Film Review - Avatar: The Way of Water

Trinity Bliss, as Tuk, in a scene from “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Gorham native Eric Saindon was the senior visual effects supervisor on the film. 20th Century Studios via AP

Would the third time be the charm?

Eric Saindon has been nominated twice for a visual effects Oscar, and the Gorham native looks likely to be nominated again this year for his work on the $350 million sci-fi epic “Avatar: The Way of Water.” The nominations will be announced Tuesday, and industry publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are predicting that Saindon, as senior effects supervisor on the film, will get one.

Saindon spent more than three years working on “Avatar: The Way of Water” at Weta FX studios in New Zealand and has helped create effects for some 20 films during his 25-year career. So he tries to focus on his work and not think about Oscars, at least not too much.

“It’s sort of fun to think about winning, like when you buy a lotto ticket. But then the night before the drawing, you don’t want to think about it too hard or even look at the numbers,” said Saindon, 53, from his home in Wellington, New Zealand. “You don’t want to think about it too much and then nothing happens.”

Eric Saindon, originally from Gorham, is among the favorites to be nominated for a visual effects Oscar for his work on “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Photo courtesy of Weta FX

The fantastical world and characters of “Avatar: The Way of Water” are heavily dependent on computer-generated visual effects. Only two scenes in the whole film don’t have visual effects. Last week, “Avatar: The Way of Water” got a record 14 nominations from the Visual Effects Society, which will be given out Feb. 15. The Oscars this year will be given out March 12.

As senior effects supervisor on the film, Saindon would be one of four people named on a visual effects Oscar nomination if “Avatar” indeed gets one. He and the other supervisors headed a team of some 1,700 people at Weta FX studios in New Zealand. When he worked on one of his first films more than 20 years ago, “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” the visual effects crew numbered about 40, he said.


Besides “Avatar: The Way of Water,” other films that critics and industry watchers predict will be nominated for a visual effects Oscar include “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Nope,” “Thirteen Lives” and “The Batman.” In recent history, the Academy has nominated five films for the award.

As a visual effects supervisor, Saindon has been nominated for an Oscar for “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” in 2014 and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in 2013. He did not win either time.

Saindon, who also worked on the first “Avatar” in 2009, said the biggest change in visual effects for movies over the past decade or so is the development of “motion-capture” technology that allows actors to be filmed – wearing special gear and hooked up to computers – so that the computer generated characters then have much more lifelike movement and presence, Saindon said. The movie also has more live-action filmed sequences than the first one.

“The muscles, the tendons, everything you see on the characters is much more real now,” said Saindon. “We use CG (computer generation) to fill in what the character looks like but it’s so much more based on real actors now.”

The film is a sequel to the original “Avatar” and takes place on the extrasolar moon Pandora, where the Na’vi people are forced to protect their way of life from various violent threats. The movie was released in December and has generated $1.9 billion in revenue.

Many scenes were filmed in or under water, Saindon said, and in the past, he and his visual effects team would “just fill in the water” using computer technology. But for this film, there were physicists on staff to help calculate exact volumes so that the computer generated water would behave like real water. Similar calculations were made for the buoyancy and weight of characters and boats in the water.


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Eric Saindon, a Maine native, was senior effects supervisor on the new film “Avatar: Way of the Water.” 20th Century Studios via AP

Saindon’s work included being on set for the filming of scenes that would later be enhanced by effects or be part of a computer-generated scene. Most of the work in creating effects was done on computers by members of the visual effects crew. He had an office near director James Cameron’s.

Saindon didn’t set out to have a career in movie effects. After graduating from Gorham High School in 1988, Saindon took community college classes, and later studied architecture at Washington State University. He got a job out of college at a company that made animation software. After that, he worked at the animation company Santa Barbara Studios in California. In 1999, he went to work at Weta Digital – now Weta FX – and worked his way up to senior visual effects supervisor.

Saindon has been to the Oscars three times before and will definitely go to the ceremony in Los Angeles if nominated this year, he said. He plans to bring his wife, Beth Arko, if nominated. The couple has four children.

Saindon says he takes pride helping create characters and visual effects with computers that seem real. He has been to films where the computer generated characters and visual effects seem fake, and the audience laughs or cringes.

“If you watch the movie and don’t think about the visual effects, then we’ve done a good job,” Saindon said.

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