As It Happens7:38Free diver explains how Avatar actors held their breath underwater for minutes at a time

Free diver Chris Denison coached Kate Winslet to hold her breath for over 7 minutes on Avatar: The Way of Water.

The visually stunning underwater scenes in James Cameron's Avatar: The Way of Water takes on a new level of realism when you realize the actors are often actually performing underwater — while holding their breath for a really long time.

In her role as the leader of the film's water-dwelling community, Kate Winslet held her breath for over seven minutes. It broke a previous actor's record set by Tom Cruise during his six-minute underwater sequence for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation in 2015.

Free diving was the key skill that allowed Winslet, along with co-stars Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña, to film long scenes underwater.

Free diving is essentially the practice of holding your breath when diving underwater without the use of any other breathing equipment, such as a scuba tank.

Chris Denison is a free-diving instructor who worked on Avatar: The Way of Water. He was also a stunt coordinator on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which also included underwater filming.

He spoke with As It Happens host Nil Köksal about the training behind the scenes. Here is part of that conversation.

How long can Kate Winslet hold her breathe underwater?

Kate Winslet has a beastly seven-minute, 15-second breath hold, which is impressive.

The day she accomplished that feat.... What was it like to be there, Chris?

Pretty incredible. Breath holding … becomes a very primal fear. It's something that everybody is scared of. And to see her conquer that definitely opened up some possibilities for her.

We had some conversations after that where she's like, "Man, what else did I previously think was impossible that I can do now?"

Four people in motion capture suits pop their heads out of a pool filled with small beads.
Clockwise left to right: Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, Kate Winslet, and Cliff Curtis on the set Avatar: The Way of Water. (Mark Fellman/20th Century Studios)

I heard some of the other actors, you know, talking about parts of the training process…. Can you just give us a sense briefly of what those steps are? How you prepare them for that? 

If you take yoga or if you do Brazilian jiu jitsu … almost every sport mentions breath in some capacity. But free diving is very cool because it's a sport that literally centres around breath. And a lot of that focus is mental. And it's pushing through periods of discomfort, doing it in a safe environment … but it's very unnatural.

One way I like to describe it is your body almost has a low fuel gauge, just like your car does. When your car starts to get to just a quarter tank remaining, a light pops on. Your body will do the same thing. It will give you an urge to breathe when you're running low on oxygen. But what we train [people on] is really how to push through that in a safe manner. And after you do that enough times, you kind of reset your switch.

It's very meditative. You know, we have an instructor who on some deep dives has clocked his heart rate at about 14 beats per minute. So we're doing things that elicit a physical process in the body that's very unnatural.

But at the same time, everybody kind of contains this in their DNA. It's called a mammalian dive reflex. So whales have it, dogs have it and humans have it. It's just kind of like cracking into a part of our code we don't really use.

Is it safe?

The idea that you have brain damage after six minutes, that's a little bit inaccurate when you get into free diving. 

There's people out there, like the instructors of PFI [Performance Free diving International] that are teaching it the right way. There's some people that are teaching it horribly wrong. But if you do it the right way, in a controlled environment ... it's a super fun, enjoyable sport. 

On any of the films I've worked on, training actors how to hold their breath, we make them very safe divers, too. We teach them how to rescue somebody from a shallow water blackout, how to respond to hypoxic incidents. And it's very empowering for the cast because not only do they have this ability, but they also know how to do it safely. 

A camera operator films two actors wearing motion capture suits under water.
An underwater shoot for Avatar: The Way of Water. (Mark Fellman/20th Century Studio)

How long can you hold your breath underwater?

It's a bit of a loaded question. I don't like getting too wrapped up in the numbers, but the longest breath hold I've posted on Avatar was 15 minutes and 10 seconds.

Wow. Do you want to push it further or is that the limit for you?

I would love to push it further. You know, 15 minutes sounds cool, but the world record is 24. I'm quite a ways off of that. 

[For movies,] you don't want to make it too much of a competition because at the end of the day, when you have actors performing, it's not so much about the length of the take, it's about the actual performance. And what that comes down to is comfort underwater. 

When I come in and train actors, the goal is to get them so good at breath holding, they're not thinking about breath holding. They're thinking about acting.

A man speaks to several actors and crew wearing motion capture suits and snorkels in a round pool of water.
Director James Cameron on the set of Avatar: The Way of Water. (Mark Fellman/20th Century Studios )

To see the finished work [in] both Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and now Avatar: The Way of Water as well — what's it like to see it on screen?

It's surreal to see these movies on screen. And pride is something that I normally try and stay away from, but I am so stinkin' proud of the cast.

The cast on Wakanda Forever worked so hard with their underwater scenes and they were so difficult. And, you know, obviously with Avatar, it's such a game changer.

Is there a particular scene that really got you as you watched it or that audiences should watch out for?

The underwater scenes where the Sully family is initially just discovering the underwater world and kind of appreciating it, that's something that's very special for me....

I've experienced so many beautiful things just out in mother nature and I'm like dying to share that with other people. And I can't speak for James Cameron, but I reckon he probably has the same thing. You know, he's such an experienced diver, he's seen so much cool stuff, he's probably really yearning to share that with others. And I think he accomplished that with Avatar.

If audiences take anything away, you know, try and see the movie in the theatre because that experience is the closest you can get to simulating actually diving underwater.

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