Avatar Concept Designer Reveals the Secrets of the Na'Vi

Sculptor and concept artist Jordu Schell breathed life into the Na'Vi, Avatar's blue aliens. He talks about working with James Cameron, the actresses who inspired the lovely Neytiri's look, and why design isn't the most interesting part of Avatar.

We spoke to Jordu Schell of the Schell Sculpture Studio. Schell has done sculpture and conceptual creature designs for numerous films, including Galaxy Quest, Dawn of the Dead, Hellboy, and The Mist, and he brought the Na'Vi to three-dimensional life.

When did you begin work on this project?

I first was contacted in about May of 2005. Jim picked people — there are only four of us — there were three other guys, including a famous guy named Wayne Barlow who's a creature and character designer, and I primarily was hired to just do illustration. Along with these other three, I started doing illustrations, drawing and stuff.

I was really frustrated because my real forte is sculpting — you know, actual sculpture in clay, not in 3D programs. And after a while, that frustration became obvious, because I just felt like I was working on design with my hand tied behind my back if you will and I left the project, actually in about June or so of 2005. But then, Jim actually called me back in November of that same year, just a few months later, and said, "Hey, listen, the guys who were doing the 3D brush renderings just aren't capturing what I want, and I think I do want sculpture after all."

So I went back in and I started doing sculptures. And Jim responded immediately to the sculpture. He really felt that that was the best way to capture the look that he wanted. So I started doing maquettes of the characters, starting with the main character named Neytiri. And from there on, I did maquettes and designs of every character in the movie.

Avatar Concept Designer Reveals the Secrets of the Na'ViS

And how long was the process? How many iterations did you go through?

At first, I started off doing busts of Neytiri, the main female character. And then Jim said, "I want to see a full body of her; I want to see her full physicality." So, I did a full maquette of her, which is roughly about 15 inches tall of her, which will probably be on the DVD and in a book of the making of and all this stuff. But that maquette is what I think really really established me with Jim as somebody important on the team, because I remember very clearly he came into the office I was in and went, "That's her! That's her! That's it! Don't change a thing. That's it." Which, to hear from Jim, is kind of incredible.

Was that the first time he had seen the entire thing?

Yes, that was the first time I had done a full body design of any of the characters.

How many characters did you design overall?

Oh gosh. I did a design of the lead female. I did — I don't know, I would say I did probably about 15 total maquettes of the characters, and I did a bunch of maquettes also of the creatures that are in the film. Most of those maquettes — all of those maquettes — were based on designs that come from other artists that I kind of massaged into a more realistic realm taken from the drawing.

And in fact, the design of the Na'Vi in general — that kind of cat-like appearance — was already established by Jim. That's what Jim wanted. He had already done a sketch of Neytiri, just of her face, which I thought was exquisite. And he did — somebody had done a very loose CBrush of what the bodies would look like, but it didn't look organic yet, and that's why I was called in.

Avatar Concept Designer Reveals the Secrets of the Na'ViS

When you started the process, what did James Cameron tell you about the Na'Vi?

Well, I knew that they were humanoid, that they were blue-skinned, that they were cat creatures, but that he very much wanted them to retain a humanoid, human-faced element to them. He wanted them to be elegant, slender. I think they were supposed to be about nine feet tall — three meters, whatever that is. I knew the basic physical parameters. Of course, I was given the script; I read the script and figured out how they fit into the context of the world, and all that sort of thing.

Were they at all influenced by any animal in nature, or any other alien in fiction?

I wouldn't say so. I certainly got no reference to go from, other than a whole stack of photos of actresses that he [James Cameron] really liked, not necessarily that he was going to cast in the role, the vocal role or...the motion capture. Not necessarily for the motion capture, but for inspiration in terms of the beauty of a kind of ethnic face. I remember he very much liked the face of a girl named Q'Orianka Kilcher, who starred in The New World, which was a Pocahontas movie with Colin Farrell. But, you know, I had pictures of Mary J. Blige and all these different people on the walls of really beautiful ethnic women.

You said that Cameron saw the first sculpture you did and said that was it. So has the design changed at all from there?

Here's the thing: that's an interesting question. I did the maquette. He loved the face; he loved the body; he loved the physicality; he loved the athleticism; he loved the anatomy. At some point, Stan Winston studios was brought in specifically to massage the faces, to do some work on the faces. And they came up with a face that was really quite radically different from the face that was on my maquette. And I thought, "Oh well. Stan will have designed the faces and I'll have designed the body."

But now that I see the trailer, it looks as if it has returned almost exactly to what I did on the maquette. I mean it looks almost exactly it. It might be a little less — I mean because things change somewhat in CG — it might not be quite as ripped in terms of anatomy or defined in terms of anatomy as mine was, but it looks very much like the maquette that I did.

Have you talked to anyone about that? Has anyone said anything to you about them changing it back?

No, because I've been off the project. I left the project in 2007. All this stuff ran out and Jim was starting to shoot by the time I left. Other than going to little parties that Jim has thrown, I haven't really been privy to what's been going on down at Weta. And I'm good friends with Richard Taylor, who runs Weta, but I haven't even really spoken to him much about it, like what's going on down there. But I know they've been very busy down there on it, and they probably still are.

Avatar Concept Designer Reveals the Secrets of the Na'Vi

What about the sex appeal aspect of it? Was the sexiness something James Cameron emphasized with you?

Well, he wanted them to be very beautiful. And I do believe that, at some point, he said something to the effect of...the audience has to want to fuck her. I mean, Jim is very plain in his language.

So, I went, "All right?" So I made something that, I don't know if I really particularly wanted to fuck it, but it was certainly a beautiful alien. He definitely, he wanted it — because he really prefers women that are kind of athletic, and buff and stuff like that, so I, you know, designed something with big hands and feet, a big presence that felt really big and strong.

So it was designed for his personal preferences in terms of sexiness?

It certainly wasn't mine. I mean, I would have sculpted, I don't know, Gretchen Mol or something. But I sculpted this big, tall, buff, kind of tough-looking, kick-ass woman.

Avatar Concept Designer Reveals the Secrets of the Na'Vi

To what extent are the Na'Vi a product of the physical environment of Pandora? Is it just the way they are for the aesthetics, or did he indicate there was something about Pandora that made them the way that they were? For example, why are they blue?

Oh, honestly, I believe that they're blue because it's unusual and weird. I mean, maybe there's some ecology-based sense that it makes in the context of the story. I don't remember reading anything in the script that went into — I mean, everything on the planet has kind of aqua to blue palette, at least what I remember seeing. But no, he didn't go into detail at least to me about the specific ecological or environmental reasons why they were the color they were. But I know that he wanted that from the start. He said, "I really want them to be unusual. I want them to have these weird patterns," and so that was definitely what he wanted.

So your impression is that it was more about making them exotic?

Yes, absolutely.

What about the feline aspect? Do you have any indication of why they are so feline?

I don't know. It's probably because he thinks that cats are elegant, and they are. I mean, so are horses, but we don't have horse-faced aliens, I guess. So, I think it was a matter of elegance, and he wanted them all to be trim — I guess they don't have Ding-Dongs on Pandora.

In the Avatar Day footage, we see a kind of appendage coming out of Sully's braid that binds him to the dragon-like creature. Is that part of the design, or were you just told "Oh, there's this big braid?"

Oh yes. That's definitely part of the design, and it does have something specific to do with Na'Vi culture. However, I probably shouldn't as yet say until the film comes out what's going on there.

Are there going to be other surprises like that in their design?

Definitely. There are definitely some things about them that are more than just meets the eye.

More Na'Vi weirdness?

Yeah, I mean, they don't split open into gigantic demon creatures or something, but you'll definitely see aspects of them that are unusual and cool and unique to this particular creature.

And how was designing for Avatar different from other designing experiences you've had?

The only main difference — it was a very long, long project. There was so much stuff and so much to do and so many people involved. I mean, hands down the biggest thing I've been involved with.

Are you aware of the backlash online, with some people being disappointed with, for example, how humanoid or how feline the Na'Vi look?

Well, I mean, I know some people were disappointed, some people think it's amazing. Some people were disappointed, some think it's amazing. To me, that's typical fan reaction. There's always some backlash against something with a lot of hype. The only way to avoid backlash is for there to be no hype. And it seems that there's always some kind of negativity surrounding this stuff. Some love it, some hate it.

So, when something like District 9 comes out — until something like two weeks, three weeks before it came out, there was no knowledge of it by anyone. It just came out of nowhere. So, as a result, it's getting a lot of accolades. I have a feeling that if it had been promoted as the biggest thing ever six months prior to its arrival, a year prior to its arrival, it would have had severe backlash as well. I can only chalk that up to typical fan reaction to something that has gotten a tremendous amount of hype, a huge amount of advance word, and there's bound to be people that are disappointed.

Do you have any response to the people who have been disappointed?

If their problem is with the physical look of the characters, then no, there's not much I can say. That's the way they're obviously going to look. But I think that the story is strong enough to transcend any visual issues anyone might have. We should not be going to the movies, in my opinion, strictly to be visually dazzled. That is a post-modern, special effects attitude. People should be going to the movies to be told a story and they should be going to be enveloped in a world where they're going to be transported somewhere else.

Find out more about Jordu Schell's work at Schell Sculpture Studio.