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.”