Cinematographer Russell Carpenter had already curated a respectable filmography for himself by the time James Cameron tapped him to serve as his DP on the 1994 action-comedy True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Arnold. And yet, "When Jim hired me to do True Lies, I had no idea how green I was," Carpenter reflects now. "And I was green."
"I got a tremendous break doing that. And it was really, really hard," he tells A.frame. Cameron would bring Carpenter along for his next feature, which presented the director of photography with an even greater challenge: Lensing Cameron's monolithic magnum opus, Titanic. The film went on to become one of the most Oscar-winning films in history, receiving 11 total Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. ("Other than just the surreal moment of being there," Carpenter remembers, "my standout memory was about an hour after the ceremony ended, I was in the hospital. It turned out I was passing a kidney stone.")
It has now been 25 years since the release of Titanic, and Cameron and Carpenter have collaborated once again. In the interim, Carpenter shot films such as Charlie's Angels (2000), Jobs (2013), and Ant-Man (2015), while Cameron's next project took him to the jungle moon of Pandora. Avatar not only won three Oscars (including a Best Cinematography statuette of its own), but forever changed the way that movies were made and shown.
For the long-awaited sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron's ambitions were bigger in every way possible: The runtime is longer (at 192 minutes, it is 30 minutes longer than its predecessor); the canvas is bigger (Jake Sully and his family decamp to the coast, where a whole other race of Na'vi, the Metkayina, live an oceanic lifestyle); and the technology has been pushed further than ever: the film was shot in 3D utilizing a high frame rate, with certain scenes playing back in the industry standard 24 frames per second and others at 48 frames per second. To achieve his vision, the filmmaker enlisted Carpenter. Filmed in tandem with the Avatar threequel over a period of three years, Avatar: The Way of Water turned out to be their most arduous production. And, in many ways, the time apart made their latest collaboration that much greater.
"After Titanic, I just kept learning how to do stuff. Also, you come into contact with people who are not only great to be around with on a set, but they really know their stuff," Carpenter says. "I felt like I could bring a fantastic team to this in terms of lighting, and camera, and people in the grip department. So, just getting the right people felt like a really great contribution."
In conversation with A.frame, the cinematographer discusses the art of virtual cinematography, working with Avatar's Oscar-winning visual effects team, and the right way to do 3D.
A.frame: You've worked with James Cameron before, but it had been a number of years. What was it like getting the call to join him on The Way of Water?
In 2017, when he was testing young actors as Spider, I got a call to do a test. I went in and I basically lit up a Pandoran forest. The art department came in and put plants in and stuff, but Jim was really happy with the way that turned out. Fortunately, I nailed the look on that. I do also have the advantage of two other films, so I feel like I could understand Jim speak. We had a relationship going. I came into Avatar to work with him. You know, I hear people say, 'Oh, it was so many years, but it could've been yesterday." And I go, 'Yeah right.' But it did kind of seem like that. It was like, 'Okay. I'm here. Where do we start?' And that was great to have that.
The original Avatar wasn't just a cultural behemoth and the biggest movie of all time, but Mauro Fiore won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work on it. Did any of that prove daunting coming onto this?
Not so much that. I think the daunting thing was just how much work there was to do. Luckily, I came on a year before principal photography. In that time, there were technical problems and lighting things to do, of course, but I was also tasked with a year's worth of supervising the virtual lighting. That, I felt like a fish out of water. I had some lovely help from the visual effects producer, Dan Cox, who had modified this wonderful program called Gazebo that made lighting a much more cinematographer-friendly experience.
My first assignment was a scene where Kiri and her father, Sully, are sitting on this floating dock and she's telling him that she's started to feel the planet. Jim's note was, 'Look, there's a lot bioluminescent stuff under the water that they're dipping their feet in. Just take that as your cue.' And I realized, 'Oh my God, I can do all kinds of things I couldn't do in a real-life set.' I could hide these lights underwater — literally put my virtual lights in the water — and you don't really see them, but I could simulate the light that was coming up onto their faces from underwater, and that was delightful. And then, I learned that the system could do what Jim calls 'caustics,' when water is rippling. It's these wonderful little waves of light, and that turned out to be a blast. When we got to the Metkayina village, I really had fun with light, and shadow, and contrast. There are certain rules of what Pandora looks like and what the light is like, and you honor all those things. But within that, there's quite a range to move in terms of what I was doing with my lights. So, there was always something. There was always a different challenge. I definitely kept busy.
So much of the discussion around The Way of Water has been about its visuals, but that conversation quickly becomes about the visual effects, which is understandable but also misconstrues how involved you were in the virtual cinematography. What was that experience like working side-by-side with the visual effects team?
I feel like I watch what they're doing and I go, 'Oh my God, this is fantastic.' Especially the underwater stuff. But everything has to be lit. And there's parts of this movie that are not pretty. The RDA [Resources Development Administration], the man-made part, it's abrasive. It's lighting that seems to be harmful to your health. So, I got to go over to that end of the spectrum too. Besides lighting these things, my main charter was to introduce the human elements — that usually means Spider — into this virtual world in a way that's as seamless as possible.
Sometimes it takes looking at my own lighting, but really observing what's happening. And then I can go back to what I did with Gazebo and say, 'This light was this color, and that's easy. We can do that. We know exactly what that is. We can double check exactly where it was coming from.' There's a system called Simul-Cam, and it was amazing. The virtual camera that Jim worked with in the volume and our live-action camera were basically fused together. Then we could actually do anything with our live-action camera. Jim handheld and he could modify the shot. In real time, if he pans right, Simul-Cam instantaneously puts exactly the right background there. So, you always have a frame of reference as to how the shot's looking.
The original Avatar revolutionized camera technology, and this one continues to push it forward, especially in how it redesigned stereoscopic cinematography. Did it feel like there was a learning curve as you were approaching your work here?
The main thing for me is that the last time I did 3D was a long time ago. The principles are the same, but a lot has changed. I had wonderful people who had been working on this for a long time to totally bring me up to speed on this. Jim operates handheld, so we were working with basically larger sensor sizes, and that means the lenses are going to be heavier and the rig might be bigger. What the people before me were working on when they brought me into their circle was finally coming up with the lenses that we wanted to use. They really gave me guidance as to, hey, here's what's new and what to look out for on the set to make sure that Wētā had what they needed to work with. Yeah, there was a learning curve, but you do enough tests with this thing before you shoot, and I became really comfortable with it.
The film is shot in both the traditional standard of 24 fps and in 48 fps, the latter of which has something of a complicated relationship with critics and audiences. Why was 48 fps right for these sequences?
The whole capture was done in 48. One of the reasons for that was to give Wētā more information to use when they're doing their composites. And I've heard people say, 'It's kind of like The Hobbit. And yet, it's not.' But this is the way Jim wanted people to see it. And, of course, there are 24 frame versions of the film. There are 2D versions of the film. His thinking, and I agree, is that it would be the most immersive experience that people could have. And that didn't bother me. I got totally in it. It wasn't like looking through a pane of glass like The Hobbit was and everything's hyperreal. I think there's a remove in terms there. And something about Jim, he doesn't want to pull people out of the movie. Maybe you noticed that he was not doing anything extraordinary with the 3D. He doesn't shoot 3D for the wow factor. He shoots 3D for the immersion factor. It's a light touch type of thing, with how far people might choose to go or with how much depth they represent in the frame.
When you signed on for The Way of Water, you signed on for all of the sequels, correct?
No, basically my contract was for Avatar 2 and Avatar 3. So our filming schedule was long, because we were doing two movies. We did these two movies together because one of our main characters, Spider, we didn't want him to grow into manhood and beyond during the shooting of the film. [Laughs]
Still, once you've got one under your belt, though I know you shot Avatar 2 and 3 at the same time, does it feel like smooth sailing now going forward? Or is approaching each one just as difficult as the last?
The smooth sailing part of it is having a sense of what the challenges are going to be, and a sense of the kinds of things that Jim is going to challenge us with. He said in an article, 'I'm a provocateur. I throw a challenge out and say, 'You guys take care of it.'' It's really weird, because you look at the credits on this thing and you go, 'Oh my God, there are hundreds of people who worked making this feature come to life.' And yet, in the same fashion, I see them as handmade, in the sense that Jim's imagination and his sense of filmmaking is all over this film.
I would watch him work as he was doing his camera captures and working his scenes, and it just seemed like all the time he was working very, very hard. And maybe it's sappy, but I think he wants people to have an extraordinary experience when they go into their theater. On Titanic, he said, 'These movies cost a lot' — at that time it was $11 — 'and if somebody pays $11 for a ticket, I don't want them to think they wasted their money.' That's his bottom line.