As Avatar: The Way of Water rides waves across theatres, director James Cameron has now coined a new phrase called “the Stranger Things effect.” Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, the filmmaker claimed that certain footage for Avatar 3 and Avatar 4 was shot in tandem with the second Avatar film, in order to avoid the child actors from inevitably growing up, and showing signs of ageing. The multi-year project had to be covered in a single production, “Otherwise, you get — and I love Stranger Things — but you get the Stranger Things effect where they’re supposed to still be in high school [but] they look like they’re 27,” Cameron said.
While it was easy for leads Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña to slip into their roles whenever, it never stopped the child actors’ growth spurts. Jack Champion, who portrays Miles “Spider” Socorro, the adoptive human child of Jake Sully and Neytiri, was 14 when Avatar: The Way of Water began filming. “We shot with Jack when he was 14 and 15, almost up to 16. So we were shooting him over an 18-month period,” Cameron told EW. The actor is now an adult, he turned 18 in November. Production would continuously switch between filming scenes for The Way of Water, the entirety of Avatar 3, and act one of Avatar 4.
Sure, performance capture could turn returning star Sigourney Weaver into a teenager, Kiri, but there are limitations to performance capture VFX. Trinity Jo-Li Bliss plays Tukt, the youngest child of Jake and Neytiri, and was cast in Avatar 2 when she was about seven years old. She’s now 13. Similarly, Bailey Bass, 19, who played the shoreline Metkayina clan’s Tsireya was about 12 when she auditioned for the sequel. While not as prominent, the effects of ageing are definitely noticeable in Netflix’s Stranger Things, where the male leads’ voices got deeper with each season. Cameron wanted to avoid that, and built on the Pandoran arc as quickly as possible, whilst leaving out a few unanswered questions at the end of each entry. “You can call it sequel bait, but I’m not trying to justify a sequel,” Cameron said in the interview. “We’ve already shot the other d–n movie. I don’t have to sell it to anybody.”
Speaking to Variety earlier this year, Avatar: The Way of Water producer Jon Landau briefly touched upon the filming process for the follow-ups in the franchise, noting that there were “logistical reasons” for the steps they took. And now we know why — to prevent the “Stranger Things effect”. Cameron also made bold claims about his Avatar universe, stating that he was even prepared to end the franchise with a trilogy if Avatar 2 underperformed.
In its first week, Avatar: The Way of Water has now surpassed the $600 million (about Rs. 5,052 crore) mark at the global box office. While its production budget hasn’t been explicitly mentioned, Cameron suggested that the film has to become “the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history, to break even.”
The notion of filming three films back-to-back never seemed daunting to Saldaña, at least from a plot and thematic standpoint. “We did read-throughs, we discussed extensively where we were, we defined those beats that distinguished [Avatar] 2 from 3,” she told EW. “So from where I was standing, I never felt that it was uncomfortable or anything, but that just has to do with the amount of time that we took in preparation for this. Jim makes you a part of the whole process and hears you. Every need that you have, he takes great attention to that detail and tries to the best of his ability to accommodate and incorporate your input.”
Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theatres in India, in English, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu. Avatar 3 is slated to release in December 2024, followed by Avatar 4 in December 2026.