“Avatar: The Way of Water” not only expands the scope of Pandora’s ecological systems, it also depicts a renewed, vengeful human military with a bounty of deadly, new tools at its disposal. Between devising the culture of two warring civilizations, production designers Ben Procter and Dylan Cole had their work cut out for them on James Cameron’s science-fiction sequel. The pair worked as concept art directors on the first “Avatar” before moving into their new roles for the film’s follow-ups — all the way back in the fall of 2013.
“It’s good that the movie is out because now my family will actually believe I’ve been working on something instead of working for the CIA,” Procter laughs. “My son’s friends no longer think I’m a drug dealer.”
Procter and Cole’s sprawling craft makes quite an impression in “The Way of Water,” but the scope of their work reaches far beyond what’s on the screen. Not only have they been working on three more “Avatar” sequels yet to be seen, but each creature, vehicle and environment is only a crumb of their larger designs. As Procter puts it, each set is “just a tiny corner that Cameron discovered within some larger set.”
“It is about creating a legit ecosystem that he happens to go shoot his movie in,” Cole says. “We need to design way more than you ever see. We have to design the world for Jim to go on a location scout to find parts to explore.”
While most of the objects on-screen in “The Way of Water” were created digitally, the production designers strived to center the wild visuals with a consistent tactility. It’s a large reason why the machinery appears so intensely optimized — because every nook and cranny has been made by Procter and Cole.
“I love to use full chunks of things from the real world,” Procter says. “There may be things that people don’t know about as much visually, so it still feels fresh. It’s a principle of looking to reality as closely as you can so that the fantasy doesn’t run wild.”
With Variety, the production designers broke down the various vehicles seen in the film.
The mammoth mothership behind Cetacean Operations’ marine hunting enterprise draws design inspiration from the Lun-class ekranoplan: a ground-effect vehicle deployed by the Soviet Navy in the late ’80s. The vessel’s motion capitalizes on the reduced aerodynamic drag produced by operating close to a flat service. The Lun-class ekranoplan only had military operations for a few years, but Procter and Cole imagined a supersized version that could prove to be effective on the calm, flat tides of Pandora.
“Anybody who’s ever seen a pelican seemingly hover forever over the ocean — there’s an extra lift just by being close to the ocean, a perfect flat boundary,” Procter shares. “That idea has been explored in real-world aircraft; very exotic ones that most people don’t know, but it’s out there.”
The SeaDragon combines the Lun-class ekranoplan elements with a hydrofoil effect, meaning the hull lifts higher above the surface as the ship gains speed.
“One of our illustrators did an image of it, sending the entire ocean’s worth of water up into the air, coming onto the camera,” Procter says. “That was such an evocative thing that Jim was like, ‘Alright, fuck it! It’s also a hydrofoil.’”
After the team figured out the engineering it would pull from, more fantastical elements were incorporated into the designs. The launch and recovery processes for diving vehicles were accelerated from real-world analogues for “cinematic speed requirements,” while the final build of the ship purposefully evokes some marine animals, such as the swift movement of a manta ray and the “big ‘ol ugly mouth” of a cat fish.
The final hour of “The Way of Water” is essentially composed of a series of extended action set pieces aboard and surrounding the SeaDragon. For that reason, production designers had to take various combat and narrative beats into account. As an example, chains and winches were added onto the main deck of the ship so that characters could use them as whips in a fight sequence.
“There are so many geographic requirements, sight lines and fight scenes. The good thing is we were able to approach it in a piecemeal way. The subtleties of staircases and raised catwalks were all rejiggered 100 times to allow the story to function,” Procter says.
The Matador is the high-speed boat captained by Mick Scoresby (Brendan Cowell), the chief behind the hunting operation in the film. Procter and Cole took elements from whaling vehicles, reworking them to the reduced scale of a contemporary, high-performance military boat.
“There are parts of it that are based off real whaling vehicles. The look of the harpoon gun itself is certainly inspired by that: the fact that the rope from it goes down to a coil,” Procter says. “Incidentally, we took a page from today’s whaling boats. They put ‘research vessel’ on the side, which is just this completely disingenuous thing to justify it. The SeaDragon says ‘research vessel’ inside, too.”
SMP-2 Crab Suit
The strafing, submersible crab suits launch off the SeaDragon to help wrangle the whale-like Tulkuns, though the SMP-2s later get pushed to the limit when tasked with stalking underwater Na’vi. Working with such a surreal concept, the production designers used a few physical elements to lend plausibility to the largely digital creation.
“The pilots have figured out how to use a monkey bar to launch themselves into the water,” Procter shares. “With many of our vehicles, what we built were cockpits. We effectively built the cockpit itself, including the finished exterior, and then we build a piece of body and one leg. There are so many digital visual effects work that go on top. You have to be really crafty with what you build…Without the body and the leg, it’s placed on the motion base for when we want to shoot a pilot doing stuff while the crab suit is active.”
Although this locomotive takes an early exit in “The Way of Water,” the film’s production designers still thoroughly addressed the vehicle’s movement and its purpose within the human settlement on Pandora.
“We illustrated it because it’s cool,” Procter shares. “The train is there as a long-distance logistic to both carry material and vehicles that are needed at a mining site. A lot of what you see flying through the air are the replacement parts for our bulldozers. It’s pieces of the track, it’s the wheels. It’s all legit parts of all the equipment. It goes up with empty ore cars from Bridgehead. When it comes back, all those four cars are refilled with raw, unrefined unobtainium extraction.”
The lightweight Skel Suits are more athletic than the massive, lumbering mechs seen in the first “Avatar.” The production designers share that humans’ increased familiarity with the abilities of Na’vi and the environmental obstacles of Pandora have led the military to develop this more practical build. But the Skels’ basis in performance-capture technology also provided a more ergonomic tool for the film production.
“Having something that is a Na’vi size, an even match in terms of combat, becomes really useful for the soldiers,” Procters shares. “In terms of how we do capture, it’s also super useful. Every day we solve this problem of how to build proxy sets for Na’vi-sized people. There were cases where we had a capture that was done for the military’s Avatars that we later decided against. We can literally map that performance onto a Skel. So some of the Skel kills that Jake does on the SeaDragon were originally meant to be Avatars.”