The Real Marine Science Behind AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER

Avatar: The Way of Water is an impressive feat of world-building thanks to the level of detail in its visual effects. While the first Avatar film largely took place in a jungle environment on the planet of Pandora, The Way of Water takes Jake Sully, Neytiri, and their family out of their home environment and into Metkayina, where another Na’vi clan live on the edge of a coral reef. Metkayina’s ecosystem is teeming with aquatic life for both plants and animals. And a significant part of The Way of Water’s three-hour runtime explores this marine life with a nod to real science. And even though Pandora is an alien planet, Metkayina feels wonderfully lived-in, from apex predators all the way down to single-celled organisms. 

Young Na'vi Tuk swims with strange fish on Pandora in Avatar: The Way of Water.
20th Century Studios

Avatar: The Way of Water‘s Balance of Real Science and Movie Magic

Creating visual effects for water is no small task, especially when a film takes place on a fictional planet with different physics than Earth. Unlike Earth, Pandora has multiple moons that are much closer to the surface of the planet than ours. Thus, Pandora’s moons would have a much different gravitational pull and effect on Pandora’s oceans. That said, the visual effects team at Wētā had to strike a balance between otherworldliness and believability. After all, a visual effects-heavy film like Avatar can quickly lose its immersiveness if the movements of characters and their environments look unnatural. So while the physics on Pandora are different than they are on Earth, the visual effects team decided to stick to Earthbound physics as much as they could. This made it so abnormal movements wouldn’t distract viewers.

Wētā FX Supervisor Jonathan Nixon explained that the team first built the film’s water effects off of reference footage. They then manipulated it according to the story’s needs. “A lot of that reference that’s based in reality then allowed for us to change when we needed to. Because if we didn’t have that real physics basis, if we started with, ‘Okay, the creature is nine feet tall, the water needs to behave this way,’ then it gets really hard to wrangle this back in when you start to wonder, ‘Why does this look right? This looks odd.’” 

The water-dwelling members of the Na'vi in Avatar: The Way of Water.
20th Century Pictures

The Real Waters of The Way of Water

And while The Way of Water has a certain otherworldly feel to it, inspiration for the film’s scenes in Metkayina came directly from places around our world. Wētā’s Visual Effects Supervisor Pavani Rao Boddapati explained that, “Bora Bora and several other tropical ecosystems are what we referenced. That’s where you get this abundant life that’s also not very deep. Because Metkayina, especially in the reef where they’re swimming, is not super deep, it’s seven meters at the most.”

In addition, director James Cameron traveled to the Bahamas and to New Zealand to capture reference footage of different aquatic environments. Even as the director of the film gathered reference footage from around the world, VFX artists were encouraged to shoot their own reference if they saw something in their everyday lives. “Your brain expands by just becoming more immersed in your actual reality,” Nixon noted, “It makes you a better artist.” This idea is part of what makes The Way of Water such an immersive film.

Bioluminescent Plant and Animal Life

One of the most striking parts about the aquatic environments in The Way of Water is the diversity of plant and animal life, with bioluminescence being a common factor. Boddapati and Nixon learned about ocean life from consulting with marine biologists from Aotearoa-New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). This proved especially helpful given the role that coral plays in Metkayina’s underwater environments.

All of the corals in Metkayina were classified as either “hard coral” or “soft coral,” which would affect their movement underwater. While “hard” corals are existent in tropical places like Bora Bora, “soft” corals don’t actually exist in real life, so the team would seek out reference footage of other species of coral that resembled what they wanted the end result to be. The marine biologists were quick to remind the VFX team that corals are animals, not plants, making The Way of Water a delightful crash course in underwater life. 

A Na'vi smiles while underwater in Avatar: The Way of Water
20th Century Studios

Another unique part about The Way of Water’s visual effects was how it used bioluminescence, a phenomenon that hasn’t appeared a lot in films since the first Avatar in 2009. The Na’vi, like many other life forms on Pandora, have bioluminescent skin, often arranging themselves in dots around their faces. And while bioluminescence is part of the Na’vi’s character designs, it still needed to feel motivated in the story. The team had to determine when the bioluminescent dots on the Na’vi would turn off and on.

This also apply to the plants in Metkayina, as some would light up when someone touched them, while others remained lit up on their own. Boddapati explained that the underwater bioluminescence was “ten times more challenging” because of the variables necessary for it to look believable. After the VFX team first learned from a biological standpoint what bioluminescence is and how it actually works, they faced an even greater challenge: bringing it to life underwater. 

The Dinoflagellates of Pandora

For bioluminescence on Pandora, the team used Earth’s dinoflagellates as the foundation. Dinoflagellates are single-celled organisms in coral reefs, and create bioluminescence themselves. In nature, dinoflagellates’ bioluminescence activates when they are agitated; they give off a blue-green glow that lasts for a short time until the energy that powers their bioluminescence burns out. Nixon stated that the team used this same principle for the underwater bioluminescence in Way of Water.

For nighttime underwater scenes, they first isolated variables from their VFX water simulations like velocity and aeration decay. Then, knowing that dinoflagellates glow for a set amount of time in response to agitation, timed the bioluminescence in the water in accordance with the simulation’s velocity and aeration decay. This is why when a character kicks their feet around in the water, the water begins to glow around them. Together, this enhances the characterization of water in the film as a living, breathing character in its own right. 

Jake Sully the Na'vi flying on the back of a creature that can also swim in water in Avatar: The Way of Water.
20th Century Studios

2009’s Avatar was a groundbreaking film for visual effects, and The Way of Water is an excellent successor. Beyond its jaw-dropping, alien spectacle, The Way of Water feels like a love letter to life on Earth. It builds a sense of poetry through the ecosystem in Metkayina. In a world where blockbusters increasingly lay on jargon like the multiverse, and concepts related to quantum physics, Avatar: The Way of Water’s attention to marine biology is a refreshingly grounded marriage between science and the human imagination.

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