Why Some ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Costumes Took Over 200 Hours to Build

Director James Cameron and costume designer Deborah Lynn Scott first worked together 25 years ago on “Titanic,” which went on to win 11 Oscars including best picture, director and costume design. Since then, the two have collaborated on “Avatar” and its long-awaited sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water,” and will continue their partnership with the next films in the franchise.

Below, for Variety‘s latest Creative Collaborators, Cameron and Scott discuss their working relationship and pouring hundreds of hours into building the costumes for “Avatar 2.”

Take us back to that first collaboration on “Titanic.” What was that like?

Deborah Lynn Scott: James used that hat very well. That day on set, we had never checked if the hat could fit through the car door, so, we were a little nervous. And he did that wonderful dip down and reveal which is a costume designer’s dream.

James Cameron: The worst case scenario was we would have started with her foot, come up and whip the hat on. There’s always a solution, but I don’t think she [Kate Winslet] would have been quite composed for the big reveal. That’s one of my favorite characters reveals ever across any film. It was so luminous.

Scott: I remember our first-ever meeting. I went to the old Lightstorm [Entertainment] on Wilshire Blvd., and it was nerve-wracking.

Cameron: It was nerve-wracking for me too, just to be thinking about beautiful wardrobe because that was not exactly my style. Up until then, it had been leather jackets and combat boots for “Terminator” or oil rigs for “The Abyss.” To be getting into an Edwardian mindset [for “Titanic”] was new. I think we’re both most comfortable outside of our comfort zone.

Scott: We like a challenge.

So, fast forward to “Avatar: The Way of Water” and creating looks for water. How has the tech evolved and how did you approach this new world?

Scott: Wouldn’t you say that your process is pretty similar to the first film? The thing we learned from the first film was the value of physically creating every piece of ornamentation and costume, just so you can see how it flows and how it wears. Because the costumes are so detailed, it’s like a texture map unto itself. Whereas, if it’s just a drawing, you’re never going to get the complexity that we wanted.

Cameron: I remember going through your lab upstairs, and you had all of these amazing bits of shell, fabric, woven stuff and things made out of leather. You said, “This is what I’m going to make it all out of.” And you showed me drawings. Then she would build it, and I’d be so won over. Those were then passed on to WETA and the army of CG people to do their testing so they could see how the costumes would bend, fold and move. Ultimately, it was them who had to build the costumes for everything that wasn’t the non-human world.

Scott: There was a lot of water testing. We did it in Wellington, New Zealand, and all over the city. We had to look at hair simulation and how curly or braided hair would look as it went from dry to wet to dry with the drips coming off. A lot of it was experimenting and researching different fibers to see what would happen. We also wanted the costumes to have the right buoyancy, so we learned a lot about color going deep in the water. Everything became extremely blue.

Cameron: I think that’s what put us on the warmer end of the spectrum for Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and the Reef people. Even though gray, greens and teals were beautiful on their skin, the bright yellows and reds played well underwater, where you start to lose those colors rapidly and they would pop out against the reef.

Scott: We followed cinematographer Russell Carpenter’s footprint and what he was doing. The sunset dictated the reds, pinks and golden colors that popped out.

Cameron: We used primary reds, oranges and yellows as caution colors and rescue colors in the human world. But they played very differently. They didn’t have that beautiful organic Indigenous feel, even though it is the same palette, but we never had any pastels in the human world.

What was challenging about creating the human world?

Cameron: The breathing masks. They had to be designed to fit different functionalities. If you were in construction, your mask had to fit your helmet. If you were a soldier, your mask had to fit as an integrated thing. When it came to Spider (Jack Champion), his mask had to work. He had to breathe underwater, go down and dive in that. Deb worked with an old colleague of mine, John Garvin, when I went down to the Challenger for “Deepsea Challenge”, and they worked on the masks.

How long would it typically take to build a costume?

Scott: Depends on the costume. It started with a lot of research and development that goes into it. But what did the character and scene dictate to me and to Jim? We followed a lot of the template of the first movie and took it to a higher and more complicated standard. With the Na’vi world, I think on average it took around 200 hours per garment. That was without the research time before that to decide if it was going to be a real shell, a 3D-printed shell or a laminate shell. We kept returning to the natural world and the natural shells because those are the ones that really give life. We found that all this magic of 3D printing, which we did in some cases to augment, wasn’t as good as what was real, handcrafted, sculpted by hand and individual bespoke pieces.

Cameron: I want to share a little insight into our working relationship. I’d look at a piece, and say, “That would never work underwater.” Deborah would say, “Yes, but it’s really pretty.” I’d take a picture of it back to my wife and she’d say, “I’d wear that,” and I’d say, “Okay, okay.”

Scott: We proved that it could work underwater.

Cameron: The other challenge that we had is that Indigenous women tend to ornament their hair, throats and arms, and are generally bare-breasted. They don’t have the Western prudish sensibility. Deborah came up with this breastplate that starts right up under the chin, and it’s clearly ornamental, or a signature of rank.

Scott: We were working with a lot of asymmetries, which helped us draw focus to the face. You start to forget about some of the things that are going on below.

Cameron: The asymmetry in the costumes had to be offset by an asymmetry in the tattooing. But I remember it taking a long time for it to be pleasing to the eye.

Scott: The tattoos on the soldiers on the recombinant were easier to do because they were earth-based and each tattoo had meaning to each character. We just went back to classic forms and decided where we would put color.

What was the testing process like for performance capture?

Scott: So much of it is trial and error. Jim really loves the fringe coming off the back and the sides. He’s very much, as am I, a lover of motion in costume. So, I had to figure it out so it wouldn’t tangle up and look terrible. The animators could make it do that, but the fact we actually made it do that, I think informed them, to an extent, that it was real and could prove the concept.

Cameron: They lived or died by the test videos. Those reference videos all went into a massive data set and the animators would have to figure out how to make it look like that. We spent a lot of time on it, but Ronal (Kate Winslet) has that ceremonial gown she wears on the bottom of the ocean, and I’m going to try to put it in movie three. A lot of time was spent getting that to weigh properly. It has this beautiful train, and it’s a gorgeous scene. We cut it for time.

Scott: A lot of that was experimental. We had Kate down there doing it because [we were] trying to get it too heavy for someone to pull around. She was slogging around, making this float and hover. That took a few months. We had divers every day getting down there to see how it would look.

Cameron: We were designing whole cultures that had to span across different movies. We were
attacking all parts of it at once because we’d be shooting out of order. We might be working on movie three one day, and another one the next. So, Deborah had a massive startup torque to get all of this stuff created.

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