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Avatar: The Way of Water Production Designer on How the Franchise Pulled from Reality to Create a Fantasy

Thirteen years ago, Academy Award-winner James Cameron introduced moviegoers to a world unlike any they’d ever seen with his breathtaking epic Avatar. Now, Avatar fans have stepped back into the world of Pandora with The Way of Water to explore the eastern seaboard where they are introduced to the Metkayina clan, located on Pandora’s reefs.

Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña reprise their iconic roles, playing Jake Sully and Neytiri, now loving parents doing everything they can to keep their family together. When unforeseen events displace them from their home, the Sullys travel across the vast reaches of the moon Pandora, ultimately fleeing to territory held by the Metkayina clan, who live in harmony with their surrounding oceans. There, the Sullys must learn to navigate both the dangerous water and the uncomfortable dynamics of gaining acceptance from their new community.

Whether fans are mystified and in awe of the Metkayina village, the beauty of the tulkuns or thrilled by the battle on a sinking sea vessel on the Pandora moon, production designer Ben Procter has turned Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water into a feast for the eyes that makes you wonder, ‘How did they create that?’

The Koalition spoke to production designer Ben Procter, who was also a concept art director on Avatar, to unlock the secrets behind creating the world of Pandora, its oceans, wildlife and even things viewers didn’t get to see on camera.

Rather than create a host of new planets and moons, Cameron chose to continue to explore more of the moon Pandora itself with the Avatar sequels. He reasoned that the moon, which orbits a gas-giant planet called Polyphemus in the Alpha Centauri-A star system, could contain a range of landscapes—just like Earth. Pandora is a metaphor for Earth, which is why it was important to explore new biomes and new cultures based on Cameron’s love for our oceans.

For this feat, Cameron turned to Production Designer Dylan Cole to design everything relating to natural Pandora and the Na’vi, while Production Designer Ben Procter was charged with focusing on the environments, vehicles and weapons of the human characters. In standard movies, you have one production designer who manages everything that goes in front of the lens, but The Way of Water is far from standard. There were two worlds in collision in this story: the human world, which is highly technological and highly recognizable to us, and the world of Pandora, the Na’vi, the creatures, the plants, everything. Therefore, Cole and Procter didn’t just design for movie two—they were designing across the whole metanarrative.

“We definitely approach design in the sense of designing everything as if it were real at the end of the day. The hope is when somebody watches a film, or the films, you feel like we found a [real] place and went and shot there, which is quite a thing to achieve,” said Procter. “It’s a heavily computer-generated film with fantastical elements but that’s the goal. I’m the art surface guy, so I handle the human elements [and] all the technology. You know, the nasty stuff, the bad guy stuff. My co-designer Dylan Cole is in charge of the organic side of things, meaning the planet, the Flora, the fauna, [the] Na’vi architecture and a lot of their cultural elements.”

“We have two people because [it’s] a huge workload.” The Way of the Water was reportedly shot over the course of 3 years. “It’s actually just a good idea to divide the workload. [On] the human side, there’s more of an emphasis on live-action photography. I can be down in New Zealand where we shoot our live action for much longer than Dylan needs to be there. That divide and conquer works really well, but we each have our specialty and to expand either the organic world of Pandora or expand the RDA was a somewhat different challenge for each of us. We wanted to give the audience a brand-new experience and I think Avatar 2 does that. I really hope it does, but the challenge was a little bit different.”

Cole’s task involved creating an ecosystem that would have shaped the Metkayina clan’s entire way of life. The characters themselves are a slightly different shade of blue than the Omatikaya, and they have a different physiology, with large hands, wider chests and rib cages, and thick protuberances of cartilage beneath skin, almost like fins, that extend down the sides of their arms and legs to help them swim. They also have wider tails to help propel their bodies through the water, since they have adapted to ocean life, they look quite pronouncedly different.

“On [Cole’s] side, going out to the reef, knowing we have an ocean world is something just completely new and completely beyond what was expected in [the first] Avatar. I don’t think when you watched Avatar any of us were thinking about the ocean. It was such a rich world in the mountains and with the forest Na’vi, but [Cameron] wants to take us to every corner of the planet as we go forward in these movies. It’s not a fantasy planet in the sense of Star Wars, where it’s a single biome Planet. ‘Oh, this is the Sand Planet’ or ‘the Snow Planet.’ It’s an Earth-like planet, like the way planets really are. It has all that diversity within it, and so, Cole had to not only think in terms of new places to go but how the cultures would be influenced by those places.” 

“[Cameron] had a basic idea of how he thought the Metkayina reef people lived; in these sort of overwater structures that are attached to Mangrove groups, but the specificity of their weaving culture and the way they use different color materials and how those tensile architectural set of engineering of those things can hang together. That’s all connected both visually, almost creating a thematic sense of connectivity. The community is visually tied together by the way those things are built and designed. That was a brand-new challenge for Cole, and what it does is it gives you hopefully an experience of a brand-new culture. You see the diversity of culture in people within Pandora, that is only going to continue to get bigger as we get into the next films.”

‘The Sky People’ returned to Pandora not just to run a mining operation to strip the moon of the valuable mineral known as ‘unobtainium.’ Instead, the Resources Development Administration (RDA) returns in force with the added objective to colonize the entire moon and make it the new home for humanity, as Earth is on the precipice of no longer being inhabitable. Destroying a large swathe of forest, the RDA erects a giant walled city on the ocean’s edge called Bridgehead. Leading the RDA’s on-world assets is unyielding General Francis Ardmore (Edie Falco).

(L-R): Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in 20th Century Studios’ AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

In addition to having an armada of weaponized land, air and sea vehicles at their disposal, the RDA has brought with them a secret weapon: an elite team of soldiers resurrected as recombinants (recoms). Recoms are autonomous avatars embedded with the memories of the humans whose DNA was used to create them. Leading this fighting force is Recom Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).

Quaritch’s pursuit leads not only to an epic sea battle that pits RDA forces against Jake, Neytiri and the Metkayina people but also a very personal confrontation between Quaritch and the two Sully parents.

Procter designed the sling load itself as a giant industrial structure, a cross between an oil rig and an office building standing 30 stories tall. “It’s got these shock-absorbing legs because it has to be dropped down to the planet,” Procter says. “At the bottom of this 30-story tower, there’s a giant ramp that opens up, and out of it comes a whole series of construction vehicles and AMP suits and people. It is a full-blown industrial port. There’s refining of unobtanium, refining of fossil fuels. [Cameron] wanted it to feel like a frontier boomtown, infinite construction. Like ants, toiling and building.”

In addition to a fleet of attack aircraft, the RDA also has in its arsenal the monstrous yet notably aerodynamic Sea Dragon, a 400-feet long ship that can lift itself out of the water to skim the surface of the ocean at speeds of 140 knots. The Sea Dragon carries within its smaller vessels, all designed to assist in the hunting of tulkun and defense. The lethal armada includes mako attack subs armed with torpedoes, which hang like bombs ready to drop out into the water through the belly of the hull. Also on board are underwater Crab Suits—the film’s answer to Avatar’s AMP Suit.

“On the RDA side, it was a brand extension. The RDA still had to give that same sense of weight and nastiness to the technology and to their big lumbering machines, but at the same time, there’s a difference of flavor. I would describe it in the same way General Ardmore does when she’s taking courage on a tour of Bridgehead. She says, ‘we’re not building a mine here, Colonel.’ It is that human mandate on Pandora that has been expanded. Not only into new extraction industries [but] the whaling of the tolkun is just another extraction industry that happens to resemble oil whaling as it’s practiced on Earth. In terms of it being a mandate to build a new column effectively to start moving people to Pandora on a much larger scale, essentially, I’m dealing with RDA 2.0 so to speak. This is like RDA not messing around this time.

[Essentially them saying,] ‘I’m not going to get our ass kicked again like we did before.’ They’ve brought back knowledge of how the natural creatures of the world can be a threat. The new city has a Kill Zone around it that’s two miles thick where any approaching forces are going to get mowed down by machine guns. It’s a much larger scale of operation. We’re now on the ocean seeing an entirely new aspect of what the RDA is doing and then the kind of technical references that we could pull from reality that relate to what they’re doing.” 

“That’s something I think is common to any Avatar movie, whether it be the first one or any of the other ones we’re going to do. We’re approaching every piece of design with some attempt at total conceptual integrity. You’re doing your homework, you’re designing a picture, you’re going to do a whole bunch of research into actual biology and think about evolutionary biology and why things look the way they do or how a look goes with a behavior. This will actually inform what the thing could even do in the film, as opposed to just wanting it to be scary or you wanting to have a certain emotional read. The same goes for all of the technical stuff we do right. It has to be based on real technology. We have a 400-foot-long flying whaling ship. There’s any number of ways we could have designed that, but we designed it in a way that is actually somewhat legitimate on an engineering level and making it a wing and ground effect aircraft, which is what [Cameron] wanted to do. That’s day one.”

In all his films, Cameron creates an immersive experience in which audiences will feel like they’re alongside the characters on their adventures. But that’s never been truer than in the case of Avatar: The Way of Water, which stands as a new creative zenith for the singularly talented filmmaker who, yet again, pushes the boundaries of cinematic storytelling. By expertly utilizing enhanced 3D technology, Cameron transports filmgoers inside the narrative, enabling them to truly experience the richly detailed environments of Pandora and allowing them the opportunity to traverse its majestic terrain alongside brave and bold heroes Jake and Neytiri.

The experience is even more transporting given the stunning imagery and compelling story Cameron and his collaborators were able to conjure using groundbreaking technology, offering audiences a breathtaking—and heart pounding—escape like they’ve never seen before. With 3D, High Dynamic Range, high framerate, Procter was able to present a higher quality image today than on Avatar by far. It goes beyond what was possible before, and it’s all done to service the narrative storytelling. It’s a window into another world.

“[Cameron] is a self-described frustrated engineer. He always brings all kinds of great storytelling ideas to the table; cinematic storytelling ideas in particular, but he’s also kind of a geek. He loves biology, he loves nature, he loves cultural references, he’s traveled the world, he’s given himself an interesting life where he has hands-on experience with so many cool things most people never get to see and some of those things are technological. He built his own submarine and went to the bottom of the ocean. So, when we do access real references in order to make something look like the next generation or a bigger, badder RDA, we’re not getting into cartoon-land. We could get into cartoon-land easily, but we restrain it with a sense of reality that we try to invest in everything.”

“Looking forward, hopefully, we’ll continue to develop our tech to where we’re able to take even more control of the look of things in the early phase and help get the movie made faster.”

To learn even more about The Way of Water’s creation, including building terrain, how he has worked closely with the Avatar franchise teams and partners, ensuring concept and design integrity across games, theme parks, publishing, television, corporate partnerships, and more, check out the full interview in the video above.

The Way of the Water is available on all major digital retailers and Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD. Avatar is also available for the first time on 4K UHD in High Dynamic Range to digital retailers and on Blu-ray disc.

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