‘Avatar’ as innovation: ‘We were in new territory…there was no road there’

Nov. 25, 2009 | 10:43 p.m.

“AVATAR” COUNTDOWN: 24 DAYS

“Avatar” may be the most ambitious film of 2009, and here at the Hero Complex we’re bringing you coverage that fits this major movie moment with 30 stories in 30 days. Today it’s the first installment of a two-part conversation with Rick Carter, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated production designers, whose credits include “Forrest Gump,” “Jurassic Park,” “War of the Worlds,” and “The Polar Express.” I spoke to the Oscar-nominated designer in Vancouver, Canada, where he’s at work on “Sucker Punch,” director Zack Snyder’s surreal action fantasy.

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GB: You’ve worked with a relatively narrow group of directors but it’s quite the list — Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and now Zack Snyder. I would imagine, too, that “Avatar” is already feeling like a career highlight for you just based on its aspirations…

RC: Absolutely. Jim has made an amazing movie. He’s quite a talent and when he puts his mind to something it’s quite formidable.

GB: Coming into this project, what were some of the specific challenges it presented to you?

RC: I take a page out of the philosophy that obstacles are insurmountable opportunities. I’m pretty optimistic because things have gone well for me. Coming into “Avatar,” I had only really been working with Spielberg and Zemeckis up to that point. That’s twentysomething years. My approach is to orient myself toward the vision of the director and that becomes the sole thing I have to concern myself with. There are many decisions but the one challenge really is to fulfill that vision. Those guys are so strong as directors that it’s nice because the process isn’t diluted with other concerns, like executives from the studio or even public opinion, which can happen to some degree sometimes. Its about the director’s vision, solely, and completing it and realizing it. And at the point where there isn’t something there, the task is, “What can I offer? What can people in the art department offer?”

GB: Where did you begin on “Avatar”?

RC: Coming into “Avatar,” it took me about 3 1/2 hours to read the script, even before I had the interview with Jim. I really wanted to take my time to “see” the movie. It was clear that what he was doing was not just about a literal translation; you couldn’t just piece it together by thinking of things you had seen in other films because it was an entirely new world. As I started reading through it there was a part — and it’s a part, actually, that’s not in the movie anymore — but one of the alien characters says, “When you see everything you see nothing.” And I stopped at that and thought, “What does that mean?” And I realized that the state that I was in reading the script was that I was so overwhelmed with all of what I was seeing that I was actually starting to see nothing. I was in a state of what I call whiteout, where everything is in there. I liken that actually to “Pinocchio” and wishing on a white star that comes down and fills the frame of the window and out steps the Blue Fairy and out of that something is created, Pinocchio comes to life. So in a very lyrical way I gave myself over to that idea that there was too much for me to see.

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GB: So you mean that you have to surrender to the startling immersion we would feel on an alien world and not get caught up in a sort of piecemeal construction of it?

RC: Yes, I was giving myself over to that idea that there was too much to see so as I read I stopped trying to visualize things and I stopped getting caught up in how to accomplish these things. I was trying to understand all of it by stepping back and looking for what Jim was going for. And Jim is a very high-level visualist and filmmaker. I knew too that he was going to be detail-orientated and a perfectionist. The stories precede him…[laughs]

GB: This film arrives with the reputation as “a game-changer” as far effects technologies and approaches, too, which must have made for an interesting path. 

RC: Well we knew that the actual way of getting the movie done was not going to be known ahead of time. I worked on “Polar Express” where we created the motion-capture volume without real-time visualization and I know what that took. So bring that into the world where half the movie is being done with real-time visualizing in a motion-capture space that has to be integrated as a hybrid with live action — I knew we were in new territory. There was no road there.

GB: Tell me about Pandora, the jungle moon that’s the setting for “Avatar.”

RC: In trying to understand Jim’s vision of Pandora I had this notion that Jim had been to Pandora before; he had been at the bottom of the ocean so much with “Titanic” and “The Abyss” and “Aliens of the Abyss.” Jim described nighttime on Pandora as “phantasmagoric.” I’m probably one of the few people that went and looked up that definition, which means “As seen in a dream state.”

GB: The bioluminescence of the jungle lifeforms gives everything a sort of dream-time feel, I noticed in the footage I watched…

RC: And he was evoking the question: What is it you see when you’re really starting to get transported into this whole other dimension? Out of that came this notion that you’ve heard about that this was “The Wizard of Oz” only going back and forth between Oz and Kansas throughout the movie. That’s where this whole “You’re not in Kansas anymore” thing came from.

TOMORROW: RICK CARTER ON THE JAMES CAMERON-ROBERT ZEMECKIS RIVALRY

– Geoff Boucher

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Photos: Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, and Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, sitting in front of his alien representation in “Avatar.” Credit: Fox 

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