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James Cameron & ‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’ Production Designers Dylan Cole, Ben Procter On Honing “Design Ethos” For Blockbuster Sci-Fi Franchise – The Process

James Cameron and 'Avatar: The Way of Water' production designers Dylan Cole and Ben Procter on The Process

When Dylan Cole found out that he and Ben Procter would be elevated to production designers for the Avatar franchise with the sequel The Way of Water, after serving as concept art directors for the original sci-fi epic, the news was “super exciting,” albeit “a little intimidating.”

After all, he notes, it would be a rigorous, nine-and-a-half-year journey to bring the new film to life. And in the course of making this one title, he would really be thinking of four, which should amount in the end to a “cohesive saga.”

Cole and Procter’s work on the sequel, alongside franchise architect James Cameron, was unconventional from the start — kicking off before the filmmaker had huddled with his screenwriting collaborators, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver — their task being to further flesh out the colliding worlds established in the first film.

Cole’s focus was on the extraterrestrial race of the Na’vi, and the biologically diverse world of their extrasolar moon Pandora, which would open up to the viewer in the sequel, via the introduction of the reef-dwelling clan known as the Metkayina and creatures like the tulkun, among countless other forms of life on both land and sea. Procter would look after technology, architecture and other design requirements for the human (or Recombinant) characters of the Resources Development Administration, who sixteen years after the original Avatar, reemerge to plunder Pandora and sew chaos for its inhabitants.

Much of Cole’s work would be completed in a virtual environment, with Procter’s being more heavily practical. The outcome of the pair’s division of worldbuilding, per the latter, was the honing of “two really deeply researched and deeply explored aesthetics” for the humans and the Na’vi, which shared underlying “principles of design,” while evoking the discordant clash between two cultures.

In an appearance alongside his designers on Deadline’s video series The Process, Cameron notes that they eschewed conventional previs work, as they got started on The Way of Water, instead getting the ball rolling via a “highly interactive” process that was more intuitive to them. What this amounted to was an extended period of spitballing, where Cameron would present his collaborators with “a provocation,” as far as creature or set design.

He’d tell them, for example, to take a stab at rendering “a reef village under a giant mangrove tree” a “big, vicious flying fish,” or a section of rainforest. This art was then turned into models that Cameron could explore from every angle and tweak to his satisfaction in VR. And it was this iterative process of building out the world of Avatar that Cameron says assured him he was as prepared as he could possibly be, once he actually needed to “show up on the day to capture with the actors” on set.

The biggest pay-off, in looking at Pandora in new ways over a meticulous pre-production phase, was the extent to which it helped create an even broader “context” for Avatar. A sense, in other words, that beyond the boundaries of the specific story Cameron was telling with any given film lurked a living, breathing world with a life of its own.

“I think that the depth to which we went into thinking of it as a real place, with real problems and real technology and all that…was helpful and inspirational to the writers, but I think it comes through in the final product, as well. I think the audience unconsciously can see that there’s something around every corner,” reflects Procter. “Even though you can’t put your finger on it, or maybe it’s not in frame, you sense this broader world. And I think that’s the Avatar design ethos that we really invented and explored together.”

Released by 20th Century Studios in December, Avatar: The Way of Water is currently nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Production Design, Visual Effects and Sound, with Cole and Procter’s noms being their first. 

In conversation with Cameron on The Process, Cole discusses the process of staffing the Way of Water art department; visual motifs and overarching design principles adopted for the Avatar films; the distinct color palettes of Avatar‘s two worlds, and how he looked to bring a “National Geographic lens of reality” to Pandora; the year-plus he spent iterating the look of the Metkayina village; the contributions of Weta Workshop and Legacy Effects to creature designs; and more.

Procter speaks for his part to showcasing a “next generation of technology” on the part of the RDA; the “death of a thousand requirements” in designing their tulkun-hunting mothership known as the Sea Dragon; the animal references that informed the look of that vehicle and others; the shape language of Avatar, and the key role artist Joe Pepe has played in bringing the franchise’s characters to life; the “passion for excellence” amongst the Avatar team and extraordinary physicality of a film series people perceive as predominantly realized “through visual effects”; working with Weta to figure out which sets to bring to life practically; and more.

Topics touched on by Cameron include looking for the right collision of character and imagery in his writing process; the way his designers have functioned “almost like these new AI programs” like Midjourney with their worldbuilding skills; going “deep on the science” of Avatar‘s world without explicitly explaining every little detail to the audience; and experimenting with tensile architecture, or “non-architecture architecture,” with the village of the Metkayina, among others.

Cameron wrote, directed and edited the pic, which this week surpassed his own classic Titanic to become the third highest-grossing film of all time, also producing it alongside Jon Landau. The third film in his franchise — toplined by Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana — is slated for release on December 20, 2024. 

Watch Cameron’s full conversation with Cole and Procter — whose work on The Way of Water has also been met with ADG and Critics’ Choice Award nominations — by clicking below.

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