Creatures of Pandora
General note: the following article focuses on the six major alien species featured in Avatar, with deliberate excision of the Na’vis — which will not be analyzed on the site. No Neytiri here!
James Cameron first conceived Avatar in 1994, with an 80-page treatment of the story — which was to be produced into a film to be released in 1999, with the collaboration of Digital Domain. Cameron, however, felt that the digital effects technology available at the time had considerable restraints that inevitably needed to be resolved — due to the fact photorealistic computer-generated imagery was still a relatively new tool for filmmakers. The director decided to postpone the creation process for the film until his idea could effectively be convincingly brought to life.
A decade afterwards, in early 2005, Cameron assembled a team of designers to conceive the various creatures, vehicles, and models for the project — then known under the working title of Project 880. The core team of creature designers for Avatar included Neville Page — the lead creature designer — Wayne Barlowe, Yuri Bartoli, and Jordu Schell. Stan Winston Studio also joined the project, bringing other key creature designers — Christopher Swift, Scott Patton, and Joseph Pepe — as well as other sculptors and painters. Cameron himself had produced the very first sketches of the fauna of Pandora and — in most cases — had very specific ideas about their configurations. Traditional drawings, digital art, and sculptures were all used to render the designs before the final configurations were devised.
Every single species seen in the film is the result of a long design process and collaboration of several artists. “We took a stab at everything,” Page told herocomplex.com. “We worked on the Na’vi, the plants, the environment. The first people brought on board were to see what the planet would look like. Rather than drawing shapes, I tried to resolve it from a physics standpoint. If a creature was supposed to have six legs you can put those anywhere, but soon an animator will have to make it walk and run. You have to be careful. Jim, like few others, is so tuned into the plausibility of organisms. He wanted them to look as real as possible, and work organically as well.”
Bringing the actual Monsters to the screen was a task assigned to Weta Digital, which created the most character animation regarding the creatures. Industrial Light & Magic also collaborated in the character rigging and in a minor number of creature shots. Each alien from Pandora was created using zBrush and Maya, and rendered as an entirely digital character. In addition, practical models for some of the creatures were built to interact with the actors.
Many of the creature designs had to display common features, the most important of which is the “queue” — antennae-like structures that enable the Na’vi to connect with their steeds. “Jim had a solid idea for what he wanted when the queues connected,” explained Craig Shoji, a designer for the film, to io9.com, “and he would do this specific motion with his hands. Picture holding your hands out so your fingers were pointing at each other, then moving your hands closer and beginning to wiggle your fingers, then when your fingers meet, start interlocking your fingers and twisting your wrists so your hands are locked. So the concepts for that came from referencing a lot of different types of cilia and microscopic photos of hair, bugs, plants, etc. It resulted in a very purpose-driven cilia for connecting to the Pandoran world. Simple, yet kind of creepy.”
Other key characteristics included amphibian-like skin, and the signature “air intakes” (also called “operculums”) — the Pandoran fauna’s means of breathing. Barlowe explained: “from the inception of the ‘black-ops’ design phase back in ’05, Jim was interested in exploring vivid markings and almost amphibian-like body textures. Poison-dart frogs were mentioned as possible inspirations for the look he was seeking. The solutions we began to play around with all encompassed those early concepts. While the vibrant colour schemes of the terrestrial creatures fell by the wayside, the unique body textures were retained. Obviously, the aerial fauna remains intensely colourful. These were, I believe, choices Jim made answering his inner, artistic muse.”
The process of devising the configurations for each character encountered “a few blind alleys,” according to Bartoli. “Parameters such as six legs, an extra passive eye, four digits, threat displays, decoupled breath intakes, [and] body markings emerged or had already been laid out in the script,” he said. “So — as you can imagine — there are a lot of ideas that either weren’t right for this aesthetic or were held back due to the limitations of telling the story — suffice to say Pandora has many more creatures in it than you see on screen.” According to Tully Summers, one of the creature designers, the fauna was entirely devoid of hair to avoid a more direct resemblance to their Earthly counterparts. “[It was supposed to] accentuate the creatures’ other-worldliness. Putting fur on our mammal equivalents would have been redundant and too obvious.”
A HAMMERHEAD TITANOTHERE. Like a six-legged rhinoceros, but twice that size. Its massive, low-slung head has projections of bone giving it the look of a hammerhead shark.
-James Cameron, Avatar draft, 2007
During Jake’s first mission on the planet, he comes accross a herd of Hammerhead Titanotheres (Angtsìk in the Na’vi language), massive armoured herbivores with a characteristic fan-like crest used for display and a bony protrusion on their skulls used to threaten predators and for direct offense.
“Originally, the Hammerhead just had to be a huge creature, big enough that even a Thanator would think twice about attacking one,” said Bartoli. “But James Cameron came up with the idea of basing this creature on hammerhead sharks on Earth. That huge bony protrusion has two purposes: It’s good for attacking, obviously, but it’s probably also useful for mating displays, much the same way that rams smash their horns together to attract a female.”
Originally, the hammer-like protrusion and the crest were part of the same structure — a brightly-coloured hammer-horn. Eventually, however, the designers decided “to create a more delicate structure that would splay out,” explained Bartoli. “A threat display is meant to be seen — so it required bright colours that would stand out against its more muted body.” Page, Bartoli, and Schell were the key designers.
A THANATOR. The most awesome land predator the universe has ever conceived. This thing could eat a T.rex and have the Alien for dessert. It is a black six-limbed panther from Hell, with an armored head and massive distensible jaws.
-James Cameron, Avatar draft, 2007
The Hammerheads retreat when a Thanator (Palulukan in the Na’vi language) appears behind Jake. Originally called ‘Manticore’, the creature is one of the apex predators on Pandora. In another draft, Cameron described it as “a black, six-limbed panther, the size of a tractor trailer, with an armoured head, a venomous, striking tail, and a massive detensible, armoured jaw with nine-inch fangs.”
The Monster underwent one of the longest design processes among the film’s creatures, with several iterations exploring the most varied configurations. “The most challenging creature to design was what became the Thanator,” said Joe Pepe, one of the designers at Stan Winston Studio. “It was originally called a Manticore and everyone took a stab at the design. It was the only design that I know of where Jim didn’t have a complete vision in his head.” Early designs by Patton were influenced by placoderms — such as Dunkleosteus — reptiles, and arachnids. Barlowe’s renditions were initially sleeker in appearance, but Cameron directed the whole creature towards a more muscular, bulkier configuration.
None of the proposed designs eventually satisfied Cameron, who decided late in the process to tackle the creature himself. In doing so, he resurrected an older design he had sketched over two decades before — the “Skraith” creature from his project called Mother. Many concepts from that script were cannibalized for both Aliens and Avatar — but where the former inherited the idea of an Alien Mother-Queen, the latter implemented other plot points, as well as the original design for the “Skraith”.
Cameron’s old sketch served as a base for the final design, which applied only certain modifications — such as the movable crest and quills — and was sculpted directly in zBrush by Neville Page. The Thanator was labeled as “Jim’s baby” by the creature design team.
Behind him are several pairs of reflective green EYES. Another pair flanking him beside the trail. Black-on-black SHAPES which seem to flow like liquid.
He looks up — sees one cross a limb overhead. Another on his opposite flank.
Then a hideous sound, like a hyena’s psychotic LAUGH.
The VIPERWOLVES can run like a dog and climb like a monkey. They are hunting Jake from the ground and the trees.
-James Cameron, Avatar draft, 2007
During the design process for the Viperwolf, the creative team was inspired by illustrations by Francis Bacon, and by footage of minks. Opposable thumbs on the first two pairs of limbs rendered its climbing ability believable. Jason Matthews sculpted a clay maquette that served as reference to build the digital model — which was actually the first to be completed and thus be able to perform motion tests. “We didn’t know what to expect from those tests,” Page said, “but after seeing the Viperwolf in action we understood that we could go forward. It wasn’t just realistic — it was extraordinary.”
A Viperwolf puppet was built for interaction with Sam Worthington for the scene where Jake fights with a pack of the creatures. The puppet was linked with calibrators and featured patterns that could be recognized by the motion capture system and serve as a base for the character animation.
SEVERAL NA’VI RIDERS thunder toward him. They are riding DIREHORSES — six-legged, armor-skinned alien Clydesdales.
James Cameron, Avatar draft, 2007
The Na’vi use the Direhorses (Pa’li in the Na’vi language) as common ground steeds. According to Wayne Barlowe, the creatures had to be literal horse substitutes, “which the audience would instantly ‘read’ as horse.” The six-legged configuration was a key element in “de-emphasizing the equine silhouette,” he said. Barlowe’s first renditions gravitated towards more otherwordly traits, but had to be toned down. Other inspirations came from the anteater, which served as the base for the Direhorse’s head.
“My influence in the head was clearly a giant anteater,” Wayne Barlowe explained, “but in my drawings I used more abstract lines to deconstruct the familiar mammals’ lines. The mane was a conscious effort to retain the look of a clipped or short mane — an echo of the erect manes on Przewalski’s horses or zebras melded to a cetacean fin – while creating an iconic line. And, the cuticle-like armor simply made sense as an evolutionary answer to moving through potentially dangerous underbrush and ever-present Viperwolves.”
Christopher Swift sculpted a maquette based on Barlowe’s renditions; the maquette was then photographed and digitally altered to obtain the final design of the Direhorse, which was then sculpted digitally in zBrush. In animating the creature, the artists at Weta Digital had to devise a gallop cycle that would believably employ all the limbs — resulting in the movement of the first two limbs being off-set by a number of degrees in respect to the middle pair.
This thing is taller than a Na’vi with a 10 meter wingspan. A leathery FWHOOP, like the crack of sails, as it alights on the branch right in front of her.
-James Cameron, Avatar draft, 2007
James Cameron purposefully introduced the concept of lower gravity on Pandora to realistically justify the presence of large flying animals — such as the Banshee (Ikran in the Na’vi language), the animal species most prominently featured in Avatar. “The Banshee is what I spent the most time on,” said Page. “We knew it was a flying creature. What made it so incredibly challenging [was that] with a bird you have to design it flying, perching — everything has to work. You can’t just draw it one view at a time. Jim and I were both fans of engineering. We spent a lot of time coming up with various concepts. The hardest thing of all was having a Na’vi on top of it and flying it. You had to backwards engineer it. It was like designing and engineering an aircraft. And that’s without the beauty and aesthetics of it.”
Cameron had several specific guidelines for the creatures, which were to be four-winged and feature “barracuda-teeth,” according to the script. The Banshees’ jaws had to be able to open wide. According to Cameron’s guidelines, the teeth also “would distend and actually rack forward.”
The silhouette and structural configuration of the Banshee was based on sports cars, as well as deep sea fauna like manta rays, skates, and the great white shark. “You just need to look at the tip of the chin and that single line that starting from the head goes down the neck and on the back. Then there’s the line that goes from the cheekbones to the teeth to the jugular and the ‘air intake’.” Modern studies on the movement of plesiosaurs and pterosaurs also influenced the design as well as the character animation.
Although the base for the Banshee’s head was provided by reptile skulls, as well as angular industrial designs, the jaws needed an articulation that would properly enable the forward extension of the teeth. The creative team eventually found the needed inspiration in fish jaws. “There aren’t any lizard jaws that can do that, but the mechanics of fish jaws worked perfectly for this design challenge,” Bartoli explained. “It also got us away from it looking like a lizard and became something unique to itself.”
Finding the right colour scheme for the Banshee also proved to be particularly complex. “The colour passes on the Banshee alone took me several weeks to complete,” Bartoli added, “since including the necessary detail required multiple paintings 190 megapixels in size, as well as mapping them on the 3D model to judge how these markings would look from the camera when wrapped around the creature.” Several varied colour schemes were devised for at least one hundred different Banshees that appear in the film. A physical model of the Banshee was built by Stan Winston Studio to guide Weta Digital’s lighting and animation.
Like a banshee, only several times larger, it is the king predator of the air: the GREAT LEONOPTERYX. Striped scarlet, yellow and black, with a midnight blue crested head — it is both gorgeous and terrifying.
-James Cameron, Avatar draft, 2007
The Great Leonopteryx (Toruk in the Na’vi language, meaning “Last Shadow”) is the apex flying predator of Pandora. In conceiving the Monster, the team of artists applied some design cues that had already been devised for the Banshee, such as the multiple membranes on the wings — inspired by butterfly wings — and the fish-like extending jaws.
Cameron, however, wanted a superficially different configuration for the Toruk’s head, with a protruding beak — which the designers eventually based on that of a parrot. The colour scheme was based on that of a Monarch Butterfly to make the Leonopteryx stand out in the sequences it stars in — most importantly the climactic fight scene. The creature’s vibrant colour scheme was devised by concept artist Daphne Yap.
Yuri Bartoli commented on the experience: “the fact that so many people seem to genuinely respond to our work, and appreciate the ideas and subtexts, is a great reward for all the work we did putting fine detail into creating the movie.”
“It was a fantastic experience,” concluded Page, “with an even more fantastic outcome.”
For more images of the creatures from Pandora, visit the Monster Gallery.