So as you probably know, Cameron wrote his first "scriptment" for Avatar back in the 1990s, but the first people brought on board the project were four designers who worked out of Cameron's Malibu house for several months in 2005. We already talked to Neville Page, who was one of those people, but Yuri Bartoli was also there. He says when he first got the call about Avatar, he had no idea what this project was about, but then he read Cameron's scriptment, and the enormity of this huge world started to sink in.
There were the four of us, sitting around Jim's house trying to wrap our heads around what these creatures should look like, trying different ideas, pushing it too far and then pulling it back — we went down a lot of roads to explore what the essence of these creatures should be. It was an extremely creative and intense time — all of us trying to reason out how the biomechanics of six-legged creatures would function, whether they would be fleshy or hard surfaced. [There were] hundreds of questions to answer. I always had several books on animal anatomy, biology and vertebrate morphology around. We looked at insects, microscopic bugs, deep sea creatures, all in an effort to mold the form language the flora and fauna of Pandora would take, always with Jim guiding us, designing with us. Little by little we emerged with an understanding of what these creatures were. There wasn't much thought given to what the movie would become, as a totality — we were far too busy learning about the world we were building as we were building it. We progressed from sketches to more refinements as sketches became paintings, and those paintings became sculptures or computer models that we created.
Avoiding the "plastic toy frog" look
One of the areas that Bartoli worked on for ages was the bright color schemes of Pandora's creatures — which manage to be striking without looking garish or tacky. As you've no doubt already heard, the designers looked at real-life sources of color in nature, including ocean life, but also insects, amphibians and the plumage of parrots or toucans. But Bartoli says it wasn't easy to avoid something fake-looking:
The challenge was to make brightly colored creatures that didn't feel like plastic toys. A good test that helped highlight the difference between the two I did early on was to take images of a plastic toy frog and compare them with a real Amazonian poison dart frog. Both have bright colors in simple shapes and a shiny surface, but there is a subtle break up in the live frog that makes all the difference.
I love the idea that he studied a plastic toy to learn what not to do.
And production designer Robert Stromberg says there's a good reason why the kind of bioluminescent look you see in the movie had never been done before: "It can look really bad, really fast." It can also look very cheesy if not handled right, he adds. "Obviously, the scare is that it's going to look like a black-light Elvis painting, and it very well could have gone that direction." The designers spent months and months experimenting with different combinations of techniques — "layers of diffusion, amounts of glow, intensity of color, color combination" — to get it right. "We did enough testing that we realized that there really is something there, and it works in our world, in the way these deep-sea fish comunicate and so on."