Dylan Cole and Ben Procter (‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ production designers) on using reality to build a fantasy world: ‘nature is the best designer ever’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

“We’ve used reality as a creative inspiration, in addition to a technical limit,” explains “Avatar: The Way of Water” production designer Ben Procter. “Fantasy within limits is a certain Jim Cameron school of design that we’ve really embraced.” He and fellow production designer Dylan Cole crafted a visually rich alien world which harkens back to our own planet. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

Cole admits that the team pulled “from everywhere” when searching for inspiration. But Earth was a constant, and often necessary, place to begin. “Pandora is ultimately a metaphor for Earth, so we often start there,” he says, “nature is the best designer ever.” The designer cites a coral reef setting which feels like “Bora Bora on steroids” and handwoven seaside structures as examples of this practice. Cole explains that the key to creating an immersive world for audiences to connect with is to utilize recognizable touchstones, and “take it to the tenth degree as much as we could.”

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Not only is the world recognizable, but careful thought and planning has gone into every crevice of the planet. “When you’re doing a design for Jim…it has to hold up to the monsoon season on Pandora,” notes Procter. “Is there a scene set in the monsoon season? No there isn’t. But Jim is thinking about that.” This intensive world building leaves tantalizing tidbits of implied culture and history throughout the film, even if it’s not a part of the core story. One such place is a rock formation referred to as “The Three Brothers,” which holds unspecified meaning to the Metkayina tribe and reinforces their history with the land. “It’s less important the people know exactly what it means,” asserts Cole, “just that it has meaning.”

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While digital design is of clear importance in “The Way of Water,” the duo are quick to point out that there are still plenty of practical elements in the film. Realistic greenery and rock work was implemented for live action shots, and then blended with virtual elements to build out the scene. The team also created massive interiors, such as a ship set that needed to be flooded. “When people watch the movie, it’s not just the beautiful CG lighting or the fact that it’s in stereo that makes it feel real,” says Procter, “It’s all of the disciplined design that Jim forces us to do and that we embrace. And it’s also the way that reality is built into the process of making the film.” Cole agrees, noting, “It is a live action movie that has a lot of visual effects. It’s not an animated movie, and that distinction is important.”

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