Best of Both Worlds

Production designer Rick Carter on the dream states of Avatar
by David Schwartz  posted February 16, 2010
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This article is part of a series of interviews with leading filmmakers and craftspeople, made possible with special support by the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

For production designer Rick Carter, Avatar is the ultimate expression to date of one of the underlying themes of his work. Working primarily for Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, Carter has made films in which the characters—and the audience—go on journeys into different worlds. To bring these worlds to life, and make these journeys believable, has been the hallmark of Carter's work, in films including Artificial Intelligence: A.I., Forrest Gump, Munich, and Cast Away. He has also been a pioneer in designing for 3-D; his first credit as production designer was for the short 3-D film Magic Journeys, one of the opening attractions at the EPCOT Center in 1982, and he designed Zemeckis's visually breathtaking 3-D adaptation of The Polar Express.

With its hybrid of digital and physical design, live action and animation techniques, and its groundbreaking use of 3-D to create an immersive experience, Avatar places Rick Carter at the forefront of cinema technology. Yet he also has close ties to the history of production design in classic Hollywood; he is the protégé of production designer Richard Sylbert (The Manchurian Candidate, The Graduate, Chinatown), himself a protégé of William Cameron Menzies, who was given the brand new credit of "production designer" for his work on Gone With the Wind.

In this interview, conducted by phone a few days after Avatar received nine Academy Award nominations (including Best Production Design), and after the film surpassed two billion dollars in worldwide box office, Carter talked thoughtfully about the underlying ideas behind his work, and the way that he has been able to express a deeply personal vision through his collaborations with Spielberg, Zemeckis, and now James Cameron.

Congratulations. This is a good week for you, right?

Yeah, absolutely. I have no complaints.

So I wanted to start with Avatar and specifically this idea about The Wizard of Oz. Which I found intriguing because it made me realize that there's something so fundamental about the story of Avatar, this idea of being transported into a different world, which is certainly the heart of so many movies. 

I am of a generation that grew up on The Wizard of Oz, on television, and in black and white. All black and white. It wasn't till I was a teenager that I actually discovered that the movie had a shift into color. But that being said, I think that's a way a lot of us have grown up, where we look at reality and it's almost like a tearing of reality. As a young person going through the 1960s, those portals that were being celebrated by the Beatles and drugs and all the turning to the East for religious guidance—those kinds of things formed my essential way of looking at the world, but also as I got into designing movies, looking for where that other dimension is. I'd also done a lot of traveling when I was young, around the world. And I think that seeing those horizons, and then combining it with probably an active imagination, when I got into designing movies, that's what I drew upon to have inspiration. Even though there was a lot to learn in the beginning about the technical sides of how one puts together the settings of a movie—in those days, primarily physically—I was always aware that I was traveling somewhere to do that.

The funny thing is that if you'd asked me when I started, back in 1974, to put together a slate of movies that I would've wanted to make; and even if every five years, you'd asked me to update that; I don't think I would've come up with a group of movies that would've expressed and tapped into who I was or am as closely as the ones I've actually gotten to work on. And I didn't actually pick them; they picked me.

You started working on varied films. Bound For Glory and The China Syndrome are very different.

Well, those are the 1970s movies. Hal Ashby and Jim Bridges. I did the first 3-D movie for Disney, called Magic Journeys. If you look at it, there are the Amazing Stories episodes, which are all about being in one place and then going into another dimension. There's the Back to the Future films. There's Jurassic Park, there's Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Amistad, AI, Polar Express, even War of the Worlds, but especially Munich. They all have drama created out of the journey, out of the traveling, and into someplace that you weren't when you started. So the thing that I've always looked to is, where's the portal? Where is it that I'm going from where I start? Sometimes it's inward. But in the case of Avatar, it was both in and out. Because not only were we projecting to another planet, which was the Oz part, we're also going to it through an interior mode, going somewhere else, through an avatar state. Which is a not-fully-defined process, of course.

When I first read the script, the thing that I picked up on primarily was that it was like The Wizard of Oz meeting Apocalypse Now, because there was this arc. We had things on Earth, then we went to Oz. But as you went deeper into Oz and met the guides, you not only met the Navi, but then you met their whole world of bioluminescence, which Jim described as phantasmagoric, a dream state. I think one of the things that the movie achieves is a sense of going in and out of a dream state, until the dream state wins. It's a hybrid movie in both form and content. It's a partially photographed, digitally photographed, live-action movie. Your sympathies and your empathies shift over the course of the movie, with the main character. It is like going to Oz, coming back and forth, until finally, Oz takes over, rather than just going—

You don't have to go back home at the end...

In the beginning, there's a lot that goes on. Even though it's, in a sense, scientific mumbo jumbo. But you begin to understand the rules. By the end, you can just flip back and forth and see the cause and effect. You understand where you are in those two dimensions. And there's something about the fact that that's what's happening in form: going from Kansas to Oz, and deeper into the levels of Oz, all the way to this phantasmagoric state. But also, remember that that's the content of the movie, because the avatar itself is a hybrid. That state is a hybrid state of being part human and part this other.

Can you give an example of one way Avatar mirrors Wizard of Oz, and one way Apocalypse Now?

We had a part that was added, in fact, on Earth, which is not in the movie now. But if you're in amongst humans, in a sense, you are in Kansas, even though Quaritch says you're not in Kansas. Because out there is Oz. But you're still in the interior of your human world, where you can breathe and you can function. When you go into a dream state, that's like Dorothy going and being knocked out. And if you were to look at that sequence and the one of her, they're very similar. And then she comes to and she walks out into another world. When you see each guide that you come upon, whether it's Neytiri or Moat or Eytukan, or even finally, Tsu'tey, as the various guides. Or even the animals. It's quite a bit like him finding his heart, his mind, and his courage. And then there's a point when it starts to shift, where he says, "This other world is now more real than my real world" and you feel like you're coming out of this drug state that is mirroring the cinematic experience. I think that what I was tapping into was that avatar state. If we did it right, it was going to mirror the experience of watching the movie. When you're with Jake and you're following his path, as you get deeper and deeper into this world, it becomes more real and it's where your sympathies are. And in fact, there's something where your transference into that screen's world, which is immersive as opposed to coming out at you, is inviting you all the way in. So we thought about all of those things, even though it sounds esoteric and it sounds like an analysis afterwards.

One of the things that I've enjoyed over the years is, because I've only worked with Spielberg and Zemeckis, I'm tapping into a singular person's dream state to see where they are, and then to try to get out ahead of that or to feed back ideas to them, or to fulfill specific visions that they have. That coming together of the minds, I've found it's something that you can't just do as a calculation. For me, it's something from the heart, as well. Jim was the first person I'd worked with outside of those two, for 25 years. I'm used to being around people who have very strong visions, but it doesn't mean that they know everything. They're very open, actually, to input. It's just that the range of what they do is so vast—that's why they have to employ so many people to help them.

But you already had some great experience with 3-D that you brought.

Especially with Polar Express.

Exactly. And Avatar, to me, was the first one where I really had the feeling like I had gone to the other side of the screen.

Well, also I think where you lose yourself a bit. And I think that again, that's the avatar state. Because you're only partially you anymore. Then you come back: "Oh, yeah, that's right. I'm here." And then he looks like he's growing a beard in the time that he's been in there, right? So there's an interesting correlation to The Wizard of Oz; it's going somewhere else, and then what do you learn when you go there? And how does that impact who you are at the end of the movie?

I think it's a little bit too soon to really tell what it is we learn from this movie, fully. I was amazed at how often the serendipity, if nothing more, of the form and content would line up. For instance, the first shots that came back rendered to see how Neytiri would be was the shot of her when she first sees Jake and almost kills him, and then the little wood sprite comes down and then goes off. Well, you can, in a kind of clinical way, say, Okay, are the eyes working? Should we believe her? Is the 3-D working? You can analyze all those things. But the amazing thing was that three of the primary components in relationships that have to play out in the whole movie were in that one shot, in that one sequence. There's Jake, her relationship to Jake, how she first perceives him; then something, stage two, that we can't see that she sees, that tells her to stop; and then we see it and experience it. It's not just a matter of whether the eyes are working, it's what we get from them. She's looking off into something and sees something, and we believe she sees something. And then we see it. Now, that's what the whole movie is. And I think there's something that [Cameron] did instinctively and subconsciously that lined up aspects of this medium with the content that is one of the reasons why it's hit such a big nerve.

I think the other is that he truly is somebody who's a bit of a hybrid himself, in terms of those two forces that you see. Because he loves all the armaments and all the military. So when he's pitting that against this more feminine force of the universe on Pandora, you want that epic battle at the end, and that's like Jim kind of warring with himself.

So just to bring in Apocalypse Now for a minute—just how does that film play into it?

At the point when he's starting to shift his allegiance, that's something like when Willard is going further up the river towards Kurtz. And how his journey is like, What the hell? Who is this guy? And what is he doing? Am I on his team? He ends up killing Kurtz. And so he shifts, because there's this sense of something that has to be stopped. The horror, right? And a kind of an out-of-control, taking-on-a-life-of-its-own militarist point of view that's beyond military, this primal battle, which I think is what Jake ends up doing. And then even if you think about the Ride of the Valkyries, with all those helicopters, you see that all those things take off, and now they start coming at the tree of souls. At one point, when the dragon went down, it went down in some water, and then out from the water came Quaritch in the AMP suit, which was very, very much like Apocalypse Now—which is maybe one of the reasons why he changed it slightly.

Interesting. This hybrid idea that you talk about—the fact that you had this team of two major production designers collaborating, could you talk about how that might've played into this, or how that functioned? [Rick Carter and Rob Stromberg were co-production designers on the film.]

I was kind of the person who, having had the broader experience, could, in a sense, set up the whole dynamic of how I could do the live-action build and then be with [visual effects company] Weta down in New Zealand some of the time. I made 13 trips down there. But I couldn't cover all the motion capture, performance capture, onstage in Playa Vista, be there all the time. And Rob Stromberg is a fantastic artist, who made these wonderful paintings. I liken him to one of those landscape artists like Frederic Church, of the late 1800s, where they'd made these huge canvases where people romanticized the Andes or wherever. People would go and flock and walk by these huge expressions of nature, but through an artistic, romantic, heroic vision. Rob has that ability. He also brought in a group of people that helped Jim create that forest as visual assets on the stage within his camera, his virtual camera, so that Jim would be, in real time, aware of the environment. Rob was really the person who Jim could turn to. And I had had a lot of experience in setting all of those types of things up for Bob Zemeckis in Polar Express. But that allowed me to have the ability to go down to New Zealand to make sure that all the live-action sets were working. Because we physically made all the ones that you see in the computer world that the Navi had, for instance.

I don't feel the need to be territorial. I don't think that anybody, any single person could've fulfilled Jim's vision. In fact, even the two of us don't represent the range of what is designed in that movie. There were teams of people that were just the best in the business, working on characters, creatures, animation, foliage, technical scientific gear. It was almost, in my sense of thinking, an industry movie. This was as good as the worldwide global industry, from Weta to Hollywood, could bring to bear on creating an illusion in cinema. And it employed a lot of people in Los Angeles, a lot of people in New Zealand. And Jim, of course, is really the person with the vision and tenacity and stamina. His eye for seeing that 3-D is unparalleled.

In terms of having to design for 3-D, knowing that you were creating a world that people are going to feel fully immersed in, just how different is that from 2-D design?

I'm not sure that it's all that different. The part that's different is when you go into the virtual world of creating characters in a virtual space. In Bob Zemeckis's process, he doesn't have the real-time visualization. He creates his camera afterwards and, in a sense, he knows roughly where things are. But Jim had every plant and everything that anybody interacted with, including compositionally, while the acting was going on, a roughed-in point of view with this camera. He would refine that later. But all that—for instance, all the fighting with the last battle—it was a real obstacle course there. There's a very real 3-D there that I think would've been very difficult to match, if you weren't doing it in a 3-D space. The other part I would say is that I think there's a very strong classical sense of foreground, middle ground, background in the compositions, and that helps that dimensionality.

We haven't talked about the cinematographer at all. You've established that it was a very complex collaboration. But just in terms of on a shot-to-shot basis, how the film was being visualized, could you talk about how that worked?

Mauro Fiore, who's the traditional cinematographer with a camera, was involved with the live-action shoot down in New Zealand. But then again, because Jim is a cinematographer and put the camera on his shoulder quite a bit, it really went through Jim, to a great extent. One of the aspects that was added into the production design was the virtual lighting. So that was also something that Jim could work with, as the camera operator in the virtual space, because he was making shots that were essentially the template, both in lighting and composition, that specifically Weta then followed.

So how much of what you were designing is physical versus virtual? I know that's probably oversimplifying.

Well, that's where it all kind of blends together, because there's a physical build, which is the traditional part. For the most part, you can discern what we built, and if it looks too big, then you can imagine that it was digital. So that part of it is a traditional sci-fi movie spaceship kind of design, the Holotable and the tree and—all those things are added later. And of course, since Jim didn't go down to New Zealand until right before we shot, he had to explore all those sets virtually. That's the more traditional part. So much was happening in a virtual space with these oversized alien creatures, our humanoids. And they're over scale, way bigger than you could actually ever be in. All of that had to be mocked up in some manner to be given a physical presence. Any terrain that they're on or anything they're interacting with, that's the physical side of that. That corresponds to a design that both Rob and I and our teams collaborated on, in terms of the actual jungle and the home tree and the Tree of Souls. So every single sequence had its own components. I feel that what's been transcended here is this concept of being seamless. That concept implies that there are seams. That there's some kind of place where one thing stopped and the other started. All of the design was done concurrently. So that's why I think it holds together. While there are two battling worlds, they don't visually compete. They do on one level: one's harsh and cold and clinical, and one's very warm and natural and organic. But there's a way that they still hold the same cinematic place.

Which is interesting, because there's been this discussion about whether this is an animated film or not.

That discussion is just ridiculous. it's like—all of those discussions. It's just the same as them saying it's the Smurfs in Fern Gully.

I think what's interesting is that, it wouldn't even occur to the audience when they're watching it.

And the people it occurs to are just trying to fit it into old-style ideas that were not a part of the making of this movie. There was no preproduction, production, postproduction. What has really become clear to me is that audiences get it. And they accept it. The experts want to try to make it into something that they already know. And so for instance there is this inability to see that Zoe Saldana is acting up a storm with Neyteri. Up until this movie, I think it was fair to say that—you know the thing that Pixar put at the end of The Incredibles, where none of this was done with motion capture. This kind of snub of motion capture as this lesser thing that was cheating. And of course, you know, there's no motion capture that is going to be recognized as part of an animated movie group. Now you have this movie, which obviously, it's both. Right? Because there's plenty of animation. All those creatures are animated, some of them are motion captured. We had barriers up until now, and particularly in art direction. For instance, there's an actual prejudice against digital imagery. I find it strange that this baby boom generation that rode in on this wave of knocking down old Hollywood, and crusty old Hollywood, should've become so crusty. To me, with animation-slash-live action the technologies are allowing the artists and the industry to create in a new mode.

And there are certain stories that couldn't be properly told before. In a way, this film wouldn't work if you didn't have the technological means to achieve such an amazing level of detail.

Absolutely. And yet when you see it on DVD, you'll see it relegated to a much lesser experience. I'm not saying it's bad. Comparatively, it's not the same thing. My overall sense is that it's opened up a whole new vista for production design. I thought it was a big vista with what we did on Polar Express and when I had Doug Chiang as a partner. Because that was a way to see that imagery all the way through, beyond where I normally would go; but he had that ability to take it that far, all the way to the finished, rendered state. I thought that was a huge step.

I am a big fan of that film. But my experience of it was in 3-D IMAX.

Right. And it really helps, because I think it's more forgiving when the dimensionality starts to help. My sense of it, though, is that for production designers that are coming up, it's always been somewhat of a conceptual art space to work from. Because it's not just about illustrating; it's really about going to the heart of what the storytelling is and trying to figure out, with the director, to visualize so it has an emotional and hopefully intellectual content. That's why there's such a variety of people that you would call production designers. But as it's evolving now, it also opens up a whole dimension of perceiving the design of the production, not just what the content of the production is. So it helps you to determine, as you're saying, which stories can be told certain ways and how they should be told, and that part of it is actually a part of the dialogue we've been having for a long time. But as it enters into this realm, production design and art direction are given a whole new form-equals-content rebirth. At the end, where the guy's eye's opening in a new dimension. To me, that was representative of something I feel like I got to experience.

And was that ending image of the opening eye there in the initial stages of the film's conception?

Yeah, always.

That seems like that would inform the whole film.

Yeah, that would. But just in the broader context. I think the thing that I could bring to bear on it is that there is a lineage in production design that starts with William Cameron Menzies, who was the first person to be given that title. Interestingly, he was not given the Academy Award for art direction of Gone With the Wind, because they didn't know how to classify him. And so they gave it to his assistant, Lyle Wheeler.

That's right...Menzies had a different title. He wasn't called art director.

No, he was called production designer. He was given that title, because that was such a special thing that he had done on the production. He was the top art director in Hollywood at the time. He had done so much with George Cukor going and then Victor Fleming coming in, and really holding down what the movie was.

So they put him in his own category.

And what's interesting is that his job involved the visualization of the movie. And it was all done either on the back lot or in the sound stages. One of his protégés was Richard Sylbert, who did everything from The Manchurian Candidate to Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby. And he's the person who brought me into the industry. Often Dick was trying to come up with a singular idea for the movie, such as in Chinatown, where the world of the film has no water. That drives the whole look of the movie. Imagine that there's a printed page, but you're looking at the white underneath that has to already have been there, even though it really is being made after you've understood the words; but you make it as though it's the perfect world that just happens to support the narrative and the characters perfectly. So that kind of looking to how to do that, to bring movies out into the real world and have a hybrid between the stage sets and the back lot and the real world, that was a part of a design epoch that those guys were involved in. And I had a lifelong relationship with him since 1974.

My father introduced me, because I had asked my dad, "What does the art director do?" And he knew him and introduced me. And so, Dick would say, "Well, I can draw the set, I can illustrate it, and I could actually build it if I needed to." It's like being able to write the music, orchestrate it, and conduct the orchestra.

What was your background? Did you go to art school?

I'm a painter. I do people, sort of expressionist people, so that my own personal artwork is all people, and my professional life is all backgrounds. Which is kind of funny. But the thing that I got from Dick was that he could see where he had been in this lineage. And then he said to me, a few years before he died, maybe five or six years ago, he said, "It looks to me like, kid, what you're doing is going into the digital realm. And you're making that jump from the hybrid of when I started on those movies," that we talked about, "to these journeying special-effect movies, adventures, into now this one."

I've been fortunate to be at a place where I'm making the transition. How far I go with it, we'll see. I feel like I'm an elder, but I don't feel old because I feel like through this movie in particular, but also through Bob and Steven, I have been able to tap into something that's going on in the present tense. And one of those things is to look back, and at the talent that's coming up. Rob is 42. This is his first time, as a, quote, "production designer."

He's got another movie coming up; he worked with Tim Burton on Alice in Wonderland, which is all green screen. And he's a terrific artist. So just like Doug had never had production design credits. To bring them along the way Dick brought me along conceptually, and then show them this field that they can play in—to me, that's the continuum that's represented by the time between 1974 and where we are 36 years later. And that's why for me, it's somewhat of a culmination. But along the way, there's been the Jurassic Park or the Forrest Gump technology, but it's also always been about something that I could tap into and feel deeply.

Avatar is obviously a film where the experience of being in the world is so much of what the film is about.

That seems to be something that's special in this movie. And again, even that part, I would say, is beyond production design. I actually had a show about 15 years ago at the Academy called Filmscapes. I would now have to call it Moviescapes, because there's no film involved in this movie at all. But it's really the space that you go into that is the movie, without the characters and the narrative as the dominant place or focus.

That doesn't exist just because of 3-D. It is the sound, it is the 3-D, it is the immersiveness. For instance, you can go to Oz in your mind, without even Dorothy being there. Or even without the narrative of moving to the next land. You can go to Tara in Gone With the Wind. You can be in that film space—or Casablanca, at Rick's place. Even if it wasn't World War II. What is that? That's a mental place that you go to, and are taken into the feeling of that movie. And it is sound design, it is cinematography, it is editing and pacing. I think the component that's been added in this movie is the three-dimensional space that's not coming to where you are, but asking you to come into the screen. And I would even go so far as to say it may be something that starts to shift the age-old idea that the audience has to suspend its disbelief. I think it's not dealing with negatives, I think it's actually inspiring you to believe. And I think that's a subtle thing, but I think people are feeling it. And I think they're feeling it because when they go in, that dreamlike quality is somehow immersing them, so that that's why people are going back. Remember, three months ago they said, "Well, you can never touch Titanic, because you're never going to get all the teenage girls again." As though that was the thing that had people going back.

Obviously, the film has something to say about the world that we're living in today, where we're all looking at screens and are in virtual worlds a lot of the time.

Right. And also I think we feel instinctively the battle that's raging in our world, too, between those forces that are represented. And that this one obviously has a message. It's funny, because I wrote this e-mail to Jim at the end of this and I said, "Turns out, I guess, that all of us," including him, "were just kind of delivery boys for the message that Western Union couldn't send."

You mentioned the scientific jargon in Avatar. There is some thought about real science in the conception of the film.

I think the verisimilitude of the real science is there, in terms of how scientists are and how they do their work. The mumbo jumbo—I don't mean to belittle it. It's just that we could never determine exactly from what place is he projecting himself to how that avatar is receiving him, and what that is. We have computer screens that show his brain activity. And if you were to study those screens, you would see that there are certain parts of the brain that are being activated, and that all relates to real science. We went as far as we could. We had experts come in and talk to us about Alpha state projections. So it's not 100 percent based upon nothing. It's just that it's so small in our development that to project it into somebody running, the only place you can really make that projection is from the heart. You have a paraplegic who now can run. So immediately, with the first thing that he's doing you're following his emotions of having legs. And I think that's the sleight of hand, that almost every movie does eventually, which is to play to how you take it emotionally, not just what you're thinking about.

I want to give you a chance to say something about the color scheme, because that was such a strong part of the experience for me in this film.

First of all, the blue-green of the planet. At one point, we were actually going to go bluer with all the plant life. But I think that would've pushed it too, in a sense, underwater. And yet I think there's a balance in that blue-green that is very seductive and soothing. Up until now, I would say the color blue has not been able to be utilized, except for when you see an ocean documentary. If you see a blue man, or you have the Smurfs, there's nothing soothing about that. Within that blue/green range, you can go towards some pinks and some rose colors. But it's the humans that bring the fire, the orange. It's in the trailer, it's in the firepower. There's some orange inside the home tree and where they have their fires. But you really sense that while, obviously, there's a lot of blue light inside the environment where they are, they're the ones bringing fire to the water. And I think that the color schemes of that clash, especially in the end, you really get that clash. And yet it's never made ugly. So I think there's a kind of a yin-yang color conflict, but that almost becomes complementary, in a funny way. You'd never say that blue would be complementary of orange, but in the movie, I think they live together as fire and water. That's an intangible aesthetic that I found to be very, very pleasing. I've been fortunate enough to be a part of a generation where some of what we've always done can be appreciated, and yet not quantified as a static thing. So that if there is a shift between suspension of disbelief and inviting you to believe, and that can be somewhere within the context of what one perceives as production design, then that's a pretty fantastic place to go.

I think people are so used to looking at dialogue and story. This type of experience, where so much is expressed through the way the world is created, is really affecting people on an emotional level.

It'll be interesting to see the fallout a year from now, how it resonates or doesn't, and how it's followed up on.

And to see also where it's brought us. I remember when Forrest Gump came out, that seemed so technologically advanced and so ahead of its time and now, you take those types of techniques for granted.

And I think we'll take all of this for granted too. The good part about it is, I think, while Jim is deeply immersed in that, I don't think that he cared about that to the extent that it got in his way of telling a story that was actually a process for him to understand. And that's why he was open to all of our contributions as artists, because we brought things to the table that he could then build upon in order to tell his story. And as I say, one of those things for me was to actually become a true believer. I felt that there was a place to go to that was beyond where I was, and it was to go to that white blank canvas that is not nothing, but everything. 


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20th Century Fox
Avatar, directed by James Cameron
Photo Gallery: Best of Both Worlds


David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

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