Stephen Rivkin (‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ editor) on blending live action and virtual: ‘The most complicated way you could ever make a movie’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

“It is probably, I would say safely, the most complicated way you could ever make a movie,” admits “Avatar: The Way of Water” editor Stephen Rivkin. He edited the project alongside director James Cameron, John Refoua and the late David Brenner, as well as what he estimates is “probably one of the largest editorial staffs in history.” This stacked team was necessary in order to fulfill Cameron’s ambitious vision which required editors to weave together a complex web of live action and virtual footage. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

SEE ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ reviews: You will ‘leave starry-eyed and in disbelief over what you’ve just seen’

The film delivers non-stop action, but even at its most tense moments, Rivkin assures that every scene truly “comes down to the actors’ performances.” But cutting together a great performance on an “Avatar” film isn’t easy when so many of the final elements are missing from the frame. “When we start working on a scene, it is a bare bones, actor’s performance in a capture suit,” he explains. “There’s a little bit to indicate what the landscape will be, but we’re focused on editing the performances themselves.” That rough “indication” of the lush landscape is all he has to work with before locking scenes into place and sending them off to visual effects artists. “You don’t have those awe-inspired vistas,” the editor reveals, “We don’t see that for sometimes years!”

There was always one camera during the capture process which provided a visual approximation of each character’s look once they got the full blue Na’vi treatment. “When we do these performance edits, we pepper those shots in to remind us where we are, what time of day it is, what the landscape looks like,” notes Rivkin. It’s a long, intensive process. But according to the editor, the eventual reward of seeing the finalized scene is well worth the wait. “Sometimes months, even years later, we get those shots back fully realized and fully rendered, and the actor’s performance that you saw years before, that you made those choices on, is now in full view in all its glory,” he beams.

SEE Oscar Experts Typing: Can ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ sink its Best Picture competition?

“The other aspect of this film that made it quite challenging was the amount of live action that was integrated into virtual shots,” describes the editor. For instance, a virtual sequence might include a live-action character such as Spider (Jack Champion). Oftentimes, the editing team would be tasked with cutting a virtual scene before the live action counterpart had been filmed. This called for the use of a digital stand-in for the actor, and Rivkin would need to make decisive choices regarding the character’s actions during the editing process. “So we’d have these scenes with the virtual Spider in it,” he elaborates, “and then that became the blueprint for going back and shooting his live action elements.” Once the actor finished his scene, the footage would have to be inserted into the cut sequence to line up with the virtual stand-in. “That sounds complicated, doesn’t it?” jokes Rvikin.

Rivkin was nominated for an Oscar, BAFTA and ACE Eddie award for “Avatar.” That film won him a Critics Choice Award, and “Avatar: The Way of Water” has already earned him a subsequent Critics Choice nomination. He won an ACE Eddie award in 2004 for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.”

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