By now, everyone has seen the triumph that is Avatar: The Way of Water. After watching the film (many times), I was shocked to learn just how real it was. Iconic costume designer Deborah L. Scott (Titanic, Back To The Future, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) was the mastermind behind the many costumes in Avatar: The Way of Water worn by the Na’vi as well as the many invading scientists and soldiers seen throughout the film. Not only did Scott and her team create all of the live action costumes worn by humans, but she also created every single costume worn by the Na’vi! Don’t believe me? I was honored with an opportunity for an interview of a lifetime with Academy Award-winning costume designer, Deborah Scott to discuss the costumes of Pandora, and how they were created.
Spencer Williams: Welcome, Deborah! It’s such an honor to be talk with you. Honestly I am a big nerd, so don’t mind me as I try to keep the nerd levels to a medium today…
Deborah Scott: Thank you very much for having me. Nerds are the best. If you’re invested, that’s good. That’s what it’s about.
Spencer Williams: There are plenty of congratulations in order. Not only were you nominated for a CDGA in the Excellence in Sci-Fi Fantasy Film category, it was also announced you’d be honored at this year’s awards with the Career Achievement Award! How does it feel?
Deborah Scott: It’s pretty amazing. You don’t think about it as you go through a long career. Then all of a sudden, “oh my goodness, my peers are actually honoring me!” Aside from the fans who you’re so grateful for liking your work, to be recognized by your peers is pretty wonderful! The nomination is pretty cool. Hopefully, we can squeak out a win. But it’s a tough category!
Spencer Williams: It’s a very tough category this year. There was a lot of incredible costume design this past year. But, for you, it hasn’t really just been a year. It’s been a couple of years with another film in the process! I was fourteen in 2009 when Avatar first came out. It’s been a long time. How long have you been working on Avatar: The Way of Water?
Deborah Scott: I started in the Spring of 2018. Because we were working on films two and three (for the fans out there, three is coming!) We worked on them together for a good reason. The story’s a little bit continuous, and there are a lot of the same elements of design in a way. We get into some very new stuff in film three, but it was important for Jim (James Cameron) to shoot as much in order as he could in terms of the whole comprehension of the story. I’ve been on hiatus for a little bit, but it was probably five and a half, six years for the two films combined for me.
Spencer Williams: Wow, that’s incredible. I imagine that must be exhausting. Most costume designers I talk to are gone for a couple of months. This has been a big part of your life!
Deborah Scott: It’s interesting to go that long distance. Most of us, as you said, work on a project for maybe six months. That’s kind of long for a film these days. We also dealt with COVID in the middle. But the post-production of a film like Avatar: The Way of Water takes a very long time. To Jim’s credit, he’s very invested in the costumes of the movie. He kept me on through all of post. Not only because I was continuing my work on three but because they needed to have someone to shepherd the process through the whole effects process.
Spencer Williams: I loved what you said in a recent interview with Slash Films that we are experiencing a brand new frontier for costume designers. I couldn’t agree more. When it comes to films such as Avatar: The Way of Water, visual effects play a huge role. So when it comes to this film, a lot of people are probably wondering, what is the role of a costume designer? Is the costume designer even essential in a film like this? I’d argue it’s not even possible without a costume designer.
Deborah Scott: In my opinion, it’s extremely essential. The public sees this film in an animated format. It doesn’t mean that the same kind of work went into creating the characters, creating the world, and creating both the two clans for the second film. It’s essential because who else is going to do that job? You have to have a head of department because we are basically the visual representations of these characters; that task lies with us. It’s an essential part of creating a character. I even designed the hair!
Spencer Williams: That is mind-blowing!
Deborah Scott: Yeah! The great thing about that is that you are always able to conceive the full look with a head and face. It’s essential to be able to do these drawings from head to toe. Concept art really influences the digital artist. The costumes are absolutely 100% real. They are created like how you would in any live-action movie; they are then sent through the process so that the costumes look real! The goal is that as an audience member, especially if you go to the theater and see it in a big format, you’re sitting in your seat, and you can feel like you can almost reach out and touch them because they look so real. Because they are. That’s how dimensional they are, and that’s why you can’t accomplish a movie of this kind of grandness and importance with simply a drawing.
Avatar: The Way of Water, Costume Design by Deborah Scott
When we started this, it was absolutely the mandate to do it right from the beginning to end. That includes a lot of work with a lot of very talented people. I stand on the shoulders of a tremendous amount of talented artists, designers in their own right on paper, and certainly the makers who made the costumes.
Spencer Williams: I wish you could have heard the thoughts going through my head in the theaters. It all looked so convincingly beautiful.
Let’s get into a little more of the technical side. What does your process look like throughout the entire cycle?
Deborah Scott: We start with the design on paper, and if the design’s approved, we make the garments. They’re made to a human scale so that you can see the actors standing in costume. They only wear the performance capture suit when we’re capturing their performances, but they need to understand the relationship that their clothes have with their body. Then comes the process of sending the garments, all the illustrations, and every piece of the puzzle that you have to the digital artist so they can start to recreate it on the computer.
Then we follow that process through what I always call virtual fittings. They start a 3D model of the character in a particular garment. We go back and forth, tailoring the costume to fit this nine-foot-tall blue person. It’s a long process of not only virtual fitting but then understanding how the garments move and what they’re made out of. That’s where a lot of extensive testing of the garments comes into play so that we can inform the animators and the simulators.
Spencer Williams: Then we have the added challenge of a majority of this film taking place underwater. It’s incredible. Some behind-the-scenes photos show that sometimes the cast would bring fabric underwater, maybe to show the movement of costumes under the water. I feel like movement played a big role in this film and in your role in particular.
Deborah Scott: Exactly! The movement of a garment is always important in a movie that’s going to be mostly animated. There is a photo of Kate Winslet wearing her capture suit underwater. It was challenging to understand how someone could walk underwater. She’s thirty feet down in this gigantic tank. Things change weight! How do you get it to float and then not fly in her face or not fly up too high? These are the technical things that we have to do to make sure that the costume is right.
As far as making the performance capture suits and being underwater, this technology had never been used before. So while the technicians were developing a way to understand the movement, we had to figure out how to take that technology and incorporate it into something that could be worn underwater. That took about eight months because it had never been done before. We finally landed with this silver suit because you can clearly see how the body moves. Things also change color underwater. The bright yellow is very visible.
So that’s why I say for students of costume design that these are the skills and the things that are going to start leading you into a different form of the craft. You need to learn a lot of different things than you would if you were just doing a simple movie where two people are talking to each other.
Spencer Williams: We are going beyond sewing at this point; we’re talking about lighting, gravity, and physics.
Deborah Scott: That’s right. That challenge is exhilarating. They don’t call it a challenge for no reason. That’s why I believe as more movies are made in this kind of virtual reality, it’s important that costume designers learn these new skills and have a seat at the table of these movies.
Spencer Williams: When the film begins, we see our characters in their forest home with the Omatikaya clan. As tragedy strikes, the characters retreat to Pandora’s eastern seaboard, where the Metkayina clan gives them refuge. I’d love to hear about your research process that informed the varying clans and the influences that you incorporated into the costumes.
Deborah Scott: We had the first movie for that jumping-off point for the Omatikaya but much more expanded. It was fun to have a place where we started and then to be able to take it in new directions. I wanted to increase the visual part of the costumes themselves when developing the new clan, the Metkayina. They’re a clan that lives on the water. I researched pretty much all and any indigenous peoples that live on or near the water all over the world, such as in China, India, and the Arctic. It was amazing taking an anthropological deep dive! Not to make a pun, but…
Spencer Williams: *laughs* That’s a good one.
Deborah Scott: Right? Costume design is so fun because designers get the luxury of kind of going back to school. We’re creating a whole new place! We ended up settling on the greater Polynesian area because of its warm climate. We started by making rules that were important to us. One of the things that I understood through research was that indigenous peoples usually use their environment to help them create their clothing. They’re usually highly decorative in some way. They might be incredibly minimal. Our characters aren’t as minimal as many clans around the world. But you can see the Metakayina’s use of color, their use of the environment, and their structure within their clan.
Tonowari (played by Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (played by Kate Winslet) are the leaders of this particular clan. You can see by how much more minimal the costumes in the background are that the leaders are showing stature. Tonowari has this big mantle on his neck. You know who he is when he arrives, right? That guy’s important. Then I developed the color palette, and it was an absolute joy ride to just be set loose with design after design and kind of hone into it at the same time.
You can make a beautiful drawing, but if you have to make the costume, there are other physical challenges to that, right? All of the people on Pandora weave to some extent. These people are very accomplished and much more peaceful. They have leisure time; they’re not at war. It’s a joy to create a fantastical world because you can go wherever you want with it.
Spencer Williams: The use of textiles was just so beautiful. There were, as you said, lots of woven and braided materials. There were also lots of shells. What was it like just working with these unique textiles?
Deborah Scott: Their environment dictates what they use. The Na’vi use hides, reptiles, birds, shells, and plants of all sorts. If you can find it in the fantastical pretend environment, you can use it. Jim always returns to the natural world. Like those shells that we use are real shells.
For Neytiri’s bone collar, the bone part was 3D printed. It was pretty hard to make that one. That one took a lot of trial and error. That’s one of my favorite pieces because it was so difficult to make. We went through many designs with the same idea but couldn’t quite accomplish it in the way that I wanted, which was to make it fearsome and strong, but also delicate and feminine.
Spencer Williams: I felt like color played such a huge role in this film. How did you use color in this film, in the costumes?
Deborah Scott: I kind of stuck with this concept of the forest, water, and ocean. The Metkayina are more colorful in their way. The color palette that I used was really based on the Pāua shell because it has a million colors. The second thing I used was the colors of the sunrise, but mostly sunset on a beach. Because their natural world surrounds them constantly. That’s where you get these beautiful oranges, yellows, peaches, and pinks.
Spencer Williams: I love that; honestly, it was one of my favorite parts of this film. Seeing all the textiles, working with all the beautiful colors… It was almost kind of calming and soothing in a way.
Deborah Scott: Oh, good. I’m glad you felt that way. That’s what we want, to reach our audience and have them feel what you felt when you’re creating it.
Spencer: With all that being said, you’ve designed all these beautiful costumes. There is so much color, so much textile. But let’s not forget that you also had to do all the costumes for the live-action world too. We have all these soldiers and Edie Falco, who plays General Ardmore. What was it like designing these live-action costumes?
Deborah Scott: You know, we sort of forget about that because it’s not the fun part, right? It’s very technical. We had to do it all from top to toe. Jim doesn’t like science fiction. It would’ve been very easy to go complete sci-fi on that stuff, right? That wasn’t the format in the first film, and it wasn’t going to be the format in the second one. We also had my associate designer for the live-action portion in New Zealand. Bob Buck helped me a lot with the medical world, which again is very reminiscent of film one, but we take it even further.
The materials are really interesting, and there are a lot of technical things such as the breathing mask that fell under the costume department’s purview, which was different and really fun. The dive masks had to actually work. If your dive mask doesn’t work, no matter how pretty it looks, it has to work.
Spencer: Interesting. I would never think that you were in charge of the mask.
Deborah Scott: Yeah! We had to figure out how to get it made. I’m sure they are incredibly expensive, but they’re saving people’s lives. But Jim likes to say that I used two parts of my brain. We had two production designers, one who just did the live-action portion, the human part. Then we had one who did the fantasy world. I did both. It was constantly running back and forth and trying to keep those two parts of the movie very different from each other as well.
Spencer: I think it’s interesting that you kept the live-action soldiers, scientists, and military a little bit more based on real life. Because then it really allows the Na’vi to really blow you away with their costumes, high contrasting colors, and textiles. It kind of helps you take sides a little bit too.
Deborah Scott: That’s very astute of you because I think the concept that the real world is more real to us fans and audience members. Again, Jim doesn’t like science fiction that much. They could have easily gone crazy. But he wanted them to feel real to people. Then we had to also transfer those live-action costumes to Stephen Lang and his squad, who were also nine feet tall and blue.
Spencer Williams: I’ve listened to a few interviews with the phenomenal cast, and I heard Sigourney Weaver and specifically Kate Winslet mention that one of the first times they saw their character was through illustrations. Kate actually mentioned it was through the costume design process specifically. What the collaboration was like between you and the cast?
Deborah Scott: It’s different because you’re not dressing them every day to go out on set, but the information that a costume gives an actor is so important. Because you’re shooting performance capture, you could watch the character also unfold in a way that you don’t usually get to do in a live-action movie.
For instance, when Kate was cast, the first thing Jim would do was show her artwork. “This is who you are; this is our world.” Then we would show them pieces like the neckpiece that she wears with the shells. That way, Kate could touch it, look at it, and absorb this concept. We didn’t want to lose that part of the process just because they were never going to wear their costume for the performance.
Spencer Williams: But they have to keep in mind that their character is wearing it.
Deborah Scott: That’s right. Sometimes we give them stage pieces that replicate the costumes. For example, Sam wearing that kind of turquoise crazy-looking thing. That’s a stage piece that would act like his poncho and yet had enough open space so that the markers of the performance suit weren’t occluded.
Spencer Williams: So because the wind is blowing against him, he has to feel the poncho moving across his body.
Deborah Scott: Exactly. If a normal actor’s hair were flying in their eyes, they would know to brush it back. Our cast had to learn to do the same thing.
Spencer Williams: With the 25th anniversary of Titanic arriving, it’s only fitting that we talk about your collaboration with James Cameron. What has that partnership been like between you and James?
Deborah Scott: You have to have a dialogue with your director and have an understanding of what it is that they’re going to ask of you, especially before you start a project. Certainly, you learn more about that as you go along with someone. Our time together has been in different chunks of time over twenty, twenty-five years. Jim works at an extremely high level… very precise and demanding.
So when you say yes, that’s how you’re going to be allowed to work alongside the support of him and the producers. It was the same on Titanic. We had an interview together, and he said that we both really liked a challenge, which I thought was a really good way of saying it. *laughs*
Spencer Williams: *laughs* That’s understatement…
Deborah Scott: Right. He knows he’s creating a giant challenge, and he wants to find the people around him that are willing to take that on. That felt like a really big compliment to me.
Spencer Williams: I believe Avatar: The Way of Water has and will continue to have a profound impact on film, costume, visual effects, and acting. I also hope that it inspires real positive change and compassion for the environment and our world. That being said, this experience has been a long run for you, but now that you’re sort of on the other side of it, what did this film and experience mean to you personally and professionally?
Deborah Scott: Well professionally, it means a huge amount. Breaking new ground, the challenge of that is immense and wonderful. It constantly keeps your brain, in a creative sense, stimulated. Personally, it was like retreating into a fantasy world. You could just let your ideas kind of go. I love doing period pieces. I loved doing Titanic. It’s very precise. But you’re following research. Beyond that, where is your mind going to take you?
It’s very rare to have an experience like this. To be able to just walk through an amazing, different door and let my mind go… let my creative inklings do what they wanted, and then learn how to harness it. You can have every wild thought we had. I think we probably did 10,000 drawings. It was very fun to work with my crew at Wētā Workshop. They are incredible. It’s so gratifying. It’s so fun to work together with a group of people like that and sort of discover a new world.
Spencer Williams: It’s incredible. I’m so honored to have had this opportunity to speak with you, Deborah. Thank you so much for joining us. I can’t wait until the next time. Hopefully, it’s not thirteen years!
Deborah Scott: Thank you! It’ll be a couple of years, and it’s going to be a delight! There are two new clans we’re introducing that are wildly different than these. I think it’ll be a real treat for the senses.
Spencer Williams: I can’t wait. Let’s book the date now for when we can talk next!
Deborah Scott: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll be back in two years, and we’ll continue on! Thank you.