A measured discussion on an out and out Hollywood blockbuster queuing up to the Oscars night hardly begets etymological prompts. Pandora, the humanoid-housing moon orbiting the gas giant Polyphemus, however, presents a uniquely interesting case. Both extrasolar entities bear the names of famous deities from Greek mythology–Polyphemus being the one-eyed giant son of Poseidon, and Pandora the first human woman brought into existence by Hephaestus upon Zeus' designs, her name itself bearing dual interpretative meanings. 'All gifted' and 'all giving' Pandora was also the harbinger of 'all evil' upon the world by opening her proverbial box. An extraterrestrial world, imagined in the auteurship of James Cameron nearly a decade and a half ago, adds up as a rather wonderful corollary to this etymology. Pandora, the production designers in the saga's second and future films Dylan Cole and Ben Procter reveal was meant to be a metaphor for Earth, a dream conjured up in Earth’s image—an avatar of our blue planet itself, if you may. The biblical connotations in this fundamental act of creation in an image of oneself notwithstanding, Pandora was supposed to embody the planet's diversity, its resource wealth and nurturing sustenance of its population, and by extension, its ills. The 'human' is, thus, the essential dichotomy on Pandora.
A proponent of this transposition of image in the creation of Pandora brought issues of race, nativity, settler colonialism, environmentalism, and the alteration of a planetary ecology to the fore on an alien planet, initiated by humans, to be seen here as calls to introspection while serving up blockbuster entertainment and a yet inimitable visual quality. Beneath the digital sheen and the extravagant visual odyssey at the centre of both films, making for distinct cinematic experiences, it is thus the very human follies, and struggle and resilience in the face of them that becomes the beating heart of the enterprise, pushed to the edge of technical brilliance by Cameron, who is described by Procter in the production designer duo's exclusive chat with STIR as a “frustrated engineer,” grounding literal flights of fancy with real world scientific principles. As such, the success of the second film in what is now a planned pentalogy baffles none, even though the first one climbing to the top of the box office back in 2009 and firmly staying there for months, emerging as the highest grossing film ever and holding on to that laurel till date, did turn a few analysts in their seats.
Moving from an Amazon-like geography for the Omatikaya clan to the tropical reef stronghold of the Metkayina clan further Eastwards, with more regions and biomes yet to be explored in future sequels, the scale and scope of world building undertaken by Cole and Procter is reciprocal to the sheer behemoth of Cameron’s vision for the franchise. The duo, however, deal with two different yet intertwined spheres of this extensive world building exercise, with Cole focusing on the creatures and living fragments of the newfound geography, while Procter visualised the industrial, machinic relics of the vengeful, scorned humans revisiting Pandora.
In contrast to the introduction to this world, its expansion in The Way of Water seems to have much more of an architectonic character, and the notion of a situated settlement. The way Cole uses the fluidity of the new elemental distinguisher here—water—is manifested in the sinuous tensile stretches of the Metkayina village, Awa'atlu, modelled after mangrove forests, highly reminiscent of numerous fishing village settlements in Southeast Asia. The entire settlement was imagined to be protected from crashing waves by a cascading reef called the Sea Wall. Inspired by the work of architect Frei Otto, the traditional Metkayina house, the Marui, was envisioned with tensile fabric wrapped around root formations to lend the notion of enclosure. Built practically as a bigature first, the Sully home was then closely mapped and modeled onto the digital interface, later placed in a larger cluster of connected homes, replete with equivalent notions of a street and a quasi-urbanistic scale.
The underlying idea of a network, manifested closely here in the underwater Spirit Tree and extensive coral formations as a direct interpretation of the Tree of Souls becomes an operative point of designing this world for Cole, who also worked as concept artist on the first film. The fractal theory is evoked through the Mandelbrot set applied to scores of underwater flora and fauna. Above the surface of water, the Skimwing—an Ikran-like aerial warrior’s mount fashioned after the gharial, and the Tulkun, finding obvious inspiration from the humpback whale, round out the film’s creature canon.
In direct and utter contrast to the organicity of Cole’s designs for inhabiting new terrains on Pandora, Procter’s designs of the infringing humans’ arsenals are an industrial provocation and profaning of curiously the same natural ‘earthly’ inspirations, massive in scale and intimidating in appearance to ward off any Na’vi beholders. While the crab suits and the submarines are modelled in robotic form, observing the behaviour and movement patterns of crustaceans, it is the Sea Dragon that bears a direct design precedent with its Pandoran counterpart. Covered in glistening steel but bearing the appearance of having been cut from it, Procter revealed keeping the supership’s innards red to reserve the impression of a massive sea creature opening its mouth, accentuated by pops of amber on the gunships, done up as if slapped ad-hoc by some marines to keep it from corroding.
A distinctly architectonic notion is displayed in the peculiar form of the IVS Venture Starship, dropped atop soon to be blighted land, as Procter states, as an office building meeting an oilrig. In a dash of intended irony, the ‘human’ spaces, designed in deliberate departure from the “post-war brutalist bunker” typology displayed in the first film, to a loose aesthetic of industrial brutalism, as if moving from encroaching to colonising to now appropriating foreign territory.
Avatar’s hybrid interface of design and the paradoxically inverse relationship between the extent and scale of what it visualises and what it constructs presents an interesting paradigm in the fast-evolving realm of production design, of which the insightful interview provides but a fair glimpse. Micro-detailed painstakingly to the extent of capturing the effect of water and ocean thrust on Na’vi bodies and the scarce garment and ornament they adorn to a degree of accuracy hitherto unseen, the film—14 years in the making–was displayed on premium immersive IMAX formats at 30fps, another industry first for Cameron, going on to become a mammoth earner. Despite the sophisticated technical craft at display, for which the duo have garnered a nod from the Academy, the films intend to tell an essentially human story placed within an immensity of architecture—digital, physical, fabricated, imposed, salvaged, inhabited—the fortress of the family an apt metaphor for film’s planetary ambitions.
Also read: 'Everything Everywhere All at Once' and its many worlds with Jason Kisvarday
In case you missed: Mise-en-scène with STIR—enticing conversations with four of 2022's Oscar nominated production designers.
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