Russell Carpenter interview: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ cinematographer

“I was moving into a world of virtual creation. And that was brand new for me,” reveals “Avatar: The Way of Water” cinematographer Russell Carpenter. Unlike many key creatives on the film, he did not work on the first movie in this series, so he entered into a world where the visual language had been established. Though he had previously collaborated with director James Cameron on movies like “Titanic” and “True Lies,” Carpenter found himself presented with an entirely new set of puzzles to solve in order to make the visual effects heavy film work. “Jim is the grand provocateur,” he notes, “He’ll just lay a challenge at your feet.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.

SEE Simon Franglen interview: ‘Avatar: The way of Water’ composer

“It’s a layer cake,” says Carpenter of the complex creative process for “The Way of Water.” He started working a full year before live action photography began, so that he could prepare shots and establish virtual lighting. “These landscapes are amazing but the way Jim works…it’s just painstaking,” admits the cinematographer. Every jaunt through the jungle, every banshee flight path, is carefully planned out far in advance. “He’s constantly revealing,” explains Carpenter, “That’s the beauty I think, in these shots. The camera kind of lets the shot unscroll.”

The trickiest parts of the film, especially where lighting was concerned, are the many underwater sequences. “Underwater is pretty much the same as it was on ‘Titanic’…which is a massive headache,” quips Carpenter. Filming the character Spider (Jack Champion) provided a daunting challenge because the human role needed to wear a breathing mask. “At least Rose and Jack weren’t wearing masks,” says Carpenter, “as soon as you put a mask on somebody, you see every light. You see the lighting over in craft service!” With the combination of endless mask testing and some new underwater lighting technology, he eventually made it work, but admits that shooting scenes in a tank is inherently “slow going.”

SEE Jack Champion interview: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’

Carpenter believes that his main task on the movie was “to merge every human character in the film, seamlessly.” Not an easy feat when some actors were digitally transformed into aliens while others performed their scenes separately. ”There are little things that if you get them wrong, it somehow triggers the audience and takes them out of the film a little bit,” he explains. Luckily, he feels like he had a “mighty leg up” thanks to a simulcam system which composites virtual environments and human characters together in real time. This allowed Carpenter to focus on his “instincts” for a scene and give the movie a sense of realism no matter how many digital characters were on screen. ”You’ll notice that there’s a lot more close interaction between human characters and Na’vi in this film,” notes Carpenter.

Carpenter won the Academy Award for his work on “Titanic.” That film also earned him a win from the American Society of Cinematographers and the guild awarded him their lifetime achievement award in 2018. He recently received a Critics Choice nomination for “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

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UPLOADED Dec 22, 2022 11:30 am