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Inside Avatar: The Way of Water’s incredible process for matching Spider to the Na’vi

How do you film human and Na’vi-scale characters at the same time?

Toussaint Egan is an associate curation editor, out to highlight the best movies, TV, anime, comics, and games. He has been writing professionally for over 8 years.

To the surprise of no one: Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s original 2009 film, picked up the 2023 Oscar for visual effects. That’s because the VFX department’s work touched on every aspect of the film — even the human performances. In the lead up to the movie’s upcoming digital home release, 20th Century Studios has shared an exclusive clip with Polygon from a behind-the-scenes featurette dedicated to the character of Spider and the motion-capture technology used to bring him into the action.

Spider, a new character introduced in Avatar: The Way of Water played by Jack Champion (Scream VI), is the adopted human son of series’ protagonists Jake Sully and Neytiri. Naturally, the process of filming human-scale characters opposite of the film’s comparatively giant Na’vi characters presented significant creative and technical challenges for Cameron and his team.

While Champion had to replicate his entire performance for Avatar: The Way of Water twice during the film’s production, this new clip reveals that certain scenes required the crew to film scenes not only twice, but also at different scales at the same time.

“When we did capture on the first movie, we were capturing everybody at the same scale; It was one-to-one,” Jon Landau, a long-time collaborator of James Cameron’s and the producer for Avatar: The Way of Water, says during the clip. “Here, we had so many scenes with humans and Na’vi characters, that we [needed] multiple scales to capture a scene.”

Landau elaborates by explaining that, in order to film scenes where multiple Na’vi and human characters are on-screen simultaneously, they would have to build two separate motion capture sets and film mocap doubles opposite of one another before converting that live-action footage into the film’s final digital result. The behind-the-scenes footage itself is as hilarious as it is impressive, with actors in black motion-capture suits running in tandem down ramps alongside mocap actors hoisting large blue mannequin stand-ins for the Na’vi like some bizarre obstacle course from Nickelodeon’s Legends of the Hidden Temple.

To represent the height difference between Spider compared to that of the Na’vi, who stand several feet taller than that of an average human, let alone a human child, the team worked with smaller body-double actors who performed opposite the film’s lead actors like Sam Worthington and Stephen Lang. “I double for Spider because I’m the human offset to a Na’vi,” Kacie Borrowman, the motion capture actor for Champion, says in the clip. “Na’vis are nine-feet-tall; your average human is about six-feet-tall. But we have average-height humans playing our Na’vi, so we need someone who’s smaller than an average human to play a human so the eyelines will be correct.”

An exhausting and time-consuming process? Undoubtedly, but you can’t argue with the on-screen results of the film’s technical advancement compared to the original film.

Avatar: The Way of Water will be available to exclusively purchase on digital starting on March 28.

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