Box office record-breaker and pioneer that it was, “Avatar” was in many ways a dry run for the mega-production that is now under way in multiple studios across New Zealand.

James Cameron and his long-term producer partner Jon Landau have mounted an unprecedented exercise in logistics, use of resources and ambitious film-making techniques in order to simultaneously shoot “Avatar” parts two, three and some of four.

Pre-production began mid-2018. Filming began in May. And some suppliers have apparently been notified that they need to think of their roles as a five-year commitment.

“With ‘Avatar’ you have to create a whole world. Nothing exists,” says Landau. Cameron’s vision is being originated in 3D, with massive use of visual effects and cutting-edge motion capture techniques, all of it indoors. That involves a huge commitment to New Zealand and from the country’s talent and crew.

“The first time we came, we came because of the incentives. That was a huge motivating factor. What we learned on the first ‘Avatar’ was the passion and the artistry that people bring to their work here. Any location can get people to come. What is harder getting people to come back,” says Landau.

“We want to work with people who take pride in the overall, and also the detail, of their craft. We found we wanted to be back in New Zealand.”

When Variety visited the film’s set, the “Avatar” movies were shooting at the new Kumeu Film Studios just 20 minutes from downtown Auckland, the same distance from the city’s airport. Security was visible and preparations were afoot to use the facility’s two water tanks and the huge, newly built green screen, which first serviced “The Meg.”

“Avatar” has also used three more sites. These include the older Auckland Film Studios, used for pre-production, and Stone Street Studios in Wellington. The production shuttles between the sites in order to minimize downtime and ensure a constant flow of raw digital footage to the effects and post-production teams. “We can’t wait till we finish production to turn over material to [VFX house] Weta Digital. We feed them as we go along. We built breaks into the schedule, which allows us to edit,” says Landau. The rotation also allows sets to be assembled in one place while cameras are rolling in another place.

The production has taken a five-year lease on a large warehouse in Lower Hutt, outside Wellington, where construction is taking place. “We considered buying it,” says Landau.

“No successful film hub can rely on locations alone. You need a studio infrastructure to support not just ‘Avatar,’ but others too. You need the facilities that can say ‘Avatar’ is not set here, but it could shoot here. Or a TV show that is set in New York, but can film here,” says Landau.

The new “Avatar” series leans heavily on Weta Digital, the Wellington-based facility that has won six Academy Awards for films including “The Lord of the Rings” series and the first “Avatar.”

Landau says he admires the company, not only for its skills, but also its corporate risk-taking. “On the first ‘Avatar,’ we were waiting for six months to get a greenlight for the movie. Weta Digital had three other big movies wanting to use them. They took a corporate decision to wait. They reasoned it would lead them down the path they want to go. And they continue to explore,” says Landau.

Landau expects the new “Avatar” series to qualify for New Zealand’s 5% uplift, a supplementary rebate scheme granted only to those movies that leave something large behind.

“It is conditional. They don’t want us to bring in 50% of our crew from elsewhere. We have other things we have to deliver, like the producing seminars, that [Landau is] teaching. We made a commitment on interns, and think of it as training the labor force, in production, editorial, art, visual effects, and costume departments,” Landau says, pointing out that film industry spending is unusually diverse — helping everything from hotels and transport, to stationery makers, textile producers and puppeteers. “We have 300 people in hotels in Auckland.”

Landau says he can see first-hand how that kind of investment pays future dividends. “Since we shot [the first] ‘Avatar,’ New Zealand has crews with more experience now. The industry here is taking the right steps to support what has to happen. We are doing more with Park Road Post. We will be doing our mixes in New Zealand, which we did not do last time. We are now working with them on our dailies, and our 3D.

“We use a high level of technology, but don’t view it as proprietary. Our story is proprietary! The more these technologies become ubiquitous, the better it is for us. When we are not in production other people can still be using those toolsets, training and advancing.”

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