'Avatar' director James Cameron discusses sequel 'The Way of Water' at BIFF

After an exclusive premiere of 18-minutes of footage of "Avatar: The Way of Water" (2022) held at this year's Busan International Festival, director James Cameron took questions from the audience online on Thursday. [BIFF]

BUSAN — At long last, the sequel to James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) is set to be released in theaters worldwide this December.

Before the film premiere, an 18-minute clip of “Avatar: The Way of Water” premiered at this year’s Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) on Thursday. It was an exclusive premiere in which the BIFF audience — all equipped with 3D glasses — became the first to get a peek into the returning world of Pandora and the Sully family.

“Avatar,” which was the highest-grossing film of all time until the record was broken by “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), enjoyed immense popularity in Korea as well, with more than 13 million people seeing the film. Even over a decade after its release, it still sits as the No. 8 bestseller in the history of the local box office.

According to producer Jon Landau, the staff chose BIFF as the opening stage for their next sequel because it “was the perfect avenue” and “central to the larger part of the world.”

“We don’t make our movies for any one region,” he said after the local screening on Thursday. “We make our movies to be universal, and BIFF provided us with this incredible stage, this incredible opportunity to share with the people of Korea, the people who’ve come to Busan for this film festival.”

Korean poster for "Avatar: The Way of Water" [20TH CENTURY STUDIOS]

If “Avatar” focused on the rainforest and the Na’vi tribe, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” as its title implies, turns its focus to the underwater world and new tribes, cultures and creatures.

Cameron, who joined the BIFF audience virtually, said the film’s transition to water derives from his personal attachment to the big blue.

“That’s just really about my own love and joy in the ocean and as a scuba diver, as an explorer and as an ocean conservationist,” he explained.

“So in the first film, we saw the rainforest, we saw the people of the rainforest and how they were under assault by the mining operations — and these are things that happened in the real world. In the new film, we’ll see there’s kind of damage done to the ocean ecosystem, which is also happening right here on Earth. So the films are an allegory for what we really are experiencing and the indigenous people right here on Earth are experiencing.”

The “Avatar” franchise is expected to expand with three additional sequels after “The Way of Water,” introducing more regions of Pandora from underwater, the mountains, the polar region and deserts, Cameron hinted.

“Our imagination has already gone wild,” he said. “A lot of it has already been designed. We just have to bring it to life. Technically, we’re sort of at the stage right now where our tools are so powerful we can pretty much do everything, but it’s not necessarily easy. So our goal going forward will be to challenge ourselves to make tools that are easier for the artist to use. We’ll use machine deep learning to help the process be easier for us to operate.”

The third installment was reported to have been completed in December 2020, which is scheduled to be released in 2024. Landau said they are in the middle of creating the fourth installment.

“We’ve completed most of the first act for ‘Avatar 4,’” Landau said. “We’ve designed most of the movie, but haven’t actually filmed all of it, just the first act.”

Producer Jon Landau speaks at a local BIFF press event about "Avatar: The Way of Water" at KNN Theater in Busan on Thursday. [BIFF]

As of now, Landau hopes the release of “The Way of Water” will at least satisfy some of the pent-up frustration fans had as they waited 13 years for a sequel. The underwater world of Pandora is gradually introduced to the audience as the Sully family becomes refugees, forced to leave their homes in the rainforest due to a force led by the recurring villain Colonel Miles Quartich, portrayed by Stephen Lang.

Cameron was reported to have developed groundbreaking new technology for this sequel, enabling motion capture while immersed in water. That also meant that the cast had to relearn how to act — underwater.

“We faced a lot of challenge with the water,” he said. “First and foremost, though, was making our cast feel comfortable doing their performances in the water, so we spent two months training them in breath holding because they could not go down on scuba regulators [for the motion capture]. They had to hold their breath. In the first 'Avatar,' we took our cast to the rainforest of Hawaii to rehearse, to have a sense of memory and experience what it is to be in the rainforest. We did that again in the sequels. But this time, in addition to the rainforest, we took them to the ocean floor, 10 meters [33 feet] down at night in the pitch black ocean. And we gave one of the most Pandorian life experience one can have on Earth. We were swimming with the manta rays […] and our cast was able to take that experience back into the motion capture tank with them.”

Landau also elaborated on what the sequel’s message would be about.

“I hope that people see ‘Avatar’ and understand that no matter where they are in life, no matter how unsure of themselves, that inside of them is the ability to be a hero and that you can become that hero through the support of your family,” he said. “[It’s] not just your biological family — the family you choose to surround yourself with. Together, you can make a difference on people and the world around you.”