If you thought the creatures on the planet Pandora look sleeker and more like race cars than your standard monsters, then it's not an accident. It turns out that race cars were part of their early designs, and some of that made it into the final movie.
Early on in the process, James Cameron "mentioned the core idea" of having Pandora's creatures be "superslick and aerodynamic, and be like a race car with racing stripes," says creature designer Neville Page, who started out as an industrial product designer.
So he and fellow creature designer Wayne Barlowe both worked on creature designs based on race-cars, and Barlowe came up with some "trippy" ideas, based on combining the curves of a Formula 1 car with "cetacean lines," from a whale or dolphin. Some of those designs were too "wild" to make it into the movie," says Barlowe.
For his part, Page strugged to come up with designs that included a race-car feel. "I wasn't able to get it to work," he says, "and honestly, about a year into it, it somehow gelled for me." Page used his education in automotive design and the "automotive form language" to inspire animal forms. The irony is, automotive design language is actually based on real-life animals to begin with, and "in the automotive world, lines on a car are referred to as bone lines," says Page, "in the sense of bones having specific ridges and edges." Car desgins draw on seashells, turtle shells or insects, so he was bringing those shapes back to the animal world and making them more stylized.
The biggest problem with these car-inspired designs was how to make them organic. "That was one of the problems Jim had with what I was doing, was that it's cool-looking form-wise, but it isn't organic yet," says Page. "If you literally took an Orca whale and made a mold of it and put it in gray primer, it would look toylike, because there's no excessive skin texturing... That was the hardest thing with our characters, was to prove that we could get them [to look] organic."
But not all of the creature designs in Avatar were based on car imagery. Barlowe says his early designs for the flying dragon creatures, the Mountain Banshees, were actually based on sea life:
I was influenced by manta rays and skates - sea life motifs were prevalent in my thoughts at the time - when it came to my initial concepts. Their lines informed everything from wings to head profiles. And, yes, being a huge paleontology buff did make me think of the vast variety of relatively little-known pterosaurs and plesiosaurs with their many, unique aerodynamic and hydrodynamic solutions.
Barlowe adds that he was careful to avoid being influenced by monsters from any other movies, or books for that matter, because audiences are so well-educated these days, they'll spot any similarities to something they've seen before a mile away.
Cameron even came up with the idea that the some of the creatures would have a special breathing hole. Says Page: "Jim always had this idea of having the animal not only breathe potentially through its oral cavity, but through a tracheal stock, which he's calling the Operculum." Basically, it's a hole in the clavicular region, similar to what you'd have after a tracheotomy. It was the one spot where Cameron felt you could "have a hole penetrate through a creature and still have the muscle and bone do what they do," says Page.
It gets back to the automotive design idea — Page started thinking of these extra breathing holes as "intakes," that would allow the creatures to move faster by taking in more air. "You want a place where you can draw the most air in terms of great energy and physical expense," he says.
Cameron had his own ideas for many of the creatures on Pandora, but especially the Thanator, that giant killer monster that nearly eats Jake Sully, was Cameron's baby, Barlowe explains:
The Thanator is, indeed, extremely cool. Jim had a very proprietorial approach to that one - hands off my Thanator! He really wanted to design it himself. I was not in L.A. when he created it. I can only guess that it was the product of many cups of coffee and Jim's urge to create the Ultimate Predator. However, with all of that said, it does fit perfectly into the overall aesthetic of the world. Jim clearly wanted it to look integrated into the sensibility of Pandora and yet be that dynamic apex predator that we see so frighteningly real on the screen.
Page adds that it's not exactly true that Pandora's creatures are connected telepathically — Cameron and the designers talked about the idea that Pandora had a kind of "Worldmind," but they didn't want to make it too confusing for the viewers, on top of everything else. Instead, it's more like a kind of heightened instinct. Like the way your dog or cat will know that another large animal is coming into your yard several minutes before you do. Or the way your dog might know an earthquake is coming, a while in advance. Says Page, "Animals are hooked up to this planet. We're the ones who are detached... The way I dealt with it was, We have so much rich [material] here to reference, that we don't have to dream up a whole new process of animal awareness."