We chat with costume designer Deborah L. Scott about ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ and how virtual fittings differ from practical ones.
By Brad Gullickson · Published on January 24th, 2023
Welcome to World Buildersour ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with costume designer Deborah L. Scott about Avatar: The Way of Water and how virtual fittings differ from practical ones.
When Deborah L. Scott tells you that Avatar: The Way of Water was the most creative experience she’s had to date, you need to pay attention. The costume designer has worked in the business since the early eighties, starting on wardrobe with Don’t Answer the Phonethen building an eclectic filmography with projects like E.T., Back to the Future, Legends of the Fall, Heatand Bad Boys II. Her first partnership with James Cameron was on Titanicwhich eventually brought her to Pandora with the original Avatarand now, its sequel.
During the first film’s production, the water sequences were shot dry-for-wet, meaning actors were suspended on wires and filmed pretending to swim. For The Way of WaterCameron sought to remove another layer of fakery; his actors would get in the tanks to shoot the underwater sequences properly. Wet-for-wet. Playtime became much more serious, and Scott’s fabrics and designs would have to withstand full watery immersion.
Oh, you thought Avatar was all digital or mostly digital? Sure, the final result is a live-action computer-animated hybrid. Just as Cameron wanted his actors performing wet-for-wet, he wanted their eventual digital clothing to be practical and real-world captured.
“At a moment’s notice,” says Scott, “I would go to the divers and say, ‘Can you put this on and jump in the water?’ Let’s see how flax behaves. Let’s see how rayon string behaves. How many beads do you need to keep this thing buoyant, but not in your face, and not dragging down? Jim loves motion in costume, so all that fringing and all that, it better not tangle up. Even though they can animate it untangled, they don’t know because the animators themselves have never worked with a costume like that made out of those materials.”
Working on an Avatar film is like working on two back-to-back movies. Working on two movies back-to-back is like working on four back-to-back movies. There’s the physical pass on the film; then there’s the digital pass. Shortcuts are not possible.
“Jim tasked us,” she continues, “‘I want you to make every single costume, every single garment, every single piece of jewelry, every knife. I want wigs. So that you can inform the actors’ performances when they put it on. We made it all to human scale, not nine-foot-tall blue people scale, so the garments can inform the actors. Because they’re strange, right? No one’s worn that particular thing. Every piece is bespoke and unique; it would be pretty difficult to duplicate. It requires probably around an average of two hundred hours to make one garment.”
On a project like Avatarthe research never stops. Scott imagines the designs based on the script, tinkers with them, and lands on something she likes, but as shooting continues, those designs evolve. She’s hands-on, in the water alongside the actors, constantly correcting elements to sell the look and the movement.
“You continue to research materials,” she says. “You continue to research whatever comes up that you might want to go back to and look at everything you’ve collected for proof of concept. Also, you continue reinforcing the rules you made for the new clans and people. Then, we’re getting down further into the family and character. Each character is so specific.”
Scott drew tremendous inspiration from the other production departments. She found their clothes through the characters in the script, but also the hair and makeup designs. Every movie is a collaborative effort, but the sensation is felt tenfold in Avatarwhere everyone has to be on the same page years before the film ever sees a cinema screen.
“The thing that set them apart the most is the hairstyle,” says Scott. “You can really tell one from the next when they have an attitude with their hair. Kiri’s is kind of boyish, short, and straight, and it comes from her past. Lo’ak is the one with the shaved side and the braids in the front because he’s the rebel. So, that was really fun to do with Jim. He was really into that, and we had a lot of fun defining those characters as beings.”
Scott’s phone rings off the hook once post-production begins. Many questions arise as the CGI artists manipulate what she’s concocted. Usually, she has an answer for them immediately. Other times, it’s back to the tanks.
“It informs the digital artists,” she says. “They needed all that reference. Sometimes well into post, we’d get a call, ‘I really need to see how Tonowari’s capelet looks dry. How does it look going into the water? How does it behave underwater? And then when he comes out, what are the drips like? How much does it tangle?’ Hopefully, it doesn’t tangle very much. You don’t want it to look like a knotted mess. It takes a lot of research and a lot of trial and error.”
Scott was more prepared for the process, thanks to her work on the first Avatar. She learned not to fall for any initial design since changes were inevitable. Anticipating the questions for digital artists is possible, but inevitably there are unforeseeable problems demanding solutions.
“The first thing we do is dump on them a ton of information,” says Scott. “Here’s the character. Here are all the 2D designs. Here are the samples of all the garments. They take them. They scan them. You give them all the references, so you know how this piece looks underwater. This is how that piece looks with a Ritter fan blowing on it. They get everything you have, and then they start doing their work. Then they show it back to me. It’s like, ‘This is what we’ve done. What do you think?’”
Inevitably, the scale shifting from humans to Na’vi caused confusion. While Scott could predict the challenge, she couldn’t necessarily predict the details beyond the challenge. Going back to the drawing board really wasn’t going back at all. It was merely the path forward.
“It’s a fairly long time,” she says, “when you’re doing virtual fittings. You’re looking at their work, and they’re saying, ‘You need to make it more colorful. You need to make it longer, shorter, tighter. How do we fit that garment?’ Because we’ve made the garments to human scale. How do we fit that onto the new characters that they finally developed? How tall are they, and how muscular? Their necks, things like that.”
The process could infuriate. It could exhilarate too. There were days when her designs wouldn’t jive with what the effects crew was attempting. Their needs were nothing like the needs of post-production teams on other projects. If other projects ever demanded her input in post at all.
“It’s all those things,” says Scott. “Because it was a new frontier for me, as well as them in some ways. They’re very comfortable in that world. I had to learn it really fast. But you also need to know when and how to speak up and the words to use, because a lot of it, you’re trying to communicate simply through words or adjectives. ‘Softer’ What does that mean? What’s the level of softness you want? They have to go away, do work, come back. We developed a real camaraderie around it because every person on that movie is striving to give Jim the best we can give.”
With the financial success of Avatar: The Way of Water confirmed, Scott’s future with Cameron feels set. She’s already in the trenches of Avatar 3. Parts four and five seem inevitable. Scott anticipates a continuing education in virtual costume design, and its brave new world doesn’t trouble her. If anything, she’s excited to see how they’ll top their recent effort.
“As we start to go into film three,” she says, “we’re starting off on a higher level already. Now we’re like, ‘Okay, how can we improve upon what we just did?’”
Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theaters everywhere.
Related Topics: Avatar, James Cameron, World Builders
Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he’s rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)