The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Avatar's Designers Speak: Floating Mountains, AMP Suits And The Dragon

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

You may think you've been living inside Pandora, James Cameron's imaginary world, for a while after seeing Avatar. But just think what it's like for the designers and creators who spent years imagining every tiny detail of the place.

We featured some interviews with five of the designers who worked on Avatar before the film opened, and since then we've had a chance to talk to more of the creators who took part in the several-year process of crafting every tiny detail of Cameron's imaginary world. We've gotten some new insights into the vehicles (including the AMP suits and the Dragon), the human base and the Bio Lab... and those floating mountains. We'll probably have a third installment of our Avatar designer interviews next week.


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.


We were also lucky enough to hear from designer Scott Patton with Stan Winston Studio, who pointed us to these amazing digital sculpts his team did for the Na'Vi and other characters:

So here are the secrets of some of Avatar's unique designs:

The Floating Mountains:

According to the tie-in book, The Art Of Avatar, designer Steve Messing actually visited China and traveled around photographing mountains there to get photoreferences for Pandora's floating mountains.

Designer Dylan Cole says the team looked at "many different types of mountains, but mainly the karst limestone formations in China. There were three main regions, Guilin, Huangshan and Zhang Jia Jie. Other locations were the Tepuis in Venezuela as well as the karst formations in Thailand. It was about finding that nice balance between rock and vegetation. For a lot of the jungle over views, I used photos that I had taken from the Kuranda Skyrail near Cairns, Australia."


Adds Cole:

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 the ground?


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:

TyRuben Ellingson 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."


Explains Procter:

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 getting crushed.


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:


Says Ellingson:

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.


The Bio-Lab:

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.


Adds Procter:

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:

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 interaction.


Pandora's Vegetation:

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."


The Mining Vehicles:

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." Explains Procter:

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:

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.


In addition to working on the landscapes of Pandora, Cole also designed the image that became the movie's final poster:


Says Cole:

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 Dragon:

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 very cinematic.

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 Ellingson.
He adds:

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 devastating predator.


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? Ellingson explains:

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."