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BusinessDecember 8, 2022

‘Like seeing the first images from the moon’: How Wētā gave Avatar 2 its visual wow factor

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Making a three-hour film full of digital water effects required computing superpowers on a scale the Wellington studio had never used before.

Wētā FX had a problem. By the beginning of 2020, the Wellington-based digital effects company had already started work on Avatar: The Way of the Water, the sequel to James Cameron’s record-breaking 2009 blockbuster. It soon realised it didn’t have the internal computing power to handle his vision. “There is a version of this story where we cannot compute this,” Wētā’s clearly relieved VFX producer David Conley admitted to me recently. “Our pipeline was pushed beyond what we’ve ever been expected to produce.”

Water, babies and rope are some of the hardest things Wētā has been asked to digitally recreate in the big budget, high profile shows and movies it’s worked on. Cameron’s Avatar sequel, released next week, is almost entirely set on the water-filled planet of Pandora. The striking 3D scenery, water vistas and underwater shots needed to not only top the original film, they needed to be compelling enough to hold attention for the movie’s three-hour-plus runtime – an extreme film, even by James Cameron’s titanic standards.

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A digital sequence from Avatar: The Way of the Water. (Photo: Supplied)

Wētā headed to Northland and spent hours filming water patterns and waves, then analysed the footage to work out how it would digitally recreate the natural water world for Cameron’s blockbuster project with their current levels of processing power. On other recent shows, like Marvel’s She-Hulk, Wētā found its ambitions were outpacing its Miramar data centre, already one of the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. “We knew at a certain point in time the amount of data that we had to process is far more significant than the bandwidth that we can have in our local data centre,” says Conley.

Increasing the capacity of its own computing centre wasn’t an option. “A data centre at the local level was going to be … a feat that required collusion with local government entities,” says Conley. “That is a daunting task in Wellington in the Miramar area, and we simply didn’t want to undertake that sort of effort.”

So, like any future-focused tech company, they outsourced it, and found what they needed in the cloud. AWS, Amazon’s fast-growing cloud company that has data banks built across the world and is reaping the rewards of its outlay with a $1 trillion valuation, seemed to have what it needed. But there were teething issues. “None of us had ever done it,” says Conley, who was speaking in Las Vegas as part of AWS’ annual expo Re:Invent. “AWS didn’t understand our business. We didn’t understand the barriers.”


As they began working, Wētā found the amount of computing power it needed kept increasing. “We started with a little bit,” says Conley. “No, double that. No, quadruple that.” Soon, they’d used all of Australia’s data capacity, and had Singapore on standby, at one point making daily phone calls to ensure its demands could be met. (Amazon’s $7.5 billion New Zealand data centre is underway in Auckland, but isn’t expected to be operational for several years).

What does all this behind-the-scenes computing power mean for cinema-goers? The difference, says Conley, can be seen in every single frame. As the results of Wētā’s digital world building in Avatar started being rendered, staff would gather around office computers and gasp at the results. “The first images that we got back … [it was] like seeing the first images from the moon,” says Conley. “You say, ‘Oh, wow … we could do this.’ We were there. And it was great.”

He promises that those who venture out to cinemas to see the results for themselves next week will “see some CG-related images that are unbelievable.” At times, even he thought: “We made all those bubbles, all that sea kelp … there’s no way that came out of a computer.” It’s not just Avatar 2 showing off Wētā’s improved tech skills – Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Prime Video’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power have also benefitted from Wētā’s new-found ability to create the kind of digital shots its always dreamed of.

But Avatar 2 is, by any measure, the biggest project Wētā FX has ever undertaken. “We ended up rendering close to 3.3 billion thread hours (a way of measuring computing power),” says Conley. “In the span of eight months we produced nearly three times our annual output.” Conley hopes to eliminate the thought, “That looks fake,” from viewers’ minds, and says Wētā wants to get  visual fidelity down to a “sub pixel level”.

A digital effects shot from Avatar 2. (Photo: Supplied)

Much is riding on next week’s Avatar release, including multiple sequels shot by Cameron at the same time as Avatar 2. Conley won’t be drawn on whether or not the film his team helped make is any good. Like any digital effects creator, he’s “only seen it in tiny chunks”. But recent social media reviews sound promising, and many early critics praised Wētā’s digital effects, labelling it “a stunning digital marvel” and “visually breathtaking”. “I’m almost convinced James Cameron shot Avatar: The Way of the Water on another planet,” quipped one viewer. 

Wētā’s ultimate goal, says Conley, is to use their new supercomputing powers to recreate, on a movie screen, the wow factor he had when visiting the South Island for the first time. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen down there,” he says. When he got home, he was disappointed to find his phone snaps failed to recreate the wonder and beauty he’d had seeing it in person. Does he really believe digital filmmaking can get us there? “Oh yeah,” he says with unwavering faith. “It’s going to happen.”

This story was written from Amazon Web Services’ Re:Invent expo in Las Vegas. Flights and accomodation were provided by AWS.

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