“Avatar: Waterway” not only expands the scope of Pandora’s ecosystem, it depicts a renewed, vengeful human military with a bounty of deadly, new tools at its disposal. Between inventing the cultures of two warring civilizations, production designers Ben Proctor and Dylan Cole had their work cut out for them in James Cameron’s science-fiction sequel. The pair first served as concept art directors on “Avatar” before moving on to their new roles for the film’s follow-up — in the fall of 2013.
“It’s good that the movie came out because now my family will actually believe that I’m working on something instead of working for the CIA,” Proctor laughs. “My son’s friends don’t think of me as a drug dealer anymore.”
Proctor and Cole’s wide-ranging craft makes quite an impression in “The Way of Water,” but the scope of their work reaches far beyond what’s on screen. They’re only working on three more “Avatar” sequels that have yet to be seen, but each animal, vehicle, and environment is just a piece of their larger design. As Proctor says, each set is “a tiny corner that Cameron discovered within some larger set.”
“It’s about creating a legitimate ecosystem where he will go to shoot his movies,” Cole said. “We need to design more than you do. We had to design the world to go on location scouts to find parts for Jim to explore.”
Although most of the on-screen objects in “The Way of Water” were digitally created, production designers tried to center the wild visuals with a consistent technique. That’s a big reason why the machine is so intensely optimized — because every nook and cranny is engineered by Proctor & Cole.
“I like to use whole pieces of real-world things,” Proctor says. “There may be things that people don’t know much about visually, so it still feels fresh. It’s a principle of getting as close to reality as you can so that the fantasy doesn’t run wild.”
with diversityProduction designers dismantled the various vehicles seen in the film.
The massive mothership behind Cetacean Operations’ Marine Hunting Enterprise draws design inspiration from the Loon-class Ekranoplan: a ground-effect vehicle deployed by the Soviet Navy in the late 80s. Vessel speed capitalizes on the reduced aerodynamic drag produced by operating near a flat service. The Loon-class ekranoplane had only been in military service for a few years, but Proctor and Cole envisioned a larger-scale version that could be useful in the calm, flat tides of Pandora.
“Anyone who’s ever seen a pelican hover seemingly forever over the ocean—there’s an added lift from being close to the ocean, a perfect flat border,” shares Proctor. “This concept has been explored in real-world aircraft; Very exotic that most people don’t know, but it’s out there.”
The Seadragon combines Lune-class ekranoplan elements with hydrofoil effect, meaning the hull rises above the surface as the ship accelerates.
“One of our photographers made a picture of it, sending the entire ocean’s worth of water into the air, coming into the camera,” says Proctor. “It was such an exciting thing that Jim was like, ‘Okay, screw it! It’s also a hydrofoil.’
After figuring out the engineering the team would pull from, more fantastical elements were incorporated into the designs. The launch and recovery processes for the diving vehicles were sped up from real-world analogs for “the need for cinematic motion”, while the final construction of the vessel purposefully evoked certain marine creatures, such as the swift movements of a manta ray and the “ugly face of a big ‘ol catfish.
The final hour of “The Way of Water” consists largely of a series of extended action set pieces on and around the Sea-Dragon. Because of that, the production designers had to take into account different combat and narrative beats. For example, chains and winches were added to the main deck of the ship so that characters could use them as whips in combat sequences.
“There are many geographical requirements, line of sight and combat scenarios. Good thing we were able to communicate it in a piecemeal way. The nuances of stairs and raised catwalks were recreated 100 times to allow the story to work,” says Proctor.
The Matador is the high-speed boat captained by Mick Scoresby (Brendan Cowell), the head of the film’s hunting expedition. Proctor and Cole took components from whaling vehicles, reworked them on the reduced scale of a contemporary, high-performance military boat.
“There are parts of it that are based on actual whaling vehicles. The look of the harpoon gun is certainly inspired by this: the rope drops from it in a coil,” says Proctor. “Incidentally, we’ve taken a leaf from today’s whaling boats. They put ‘research ships’ on the side, which is a completely absurd thing to justify it. Sea-Dragon also called ‘research ship’ inside.
SMP-2 Crab Suit
Strafing, submersible crab suits take off from the Sea-Dragon to help wrangle the whale-like tulkoons, though the SMP-2s are later pushed to the limit when tasked with stocking the underwater umbilicals. Working with such a surreal concept, production designers essentially used few physical elements to lend plausibility to the digital creation.
“Pilots figure out how to get into the water using a monkey bar,” shares Proctor. “With many of our vehicles, what we built was the cockpit. We effectively built the cockpit itself, with the finished exterior, and then we built a body part and a leg. There is a lot of digital visual effects work that goes on. You have to be really strategic with what you build…Without the body and legs it’s based on motion when we want to shoot the pilot with the crab suit active.”
Although this locomotive makes its first appearance in “The Way of Water,” the film’s production designers still thoroughly address the vehicle’s movement and purpose within the human settlement on Pandora.
“We filmed it because it’s cool,” Proctor shared. “The train is there as a long-distance logistics to carry both material and vehicles needed to an excavation site. What you see flying through the air is part of our replacement of bulldozers. It’s pieces of track, it’s wheels. It is all valid parts of all equipment. It leaves the bridgehead with empty ore cars. When it comes back, all four of those cars are filled with raw, unrefined unobtainium exhaust.”
The lightweight scale suits are more athletic than the bulky, lumbering mechs seen in the first “Avatar.” Production designers shared that increasing human familiarity with the Na’vi’s capabilities and Pandora’s environmental constraints led the military to create this more practical build. But Skels’ foundation in performance-capture technology provides a more ergonomic tool for filmmaking.
“Having something the size of the Na’vi, an equal match in combat, becomes really useful for soldiers,” shares Proctors. “In terms of how we capture, that’s also very useful. Every day we solve this problem of creating proxy sets for Na’vi-sized people. There were instances where we had a capture that was done for military avatars that we decided later. We can literally map that performance onto a Skel. So some of the scale kills that Jack does on the Sea-Dragon were originally meant to be Avatar.”