Special effects have evolved so much since the infancy of cinema. But sometimes doing things the old-fashioned way is best. Just ask the cast of Avatar: The Way of Water. The 2009 original was a game-changer in terms of digital tech, and presumably the belated sequel will be, too. But there’s one aspect that’s completely real: Some of the cast spent the shoot holding their breath under water for real. In fact, it turned into something of a competition.
A new piece by The New York Times delves into the cast effectively trying to one-up Tom Cruise, who regularly risk his life to entertain the masses. For Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, he held his breath underwater for over six minutes. Kate Winslet, who plays a Na’vi, essentially told him to hold her beer: On Avatar 2, she did it for seven minutes, breaking his record. Sigourney Weaver, who plays a teenage Pandora native, did it for six-and-a-half.
Then there’s Zoe Saldaña. “I’m very competitive, but we had an Oscar-winning actress in our cast that did seven minutes,” the actress, returning as Na’vi warrior Neytiri. “I got almost up to five minutes. That’s a big accomplishment, you guys.”
Cameron agreed. “Five minutes is huge,” he said.
It’s partly thanks to Cameron having his cast train with “the world’s best breath-hold specialists,” all so he could film lengthy underwater takes without having to cut. When asked, What’s gained from doing it for real?”, Cameron had a snappy retort.
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe that it looks good? Come on!” Cameron replied. “You want it to look like the people are underwater, so they need to be underwater. It’s not some gigantic leap — if you were making a western, you’d be out learning how to ride a horse. I knew Sam was a surfer, but Sig and Zoe and the others weren’t particularly ocean-oriented folks. So I was very specific about what would be required, and we got the world’s best breath-hold specialists to talk them through it.”
So there you have it. Digital effects are great and all, but an army of techies pounding away at computers will never be as impressive as the star of Hideous Kinky holding her breath for the length of a prog rock song.