Filmmakers on the Aquaman movie were tasked with a difficult challenge: Creating an undersea world where action scenes feel realistic, actors can talk out loud to each other, and the fictional mystical kingdoms of the “Seven Seas” still feel true-to-life.
That tall order came from director James Wan and involved hundreds of creators and cast. Their journey has been retraced in the book, The Art and Making of Aquaman, written by journalist, producer for SYFY WIRE and long-time comic book fan Mike Avila and available next week from Inside Editions.
Avila interviewed actors and creators behind everything from the movie’s costumes to its special effects, and the book includes concept art and photographs, as well as a forward by actor Jason Momoa and an introduction by director James Wan.
The Art and Making of Aquaman also includes information on the character’s lengthy comic book history and evolution into the big screen hero being introduced to mainstream audiences today.
Newsarama talked with Avila to find out more about the book, what he discovered about the creation of Aquaman, and what part of Aquaman’s comic book history he most credits with the film’s direction.
Newsarama: Mike, how did you end up doing a “making of” book?
Mike Avila: I’m a big fan of “making of” books, and I’ve been wanting to try my hand at it. And then I was offered the opportunity to pitch Inside Editions on having me do the book. Thankfully, they hired me. I wrote about 2,000 words on Aquaman to show that I actually knew about the character. I got to prove my nerd bonafides. And they dug it. From there, we got the ball rolling.
This being a big, giant, colossal studio movie, there’s protocol to follow. It wasn’t like I had free access to everything. But I was able to see a ton of the material from behind the scenes that the filmmakers had access to, including hundreds of pages of concept art, which was really nice to see as a fan as well as a writer of the book, because it really showed the expansiveness of what James Wan was doing.
Nrama: This movie is unique because most of it takes place under water, including dialogue and action scenes. Is that something you explore in the book, the way they had to design the film to appear as if it was filmed under water?
Avila: Yeah. In fact, the biggest learning curve I had while writing the book was the verbiage that the production teams would use because they were basically making up processes for this movie.
I don’t know how familiar you are with the timeline for how this movie was made, but it’s really atypical. The lead actor was cast six years ago or whatever and nobody knew about it. Then they hired the director. Then they started the pre-production. Then they did the principle photography, then they spent almost two years doing all the effects in the post-production.
The way they did it was, they shot an underwater movie outside of the water. They coined it as the “dry-for-wet” process, which I didn’t learn about until I started working on the book and I thought it was fascinating.
During one of my interviews — I believe it was production designer Bill Brzeski — he told me that very early on, James knew they weren’t going to shoot much of the movie in the water because actors can’t talk underwater, it’s going to be a mess and it’s going to be a disaster.
So the irony of ironies is that the movie about the ultimate underwater guy was shot almost completely out of the water and then they added it in in post.
In the book, you’ll see images of the actors, and you’ve probably seen some behind-the-scenes footage already — the actors where they were filming scenes that took place under water, like Patrick Wilson, his hair would be slicked back. They did that so they could remove the hair from the scene and then digitally re-insert it in post to accurately reflect how hair would move underwater.
And if you’ve seen the film, almost all of it takes place underwater. So anytime you see Momoa’s facial hair moving in the water, or Mera’s hair moving, or Orm’s cape — all of that had to be digitally inserted afterwards, painstakingly.
Nrama: You said they developed new verbiage. Did they develop new techniques as well, to depict things under water?
Avila: Yeah. What they did was they used a lot of old materials and veteran ingenuity to create new methods of making this movie.
So for example, the fight scenes, when they’re fighting underwater, they would put the actors in harnesses. And they would be attached to what they called tuning forks. And that’s something that would move them around so you would see Jason and Patrick, you know, going through their motions in the fight scene, and the way they would capture a natural movement was to have them moving in these very uncomfortable harnesses (because all of the actors said they were very uncomfortable), and they were moving them around with old sitcom TV camera bases.
So if you’ve ever been on an old TV studio set, you know, those old cameras had big reels that you would spin around. And that’s how you would move the cameras. Well, that’s how they moved the tuning forks, and it allowed for much smoother motion. So that’s how they replicated underwater fighting.
Nrama: Wow, that’s insane. I suppose the actors would even have to keep in mind that they were underwater as they delivered dialogue or made movements, right?
Avila: Right, which is very hard. It’s a lot easier said than done to say, “Oh, yeah, just pretend you’re fighting in water.” No, it’s not that easy.
And it’s interesting that you bring up how the actors approached this because something else that surprised me, while putting together the book, was finding out how much they actually built in a practical nature.
By that I mean, it’s not all green screen. This isn’t The Phantom Menace, where they’re all in a giant, empty studio and they’re digitally re-inserting everything. About half the sets they used were built. They did that to give the actors something physical to work off of. And I thought that was very interesting, because I fully expected to find out it was all done inside a green screen studio. But no, they had a lot of tactical sets.
And it wasn’t just the underwater stuff. For example, when they’re in Amnesty Bay and Arthur and his dad are at the bar having breakfast, because that’s what the Curry’s do… they drink their breakfast, they built a replica of a bar there that the production team was so proud of they were kind of hoping that Australia would keep it. They were very happy with the quality of the bar.
So they did that to help the actors inform their performances better. And I thought that was quite interesting. We take for granted that part of the film production process now because we just expect everything to be CGI, and it wasn’t the case here.
Nrama: You mentioned Phantom Menace, and it seems like there are some similarities between creating an oceanic realm on Earth and creating a new realm in outer space, or in another dimension or something. I assume that was the type of approach taken to Aquaman’s world, that it would look other-worldly?
Avila: Yeah, one of the things that came across very early on when I was putting together the book was that James Wan’s vision for the movie was very clear. We’re going to introduce the world to something that they haven’t seen before.
He told everybody, this is our chance to create a world that other filmmakers haven’t been able to do, kind of like what Lucas did with Star Wars, right? And he used that as his benchmark. What he did in outer space, let’s do underwater.
You see that in the different landscapes, the seven kingdoms, all the different looks, even the Deserter Kingdom, where they go through the Sahara. It’s pretty remarkable, but I think that was part of the big challenge that he put on his team and they seemed to gleefully accept, was, let’s build something new, something fresh that people haven’t seen.
Once you see the movie, no matter what you think about it, you can pretty confidently say, wow, I haven’t really seen a lot of that before. There’s a lot of that in the movie.
Like, the underwater sequence when you arrive in Atlantis? That was just a wild image. And I remember looking through the look-book that the studio sent us, and I see those images, and I just remember thinking, wow, how are they going to make that look this way on screen? And damned if they did it, because it does. It’s exactly what I saw in the concept art on the screen. It was pretty impressive.
Nrama: The people who take the director’s vision and make it real — did you get to talk to the people who do that, who just create worlds for movies? I mean, they get to create something new, but they have parameters, right?
Avila: Yeah. With this film, the costume designer and the production team and the VFX guys — they all told me that one of the things they did was, they established a set of ground rules for the movie. Basically, they said, OK, we’re creating this reality that Aquaman exists in. So they created 10 rules of reality or something like that.
It basically helped them form the decisions they would make, whether it be the types of costumes and materials or how they would create the city of Atlantis.
One example of a rule they had was, we can’t have anything that looks like metal because metal rots under water. Can’t have wood. So if you look at the designs of the structures in Atlantis, you’re going to notice it resembles coral and bone. And that’s how they envisioned it because of the rules they established under James’ direction.
And that guided all their production principles.
The costume designer would use materials that incorporated bioluminescent and pearl and coral — all things that you would find under water.
There was no cheating involved. Yeah, you have your plasma rifles and things like that, but there are no steel rifles there. There’s nothing like that that we use above the surface, so to speak.
I thought that was very interesting that they established the rules of the world that they’re playing in, and then they let their imagination run wild within that.
Nrama: You also spoke to some of the actors, it sounds like.
Avila: Yeah, a few of them. I wasn’t able to talk to Amber Heard or Nicole Kidman, which I would have loved to talk to Aquamom, because hers is a small but very important role in the film. I think she’s going to be a crowd-pleaser.
Nrama: From their point of view, with these harnesses you mentioned and the really long time period between their shoot and when the film was finished, was it a surprise for them to see it all put together with all the CGI?
Avila: I think for Jason it was more of a relief. He had a secret that he had to keep for a long time. He’s on record saying that he had to tell somebody that if he turned out to be Aquaman, they could punch him in the face. I believe he has to pay that debt.
You know, everything is about him is so atypical. He had the role before the director was cast, which is highly unusual. In all my years of working at places like Syfy Wire, I don’t recall a big movie ever working in that way.
When I saw him at the premiere, he was just happy to have the movie out that he’s been working on for so many years. He seems like the weight of the world has been lifted off his shoulders.
Patrick Wilson, who plays Orm, one of the things he said was people don’t understand how hard it was for me to get in shape. All I kept thinking about was that I had to be face to face with Jason Momoa, who’s huge.
Patrick is a fit guy, but he’s not a huge guy. So he had to really change his workout routine and the way he approached the gym. He’s a runner and all that. He’s a naturally slim guy. But he goes, if I’m going to be playing opposite a Jason Momoa, I’ve got to bulk up and really look the part or otherwise I’m going to look silly. So he had his own pressure.
Nrama: How much were the comic books utilized for the way the movie looked?
Avila: I think you’ll see a lot of Geoff Johns’ New 52 Aquaman in the film. Geoff and Ivan Reis’ run really informs the film, a lot of story elements. I think the costume that he ultimately ends up in resembles that.
We go into the comic book influences in the book because one of the things I wanted to do when I did the book was, I said, look, I know the character and the people who want to buy this book are comic book fans. They’re Aquaman fans. So we can’t ignore that. We shouldn’t ignore that. Aquaman’s an awesome character. No matter what the mainstream perception has been, in the comics, he’s awesome.
So I really wanted to make sure we included things like artwork from the different Aquaman eras and things like that.
In one section, called “from page to screen,” we detail his long, convoluted origin, because as you know, Arthur Curry’s backstory has been retconned and retrofitted several times over the years. It took them until Geoff Johns got ahold of the book in the New 52 to really clean it up and organize it.
So that’s in there. And I was quite happy with that, because I think if somebody picks up the book after seeing the movie and wants to learn more about the character, I like to think that section will do a good job of informing them about who he is in the comics.
The Art and Making of Aquaman, a hardcover book by Mike Avila, will be available from Insight Editions on January 1st with a cover price of $45.00.