Interview: Costume Designer Deborah L. Scott Talks Expanding the World of Pandora with ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’

20th Century Studios

Costume designer Deborah L. Scott has worked on many of your favorite films, including Back to the Future, Heat, Legends of the Fall, Bad Boys II (now that’s one of my personal favorites), the first three Transformers films, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and won an Oscar for her work on James Cameron‘s Titanic, which will be re-released in theatres, with a brand-new IMAX 3D 4K HDR (with high-frame rate) remaster, on February 10.

She also worked on the first Avatar and explained via Google meet that working on the first film allowed her and director James Cameron to have a “really solid base” for Avatar: The Way of Water:

“You know that in this sequel, you’re going to take what you made in the first film further and expand on things that weren’t possible when we made the first one. I hadn’t read the script until we got started. I trusted that it would be amazing, knowing that Jim always makes incredible films and never repeats himself. He’s such a master storyteller in that way. He immerses the audience, who then get interested in what’s happening. You feel like standing next to their characters and looking into their eyes. It’s magnificent.”

One of the most important elements for this sequel in expanding the world of the characters and Pandora was to “pick up and pluck out the characters to see how they were going to be different from each other, specifically as a family. This is the first time we did costumes for kids in Avatar because we didn’t see children and teenagers in the last movie. And with the addition of the Metkayina clan, that’s a whole new world. We have to figure out how we can relate to them. They’re all Na’vi. They live on Pandora, but they’re vastly different. They have some of the same elements, each clan likes to handcraft their clothes, for example, but the artistic expression would differ from clan to clan.”

In distinguishing the costumes of the Metkayina clan from the Omaticaya clan, Scott talked about how their color palette would be different:

“I used two very specific touchdowns. One was the power shell, which is a big shell that, when you polish them, is chock full of unique colors. Some colors might be repeated with the Omaticaya clan. They’re not starkly different, but they have a basis in a different kind of formation. The other element was the sunset on a beach. The sunset brings beautiful golds and pinks to the world. I used that for the main characters, like Tonowari [Cliff Curtis] and Ronal [Kate Winslet], to give them the stature that the heads of the clan needed. The Metkayina and Omaticaya clan spend much time together in this movie, but they differ. For example, in Jake’s [Sam Worthington] clan, the men wear a cummerbund around their waist and chest as a sign, but the Metkayina clan has a toe guard, which is an asymmetrical piece that protects the heart. Those are the same elements in terms of psychology. They show the same thing but in a completely different way.”

Designing costumes for characters who will be performed through motion capture does not differ from designing costumes for human characters. Still, it does help the actors in getting a feel for what their characters will ultimately look like when the film is finished:

“The actors would come in and Jim would show them the designs and the sketches so they could get an idea of what their characters will look like. For example, Sigourney Weaver‘s character, Kiri, has a little shawl that she uses throughout the movie. She had to have something she could physically grab onto so they couldn’t fake the animation. The animation is authentic. If you interact with a garment, it has to be in some form. We experimented with many kinds of fabrics you could use for performance capture. When the Sullys travel to the reef, Neytiri [Zoe Saldaña] wears a shawl and then wraps it around Kiri. We had to shoot a photo reference of a real leather Shawl in the win to inform the animators and the simulators when the time came.”

In expanding the human characters from the first movie, by introducing newer characters such as General Ardmore (Edie Falco) and Doctor Ian Garvin (Jemaine Clement), Scott wanted to follow up with the template she used in the first installment:

“We developed the uniformed costumes through what reality dictates the army. Ardmore fell into the looks of the Recombined Avatars and the other soldiers. We worked on the camouflage for a long time. Our initial idea was to have different camouflages. When they were in the jungle and had different camouflage types with multiple colors, I thought that had become too confusing. We then decided to narrow it down to one green. If you were flying over Pandora, which we know is heavily forested, that’s what you would see if you were going to find Jake Sully in the forest. Your camouflage better be green. We also used a lot of highly visualized colors, when you get when the construction workers and they and even the naval people. That simulates that they have colors just like the Na’vi, but their colors are harsh. They’re offensive, almost, to make a difference between the natural world and the artificial, human world.”

Scott is also hard at work on the upcoming Avatar sequels and teased that Avatar 3 “will take you to places even more exciting than the last one.” This could mean so many things, but it surely is something to look forward to after Avatar: The Way of Water blew all of us away once it got in the water. And with James Cameron recently teasing that the third film will introduce fire Na’vis, it could rapidly surpass the last installment.

Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theatres.

[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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