“Avatar: The Way of Water” and the future of filmmaking
Producer Jon Landau and Wētā FX Executive VFX Producer David Conley highlight the growing role of cloud in content production
Epic sci-fi action feature “Avatar: The Way of Water” is the culmination of nearly a decade of technology development for ambitious storytelling. Directed by James Cameron, the highly anticipated sequel to the 2009-billion-dollar blockbuster “Avatar” continues to push the boundaries of filmmaking and reimagine the cinematic experience. Ahead of the feature’s global release, Producer Jon Landau and David Conley, Executive Visual Effects (VFX) Producer at lead vendor Wētā FX, treated AWS re:Invent 2022 attendees to a sneak peek at how one of the world’s most acclaimed VFX studios accomplished its most remarkable achievement to date. With AWS Director of Visual Compute Gretchen Libby and AWS M&E Business Development Leader for Australia/New Zealand Nina Walsh joining, the Emerging Tech Trends in the Entertainment Industry panel discussion revealed how Wētā FX came to use the cloud for “Avatar: The Way of Water” and what this success means for filmmakers in the future.
By the numbers
Conley and his team at Wētā FX began collaborating with Amazon Web Services (AWS) in early 2020, resulting in a two-and-a-half-year-long partnership dedicated to realizing the vision of Cameron and Landau. After setting up the initial workflow, which took about 14 months, the team ran 3.3 billion thread hours on AWS in the following eight months. The final film features more than three hours of content and 3,000 VFX shots – including CG characters and significant water simulations, with more than 40 percent generated at 48 frames per second, and it was rendered in 3D, with 4K and 8K deliverables.
According to Landau, the feature’s technical requirements were daunting, but there was a tangible shift when they started using AWS in production. He shared, “The difference when we went to the cloud was truly palpable. We would not have finished but for the support we got from AWS.”
New Zealand-based Wētā FX has one of the largest data centers in the industry and completes between 10-15 projects a year. Founded by Peter Jackson, the VFX studio has amassed nearly 30 years of award-winning credits, including the original “Avatar.” Conley and Wētā FX first met with the “Avatar: The Way of Water” production team in 2013. From there, the elevated technical requirements for the project defined its timeline. Once Wētā FX began delivering VFX shots, it quickly outgrew its data center capacity. Shots were taking too long to render locally and production needed to see more iterations, quickly.
Upon Landau’s request to accelerate turnaround, Conley evaluated how to make that happen – faced with architectural limitations and a global pandemic. “We never want to limit filmmakers’ desire to create something new,” he explained. Conley was able to solve the capacity problem by partnering with AWS and Walsh’s team, but stressed, “The only way this really works is if we protect the IP.”
Looking at long-term goals and short-term fires, the Wētā FX and AWS teams mapped out a journey that would ensure the project was well-equipped, but that not even a single frame leaked. Reflecting on the collaboration to date, Walsh offered, “We were all really in the trenches, learning, and each and every day was different. That’s what we love about these types of engagements. It’s a partnership and you go through all of that together, and ideally, you come out with something great, which we have and we’re just getting started.”
Filmmaking for the future
While Conley views “Avatar: The Way of Water” as a technical achievement, he’s eager to continue innovating. He said, “The exigencies of us having to problem solve to get the filmmakers what they needed really sparked us to put together a solution that had been unprecedented and unparalleled in filmmaking history. The next journey, and this is the one that I’m more excited about, is [figuring out] what are we going to do for the next movie.”
Beyond adding immense compute capacity, becoming cloud-enabled has also helped Wētā FX expand its artistic footprint and collaborate with specialists around the globe, virtually. In some ways, Conley said they opened Pandora’s box (pun intended). “We’ve created a system that allows us to expand physical capacity constraints. That’s exciting because it gives us flexibility to move beyond traditional borders,” Conley explained. “Now we get to partner with people in London, Vancouver, Africa, Mongolia, and Turkey, and bring all this expertise together through cloud-based infrastructure, from inception to final VFX. When we talk about our next steps with AWS, we’re paving the future as opposed to reacting and that’s what’s exciting for me.”
Landau also expressed optimism about the next evolution of filmmaking; he shared, “I think this experience has really taught us that we can work in the cloud, we can work there securely, and it gives us a lot of flexibility. We also want to expand what we’re doing. We have other IPs that we want to do and we want to be able to work in a remote workspace that’s connected, where not everybody has to be in the same locale and that they’re sharing resources in the sky. That will allow us to do things and tell stories that we could not do otherwise.”