Even after the creatures of Pandora started taking shape at James Cameron's house, and later on at the offices of his Lightstorm Entertainment company, the overall look of the planet, including the trees and floating mountains, was still up in the air. Stromberg says he drew the first illustration of what became the unmistakable look of the planet.
Stromberg had a background in matte painting and visual effects design, winning awards for his work on Star Trek episodes like "Best Of Both Worlds," and movies like Master And Commander. Stromberg says he came on to Avatar early in the process as a visual effects designer for a couple of weeks, and he knew nothing about the film except that there were floating islands. The night before he was meeting Cameron for the first time, Stromberg drew an image of a landscape with floating islands, with a little guy standing at the bottom of the image. (I think this is the one he's talking about.)
Cameron looked at it and said, "That's my movie. That's the first time I've actually seen my movie." And "that image became the first image of Pandora as it's seen in the movie," says Stromberg. Somehow, Stromberg's two-week gig became four weeks, and then that stretched into months. At some point, he and Cameron decided that since Stromberg had a hand in designing the entire world, production designer was a better title for what he was doing.
Stromberg says he thought of Pandora as having lots of layers, from the tree canopy far above, all the way down to the floor.
I approached the rainforest of Pandora... in the same sense as the ocean, where you have this upper sun-belt, and then these layers that go deeper reveal stranger creatures, and then all the way down to the bioluminescence, which we have in the bottom of our ocean as well. So it was taking our actual ocean model and applying that to a very deep rainforest.
Avatar actually had two production desiginers: Stromberg worked on the "organic Pandora side," designing everything from the the way the planet looked from space, all the way down to every twig in the forest. And Rick Carter took on the military and human-made aspects, including all of the hardware at the base at Hell's Gate. It's somewhat unusual to have two production designers on a film, but this meant Stromberg could be in L.A. working with the team of designers there, while Carter was in New Zealand building sets and dealing with the actual film shoot. "I think it helps in this particular movie to have two designers with two different opinions coming together," says Stromberg."
You might notice that Stromberg's first image of Pandora has a darker pallette than a lot of the shots in the final movie, and Stromberg says he experimented with light and dark a lot.
Stromberg wanted the landscape of Pandora to mirror Jake's journey in the movie:
When you first arrive on Pandora, you're preached at by Quaritch that everything out there will kill you, it's dangerous. And it's very intentional that when you first get there, it's overcast and a little bit creepy and dark, and rainy. And then, as Jake reluctantly goes out there — and of course, his first experience is getting lost and chased by a big beast and so on — the environment slowly reveals itself as something of beauty through his eyes. For instance, after she saves him and throws the torch into the water, and he turns around and looks at this bioluminescent world, for the first time seeing the beauty of it. And it's slowly revealed over time and becoming more and more beautiful, and becoming something that you as the person watching it would want to protect... The planet is following his character arc.
Adds designer Steven Messing: "It was clear that Cameron wanted to reserve the punches of color for the Navi culture to offset the gloomy human presence. The paintings that we created for Hell's gate were overcast and had muted tones, reflecting the lifelessness of the human element on the planet. This contrasted the vivid colors and splashes of light that jake experiences when he first meets Neytiri in the bioluminescent jungle."
Messing was the designer who actually traveled to China to photograph mountains in Zhang jia jie, Yangshuo, and Huangshan, for their grand scale and unusual formations. He hiked along valleys and up cliffsides, and even went up in a hot-air balloon to get the right photos of these mountains to use in his digital matte paintings. Besides natural sources of inspiration, Messing says the landscape of Pandora was influenced by "the Hudson River school and golden era of illustrators. Fredic Edwin Church, Albert Bierdstadt, Thomas Cole, Franklin Booth, etc.. The sense of lighting and dramatic composition was something we had hoped to achieve in our layouts and the overall scope of the environment."