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The ‘Stranger Things’ effect: James Cameron on why the ‘Avatar’ sequels had to be filmed together

It’s all about keeping the kids from growing up too fast before your eyes.

By Benjamin Bullard
Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Sci-fi mastermind James Cameron apparently has a phrase to describe the uncanny phenomenon of seeing real-life child actors grow up faster than the young characters they play through time-linked seasons of TV series and movie sequels. In fact, keeping up with those inevitable growth spurts is a big part of the reason the filmmaker decided to shoot Avatar: The Way of Water, as well as the upcoming string of future Avatar installments, one right after the other.

If you don’t capture kids on camera while they’re still, well... kids, as Cameron recently explained to Entertainment Weekly, “you get — and I love Stranger Things — but you get the 'Stranger Things effect' where they're supposed to still be in high school [but] they look like they're 27. You know, I love the show. It's okay, we'll suspend disbelief. We like the characters, but, you know.”

In the case of Cameron’s growing-by-the-minute Avatar film franchise, the need to keep kids looking their characters’ ages is more than just an abstract mental exercise. Cameron told EW he shot current sequel Avatar: The Way of Water concurrently with the next pair of sequels set in the series — Avatar 3 (set to release on Dec. 20, 2024) and Avatar 4 (slated to arrive Dec. 18, 2026) — in part to ensure a believable continuity for stars Trinity Jo-Li Bliss (age 13, who plays Tuk) and Jack Champion (age 18, who plays Spider).

Champion, said Cameron, was already “growing like a weed” at the time he was cast for the Avatar franchise, six long years ago, as a 12-year-old. The same fast-growth takeaway presumably also applies to Bliss, who was only around 7 years old when she landed the role of Tuk. By the time their characters reach the back end of their current timeline when Avatar 4 arrives in 2026, Champion would be a ripe old 22 years of age, while Bliss would likely appear more visibly mature at age 17.

Audiences still have a long wait ahead to see if more grown-up versions of either character have a place in the far-distant Avatar 5, which is currently set to arrive late in 2028. But the unfolding Avatar story calendar required that both young actors get their present-age footage captured for good not only for Avatar: The Way of Water, but also for all of Avatar 3 “as well as the first act” of Avatar 4, via the report.

With adult actors, things of course aren’t quite so hurried, and there are plenty of those returning in upcoming sequels to reprise their Pandoran roles in Cameron’s azure alien planet-scape. Starring Bliss and Champion alongside an adult cast that includes Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet, and more, Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theaters nationwide.

Want to watch more James Cameron movies? Stream True Lies on Peacock.