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Avatar: The Way of Water Costume Designer Deborah L. Scott on Dressing James Cameron’s Unique Vision, and What Avatar 3 May Look Like


James Cameron‘s Avatar: The Way of Water features astounding motion capture effects that illuminate the fascinating and ever-expanding world of Pandora. Cameron’s unique cinematic vision is boldly on display, creating an epic moviegoing experience for all ages that reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place. To be able to capture the imaginations of millions of people across the globe and hold their attention for more than three hours is no small feat, and to that end, the sequel has already grossed $1.5 billion worldwide.

Of course, like so many visionary directors, Cameron has a trusted cadre of advisors and collaborators. They include stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, and Sigourney Weaver, the latter of whom he found a way to bring back even though her character died in the first film. The Avatar family has also now added Kate Winslet, who starred in the movie that made Cameron the King of the World, Titanic, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Many of Cameron’s frequent below-the-line collaborators also returned to make this movie such a scintillating theatrical experience — chief among them, Composer James Horner, who sadly passed away before the sequel could be completed, passing the baton on to Simon Franglen, who proved worthy of the task.

Another of Cameron’s brilliant collaborators was the endlessly talented Oscar-winning Costume Designer Deborah L. Scott, who previously worked with the director on both Titanic and the original Avatar. Scott has many other classic costuming credits under her belt, including such timeless films as Back to the Future, though the challenge for her on The Way of Water was the mere fact that so much of the world seems computer animated in one way or another.

As it turns out, though, Scott’s costumes and outfits were not CG, but rather, the real deal. She and Cameron worked together to give the film a unique, hyper-realistic look that was made particularly challenging by the introduction of the slightly less-blue-hued Metkayina reef people of Pandora. Read on to find out what Scott had to say about reteaming with Cameron, and much more.

Deborah Scott
Deborah L. Scott image via IMDb

Below the Line: Congratulations on the success of The Way of Water, though I know you’ve been here before. Since you created such a fresh look for the first film, what novelty was there for you in working on a sequel of this nature?

Deborah Scott: It starts with the imagination of Jim Cameron. He puts it all out there and as the costume designer, I just take it and run with it. We were fortunate to have a supportive director and producer so that we could spend as much time as we needed to research, design, and evolve these outfits. It was like opening a big present to walk through that doorway and be allowed to do kind of whatever my imagination came up with. Working with a lot of illustrators and crew people in New Zealand helped — there are a lot of creative types out there. As [Producer] Jon Landau always says, ‘we are standing on the shoulders of lots of creative people here.’

BTL: So what did your imagination come up with?

Scott: Well, I knew everything for the main part of the movie had to be handmade. That was not the case for the live-action part of the film, which trickles down into the Edie Falco and Stephen Lang characters. For those humans, we could have machine-made. For all the others, all the Na’vi world, we had to make them. And there was a color palette for each section. Research shows us two important things about how indigenous people make their clothes — one is handmade, and the second is that they use their environment.

Avatar: The Way of Water
Avatar: The Way of Water image via 20th Century Studios

BTL: Where did you draw inspiration for what you put on the Omaticaya people (the forest people) as opposed to the seafaring Metkayina people?

Scott: So, Jake and Neytiri are Omaticaya and they are forest and sky people. So most of their things come from forest-type environments, including certain grass, and the animals that live on the birds. The same ideals hold true for the Metkayina — Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis‘ clan. So we did a lot of research from all around the world, from all sorts of people who live near the water.

And the hair was really important for Jim, and I designed those two, after research. We settled on this greater area of Polynesia, which includes New Zealand and Hawaii. A warmer environment, which dictates things like shells, which we could not have for forest people, and also seagrass and plants and flowers. We used their animals and their birds.

The color palettes are definitely separate for that reason. We use a lot of red as a color to contrast the forest. When we move to the ocean, I concentrated on the million colors in that power shell, and the sensation you get visually when you stand at the beach at sunset. You’re seeing all of those golds and reds — at least in the two leaders’ costumes.

BTL: Walk us through the creation process, particularly considering most of these are avatars. Do you design little ones and put them on figures, or how does it go from your imagination to the screen?

Scott: It’s all real. Jim Cameron demands the most advanced technical prowess that you can achieve. And because they’re making so [many] advances in performance capture and the FX that they can do now, we were told we have to make every single garment in real life, to human scale, so that the actor or actress could wear it and see how it felt and moved, so it could transpose. We shot a lot with reference to the water, to the wind. The body language of the characters is different in those areas.

I like to reference the time when Kate Winslet’s character [Ronal] is first introduced — how she sashes down that walkway and she is swiveling her hips. She could not do that without the feeling of wearing a skirt. So the costumes all inform how the actors behave and therefore, how the motion is captured. And the most important thing about creating all the costumes completely — front [and] back, [as in] real life — is that then it allows the animators, simulators, and computer programs to read all the textures very clearly.

Avatar: The Way of Water
Sigourney Weaver as Kiri in Avatar: The Way of Water/20th Century Studios

BTL: You have worked with Jim and Kate before, you’ve won an Oscar, and you have worked with titans of the industry. But this is animation and VFX and motion capture. How does the rise of that technology interact with your craft, and how has it changed your craft over the years?

Scott: It doesn’t change the elements of creating a character through their clothing or costumes. Through those, we support the narrative and create the character you see. That has not changed. What has changed in this world of animation and [motion] capture is that, because of the advances Jim has made in this area, costume designers — instead of just dropping off two sketches of costumes at the door, so to speak — we have to be at the table. I actually stayed on the production all the way through post, which is not typically the case for animated costume design. As they are putting it all together, they had to see if we needed to create something else, to support their own design. Do we have to double-check the weight of that leather or the shine of that shell?

That process is pretty new for us as designers, but we need that seat at the table because it’s valuable to be there [during] post-production. It’s essentially a skill that we do not typically have, not something we are taught specifically. It becomes an amazing give-and-take where the animators are teaching us something, but we are [also] teaching them. In essence, the animation being so real makes our job more challenging in the best of ways. It is really fun and amazing.

Avatar: The Way of Water
Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in Avatar: The Way of Water/20th Century Studios

BTL: Every time I ask designers for their favorite piece they mention they are all their little babies, and I get that, but can you still walk me through your favorite costume or set of costumes, and why?

Scott: As a group, for sure the Metkayina, because they were the newer ones. [It’s] harder to pick and choose between them, but I did like the females. But, just for you, I’m going to pick one and say Tonowari, the Chief. He was unique, we had to design his hair and how it looked in the water and wind. We had to figure out the tattooing and the facial structure too, and how to give that to the animators. And it was also the first character we all had to work on together. He’s also amazing — he is both strong and soft, [and] he has beautiful eyes.

BTL: What can you tell me about the next Avatar movie? What else can we look forward to seeing on Pandora?

Scott: You are going to go to even more exciting places [on] Pandora, and we are going to incorporate new clans that are entirely different. At least two feasts for the eye.

Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theaters across the globe courtesy of 20th Century Studios. Click here to read our interview with Production Designers Ben Procter and Dylan Cole, and click here to read our interview with Editor Stephen Rivkin.

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