Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Botany of Pandora

James Cameron's soon-to-be-released movie Avatar is about immersion in an alien environment:
We enter the alien world through the eyes of Jake Sully, a former Marine confined to a wheelchair. [. . . ] He is recruited to travel light years to the human outpost of Pandora, where corporations are mining a rare mineral that is key to solving Earth's energy crisis. Because the atmosphere of Pandora is toxic [to humans], they have created the Avatar Program, in which human "drivers" have their consciousness linked to an avatar, a remotely-controlled biological body that can survive in the lethal air. These avatars are genetically engineered hybrids of of human DNA mixed with DNA from the natives of Pandora... the Na'vi.
The visuals of Pandora - mostly CGI - look stunning. This video featurette gives a bit of background on how it was created.

Pandora is a lush tropical-looking world, a "garden of Eden with teeth and claws" in the words of Cameron.

To help create the lush backdrop for both the movie and the Avatar game, Cameron consulted with Jodie S. Holt, a Professor of Plant Physiology and Chair of the Department of Botany & Plant Sciences at UC Riverside. She also provided some pointers for Sigourney Weaver's botanist character. As Holt explains:
In 2007, I was asked to consult with an A-list actress who plays a botanist in the movie. She turned out to be Sigourney Weaver. My role was to advise her on how a botanist might dress and act. I met with her in her trailer in a sound studio in Playa del Rey in Los Angeles, and we had a long conversation. A set designer was also present during this meeting. I gave Weaver advice on topics like how a botanist would approach a plant and take samples. With the set designer, I later engaged in an email communication in which I advised him on the sets and equipment that Sigourney Weaver could use in her work as a botanist. I also shared information with him about plant physiology and plant sampling. For a period of months, we exchanged a number of images about equipment a botanist might use to study plants, and I wrote him short lectures on the plants.

Then, in the fall of 2008, I was told that James Cameron was developing a whole suite of game products. I was asked if I would help out by developing content around the plants that appear in the games. I agreed. So in December 2008 I met with Cameron and Jon Landau, the co-producer, in the sound studio, and agreed to develop wikipedia-type entries for the plants. In the game products, players can pause near a plant of interest and read up about it by clicking open an entry about that plant. I provided the content for these entries. Cameron and Landau were looking for credible botanical information for all these fantastic-looking plants. My challenge was to come up with explanations for why Pandora’s environment would select for the kinds of plants the game products have. Some of these plants are fluorescent, some can move, some can fire things off. Clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore!

Watch a short video of Holt talking about her involvement with Avatar.

Watch a short video of Weaver talking about making Avatar.

Avatar will be released on December 18th.
Avatar the game is due to ship December 1. (It can be preordered through Amazon.com)

Top Image: Sigourney Weaver in her avatar body, via MarketSaw.
Bottom Image: Official Avatar movie still


  1. This movie looks better and better the more I hear about it. Thanks for a fascinating look inside the background of the movie. I'm sure with all the explosions and running around we won't notice it.

  2. Good home/ground work before embarking on the project -seems to be a good scifi in offing !
    thanks for sharing it !

  3. Anonymous6:27 AM

    i am writing a star trek story in which my starship goes to a distant region of the galaxy to study the flora and fauna and inhabitants of the various Earth-like worlds there. and want to use plausible explanations for them like Mr Cameron is doing.

  4. I have a very basic problem with this film. It looks like another take on "natives are helpless until macho hero from a dominant culture shows them how to kick ass". In short, soft-focus imperialism mixed with sentimentality about Noble Savages.

    The Na'vi are sexier versions of Ewoks (In his Playboy interview, Cameron explained at great length why Neytiri had to have prominent breasts even though the Na'vi aren't mammals). And we know how bows and arrows fare in real life against guns.

    My longer take on the trope: And Ain’t I a Human?

  5. Oh of course the alien women had to have breasts, otherwise when the hero falls in love with one it would be icky! And as a bonus Sigourney Weaver looks young! and hot!</ sarcasm>

    I think you're right that this is an old story dressed up in fancy graphics. The avatars take "going native" to a whole new level.

  6. Peggy, Athena, blame the audience. The first sketches for the Na'vi were quite inhuman, having only a vaguely humanoid physiology (upright, four limbs, one head, eyes above nose (of sorts) above mouth, etc.). However, these sketches provided virtually no emotional response in test audiences, which in fact reacted by wanting them dead, dead, dead. If you want to latch on to a problem, latch on to our humanocentric view of sapience.


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