Deborah L. Scott stopped by Filmmakers Academy for the latest edition of Finding the Frame. (Yeah, the Deborah L. Scott!) It was such a pleasure welcoming to our studio the costume designer who won an Academy Award for her work on Titanic. On top of that, she furnished the look for some of the most iconic characters in film history.
Deborah sat down with Brendan Sweeney to provide some insight into her career as a costume designer and dish on her approach to working with James Cameron to come up with the Na’vi. All in all, this episode is jam-packed with essential knowledge that you will want to sip like a fine wine.
Here’s a segment from the interview where Deborah L. Scott shares some inside details about her time on Avatar: The Way of Water!
AVATAR COSTUME DESIGN
Deborah’s collaboration first began with James Cameron on Titanic earning the Oscar for Best Costume Design. By that point, she already established a working relationship with producer Jon Landau back in 1992 on the film Hoffa. So, by the time of Avatar, they were already familiar with her amazing work and contributions to the world of costume design.
Another costume designer began the first Avatar film but left. Since it was partially this new kind of CG movie, the filmmakers were still determining the best approach. For instance, how much of the costume could the CG artists do? Then, one morning Deborah received a call from Landau and he asked her if she wanted to come over and look at what they’d been up to.
By that point, Landau and Cameron had already traveled to New Zealand. When Deborah arrived, they showed her spectacular footage unlike anything she had seen before. Cameron told her that they had an issue and needed a costume for Sigourney Weaver. When she agreed, he told her that they were leaving that night to return to New Zealand. And just like that, Deborah joined the project. Of course, her duties soon far outstretched the one costume…
“Here’s the other tip to anybody in the film business, have your passport up to date. It’s really important.” —Deborah L. Scott
Landing the Avatar Job
Deborah was originally only supposed to be on the project for a couple of weeks to create one costume. However, she ended up on the production for a year and a half — much of that following through post-production. That’s because Cameron and Landau, along with Deborah, realized the costumes that were rendered through a computer process needed the guidance of a seasoned veteran. While the CG artists are extraordinarily talented, they couldn’t quite capture a real garment in the way that Cameron knew an expert could. Together, they designed a lot of concepts but also had to backpedal in post to get it just right.
DESIGNING COSTUMES FOR CG & LIVE-ACTION
Merging live-action with CG involves an in-depth post-production process more complicated than anything Deborah has ever done before. Avatar The Way of Water dwarfs the first film due to its larger scale and a greater number of characters. Not only is there more extensive world-building, including underwater physics, but a different clan with a different culture.
In terms of design, the process is the same as any other movie: read the script, work with the director and the production designer, and allow the ideas to flow. Then, Deborah worked with illustrators to put those ideas on paper. The illustrators and designers that Deborah worked with were proficient with a computer-driven workflow. That said, both Deborah and Cameron are old school. So, they printed like crazy and were very much hands-on in a way that you cannot always get on a computer. Deborah shared a lot of different designs for Neytiri and considered what they could mix and match.
There was a lot on Deborah’s plate, including performance capture (which was new to her) and performance capture underwater (which was never done before). In addition to the steep learning curb, Deborah was also expected to help make the suits to allow them to film underwater. If you are familiar with performance capture on a dry set, then you know that the suits contain markers needed for the post-process. Although, underwater, these markers have their own challenges. Learn more about those challenges with The Look of Avatar: The Way of Water.
Designing Underwater Suits
On the first day, the technicians plopped a pile of what looked like Christmas lights and said they needed to figure out how to put them on an actor underwater. The process ended up taking seven months before they had a viable suit. The first suit made looked like the Michelin man and they could barely move their arms and legs. Those suits would never work because the actors required full articulation of the body. Fortunately, seven months later Deborah was able to provide the sleek silver suits that were viable to film with.
“We even had sensors on toes because they’re barefoot. So the articulation the camera can pick up on just toes wiggling in the water is amazing.” —Deborah L. Scott
In addition to constructing underwater performance capture suits, Deborah and her team made all of the live-action costumes, along with every single prop, mask, breathing mask, and helmet. They worked out of Weta Workshop in New Zealand for altogether five years, which Deborah describes as “an incredible artist collective.” Deborah had some past experience with Weta, working there briefly on Spider-Man and the first Avatar film, so she knew what to expect. But she truly admired the artistry and the people there that could design anything she wanted.
“We started this whole process of understanding the designs,” says Deborah, “understanding the language of the people that we were creating, understanding the characters, the family, the clan, the world. We started producing costumes like crazy because we knew we were going to need them.” —Deborah L. Scott
Proof of Concept and Tests
According to Deborah, Cameron is a madman when it comes to proof of concept. So, their work underwent extensive testing in pools all over the country. The work was extremely hands-on in that regard. So, if he asked her if the costume will work underwater, she could show him that it would. The same went for wind tests. If Cameron asked, “Will that stay in her hair?” They would turn up a Ritter fan full blast to make sure the piece stayed on. That means that even if a piece of wardrobe was created with CG, the filmmakers proved that it would react to the physics in the same way that it is portrayed in the movie.
Deborah also helped craft the Navi from head to toe. She and her team tirelessly worked on the hand props, their hair, and their body art to ensure authenticity. That’s why her work along with all of the digital artists was what made the Navi look so real on screen.
DEVELOPMENT & ATTENTION TO DETAIL
With the first movie’s Omaticaya clan, Deborah had solid inspiration from which to build for The Way of Water and its Metkayina clan. It was important to Deborah and Cameron that the Metakyina were physically distinctive from the Omaticaya with the basic costume rules of their society. Cameron was particularly thoughtful of their physical adaptations to the water like their fins and eye membranes.
“Proof of concept all the time. So, don’t ever try to fake it because you’ll be caught. And you’ll be asked, and you’ll have to prove it. So, we did and that was actually a really fun part of it.” —Deborah L. Scott
It wasn’t about just making something pretty, Deborah ensured that every piece was functional. They performed numerous tests with different kinds of fabrics and materials to inform the designs. They would then determine how it all flowed underwater, if the materials were neutrally buoyant or weighed down, and even considered how many beads were too much. The motion of the costume is what brings it to life, says Deborah.
Whether a character is swimming with the current and waves or on dry land with the air and wind, there’s a basis of reality regarding how certain garments move. Thus, their work helps inform the simulators and animators to understand how unique pieces interact with the world around them.
Research & Inspiration
They researched indigenous island cultures from around the world and how they live including their priorities, how they craft, and how they use their environment to create clothing. The Polynesian culture inspired the Metkayina above all else. Their approach to research took them to the library and even referenced other movies to establish a design premise.
According to Deborah, the internet is a double-edged sword. It’s a useful tool but it could also be misleading. So, she had to have the discernment of a lawyer. In addition, they purchased a tremendous amount of books and Deborah tried her hand at carving, sculpting, and macrame — which was all new to her. Fortunately, she assembled an incredible group of people who learned the visual language of the movie and were essential in hand-crafting it all.
COSTUME DESIGN APPROVAL PROCESS
One of the most difficult factors about working on a film of the size and scale of Avatar is meshing the departments together. Every department is enormous and works at a mile a minute. There was an approval process with Cameron for both practical and aesthetic needs.
“We had many meetings about hairstyles, for example,” says Deborah. “Like, here’s what I have to offer you, Jim. I’m thinking this character could be X, Y, or Z. When I started on the project, the initial drawings for Sigourney as her character of Carrie, she had very long braids. She looked a lot like Neytiri. Well, I changed that. So, through a process, we got into this kind of feathery short haircut that much better represented her character, I think — and Jim thought, and Sigourney thought. So, that worked out really well but there’s all those approvals.”
Costume Design in Post-Production
There were incredibly long stretches of time when Cameron was busy with other areas of the production. Your hand isn’t held with productions of this size but they do greatly benefit from a longer post-production process. So, if you make a mistake, you have time to back up and start over.
In post-production, Deborah feeds her designs, costumes, and all the details to the VFX house. There’s a dialogue between them with the VFX team sharing what they create on a daily basis and Deborah transferring a human-made costume with a tall person along with the look and feel of the costumes to ensure accuracy.
From Deborah’s point of view, the VFX team takes in the information from the 2D art, which is typically front and backside. This is made into a template (a proportional look) since they didn’t know what the characters would look like during the stage of the initial drawings. It was a long process full of back-and-forth correspondence before they got to the end of it. From there, the VFX team scans all the sample costumes and their artists create 3D versions. After that, Deborah advises them to digitally tailor the costumes to fit how she intended.
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