January 18, 2023

Russell Carpenter, ASC on Avatar: The Way of Water, working with James Cameron, creating realistic lighting for a virtual world

Our guest Russell Carpenter, ASC comes back for a second time on the podcast to talk about Avatar: The Way of Water.

When cinematographer Russell Carpenter began working on Avatar: The Way of Water, it was much different from any other film experience he’d had. Russell had previously worked with director Jim Cameron on True Lies and Titanic, which won him the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. He began working on Avatar: The Way of Water before they even rolled cameras, testing and integrating the world of live action capture with completely virtual images. The process was like a huge layer cake of world creation, with writing, concept art and production design all being developed simultaneously.

As the cinematographer, Russell’s primary concern was making sure that the lighting design on the live, motion captured actors looked real and played well with the CGI generated world. It’s hard to fool the eye when people instinctively know what sunlight, water and shade in a forest should look like, so every scene with a live person and a Na’vi person had to be exactly right. It was important to Cameron that everything on Pandora be grounded in reality. The animals had to move realistically and the interplay of shade and light in the forests needed to feel real to an audience so that they would have an emotional connection, rather than watching an alien-feeling, fake-looking science fiction world.

The entire process of making Avatar: The Way of Water was a huge puzzle, with a small army of teams working on different parts of the movie and simply trying different things. As the writing and story development continued, Cameron would decide they needed a certain scenario or plot point, and he would ask the teams to creatively figure out how to make it happen. After the locations were computer generated, several virtual cameras were used to shoot multiple angles to get an idea of the blocking, lighting and camera placement for the CGI action. Finally, the actors came in to do motion capture and read their lines. Russell thought he’d start to see scenes coming together, but everything was such a piecemeal process that he watched the virtual camera material to get an idea of how the lighting was matching and coming together. They would move lights around on automated overhead trusses in the studio to change the lighting for each scene and to keep as many lights out of the blue screen shots as possible.

You can see Avatar: The Way of Water in a variety of formats in theaters everywhere.

Find Russell Carpenter: Instagram @russellcarpenterasc
Hear Cinepod’s first interview with Russell Carpenter, ASC: https://www.camnoir.com/ep40/

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July 24, 2019

Ep 40 – Oscar Winner Russell Carpenter, ASC – On Titanic, True Lies, James Cameron, Hard Target, John Woo, Ant-Man and more!

Academy Award winner Russell Carpenter, ASC has a huge Hollywood career that’s spanned decades, though he got his start working in public television and didn’t even go to film school. He discusses his early experience on films like the cult classic “The Wizard of Speed and Time,” “Cameron’s Closet,” and “The Lawnmower Man,” and still enjoys shooting small films like the Indian movie “Parched.” For “Hard Target” with director John Woo, each scene was meticulously timed and shot with multiple cameras. Russell first worked with director James Cameron in 1994 on the film “True Lies” and then again on “Titanic,” which won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. He tells a few stories about the movie tricks he and James Cameron used on “Titanic.” Russell is currently working again with Jim Cameron on Avatar 2 and 3.