Avatar: The Way of Water, 2022. 20th Century Studios
When Avatar was released in 2009, it was a game changer. A film of tremendous ambition, singularity of vision and breakthrough technical achievement. But it took more than that to catch the public’s attention the way it did: the film has a story, and it is and remains a classic story with an impactful message. A good soldier goes native, finding peace among the people he has been trained to believe are his enemy. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is part of a mission of the U.S. Armed Forces that have colonised Pandora, a moon inhabited by the harmless indigenous Na’vi species, but rich in a valuable mineral. In order to be able to land and survive in the hostile atmosphere of Pandora, humans use “avatars”, genetically engineered bodies that look like the Na’vi and that remain wired up in a trance-like state on the ship. Using state-of-the-art and carefully employed film techniques, James Cameron took us on a journey to a new world, a lush and totally imaginary jungle that looks so natural and alive. Avatar invented its own language.
Avatar: The Way of Water takes us ten years in the future of Jake Sully and Ney’tiri on Pandora. Jake has left his human body for good to become a Na’vi, the blue, bioluminescent humanoid beings with golden eyes that move, convincingly, with the elegance of a panther. He and Ney’tiri (Zoe Saldaña) are now married and have four children, and have lived a peaceful life, tightly connected to the natural world around them, until the “sky people” attack their planet again. Forced to leave their home, they go to explore the unknown lands of Pandora…and its underseas. And once again, James Cameron continues to clear unknown lands in cinematic technical innovation – in the fourteen years since the first Avatar, there have been only a few truly notable 3D films – to submerge us into this new fully realised world.
The motion capture – the technique of electronic sensors placed on an actor in a lycra suit, whose movements are stored on a computer, then reconstituted and modeled in virtual images in a given setting – plays a primordial role in the cinematic revolution that is Avatar. But what we see on screen is a completely different thing. We see characters who have a story to tell. And costume undergoes its own groundbreaking evolution in Avatar while still operating within the mise en scène as an aid of character and narrative. In a unique filmmaking effort, Deborah L. Scott, who also collaborated with James Cameron on the first Avatar, invented a new costume paradigm, making detailed and finely crafted principal costumes and thousands of bespoke pieces and props that were then digitised for the film (one bespoke costume for each digital costume). In addition, she created the live-action costumes and helped customise the motion capture suits for the actors’ performances.
Over the course of five years, Deborah and her team hand weaved, stitched, beaded, embroidered, and braided, using a craft-based sampling-led design process. They then blended it with the technological innovations of her collaborators at Wētā FX to help bring the Na’vi of Pandora to life. Imagination, artistry, skill and technology all blend to create a unique and rich culture and to weave the material reality into Pandora.
Deborah L. Scott won the Oscar for her first collaboration with James Cameron, Titanic, and her past projects include such memorable films as Back to the Future, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Heat and The Minority Report. It is an honour to have Deborah as my guest today, where she goes into detail for her work on Avatar, those simple yet iconic Back to the Future costumes and how it is like to be on a Steven Spielberg movie set.
Costume designer Deborah L. Scott
Avatar was a revolutionary film, and the costumes were just the same. With Avatar: The Way of Water, it’s once again a brand new horizon. What was different in the way you approached the costumes now, as opposed to the first film?
We knew from experiences on the first film, that we were going to need to build all the costumes, props, accessories, and wigs, Na’vi and live action for this film. The technical advances since film one and the complexity of the designs for film two dictated this. We built everything to human scale (not the Na’vi scale) to allow for real-world use and testing. We found this was the best way to get the proper information passed along to the VFX team.
“The process of building the costumes is exactly the same as
any movie, even if they will only be seen in a digital format.
You build the character!”
Are the directors usually a big part of the costume process or is it more a conversation about characters and their evolution? The 3D of James Cameron is in a league of its own. He takes you on a journey and reminds us that a movie is made of many moving parts that harmoniously come together to tell the story. How does his filmmaking influence your creative process?
With an exacting and groundbreaking director like Jim, the teams are all asked to work at a very high level and we are supported getting there. The whole artistic team World Builds and Clan builds. Then it is mostly up to costumes (under our director’s guidance) to Clan build, Family builds and Character Build. We talked a lot about the characters and their journeys. Then it was up to me to design them and seek Jim’s approval as we moved forward.
Avatar: The Way of Water, 2022. 20th Century Studios
A costume designer’s job is to reinforce the story and help the actor form an identity of his/her character. But how does the process of building a digital costume go? And how does the collaboration with the performance actors go in a film like Avatar? What do they wear to get into characters, to help them get the feel and motion of the characters? Because there is so much more than visual effects and technology to it.
Yes! I am glad that you understand this. The process of building the costumes is exactly the same as any movie, even if they will only be seen in a digital format. You build the character! There is a hand in hand with the performers, as they must understand and be able to feel the costumes, props, and hair, even though they mostly wear only performance capture suits. This is one of the reasons we build all these things, to inform performance. The actors see all the designs and can wear the garments as they are made to fit them. For performance capture, we would make reference costumes so as not to cover the markers on the capture suits. Extensive motion tests are filmed as well.
There is much more than visual effects and technology to it. We are always mindful of the process, but the clothing can stand alone as any movie does. We design, and make all the costumes, props, accessories, and wigs, and then we feed everything down the digital pipeline with the performances.
How much research, how much imagination, how much handwork went into the costuming of this extraordinary, unique world? Did you use any real life references for the Na’vi tribe, and for the Metcayina water tribe?
Extensive research was done worldwide on clans that live on and near the water. This all informs the design from a real-world perspective. For example, the Metkayina were mostly pulled from all of Polynesia, and as far as Hawaii, New Zealand and Samoa, etc. It is a tremendous amount of hard work to research as completely as possible, and then I was allowed to let my imagination go. Which is a tremendous amount of fun, but also difficult so that you stay on task, creatively, artistically and practically. I was fortunate to have the wonderful Weta Workshop for most of the building of the costumes. The combination of old-world handcrafts and innovative technology were new and thrilling to everyone. We went to new and unique places for sure!
Back to the Future, 1985. Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
“Fantasy, when you have to use pretty much only
your imagination, can be the most challenging and enriching.
But contemporary costume can be very satisfying.
You just don’t get as much attention for it.”
You have worked on other memorable films, but one in particular also caught the public’s imagination on a whole new level than the rest: Back to the Future. The costumes were very much of the times, and yet they became iconic, they became those characters. How did you work with Robert Zemeckis, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd to shape up those characters? And when does a film costume become iconic?
A film costume only becomes iconic when many things come together. A film that captures the imagination of the public, a character performed by a brilliant actor, a great script that informs us all, and then the right costume to accent all these things. All of the creative and brilliant people that I had the good fortune to work with on this project were amazing. To create this world, everyone was on board. When I watch it now, I can’t believe how kooky Chris Lloyd is, in performance and look… but they go together! And Michael became as iconic as it gets… maybe not as beautiful as Audrey Hepburn’s black dress but still memorable. And the looks don’t seem too dated either. Such kismet!
E. T. The extraterrestrial, 1982. Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
Another science fiction film, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, has triumphantly continued to demonstrate its universal appeal since its release in 1982. Again, the costumes are simple and yet they became iconic, the sum of all those elements you have pointed out above. I am mainly referring to the children’s costumes, of course, because one of the great things about this film is Spielberg’s approach to filming it, with the camera always at the eye level of the children, from whose perspective the events unfold. What is your most memorable experience from working on E.T.?
I loved the scene where Elliot is leading E.T. into the house. This is one example of watching Steven nurture not only the actors, but the set as well. Being there at those kinds of moments was really special.
Last year marked the 25th anniversary of Titanic, which was your first collaboration with James Cameron and won you the Oscar. Do you have a favourite costume from the film?
That is a difficult question. When I rewatch it, there are moments that I have forgotten and come back to me. I think, in general, the thrill of having all the characters and background artists together in the formal dining room was certainly a high point and a lot of work! I always return to Kates’s suit and purple hat. What a moment Jim made of it! The teen’s fashion of the time was quite fleeting and she was lifted from an absolute fashion moment in time. It says everything about the start of her character’s journey. Beautiful, finessed, complete, masculine, yet feminine and a bit over the top. She was going to make it in a man’s world, for sure.
Titanic, 1997. 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures
Kate’s costumes in Titanic had this incredible transformative power, it definitely has a character arc in costumes. In a film like Avatar, costumes are employed differently, and yet Avatar: The Way of Water was not only a continuation, but also a departure from Avatar. You added something to the story. Are we to expect the same thing from Avatar 3?
Absolutely! We continue with the Sully family and their journeys, together and alone, with the Metkyina and add in two more very special clans, that I am very excited to have designed!!
In any good film costume design is relevant and defining in telling the story. But is it true that the historical films are usually more fascinating in a visual way and more enriching for a designer?
They can certainly be more noticeable and fun! Exploring all those time periods and reproducing them to help the narrative of the film be told. But certainly, fantasy, when you have to use pretty much only your imagination, can be the most challenging and enriching. But I do have to say, hitting the exact right note on a contemporary costume can be very satisfying. You just don’t get as much attention for it.
They say that every film would be and would look different if it had been made by another costume designer. Would you do differently any of your films?
I’m not sure if I would do anything differently… but if I had to do any of them over again, I am sure I could come up with other ideas. The choices are always vast on any project, as long as they build character and establish the narrative visually.
Thank you, Deborah, for taking us on this film costume journey.
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