim's vision. A huge part of the creative process stays with us. A very small example: Deb Scott designed all the costumes …She does such extensive reference shoots! She shoots the costumes and the different kinds of lighting conditions, and sometimes she builds full-scale models and she'll run them underwater or on wind. When we worked on that first shot, where the kids jump into the reef, in real water when you are seven metres deep there is very little red colour left. The red colour just gets absorbed by water. We put this beautiful costume she had designed, which had a lot of red in it. We called her up and said, “Look we dropped this in water which is seven metres but your test shoot was only two metres, now we lost the red. Let's work on this together to find a solution where you can get the design you want…we can still make it look real.” So that's the kind of collaboration we have done on every aspect of it…you take this creative thing and we contribute a little bit and Lightstorm and Jim and we make this final product that hopefully, the audiences like.

Was there something you wanted to imbibe in the movie but couldn't?

We had the time to plan for this, two years of R&D (research and development) and three years of production, and we did manage to do everything we wanted to. When I go back in January, there will definitely be things we will improve for the next one, but we are pretty happy with what we did.

How did your loved ones react to Avatar: The Way of Water?

You know my mum, I can't get her to watch most of the projects I work on. Avatar, the first one, is one the first movies I got her to watch and she's watched it several times. She hasn't seen this one yet, but she's super excited to see it. She's one of my biggest critics. My niece, she's 15, she doesn't like anything but she just saw the movie two days ago and she sent me a gold star so I'm okay! If my niece likes it, it must be good.

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