Early peek at ‘Avatar’ production design

Hollywood Award honoree Rick Carter gets candid

James Cameron’s megabudget sci-fi spectacle “Avatar” is one of the most anticipated films of the year. The road to its upcoming December release has been filled with artistic, financial and creative obstacles. For production designer Rick Carter, the big challenge was getting inside Cameron’s head.

Working on “Avatar,” Carter had to envision the planet Pandora in detail.

“It was literally as if Jim had been to this place,” says Carter, a Hollywood Award honoree for production design. “He was coming back with fragments and glimpses he could express to us, but then we had to try to figure out how to make that come alive for him and something we felt an audience could relate to.”

“Avatar” tells the story of an extreme rehabilitation program: In an attempt to walk again, a paraplegic former Marine named Jake travels to the jungles of the extraterrestrial realm called Pandora, home of the Na’vi, a technologically primitive but physically superior race.

To picture Pandora, Carter created what he calls a “lush homegrown forest that’s way overscale for anything we’ve ever experienced, but also has enough alien qualities that you realize what you’re seeing is not just a few flowers poked into the midst of an otherwise normal environment. The essence of it is very different.”

At night, the forests of Pandora light up like a psychedelic black-light poster. Cameron’s inspiration for that, Carter believes, came from his deep-sea diving experiences.

“The whole idea of (that) bioluminescent world at night is something he’d actually witnessed when he was down at the bottom of the ocean during his ‘Titanic’ time,” Carter says. “That bioluminescence is almost like a nervous system of the planet, and that’s what’s at stake in the movie, as you start to get past the initial foray into the Na’vi culture and seeing the drama start to emerge between the military-industrial complex that wants to exploit the world.”

In order to breathe on Pandora, humans have created human-alien hybrids (the eponymous avatars), and it’s through one of these creatures that Jake is able to walk again. But will he remain human or go native after he falls in love with one of the locals, a girl named Neytiri? Intergalactic peace depends on it.

What spells success for “Avatar,” however, is good old human identification. “The real challenge is whether you feel the emotion coming through from the characters, especially the Neytiri character and ultimately Jake’s avatar,” says Carter. “When you look into those eyes, do you feel the connection’s real? And then, can you give yourself over to it and not look at it at arm’s distance and think, ‘Yes, that’s wonderful technically, but I don’t really feel anything.’ ”

For Carter, “Avatar” is a movie “where the form and the content come together. We can really relate to the digital imagery in a way that not only suspends our disbelief but invites us to be immersed in this new world.”

Definitely, “the medium has evolved,” says Carter, looking back at his first production-designer gig, on Hal Ashby’s “Second Hand Hearts,” in 1981. “And with the introduction of all the digital imagery, there’s been a whole new ability to create worlds far beyond what it was when I started.”

Carter was also there on “Back to the Future” II & III, “Jurassic Park” and “Forrest Gump,” among others, and he’s moved into worlds where it’s all digital and there’s motion capture, he says. Along the way, Carter has “found it very interesting to tap into some of the visual effects designers who are coming from the other side of the equation, the post-production, bringing them forward. The two of us collaborate from the beginning on the look of the movie, especially with things that have never been done before.”

Carter uses the words “us” and “we” a lot when he talks about his film work. On “Polar Express,” he brought on Doug Chang, a visual effects designer. On “Avatar,” which Carter calls “a hybrid movie comprisedof live action and motion capture,” he turned to Bob Stromberg.

“Bob had been instrumental in the design of much of the ecosystem of the planet Pandora. It just seemed natural to have him share credit. So it’s unusual,” Carter says of his penchant for collaboration, “but I see it as a way to move into these films. We used to joke we’re creating the airplane in flight, because we’re actually making the movie but we don’t even know the road we’re on to create the movie until you do it.”

Recently, Cameron told his “Avatar” production designer, “I’m the one who could pose the question, but it took everybody to collaborate, to come together and find the answers.”

“He’d never said that before,” says Carter, “I just thought I’d leave you with that.”

Popular on Variety

More Digital

  • Moviepass

    MoviePass Confirms Security Issue With Customer Records

    MoviePass, the struggling movie ticket subscription service, has confirmed a security issue may have exposed customers’ records. In a statement, MoviePass said Wednesday that the security lapse was recently discovered and its system was immediately secured. Reports of the data breach first surfaced Tuesday through the Tech Crunch site, which alleged that tens of thousands [...]

  • Tycho weather app

    This Website Creates Spotify & Apple Music Playlists Based on Your Local Weather

    Electronica musician Tycho launched a clever promotional website for his new album “Weather” this week: Visitors of Tycho’s website can use a web app to generate a playlist based on their local weather. Playlists can be saved to both Spotify and Apple Music, and consist of 25 songs, both from Tycho’s catalog as well as [...]

  • AT&T TV

    AT&T TV: An Unskinny Streaming Bundle That Looks a Lot Like Traditional Pay TV

    AT&T this week launched AT&T TV, a new subscription streaming television service that uses an Android-based internet set-top, in 10 markets. But the way it’s priced and packaged looks very similar to cable and satellite TV services — in other words, AT&T TV isn’t targeted at the cord-cutter crowd. It’s basically designed as a way [...]

  • Sofia Wylie arrives at Variety's Power

    Disney Channel Enlists Duplass Brothers for YouTube Hip-Hop Dance Series Starring Sofia Wylie

    Disney Channel’s first original scripted series made exclusively for release on YouTube is “Shook,” a hip-hop dance short-form series starring Sofia Wylie, produced by Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass. “Shook” will debut Saturday, Sept. 28, on Disney Channel’s YouTube channel. The scripted single-camera show centers on 15-year-old Mia (Wylie), who yearns to dance professionally but [...]

  • YouTube logo

    YouTube Is Getting Rid of Messaging Feature

    YouTube is killing off a feature that allowed users to share videos and other messages with each other. YouTube Messages, which was first introduced in January of 2017, will be turned off by September 18, the company announced this week. “We’re constantly reevaluating our priorities and have decided to discontinue YouTube’s native direct messaging feature [...]

  • Yara Shahidi

    Audible Teams Up With Big Names as Audio-Only Storytelling Expands

    Hobnobbing with the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Kate McKinnon and Yara Shahidi isn’t typically the gloss applied to the cerebral audiobook set, but Audible is putting the humble audio story through its own movie-makeover montage, inking high-profile development deals with entertainment names like “The Walking Dead” comics creator Skybound Entertainment, Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and Lorne [...]

  • Geneva Wasserman

    Condé Nast Taps Film Veteran Geneva Wasserman as SVP of Motion Pictures

    Condé Nast Entertainment hired Geneva Wasserman as senior vice president of motion pictures, overseeing development of the media company’s slate of feature film properties. Wasserman, a nearly 20-year veteran of the entertainment industry, most recently served as co-founder and executive producer of production firm Project Z Entertainment. She takes over the role at CNE after [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content