The Way Of Water VFX Supervisors On How Kiri Was Created And Much More [Exclusive Interview]

Wayne, your primary focus on the film was on environments, correct?

Stables: Well, so my job is to ultimately just deliver the whole show with all the characters and things like that, so I’m in there from once the animation goes through, but a lot of environment work there, yeah. To be fair, I guess you could say, yeah.

I have no concept about how the process of making this movie worked in terms of, was it always the same thing for every shot, where it starts with a filmed element, or was it starting sometimes with something animated?

Stables: So, Jim has a process that he goes through where he will have his team over at Lightstorm — say he’s going to shoot a scene, you know, Quaritch in the jungle having a discussion. They’ll know it’s going to take place in a jungle, so they construct that kind of as more low resolution proxy assets. He goes into it. He sort of gets the rough motion often with, if it’s not the actual actors, it’ll be a standard troupe of people who will start to block out the action. He’ll work out, “Okay, this is kind of where I’m going to want to roughly shoot this, but we need another mountain here or we’re going to need to clear this away, or we’re going to need to do this, or let’s put a log here.” They go through that process. Then they’ll build that environment. Then they’ll bring the actual performers in and they’ll actually do the capture with it.

At that stage, they’re kind of alongside the environments. He’s not really looking at his cameras too much at that point in time. He’s really after performance. He’s making sure that everything is going to work. And then once they’ve captured the motion, he goes back and he does step three, which he does his camera pass. So he goes onto his virtual cameras and now he’s got the things and he might adjust timing or he might adjust position. He’ll then do some more work to the environment so that composition and narratively, his shots are working and all makes sense. And then that’s what’s turned over to us, so by the time I see something and Dan sees stuff, there has been so much thought process that has gone into it. The funny thing is, though, with what he turns over to us, is that if you match it sort of perfectly, you can very quickly get yourself into trouble as well, because sometimes there was maybe limitations of what they had to work with.

So the thing I really enjoyed, and this is what I always talk to my crew about, that we would go into the theater and actually play these templates in the theater on the big screen. And the challenge was, stand back, de-focus your eyes slightly and for every single shot, ask yourself what is he narratively saying about the shot? What is the focus? It’s like, “Oh look, this shot’s about those viperwolves and graphically he has this big beam of light going behind them so that it stands out. And he’s put that beam of light there and not there because he doesn’t care about the plants over here. It’s a shot about the viperwolves.” So we get a huge amount of that coming through as our starting point. But as I said, you’ve kind of then got to sit back and try the art form of trying to look through it through Jim’s eyes sometimes in terms of what he was seeing there.

And I do think it’s a really … we talk about it a lot. We talk about characters and story and stuff like that. But if you say to yourself, if you watch any one of those shots, and you say, “What is the story element here? What is it?” You will never go wrong. Everything he does is in service of the story. And then we take the work from the artwork with the art departments and things like that to take his world as he’s built it and try and lift it up to a level where it stands up on the big screen because that’s what audiences expect, which is often not quite as creative.

It’s just building stuff up to a certain level. I don’t want to say it becomes a technical exercise, because that’s not fair and it’s not true. But you sort of know what I mean. It’s kind of like a lot of — he’s already given us so much of his creative thought in terms of what he wants something to look like. If he wants a big building there, he’s already showing us that he wants a big building there.

Barrett: Well, that’s when the exploration should happen, right, where everything’s a little pared down.

Stables: But at the time he gives us something, it’s an edit of his film by the time we see it, which is unbelievably great to work with.

Barrett: Yeah, I think I saw the film maybe four years ago. I think it was about four and a half hours long.

Oh, wow.

Stables: Yeah, so for the first “Avatar” I watched play through, must have been nearly two years before it was delivered and it really didn’t change very much from what it was. So to us, we’re really, really lucky on that one.

So in essence, y’all are watching kind of a previz?

Stables: It is. It’s previz, but previz with the very heavy hand where a director has gone and it’s not just — it’s more than just a sort of perhaps sketched out ideas.

Barrett: It’s not just action and camera.

Stables: Yeah, it’s not just action. When we get a template turned in to us, we are seeing his film. It might be a slightly rougher version of his film, in terms of visual, but we are seeing…

Barrett: The lighting’s there, right. It’s gestural, but it’s all there.

Stables: Yeah, exactly, in some ways the performance is there and things like that. And what’s nice about that when he does this stuff, because the same as any actor or a performer on a stage where maybe they’ll walk into their key light or something, he’s worked that stuff out. So we kind of know where we’re going.

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