The seas of Avatar: James Cameron on the real science behind his fictional world
The director shares how Earth’s oceans inspired The Way of Water–and his hope it will motivate viewers to protect our own planet.
Published December 15, 2022
14 min read
James Cameron is diving into the deep: this time, into the oceans of an alien world. The filmmaker and ocean explorer’s latest science-fiction epic, Avatar: The Way of Water, promises to transport viewers to the vibrant aquatic ecosystems of a world 25 trillion miles from Earth, with a documentary’s level of detail.
The new film extends the story of the 2009 blockbuster Avatar, which told the tale of a habitable alien moon called Pandora, the blue-skinned humanoids who live there (the Na’vi), and the conflict that arises when space-faring humans try to colonize and mine the world, regardless of the environmental havoc they wreak. The first film shows the Na’vi, who fight for their rainforest home. They are supported by scientists and human soldiers.
This time around, Cameron is exploring the waters of Pandora, and he brings a lifetime of experience with him. The creative mind behind The Abyss and Titanic, and the executive producer of National Geographic‘s Secrets of the Whales, is also a National Geographic Explorer at Large. In 2012, Cameron completed the first solo dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger expedition.
Experience the movie event of a generation in 3D. The Way of Water: Avatar is currently only available in theaters.
To tell the story of Pandora’s undersea life, Cameron and his team dreamed up a menagerie at once alien and familiar. The recognizable reefs are surrounded by Pandoran mixtures of lionfish and pufferfish. Life-forms that could fit in with Earth’s ancient oceans would be a good choice. The ilu, a long-necked horse, resembles the extinct marine reptiles plesiosaurs. Skimwings, which are huge alien crosses of gars and flying fish, act as Na’vi warmounts. The tulkun is a titanic, highly intelligent analog to Earth’s whales.
What inspired these creatures, and how did Cameron and his team bring them to life? National Geographic recently spoke with Cameron from New Zealand about the science and technology of The Way of Water. National Geographic Partners is owned by the majority of National Geographic Company. It also owns 20th Century Studios, the distributors of Avatar: The Way of Water. )
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
We started our journey into Pandora on land, and as this movie’s title suggests, we’re making our way to the coastline and into the deep. Why go to the ocean?
It’s no secret that as an ocean explorer now, as an avid scuba diver for many years before that, and as a fan of ocean exploration when I was a kid, I’ve had this romance with the ocean my entire life. That has involved spending thousands of hours underwater in shallow settings and hundreds of hours underwater in deep settings–as deep as the deepest place on the planet–and many dives to Titanic. It is said that you should write what you know. I know a lot about oceans and I love them. I thought it would be a good idea to combine two things I love.
I wanted this film about water. How the place where life began on Earth has changed over time and the wonders we still see there today, despite its current state.
We live in a shifting baseline, where the ocean as we see it today is not what it once was. The film was also an opportunity to show us what our oceans might have looked like 300, 400, 500 years ago, before we really got busy toward an industrial civilization. People will see this film and, aside from the drama of Sully’s family and their relationships, they might just love the underwater experience. They may also love the sense of mystery and the profusion of life.
What were some of your inspirations as you were fleshing out both this aquatic ecosystem and the alien culture that lives within it?
We have these people called the Metkayina, a clan that’s spread out across a large number of villages. The Metkayina are an Indigenous, regional culture. They have evolved from the land-based forest Na’vi [of film 1] tens of thousands years ago and have adapted more to the ocean. Their tails are used to propel them, just like seals or otters. They are air-breathers and have adapted to being able hold their breath for extended periods of time. They have nictitating skins that look a lot like crocodiles or owls to protect their eyes while they ride [ilu] in the water. These are creatures they have tamed and have a symbiotic relationship.
They also have a symbiotic culture with an intelligent species of ocean air-breathers: big animals that we would probably take a glance at and say, Oh, that’s a whale. It’s not a whale, it’s the Pandora version, also known as a tulkun. The tulkun, despite their mental advancements, are actually a very advanced society. Because they don’t have the same manipulating hands that we do, they aren’t equipped with technology. They rely on the Na’vi for any kind of physical manipulation. However, they are very advanced mentally: They have complex languages, mathematics, music, and so forth.
It was an interesting journey for me to do the National Geographic limited series Secrets of the Whales because that showed that the cetaceans that live here on planet Earth–the real ones–actually have a more advanced culture than we had previously thought, in terms of passing down very structured information from generation to generation. Complex music is adopted by other members in the species’ population and travels around the globe like a greatest-hits album.
(Read more about scientists’ stunning advances in understanding the culture of whales. )
There are Indigenous peoples all over Earth with incredibly rich and diverse connections to the water. These cultures inspired the Metkayina.
We did a lot of research about real Indigenous cultures that are very tightly associated with the ocean. We also looked into Polynesian culture which is a trading culture for canoes. We decided to not use canoes except for those that are locally used. I can’t speak for future films, but the voyaging in our film is not the [Polynesian] culture of voyaging that uses big canoes or wake here in New Zealand.
It was like, how do we take Indigenous culture here on our planet and put it through the lens of Pandora? There are the Sama-Bajau, people from Indonesia who live in stilted homes and rafts. We looked at these things.
How has your experience in ocean exploration and technology shaped your approach to filmmaking generally and The Way of Water specifically?
There’s a lot of interconnections between my underwater exploration and filmmaking: Both involve small teams of people who are trying to do very difficult things in a coordinated fashion that requires a lot of planning. That I find very similar, especially when you’re creating new technology: to, let’s say, take a robotic vehicle inside the Titanic and survey it archaeologically or to build a new human-occupied vehicle to go to the deepest place on the planet. This is small teams doing impossible things.
In making these Avatar movies, we’re way, way out in front at the bleeding edge of what is possible in terms of VFX [visual effects] and performance capture, so that’s an exciting challenge. I don’t want the audience to view this as a tech demonstration. I want them to see it as a documentary. I don’t want them thinking about how it was done. It is up to us to creatively make it seamless. To ensure that every action, every ride of a creature, and so forth, is based in real-world Physics, we have to take the responsibility. The physics of water on another world will be the same as it is here. Water’s water.
We dedicated ourselves to this idea that we would take the actors into the water. We taught them how to free-dive to prepare them for their roles, and also to make it possible for them to perform the scenes that we teach them to scuba diver.
We built essentially mockups of the creatures that could do what the creatures [in The Way of Water] did: race around underwater at high speed, pop out of the water, fly over the surface of the water, go back into the water, and scream around underwater–and we figured out how you would really ride such a thing. It sounds almost impossible, right? It’s like a Harrier jet meeting a submarine. It was built by us. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it at resorts, these things where the guys go up 25 feet in the air. The jet-thruster technology allowed us to create a Harrier jet with a pilot inside. A rider could ride on top of the jet and fly over the water, then dive into the water and scream, then jump out of the water again. It was dangerous as hell, but we all enjoyed it for about one week down in the Bahamas.
But we figured out how you’d really ride such an animal and how you’d handle a spear or some other kind of weapon at the same time. We went out to gather all the information, got all the reference photography, and brought it back to our filming environment. Then we taught the actors how to do it. We also had to develop fluid dynamics simulations that would make the alien characters look real. They are not human.
You talk about the fidelity that you’re trying to achieve in these films, in making Pandora plausible and relatable. I think back to the floating Hallelujah Mountains in the first film, and how they were partly inspired by the Huangshan mountains in China. What real-world locations inspired what we’ll see in The Way of Water?
The most obvious connection between The Way of Water‘s new habitats and what we have here on Earth are the tropical coral reefs and the tropical atoll formations, especially in the Central and Western Pacific: where you have these ranges of ancient volcanoes that are eroded down and form these atoll island chains. I spent a lot time diving in the Pacific among these atolls, and at coral reefs around the world.
All of our species of coral and large, soft, invertebrate animals, we put equivalents to those in our reef ecosystem in The Way of Water. It’s a celebration of our atoll formations and reefs. It’s also a celebration for the Polynesian culture, which has spread throughout all these Pacific Islands. It’s a celebration our adaptive ability to adapt to different environments.
Ultimately, everything you see with the Na’vi is really the best of us, written large and blue and through the lens of science fiction. They are aspirational characters in a way. I live in an urban area, I work 9-to-5, have all these stressors, have to pay my rent and my taxes–blahblahblah. I want to live like them. But how can one live like them.
Well, you’d have to have this deep, spiritual respect for the harmony and balance of nature. We don’t have it anymore, so we can’t get there from here. It is necessary to learn it again. We must learn what humanity used to know but has lost or suppressed.
To double back to a point you made earlier: The Way of Water is coming out at a time when the Earth’s oceans are in a damaged state, from climate change to overfishing, and there’s acute awareness of the environmental challenges we face. How do you hope that this movie will be a hit in this moment of all times?
The reason that I went down the path of making a series of films in the same universe is because I thought that what I needed to say artistically–to communicate with people–I could do within that framework. The film shifts from the rainforest, which was the main focus of the first film to the ocean. There is, however, a plea for conservation and celebration of our oceans. We can hopefully reverse the trend that puts the oceans under stress. I don’t even like to use the term “stress”: It’s used a lot in conservation, [but] if you consider fourth-stage cancer “stress,” yeah, it’s “stress.”
The coral reefs will be a thing that exists only in films in 50 to 75 years, in most places around the planet. This is not acceptable. As a child, I dreamed of becoming a diver so that I could see the wonders and beauty around me. That was the beginning of my decades-long exploration and enjoyment of that world. My children and grandchildren will not be able to do this. It’s a cri de coeur.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.