I Found The Man Responsible For Spider's Dreads in Avatar 2
"[My wife] was tasked with taking four normal wigs & making the dreadlocks — & I remembered that I had mine in a bag somewhere."
A quick update on my rabies shots before we get to today’s newsletter: I have completed them. I won’t be dying from rabies, frothing at the mouth and terrified of water. I’m currently working on another story about other people bitten by various rabid creatures, and the antics that ensued.
In the meantime — bear with me here.
I was a pop-culture reporter in New Zealand for about 10 years before I left the newsroom to go make Tickled. Pop culture is deep in my veins. My body was subjected to various indignities over that time, including meeting Bono at the airport, attending the red carpet for The Hobbit, and flying to Neverland ranch to report on the death of pedophile Michael Jackson.
With all that in mind, sometimes the pop culture bug comes back to bite me — and that is the position I found myself in after watching Avatar 2.
Avatar fascinates me. It burst onto screens in 2009, the first film ever to gross more than two billion dollars. James Cameron, one of the greatest directors of all time (Titanic, Terminator 2, Aliens) gave the world a bunch of 3D blue aliens — and the world collectively lost its mind… before collectively forgetting Avatar ever existed.
Avatar 1’s total lack of impact in the cultural psyche was almost as impressive as its immense box office.
One man who did not forget was James Cameron. He promptly moved to New Zealand (where people just call him “Jim”), set up an organic farm, and stopped thinking about any other movies except Avatar — dedicating the rest of his cinematic life to the exploits of the Na’vi.
With all that in mind, after nearly 15 years of waiting, I attended Avatar 2. I put my 3D glasses on top of my other glasses, and was thrust back into the blue world for over three hours.
It was an impressive film — James Cameron’s obsession with the ocean on full display. I mean, James Cameron is to the ocean what Tom Cruise is to stunts:
“Hollywood director and deep-sea enthusiast James Cameron rode the Deepsea Challenger, a specialized, one-person, deep-sea submarine, down 10.9 kilometers into the Mariana Trench, the ocean's deepest point. Cameron designed and built the Deepsea Challenger with a team of scientists and engineers over 7 years. He became the first person to reach the bottom of Mariana alone, and the first to do it at all in 52 years.”
Like Jim’s ocean exploits, there is much to be impressed about in Avatar 2.
With a budget of at least $350 million, it’s one of the most expensive movies ever made. New technology was built just for underwater performance capture, with VFX Supervisor Pavani Rao Boddapati saying, “There are roughly 3200 shots of CGI in the movie… out of which 2200 are of water.”
But as I looked at over 2000 shots of CGI water, I couldn’t only notice one thing: Spider’s dreads.
Spider is one of the few human characters in Avatar 2. And he has a lot of dreads.
I don’t particularly care to get into the specifics of Spider and his story, but the key detail you need to know is that Spider’s head is sprouting an impressive number of dreads.
Often I’d be enjoying a scene in Avatar 2, then the giant screen would just be full of dreads. I’m not sure if you’ve seen dreads in real life, but seeing them in IMAX is a whole other story. In 3D they swing out of the screen, a constant threat against your mental wellbeing.
So, so many dreads — all from a character that’s involved in a lot of online Avatar discourse:
And you know what? I did wonder how Spider got his dreadlocks. But not in the narrative of the film. I wanted to know how the actor playing Spider — Jack Champion — got those dreads.
I sent him a DM, but he didn’t reply:
Were they CGI or were they a prop? I read countless interviews with Jack Champion (great name!), trying to find an answer. One interview showed promise, a headline announcing “Within the jaw-dropping visual world of Avatar 2, Spider star Jack Champion has revealed a small, mind-blowing use of CGI you probably didn’t notice.”
But with that headline, disappointment:
The actor then revealed a facet of the movie’s CGI we’d never noticed: for the majority of the time, the glass on his mask was CGI.
“Most of the time, it was CGI glass. There was never a glass in there,” he explained.
I didn’t care about Spider’s stupid face mask, I cared about Spider’s dreads.
And so for weeks I kept digging, going down the deepest Webworm wormhole I’ve ever gone down.
And you know what? I fucking got the answer.
Not only did I find out the origins of Spider’s dreads (they’re real) — I found the man (Brett) who grew Spider’s dreads.
Behold, Brett Stanley.
A Conversation with Brett Stanley, the Man Who Grew Spider’s Dreads.
Hi Brett — you’re an Australian, right? Mortal enemies of New Zealanders. Tell me how you came to be in America?
Haha! Yeah, I went against the flow about 20 years ago and moved to New Zealand from Australia, married a kiwi lass in the film industry, who then won a green card for the States — and we fled the seasons to set up shop in LA - the land of eternal sunshine!
Let me cut to the chase. How did your dreads come to be in Avatar 2?
My wife Jaime Leigh is a hairstylist and was hired by the hair and makeup designer Sarah Rubano to make Spider’s wigs. This was like four years ago now.
She was tasked with taking four normal wigs and making the dreadlocks — and I remembered that I had mine in a bag somewhere.
Next thing I know, they were actually sewn into the wigs to thicken the locks up.
Were they modified much? Did they change the colour of your dreads, or the weight?
They were bleached and coloured to match the original wig’s hair, and the style that production wanted. I think the length was kept the same.
From what you could tell, was there much CGI added to your dreads, or is what I saw just the real deal?
Oh man, it’s so hard to tell — the CGI in that movie was flawless! I didn’t see the final wigs before they went to set so I’m not sure if much was added in post.
We need to rewind a bit here — you’d kept your dreads in a bag? What were you waiting for? A call from James Cameron?
Haha, yeah I was like “these will be famous one day!” No, I’d just had them on my head for so long that when I cut them off years ago I didn’t feel right about just throwing them out — we’d been through so much together.
So I put them in a bag and forgot all about them!
Avatar 2 was over a decade of work — but how much work went into your dreads? How long did it take to grow them, how long did you have them for, and why did they come off?
Oh man, I had them for a good 10 years I think — and they were a lot of work. I’d wanted a low maintenance hairstyle and they certainly weren’t that.
I’d have to go back to Jam Hair Salon in Wellington every six months or so and have them tidied up or reset, because I was in the water so much that the hair would just become loose and I’d have a halo of fuzzy hair.
So that was a few hours of painful hair pulling to get them back to presentable again. I think they were down to the middle of my back by the time I cut them.
I eventually cut them because I’m an underwater photographer and cinematographer, and having dreads meant that I was dragging around a few kilos of water all the time, and they take so long to dry.
I'd also just moved to Los Angeles in 2012 and felt like I needed a fresh hipster haircut to be accepted.
Any tips for caring for your dreads to get them in good enough shape for a $350 million film?
Stick them in a bag for five years!
Can you describe the emotions you felt when you saw your dreads appear on screen?
This was hilarious because I’d actually forgotten about it! I went to see it by myself during the week and Spider had been on screen for a while before a thought bubbled up in my brain and I remembered.
I was so excited to see them, and kept looking around the cinema to share my excitement — but it was almost empty so I had to calm myself.
It was cool to be a strange and indirect part of making that film.
Leaving the theatre, there’s this idea that a lot of people are so captivated by the world of Avatar, the real world doesn’t seem good enough anymore, and they get depressed. It strikes me you have this special gift in that if you miss Avatar too much, you can just grow your dreads back and they you literally are part of an Avatar character but in the real world.
True! Although actually watching Spider wearing those dreads in and out of the water I did remember how much I hated them being wet all the time, so I think I’m just happy that my job lets me spend so much time underwater anyway.
Did you get any money for your dreads? They’re practically another actor on that big IMAX screen.
No money — but if I ever meet James Cameron I’ll be expecting a beer.
You're an underwater photographer, so you spend a lot of time under real water. Certainly more than me. What did you think about the underwater world of the Metkayina reef people?
That world was quite incredible, and definitely somewhere I’d love to visit — especially with the breath hold of the Metkayina people. Underwater is my happy place so it’d be like coming home to me.
I've also noticed you take photos of people who are dressed as mermaids — I’ve always been curious about the mermaid scene. What’s it like?
It’s definitely interesting, and escapism at its best, but also a lot of fun to be around people who love the water as much as me. It’s a very inclusive and empowering community of people, but certainly not one I ever expected to be part of. I’ve never worn a tail or seen The Little Mermaid, but I love the vibes of underwater fanatics like myself.
Will you ever grow your dreads back?
I don’t think so. I do miss them — they’re like an extension of your body, but they’re also a literal pain in the neck sometimes (Ba dom tish!)
There’s something like 750 days to Avatar 3. Are you excited?
I actually am! James Cameron does amazing things for the technology of filmmaking so I’m excited to see how he pushes the medium in the next ones. He’s got to top himself!
Look — I don’t know what more I can say. I found the man we can all thank for the biggest dreadlocks we’ll see on a cinema screen this year. Possibly ever.
The fact is you’ll probably die before you see dreads this big again. And thanks to Webworm, you now know where these giant dreads came from.
I’d assumed they were simply a visual effect — performance captured or computer modelled, part of the 3200 visual effects shots making up Avatar 2 — but Spider’s dreads may be the most real thing found in the entire film.
They were Brett’s dreads, then they were Spider’s dreads. Now, they’re our dreads — permanently matted into our pop culture.