27 Avatar Questions, Answered By The Movie's Designers

So people talk a lot about how insanely detailed this world is. But really, how detailed is it?

Says designer Yuri Bartoli:

Jim has always talked about a fractal layer of detail, where as you get closer to the world of Pandora, more and more levels of intricacy emerge to create a sense of reality. Just as in nature, there is always more structure than your eye can perceive. The color passes on the Banshee alone took me several weeks to complete, since including the necessary detail required multiple paintings 190 megapixels in size, as well as mapping them on the 3-D model to judge how these markings would look from the camera when wrapped around the creature.

Bartoli adds that when all of this work came together in the finished film, it became more than the sum of its parts. "The fact that so many people seem to genuinely respond to our work, and appreciate the ideas and subtexts, is a great reward for all the work we did putting fine detail into creating the movie."

Were there any creatures or designs that didn't make it into the final movie?

According to Bartoli, the process of creating Pandora's wildlife went down a few "blind alleys," just like evolution on Earth. The designers tried to create a "wide field of ideas" so they could find the ones which worked well together as an ecosystem. "Parameters such as six legs, an extra passive eye, four digits, threat displays, decoupled breath intakes, body markings, etc. emerged or had already been laid out in the script. So as you can imagine there are a lot of ideas that either weren't right for this aesthetic or were held back due to the limitations of telling the story- suffice to say Pandora has many more creatures in it than you see on screen."

What were some of these creatures?

According to Tully Summers, there was a fishing scene between Jake and Neytiri, featuring alien fish, that got cut. Also, a "tribal initiation" sequence where Jake is stung by a nasty insect on purpose — but you can see that insect crawling in the foreground in one shot. There was also a sequence where "sting bats" attack the human compound — and you can see some sting bats flying in formation next to one of the Samson helicopters. (The "sting bats" started out swan-like, but Weta made them more fearsome and batlike.) Summers also worked on the Sturmbeest, a kind of bison-like creature that didn't make the cut.

27 Avatar Questions, Answered By The Movie's Designers

Why do all the flying vehicles have propellers?

According to vehicle designer Paul Ozzimo, who worked with TyRuben Ellingson (whom we already interviewed a while back), the designers suggested putting jets onto the Samson and Dragon flying vehicles, instead of propellers. But Cameron nixed the idea. "He said no, propellers are still very efficient. It was really a shock to me that these vehicles didn't have jet engines on them," recalls Ozzimo. But Cameron insisited that in the future, there will be super-efficient propellers. "I really do think it makes for a much more believable vehicle, the propeller idea, because with a jet you don't really get to see a moving part. You just see a tube, and a flame coming out or whatever. It's kind of boring." Also, Ozzimo says he feels like the propellers add a much-needed vulnerability to these craft, which need to be powerful and imposing, but also get "taken down" by the Na'Vi at the end. "That was a typical Jim stroke of genius, to put propellers on these things."

Some people have suggested that Pandora is a post-singularity world, because the worldmind is like a giant computer that everyone plugs into. Was this something anyone discussed during production?

The fact that the planet is a big brain and has synapses that can talk to everyone is "an important part of thinking about the planet," says Stromberg. "We always approach the world as essentially a big brain," he adds. "That was always there." But the singularity theory is just one possible explanation, he believes. You could see it as "the next stage of evolution," or fit it into various religious frameworks. But the intent was to "create something that gave us all hope, really, and gave us all a sense, or at least a metaphor for being one and protecting each other, and what we stand on."

27 Avatar Questions, Answered By The Movie's Designers

It seems like the ISV VentureStar, the ship Jake arrives on, cannot travel faster than light. So how does it travel?

According to Ben Procter, James Cameron wrote a ten-page document addressing this very question, "which became my bible as I led a team of talented 3D designers (Tex Kadonaga, Joe Hiura, and Rob Johnson) in the development of the exterior design." The document includes sketches, as well as entire section on the ship's propulsion technology, which uses matter/antimatter reaction, complete with speed and trip duration calculations. There's also "a wealth of information on the ship's components and their relative layout."

Adds Procter:

The huge glowing radiators mounted to the engines dissipate their heat, and the enormously long central truss, with its own protective coolers and reflectors, protects the cargo and crew modules from the engines' heat and radiation using the simple rule of r-squared attenuation rather than heavy shielding. (Yes, Jim really thinks about this kind of stuff and explains it very clearly in text and in person.) The ship has a pair of centrifugal-gravity-gen modules for the crew who remain awake for the duration, which has become a pretty typical feature of quasi-realistic ship designs in movies. But one unique feature it has which directly relates to the sub-light realistic travel is a cascade-style shield stack to protect the speeding craft from interstallar debris. Jim's doc completely explains this technology, apparently based on current NASA research, and how it obliterates potentially catastrophic particles by letting them slam through a series of thin, light shield surfaces.

To make a long story short, the VStar is definitely not your typical movie ship and it's all due to Jim's engineering knowledge and passion. It was a privilege to work on this design that he'd clearly invested so much thought into.

Just how complex is the Na'Vi religion?

Leri Greer at Weta Workshop spent a lot of time thinking about the complexities of Na'Vi religion in the process of devising a lot of tribal artifacts. Greer, John Harding and production designer Rick Carter, decided that there was a kind of "natural math" in some of the lines on the Na'Vi designs, like the lines radiating outwards across a spiral shape, in when you look at a pinecone from below. The Weta crew decided there were variations in the way each Na'Vi tribe worshipped Eywa, and very different family structures. This was all part of a huge "Pandora-pedia" that Weta workshop created internally, which they ran past the production office.

27 Avatar Questions, Answered By The Movie's Designers

The Na'Vi are warriors and stuff. So do the different Na'Vi tribes go to war against each other pretty often?

Greer considered this question in depth, in the process of creating Na'Vi warpaint and war gear. He decided that the Na'Vi don't have wars any more. But they "do put a lot of effort into numerous annual gatherings where they "compete" for their specific tribe's honor and pride in various skills based competitions. I saw these kind of gatherings as the pivotal interaction, on a worldwide basis, between the various tribes." And they are pretty good at killing each other, when the need arises. (But this was something Greer developed internally at Weta, so it's not gospel.)

Some of the designers who worked on this film also worked on the various Star Treks, including production designer Robert Stromberg. how is creating James Cameron's universe different from working on the Trek universe?

Stromberg won two Emmy Awards for his work on Trek. "I ended up creating just about every city in the television series," Stromberg says. He was working for a compnay called Illusion Arts, and every week a call would come for his company to create a Vulcan city or a Romulan city, "and it just became so normal to be doing that." But Stromberg felt strongly that he didn't want Avatar to be influenced by the Trek aesthetic: "I was really looking for something more original, something that hadn't been done before. Because I had been privy to how the Star Trek worlds had been created, I tried to use the technology and the methodology, but steer away from it creatively."

He adds:

One way that it is very different is that in Avatar, Jim is very science-based and very physics-based. So everything is not only plausible but you could build things and they would actually work. Jim is just very much into the reality of things, whereas in Star Trek, you could push the limits of plausibility. Even the hometree on Pandora was very specifically tested and computer-modeled so that the base of it would support a tree of that height... the design of it was grounded in physics. Whereas on Star Trek, you would do something that looked cool, whether physics were involved or not.

Why don't any of the creatures on Pandora have hair, apart from the Na'Vi themselves?

Creature designer Tully Summers says the lack of hair is meant to "accentuate the creatures' other-worldliness. Putting fur on our mammal equivalents would have been redundant and too obvious." Adds creature designer Wayne Barlowe:

From the inception of the "black-ops" design phase back in '05, Jim was interested in exploring vivid markings and almost amphibian-like body textures. Poison-dart frogs were mentioned as possible inspirations for the look he was seeking. The solutions we began to play around with all encompassed those early concepts. While the vibrant color schemes of the terrestrial creatures fell by the wayside, the unique body-textures were retained. Obviously, the aerial fauna remains intensely colorful. These were, I believe, choices Jim made answering his inner, artistic muse.

27 Avatar Questions, Answered By The Movie's Designers

Why does the "Avatar chamber" that Jake Sully slides inside look like an MRI machine?

According to designer Yuri Bartoli, whose early sketches are remarkably close to the final product, the resemblance to an MRI is intentional. The big "ring" that the coffin slides inside spins around really quickly, to capture views of your brain within an intense magnetic field. But it has to be a two-way system, of course: as the coffin slides inside the field the ring generates, it becomes part of a feedback system, reading the occupant's brain and feeding back sensory impressions from the Avatar.

Does Jake Sully's Avatar bed do something to keep his body from atrophying?

Apparently not, but the designers considered having Jake suspended in some kind of fluid or on top of gel, that would allow for blood circulation while the Avatar "driver" is immobile for long periods of time, says Bartoli. "Design-wise we always tried to strike a balance between having the technology look functional and cool at the same time."

Jake's tribe is called the Omaticaya. What does that mean, exactly?

Apparently it refers to a particular type of flute-like instrument this tribe makes music with. (The one that that woman is good at playing, whom Neytiri tries to fix Jake up with.)

So why are Pandora's trees green like Earth trees, when everything else is so weirdly colored?

As we mentioned in our previous design feature, there was a huge push among some of the designers to make the foliage of Pandora cyan-colored instead of green. This turned out to be a problem because of creating depth perception, but also Stromberg opposed it — it would have made the "atmospheric haze" harder see because it was also cyan. But also it would have been too much. "We had to have something that the average person could grab onto as a comfort level, so we could capture them, and slowly introduce these things and not hit them over the head with the clown hammer."

What was the inspiration for those weird trumpet-like flowers, that collapse when Jake touches them?

Craig Shoji says those were based on "Christmas-tree worms," that you find attached to a reef underwater. They behave like that, and it's incredibly cool if you ever get to touch one.

When Jake wakes up from cryo sleep, he's in a huge, wide open chamber. What's the rationale behind having such a cavernous area on a ship that has to travel light years from Earth?

Procter says this is one area where Cameron's legendary dedication to having designs be "real and functional" gave way to the need for something to look cool. "While it's true you wouldn't want to drag around that much architecture at near light speed, the space needed to serve certain narrative functions," he explains.

Adds Procter:

Jim was very clear that he didn't want to reveal the Pandora arrival in the usual way - the wide establishing shot of the ship sailing toward the planet. He and Rick Carter, the production designer, had a very specific vision for how to cut straight from the scene where Jake's brother is cremated to Jake's claustrophobic wake-up in his cryo unit. The coffin resonances are clear here, but for the real "you're not in Kansas any more, Jake" feel, you had to really emphasize the wow factor and zero-g of the space, and there's no better way to do this than give it a scale where you can see a whole ballet of zero-g ambulation going on. Remember also that in the script we spend a considerable amount of screen time seeing Jake rolling around in his wheelchair on earth, so part of the cryo reveal is that we now suddenly see Jake floating around as freely as anyone else - clearly Jake's arrival on Pandora is a new beginning with new potential.

In designing the final version of the cryovault, my personal goal was to completely avoid any "floors" or "beds" which would give a sense of gravitational orientation. The reason I stuck two people in each unit, facing opposite ways, was so that gravity was immediately denied at the most basic level. The lockers are placed for good line of sight and access for the cryo unit occupants, but this actually orients them counterintuitively (perpendicular) to the space's main walls. I also did study cameras and animations which had the view continuously rolling and adopting new orientations, and I was very gratified to see some of this in the final film.

27 Avatar Questions, Answered By The Movie's Designers

The Na'Vi look like a lot of different native peoples on Earth, with their warpaint and their weapons and so on. Were they actually based on Earth tribes?

Designer Craig Shoji says he and other designers used a lot of different real-life items:

Inspiration came from many sources, but a lot involved looking at current indigenous people of the world including those inhabiting the rain forest like the Penan tribe, and the Kayapo and Yanomami indians. Also the different tribes in Africa like the Himba, Masai, and Samburu. As well as all the different forms of face and body painting that took place in all the different tribal settings. There were thousands upon thousands upon hundreds upon millions upon mucho reference pictures that we were collecting and looking at. It became sort of an obsession for Seth and myself to constantly have our 'Na'vi-esque' radar on so whenever we saw something we'd automatically buy it, save-as, or take a picture to add to the collection. It varied from those woven toy finger traps found in Chinatown, to images of Lee Bontecou's amazing sculptural work. We'd then analyze it to try and break down what was working and what we liked. Was it aesthetic? The material? The simple, yet sophisticated mechanism in how it worked? And then we'd riff on those concepts to create designs that would live in the Na'vi world.

Is the Hammerhead, the creature that first threatens Jake Sully, based on a shark?

Originally, the Hammerhead just had to be a huge creature, big enough that even a Thanator would think twice about attacking one, says Yuri Bartoli. But James Cameron came up with the idea of basing this creature on hammerhead sharks on Earth. That huge bony protrusion has two purposes: It's good for attacking, obviously, but it's probably also useful for mating displays, much the same way that rams smash their horns together to attract a female.

27 Avatar Questions, Answered By The Movie's Designers

But why does the Hammerhead, with its big grey hammer, display such bright plumage in its "threat display?"

According to Bartoli, originally the brightly colored "threat display" and the "hammer" were going to be the same thing. The hammer would have been brightly colored. But the designers decided it was better to break this up, and "create a more delicate structure that would splay out. A threat display is meant to be seen, so it required bright colors that would stand out against it's more muted body." Adds Bartoli, many creatures on Pandora have a "threat display" mode:

The Hexapede similarly has a threat display that it also uses like a satellite dish to pinpoint the sound of approaching hunters. The Thanator as well has skin flaps that flare out, but over time this has evolved into joining with its antennae. We always tried to have a method to our madness, and very often by trying to be consistent this led us to new design ideas we wouldn't have come up with by pulling it out of thin air.

27 Avatar Questions, Answered By The Movie's Designers

Okay, sure. But not all of the creatures on Pandora have "threat displays" or display bright colors. Some of them do have camouflage. How do you decide which is which?

According to creature designer Tully Summers, it really depended on how the creature functioned within its environment, as well as how the real-world counterpart lives. The Thanator is based on a huge panther, the banshees are predatory birds, and the viper-wolves are wolves (obviously). Explains Summers:

The overall colors were driven by what roll the creature played in the eco system. Viper wolves are nocturnal pack hunters, and the Titanothere a panther-like stalker, both hunting below the gloomy canopy of Pandora's jungle. It made sense for them to have darker color schemes. The Banshees roost in floating mountains and hunt in the sky, a much brighter environment. Even their colorful skin could be considered camouflage when seen against the vibrant alien jungle. Their undersides are lighter, making them harder to see from below.

27 Avatar Questions, Answered By The Movie's Designers

So the banshees, the dragons that the Na'Vi ride on, look like lizards, except for their eyes and jaws, which are fish-like. What's with the the fish face?

Bartoli explains that James Cameron was very specific about the kinds of motions he wanted the banshees to be able to do. They had to be able to open their jaws very wide, with rows of teeth that "would distend and actually rack forward." There aren't any lizard jaws that can do that, but the mechanics of fish jaws worked perfectly for this design challenge, says Bartoli. "It also got us away from it looking like a lizard and became something unique to itself."

Given that Pandora is actually a habitable moon, orbiting a huge planet, how does that affect the day/night cycle?

The ever-reliably nerdy boffins at Weta Workshop gave a lot of thought to this in the process of designing artifacts, says Greer.

I actually wrote about how it causes a particular sky coloration across the visible spectrum at moments of pure dusk. And the Na'vi, depending on what elevation they live at (sea level versus higher altitudes), perceive a distinct color in narrow band at the horizon at that moment. They identify themselves, and signify in their markings, with this color. Which helps other Na'vi quickly discern at a distance what/where they are from, or what they are likely to be like (fishermen, high plains, skyriders, etc..). That pure dusk "color," combined with their other predominant color markings lets you also know how they relate to eywa as a "religion" versus eywa as a physical reality. And during cermonial gatherings you can "read" a Na'vi by how they mark themselves with dyes, muds, and paints. And the environment and day/night cycle is directly responsible for the development of this social expression behavior. Again, this was an internal idea to help us design things at Weta Workshop, it's hard to say how much filtered upward to the larger production.

27 Avatar Questions, Answered By The Movie's Designers

What's the design inspiration for the Tree Of Souls? Is it based on a particular type of tree on Earth?

Actually, the Tree Of Souls was originally going to look like a willow tree, with hanging leaves, says Craig Shoji. But at some point, Cameron decided it should have tendrils instead. Cameron wanted it to be white during the day and glow pink at night. The tendrils are supposed to resemble the tentacles of various sea creatures, including anemones and various starfish. Also the cilia that embrace the people as Moat prays over them are supposed to be like an umbilical cord, connecting people to the mother/planet. The ethereal effect of the Tree Of Souls, says Shji, comes from "the bio luminescent color, the slow swaying of the tendrils (as if they were under water), and the fact that it was a familiar shape (tree) with unfamiliar details (tendrils)."

Is the hair-braid thing supposed to look like an ethernet cable or what?

It's definitely meant to go straight into the brain, says Shoji, and it's like jacking into a network. The braided hair is like a protective cover for this brain-link. Adds Shoji:

I do remember that Jim had a solid idea for what he wanted when the queues connected, and he would do this specific motion with his hands. Picture holding your hands out so your fingers were pointing at each other, then moving your hands closer and beginning to wiggle your fingers, then when your fingers meet, start interlocking your fingers and twisting your wrists so your hands are locked. So the concepts for that came from referencing a lot of different types of cilia and microscopic photos of hair, bugs, plants, etc. It resulted in a very purpose driven cilia for connecting to the Pandoran world. Simple, yet kinda creepy.

27 Avatar Questions, Answered By The Movie's Designers

Were the creatures on Pandora supposed to be cute? How do you negotiate the cute/scary divide?

The only cute creatures on Pandora were supposed to be the baby viper-wolves, which were designed by Stan Winston Studios, according to Tully Summers. Everything else is supposed to look like it can eat you.

The Direhorse looks sort of like a six-legged horse, but it also has ridges and is vaguely dinosaur-like. What's the inspiration behind a six-legged dinosaur horse?

Wayne Barlowe says that Cameron's script called for a six-legged horse substitute, which the audience would instantly "read" as "horse." The six legs were a huge factor in "de-emphasizing the equine sillhouette." Barlowe's earliest designs were more alien-looking, but then it lost the crucial "horse" factor. Says Barlowe:

There was some concern as to the bio-mechanics of the six legs but my guess was that if they were grouped four towards the front and two in the rear locomotion issues would be solved. Those worries were pretty much put to rest after some informative motion tests were run. Not so sure I would call the Direhorse saurian, though. My influence in the head was clearly a giant anteater, but in my drawings I used more abstract lines to deconstruct the familiar mammals' lines. The mane was a conscious effort to retain the look of a clipped or short mane — an echo of the erect manes on Przewalski's horses or zebras melded to a cetacean fin - while creating an iconic line. And, the cuticle-like armor simply made sense as an evolutionary answer to moving through potentially dangerous underbrush and ever-present viperwolves.

So the Na'Vi are hunters but they don't kill too many animals. What's their main food source?

According to designer Craig Shoji, the Na'Vi's main protein source is "teylu grubs." He worked on a deleted scene showing Na'Vi food-sharing and drinking rituals, and designed some of their housewares.