A lot of the film's designs went through multiple stages of development — vehicle designer Paul Ozzimo recalls that lead vehicle designer TyRuben Ellingson handed him early designs that were roughed out in a program called Sketchup, and looked like Legos rather than finished designs. It took a lot of fleshing out to build those into full 3-D models.
Bartoli recalls that seeing his creature designs come to life "as Weta started animating and lighting them" was a bizarre feeling. For one thing, now his Hammerhead and other creatures were part of a whole world, where they belonged as part of the ecosystem. Says Bartoli:
It's a very strange thing to design a creature, then see it begin to live and breathe in other people's hands... Seeing the first passes at the lit shots of the Hammerhead standing in the Helicoradian Glade was a milestone for me — here was the creature I had designed smashing up trees in the forest location I had painted. We had crossed over into the world.
Adds creature designer Tully Summers,
The design process with Jim was very deliberate and methodical. He always had an "end" target in his head even if he didn't know the specifics, almost like trying to recall details of a favorite but vaguely remembered dream. We did sketches, clay maquettes, and paintings. Ultimately digital sculpting proved to be Jim's favorite tool for evaluating the creatures. Allowing him to see designs he would be shooting in 3D from all angles in real-time was invaluable.
Weta Digital was creating the 3-D animations of the creatures of Pandora, but meanwhile Weta Workshop was actually building bows and arrows and tons of other Na'Vi physical props. According to Leri Greer at Weta, he and his coworkers created tons of these physical items, first as prototypes for Cameron to sign off on, but also then as props for the movie. There were Na'Vi items, captured as trophies or taken for study, at the humans' base, but also the actors had to rehearse and train in a jungle setting using real bows and arrows and other tools. And when the animated version of Neytiri is pulling back a bowstring in the movie, Zoe Saldana had to be holding a physical bow in her hand so the motion-capture could look right.
There was also a ton of oversized field gear sitting around the humans' lab that would later be shown being worn by the Avatars, says Greer — getting the scale right was a constant nightmare, because all of these items had to look huge next to the humans, but normal when being toted by the 9-foot-tall Na'Vi and Avatars.
And a ton of designers worked on creating Na'Vi cultural artifacts as well. Craig Shoji says he and Daphne Yap embraced the idea that the Na'Vi had a "woven language" — instead of recording their history with paintings or engraving, they would record it with woven ornamental shields and massive tarps. It was influenced by their environment, both in terms of their patterns but also in terms of the materials they used. And it needed to be advanced, but look primitive at first.
I remember one of my first encounters with Jim was after I had done a handful of quick concept sketches of woven goods and had pinned up the print to the wall next to me. It was an exercise to begin to feel out some unique shapes, weaves, textures and materials but I didn't spend too much time thinking about function at that point. When he came up to the art dept to chat with Rob Stromberg he noticed the printout and asked "What's that?" I started to explain, and he cut me off and said something like "Those look great. It seems like they belong on Pandora and to the Na'vi. I don't know what the hell they are, but they feel right. Good job." It was a nice first interaction, but then it sunk in that I needed to figure out 'what the hell they were.'
Shoji says they went so far as to figure out exactly what kind of loom the Na'Vi would use to create their large textiles, and how many Na'Vi it would take to operate it, and what kind of hollowed-out animal bones they would use for the comb and shuttle, and so on. This was in collaboration with Weta Workshop. Similarly, Shoji recalls that he spent a lot of time on a war-paint container, before deciding it was made out of a hollowed out seed pod that had been split in half, so that different colors of paint could be in either half. In designing every Na'Vi artifact, he had to start out with what natural object it had been made from originally.
Interestingly, the idea of having other Na'Vi tribes join the fight at the end came in fairly late in the process — so there wasn't as much time to design the look of those other tribes, and a lot of that was decided in post-production.
Greer also worked on creating tons of corporate logos and billboards for the sequences back on Earth, which mostly didn't make it into the final film. There are lots of sneaky in-jokes and intentional misspellings of present-day company names hidden in those sequences, says Greer. The company that makes the weapons the soldiers on Pandora tote is called Matanza Arms, from the Spanish for "massacre." Every prop in Hells Gate has tons of markings and writing on it, that the audience probably never saw. Adds Greer:
I went to the set here in Wellington one day and had a wander through, and it was cool seeing that the Avatar Production Art Department had actually made jelly/honey and butter packets with the RDA logo on them. Stuff you'd never see at a distance, but I guess it made the extras and actors feel more "immersed" during the dining sequences.
Every single sequence had to be composed, from color to backdrop, to get the maximum effect. Recalls Messing:
The love scene between Jake and Neytiri was something that Cameron wanted to be bold so we used vibrant purples and violets. I did several paintings designing how the trees would frame the intimate moment. I kept the color saturated and intense; using the emanating glow of the willow tree to silhouette the lovers' embrace. Cameron spent a lot of time choreographing the performances to get the scene just right. In the end he decided to utilize a shallow depth of field to simplify the composition and create a more iconic image.
Throughought the process, there was a lot of on-the-fly innovation going on. "We were building an airplane in flight," says Stromberg.