Everything in the human base on Pandora, Hell's Gate, had to be completely realistic and as close as possible to today's technology, says concept designer James Clyne. The human operation has a military aspect as well as a mining aspect, "so we did a lot of research into those fields. Even though it was in the future, it all had to make sense, and function in some type of world. It couldn't just be fantasy stuff."
Adds concept artist Ryan Church, "I did a lot of aerodynamic research from previously classified NASA and DARPA technical papers, and also soaked up a ton of wildlife and landscape photography." In The Art Of Avatar, you can see Church's insanely detailed designs for the Valkyrie Shuttle, the bird which needs to be able to detach itself from the ISV Venture Station and land itself exo-atmospherically, coming in through the atmosphere like a space shuttle, using fusion engines.
Clyne worked on the "big interior for the mech suits, and the whole interior had to have a reason and function for why the suits were lined up the way they were, and how they could work on them like a pitstop at an F1 race. It had to have that functionality." And of course, since the Na'Vi dwarf the humans, having giant battlesuits to clamber into helps the humans measure up.
As for the lab area, where Jake Sully and other people are put into their half-alien Avatar bodies, "again, that was heavily influenced by modern-day medical labs, hospital operating rooms. All of that... along with a military feel, it had a very contemporary medical feel as well." For example, The Art Of Avatar includes detailed designs for the biolink that connects Jake Sully to his Avatar, and Clyne explains that he produced thousands of displays from studying present-day EKG systems and medical graphics.
In general, that painstaking research into contemporary technology was aimed at keeping the human tech from getting too far out, says Clyne. Generally, when starting work on a new movie project, "one of the first steps we take is doing a lot of research into whatever subject that is, whether it's architecture, technology or aviation... There's a balance that you have to always keep with technology. You could go really far out there, but you have to remember that you're designing things for an audience, and you want to make sure that the audience can understand it and kind of grasp it right off the bat. Otherwise, you'll lose that suspension of disbelief. And I think that when you're doing something kind of way out there, you have to make sure you have that kind of believablity to it all"
There's also the limiting factor that all of the human base sets had to be built as practical sets, unlike Pandora's CG world. "A lot of the stuff I worked on, they actually built on the stage," says Clyne. "Which is hard to believe when you look at the trailers. Doesn't really seem like they built a lot. But they did build all those sets."
In general, the human surroundings were supposed to feel gray, cold, and dehumanizing. "First and foremost, it was supposed to feel functional," says Clyne. "You're standing on the bridge of an aircraft carrier — there's no kind of warm, homey feel to it. And first and foremost, that was the feel we were going for. But secondly, I think it was supposed to be a contrast to this beautiful... lush garden that Pandora was."
On Avatar, I knew every time I showed a design or illustration I would need to be able to articulate and explain every nut and bolt or leaf or scale — there was no BSing allowed. Counterintuitively I found this much more rewarding than the usual job — less 'artist' and more 'frustrated engineer,' which is what I prefer.
I think a lot of people look at his movies and say, He's kind of redoing things that he's done in the past. I think it's more that he writes movies about the world he knows best. He spent a decade in these highly experimental vehicles at the bottom of the ocean. He has a lot of knowledge of military and science experimental... you know, that world. More knowledge than, certainly, any other film-maker has. That's kind of his world, and I think that's why he writes movies like The Abyss, and there's that military aspect to Aliens, and certainly to Avatar.