‘Avatar 2’ production designers explain every vehicle in ‘Waterway’, from SeaDragons to Skel Suit

“Avatar: The Way of Water” not only expands the scope of Pandora’s ecosystems, but also depicts a regenerated and vengeful human army with plenty of new and deadly tools at its disposal. In between creating the culture of two warring civilizations, production designers Ben Procter and Dylan Cole worked on James Cameron’s sci-fi sequel. The two served as art directors on the first “Avatar” movie before transitioning into their new roles for the follow-up movie – all the way back in fall 2013.

“It’s a good thing the movie got out because now my family will think I’m working on something instead of working for the CIA,” Procter laughs. “My son’s friends no longer think I am a drug dealer.”

Procter and Cole’s sprawling craft makes quite an impression in “Water Road,” but their scope of work far exceeds what appears on screen. Not only have they been working on three more “Avatar” sequels that haven’t been seen yet, but every creature, vehicle, and environment is just a small piece of their larger designs. As Procter puts it, each group is “just a small corner that Cameron has discovered within a larger group.”

“It’s about creating a legitimate ecosystem that happens to be where he goes to shoot his movie,” Cole says. “We need to design more than you’ve seen before. We have to design the world for Jim to go scouting for locations to find parts to explore.”

While most of the on-screen elements in Waterway were created digitally, the production designers strived to center the wild visuals with consistent touch ability. It’s a big reason why the machine looks so intense – because every nook and cranny was made by Procter & Cole.

“I like to use whole bits of real-world stuff,” says Procter. “There may be things that people don’t know very much in visual terms, so it still feels alive. It’s the principle of looking at reality as closely as possible so that the imagination doesn’t run wild.”

With diverseProduction designers broke down the various vehicles seen in the film.

S-76 SeaDragon

The giant mothership behind Cetacean Operations’ offshore fishing project draws design inspiration from the Lun-class ekranoplan: a ground-effect craft deployed by the Soviet Navy in the late 1980s. The vessel’s movement benefits from the reduced aerodynamic drag created by operating near a flat service. The Lun-class ekranoplan has only had military operations for a few years, but Procter and Cole imagine a massive version that could prove effective on the flat tides of Pandora.

SeaDragon reveals deck in ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’

“Anyone who’s ever seen a pelican seems to be hovering above the ocean forever—there’s an added lift once you’re near the ocean, a perfect flat boundary,” Procter shares. “This idea has been explored in real-world planes; very strange things that most people don’t know about, but they do exist.”

SeaDragon combines elements of a Lun-class ekranoplan with a hydrofoil effect, meaning the hull lifts higher above deck as the vessel’s speed increases.

“One of our animators filmed it, sending the entire amount of ocean water up in the air, coming into the camera,” says Procter. This was such an evocative thing that Jim was like, ‘Well, dammit! It’s also a hydrofoil. “

After the team figured out what geometry to pull from, more fantasy elements were incorporated into the designs. The launches and retrieval of the diving craft were speeded up from their real-world counterparts for “cinematic speed requirements”, while the ship’s final design evokes some marine animals, such as the swift movement of a manta ray and the “big, ugly mouth” catfish.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) approaches SeaDragon in Avatar: The Way of Water
20th Century Studios / Everett Collection

The final hour of “The Way of Water” consists primarily of a series of action sets spanning aboard and around the SeaDragon. Because of this, the production designers had to take into account the different combat and narrative beats. For example, chains and slings have been added to the main deck of the ship so that characters can use them as whips in fight sequences.

“There are a lot of geographic requirements, sightlines, and fight scenes. The good thing is that we were able to deal with it in a piecemeal way. The minute details of the stairs and raised platforms were re-tooled 100 times to allow the story to work,” Procter says.

matador

The Matador is the high-speed boat captained by Mick Scoresby (Brendan Coyle), the boss behind the fishing operation in the movie. Procter and Cole took elements from whaling craft, and reworked them into the scaled down size of a contemporary, high-performance military boat.

A fisherman aims a harpoon aboard a Matador in “Avatar: The Waterway”
Twentieth Century Studios

“There are parts of it based on real whaling vehicles. The look of the harpoon gun itself is certainly inspired by that: the fact that the rope from it comes down to a coil.” Incidentally, we took a page from today’s whaling boats. They put the “research pot” to the side, which is just a completely disingenuous thing to justify it. The “research vessel” is inside, too, says SeaDragon.

SMP-2 crab suit

SeaDragon’s submersible crab suits swoop in to help wrangle Tolkon like a whale, though the SMP-2s are later pushed to the limit when tasked with hunting down the Na’vi underwater. Working with such a surreal concept, the production designers used some physical elements to make the digital creation more plausible.

SMP-2 crab suit in “Avatar: The Way of Water”
Twentieth Century Studios

“The pilots figured out how to use a monkey bar to launch themselves into the water,” Procter shares. “With many of our vehicles, what we built were cockpits. We effectively built the cockpit itself, including the finished exterior, and then we built a body piece and one leg. There’s a lot of digital visual effects working up front. You have to Being really adept at what you build…without the body and the leg, it’s put on the action pedestal when we want to shoot a pilot doing stuff while the crab suit is active.”

the train

Even though this locomotive came out early on “Water Road,” the film’s production designers still meticulously manipulated the vehicle’s movement and purpose within the human settlements of Pandora.

Train derailment in Avatar: The Way of Water.
Twentieth Century Studios

“We brought it up because it’s cool,” Procter shares. “The train is there as a long-distance logistical means of transporting materials and vehicles needed at a mining site. A lot of what you see flying through the air are spare parts for our bulldozers. It’s pieces of track, it’s the wheels. It’s all legitimate parts for all the equipment. It goes up with empty ore cars from Bridgehead. When you come back, all four of those cars are refilled with unrefined ore extract of optinium.”

Skull suit

Skel’s lightweight suits are sportier than the lumbering mechs seen in the first “Avatar”. The production designers share that humans’ increasing knowledge of the Na’vi’s abilities and the environmental obstacles on Pandora led the military to develop this workable build. But Skels’ foundation in performance capture technology also provided a more comfortable tool for film production.

Grunt fires a flamethrower while piloting a Skel suit in “Avatar: The Way of Water”
Twentieth Century Studios

“Having something the size of the Na’vi, an equal match in terms of combat, becomes really useful to the soldiers,” Procters shares. “In terms of how they capture, they’re also very useful. Every day we solve this problem of how we build proxy groups for people the size of the Na’vi. There have been cases where we’ve had a capture done on an army avatar that we later decide to reject. We can literally set that performance to Skel. So some of the Skel characters that Jake kills in SeaDragon were originally supposed to be avatars.”


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