Most of all, we've gained a renewed appreciation for the designers'
determination to make sure everything in the movie really works and
make sense — as though there are vat-grown alien-human hybrid bodies in
tanks, or huge flying fortresses in real life.
, who pointed us to these amazing digital sculpts his team did for the Na'Vi and other characters:
One idea that really didn't make it into the movie is that these
mountains are drifting like boats in the water. There was talk about
having them collide and have bits crumble away. I think it would have
been a great way of showing the power and the danger of the place.
Hopefully in the sequel!
How do you convey that the mountains are floating though? Cameron
wanted some shots approaching the floating mountains and the banshee
"rookery" from above, so Cole and Messing worked on some test shots —
one of which became an actual shot in the film. But when you see the
floating mountains from above, how can you tell they're not touching
Explains Cole, "the best way to show that they are floating is by
having a nice sense of atmosphere or a cloud between the mountain and
the ground." Messing and Cole also worked on a giant 360-degree
panorama of the entire floating mountain region. Cameron used this in
the "virtual sets" when he was doing his motion capture filming, and it
also served as a "style guide" for the film's visual effects, says Cole.
The Samson helicopters:
was lead vehicle designer on Avatar, and he worked on all the vehicles
except the Valkyrie shuttle and the ISV VentureStar (which brings Jake
to Pandora originally.) People often talk about the Samson helicopters
being based on Hueys from the Vietnam war. But Ellingson says the Huey
was an influence, but "it was more the Blackhawk we looked at for
scale." Those two giant sideways propellers were part of Cameron's
original design concept for the Samsons, and probably came up while
Cameron was writing the script.
The Samsons' transparent heads-up displays, which a number of
designers worked on, are deisgned to allow the pilot to pull up a
number of different menus depending on the situation — from a combat
display during combat to a specialized landing display.
Those Avatar tanks:
A lot of thought went into those tanks full of liquid where the "avatar" bodies were grown and shipped from Earth. Ben Procter
took a basic structural scheme from Francois Audouy and fleshed it out
into a "more fully engineered, robust amniotic system for incubating a
living being over the course of several years."
Various considerations included a robust steel base with heavy
casters for getting the tank around (Jim reminded us that this much
liquid would weigh many thousands of pounds), a big battery-backup
power unit to drive the various sensors and life-support systems when
the tank is not wired up to ship or base power, and systems for
supplying nutrients into the avatar's blood (you'll notice what looks
like a dialysis machine hooked up to a liquid "feed bag") and for
filtering the amniotic fluid itself. Also included in my design was a
transit case system Jim requested for protecting the tank during its
journey through cargo holds and whatnot... Jim noticed I had some tubes
protruding outside the tank's structural cage and wanted these tucked
in for protection against damage. Jim's imagination knows no limits
when it comes to scrutinizing the realism of designs. I was very lucky
to have some help on the tank from one of Jim's submarine engineers,
who gave me pointers on basic o-ring hatch seals and whatnot. (Adrian,
I'm sorry I've forgotten your last name!) Helping me figure out an
imaginary water tank was easy for a guy whose real job is to build
camera housings which can go miles below the ocean surface without
The AMP Suits:
So were these huge suits of power armor based at all on the loader
suit, which Ripley dons in Aliens? Not really, says Ellingson.
In early conversations about the AMP suit, the ALIENS loader was
talked about, and without doubt there are conceptual parallels between
the two machines, but I don't recall Jim ever pointing to the loader as
a specific design reference. What we did look to for inspiration was
manufacturing robotics, and military vehicles along with their various
supporting technologies, like imaging and weapons systems.
The huge front window on the AMP suits was designed to give the
operator as wide a field of view as possible, and also allow Cameron to
film the pilot inside the machine.
One of the greatest moments in the film is the one where Quaritch is
talking to Jake Sully from inside an AMP Suit, and he's sort of boxing
while he talks about Jake's legs:
From a technical stand point, putting together that moment...
required a substantial number of complex steps be precisely executed.
In the very shortest of strokes it involved filming Stephen Lang
inside the full scale prop AMP suit constructed by Stan Winston
Studios, animating the digital model of the suits robotic arms and legs
to match the actor's performance, and compositing it all into the
environment of the armor bay. One could write pages on how just that
one shot was delivered to screen, it is all quite complex, inventive,
and very hard work. Even after having been there to witness many
aspects of the process, it still boggles the mind.
Regarding the design of the operator interface, we talked about a
number of approaches, but in the end, Jim decided to go with a kind of
mechanical telemetry translator — an apparatus the AMP suit pilot
straps into and can then move around in to control the larger robotic
body. This type of system translates the operators movements into
electronic signals that inform the AMP suits various motorized joints
how to move.
This kind of system is often referred to as a "Waldo control suit,"
and this is what Quaritch is seen strapping himself into before
executing the boxing moves.
The inside of the AMP suit cockpit is designed to be roomy, to allow
the operator to move around freely, since any limits on the operator's
movement would, in turn, limit the suit's movements. And the cockpit is
based on present-day helicopter or tank cockpits, with controls and
operator interface designed by Procter.
Procter and supervising art director Kevin Ishioka went on a
research trip to AmGen to study real laboratory environments, to make
Grace's lab look as real as possible. Says Procter:
Once I got over the fear of being exposed to a "28-Days-Later" virus
and the embarassment of Kevin photographing me in a full cleanroom
suit, the trip was really helpful for observing and getting the visual
vibe of real scientific equipment including electron microscopes,
automated samples handlers, and generally just lots of things cooled
with awesome-looking liquid-nitrogen tanks with braided steel hoses
coming out! The bulk of the design work on the BioLab was done by
others including Kevin, James Clyne, Ryan Church, Victor Martinez,
Scott Baker and Andrew Reeder. But all of our work was informed
directly by heavy research into the real stuff
That being said, in working out the final concept design for the
Link Room I also took the creative direction of wanting the room to
look like a single integrated electronic system. All the equipment has
the same slick look and all functions are cleanly plugged in with no
need for "floating" equipment of any kind. Basically you're inside a
big medical device designed by one firm. Lots of great design on the
room was done by Francois Audouy, James Clyne, Andre Chaintreuil and
others before I got there, and by set designer Scott Baker after me,
but I'd like to think my contribution was that smooth, integrated look.
Which I guess is kinda Star Trek-y!
And the user interface in the Bio-Lab wasn't "the star that it was
in Minority Report," says Procter, but a lot of work did go into making
"the content of the graphics feel functional and manipulable." He adds:
The Mining Vehicles:
Anyone who pays attention at all hates as much as I do the typical
film UI where the operator barely touches the computer and it goes
through an overcosmetized sequence of visual backflips to open a folder
and display an image. I don't know if you'll ever read it on film, but
every button and display in the Avatar UIs has a name and a function
and is organized around a realistically imagined model of user
With so many weird colors on Pandora, it's kind of striking that
most of the vegetation on the planet is just regular Earth green —
except at night, when things start bioluminescing, of course. And Cole
admits that "for a long time Jim really wanted all of the vegetation to
be cyan instead of green. In fact, most of my paintings have cyan
plants." There's just one problem with this idea: Cyan is very close to
blue, which is often used to show atmosphere and depth. Cyan-colored
plants "made it really difficult to have a nice falloff into the
distance. Our images tended to look monochromatic because of it, as
well as cold, because there were none of the rich yellows that come
with green vegetation. The other idea is that psychologically we
associate green with life here on our planet. The themes of life and
nature were very important to Jim, so I think he realized green would
be a better choice. There are still many wild colored plants, but the
overall sense is green."
Some of the mining vehicles we glimpse on Pandora are the size of
city blocks, and incredibly imposing. In concept, these are based on
present-day Bagger 288 excavators, which people use to mine coal, says
Ellingson. But creating the RDA versions of these vehicles was more
complicated than simply blowing up existing Earth machines, he adds.
The vehicle's cable support towers gained a lot of complexity, "to give
them a feeling of being much larger in scale, and on the business end
of the digging arm, we quadrupled the number of bucket wheels,
increasing the size of the bite and just making the thing look way more
substantial and aggressive."
The Brain Science Of Avatar's Biolinks:
Cameron and his team actually hired a consulting team from UCLA's
Neurology Dept. to "document what the actual phases of 'linkage' might
be in the brain, attended by which kind of activity in which centers."
What's happening between human "driver" and avatar is the "phase
locking" of their respective brain activity. Now how this works at a
distance without obvious radio equipment is another issue. My personal,
completely pseudoscientific, theory (justification) is that the link
units create a quantum entanglement between the two brains where they
effectively become one pulsating system without the need for any
traditional radio comm of any kind. I guess it's also possible the
avatars' skulls are completely cyberpunked out with electronics which
manipulate their organic brain matter. But there was never any official
answer on this during production, that I know of.
The "Roger Dean" Thing:
Some have suggested that Cameron's vision of floating mountains and dragons draws on Yes cover artist Roger Dean. Says Cole:
In addition to working on the landscapes of Pandora, Cole also designed the image that became the movie's final poster:
I can't speak for Jim, but all of the floating mountains and the
banshees were all in the script when I read it. I wasn't aware of
Dean's work until I started the project, when another artist pointed it
out. We looked at his work more as a novelty because it was similar
subject matter, but it was not really as an influence. Dean's work has
a whimsical quality that we absolutely wanted to avoid.
Jim wanted something simple and iconic that would sell the epic
scale of the film. I did the final art of the sunset, and the planet
with Neytiri and then Fox put in the head of Jake.
The most imposing behemoth in the movie, of course, isn't a creature
— it's the Dragon, that giant flying ship that Quaritch rides into
battle at the end of the movie. Says Ellingson:
This is something that Jim talked about with much detail in our
first meeting. Unlike the other flying vehicles which were soundly
rooted in a kind of pragmatic "reality" for the purposes of
underscoring their believability, Jim described the Dragon as being a
"fantasy vehicle," in that we could bend the rules a bit to make it
really memorable in a "bigger than life" kind of a way.... Jim
described the four big rotors, and massive amount of weapons, and
multiple cockpits with a lot of enthusiasm, and related it back in
spirit to the big flying fortress bombers of world WWII.
Plus multiple cockpits made the whole thing more fantastic and
interesting, and the ability to shoot action between the cockpits was
The thing is also bristling with gun turrets — there's a manned gun
turret on the top front, and then a number of smaller robotic turrets
on either side, plus turrets under the rear rotor supply housings, says
Of the two protruding cockpits in the front the the vehicle, one is
devoted to flight control — that would be the one right of center when
viewing the Dragon from the top with nose pointing up — the other is
for primary weapons control. Just under the chin of the weapons control
bubble is yet another very large and rapid fire gun, and though it has
limited movement, it compensates with incredibly ferocious firepower.
All these guns in conjunction with the various missile systems, and
a full belly full of AMP suits, makes the Dragon one insanely
So why does the Dragon have those huge intakes on top, that it's so
easy for Jake to throw explosives to in the film's final sequence?
If you look at a lot of helicopters, very often you will see that
there is an intake of some kind at the point where the rotors connect
with the larger body of the ship. This is where the power plant
(engine) for the props resides and a logical place for there to be
exhaust ports and intake vents, it's this convention that led to
placing the big vents where we did on the Dragon.
I can't be 100% sure, but I don't recall Jim requesting them to be
placed anywhere specific. I imagine one could always throw an explosive
into just about any recess or vent and blow up critical flight systems,
so perhaps it was not so much what Jake would do once he got on top of
a ship as much as how he would get there and how the action would
unfold. Whatever the case, from what I recall, the intakes were where
they are because of the larger esthetic decisions being made about the
look of the design — the big intakes looked menacing and powerful, and
that's what we were talking about at the time.
Concludes Ellingson: "I feel incredibly privileged to have had the
opportunity to play a role in bringing Jim's vision to the theaters. Avatar
brought me to a place where I could do the best work of my career, and
as such, I hold for Jim a floating mountain of gratitude."