How ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Tells the Na’vi Stories Through Its Costumes
Costume designer Deborah L. Scott loves to tell stories with clothes. “It helps the narrative of the film,” Scott says of her craft, which is evident in the meticulous details behind the Na’vi costumes that she created for James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water.
An Oscar winner for the director’s Titanic and this season’s Costume Designers Guild Career Achievement Award recipient, Scott worked with her team to make every costume for every Na’vi, even if it would appear only digitally in the finished movie. That was Cameron’s directive from the start, as this would provide a road map for Weta FX’s digital artists as they planned how the costumes would look and move in the virtual world of Pandora. Physical costumes were also vital to the actors, who tried them on to get a sense of movement for their performances. Scott additionally created “reference garments” on which the filmmakers could place tracking markers while doing performance capture.
Costuming the Na’vi involved two overall approaches: one for the Omatikaya clan, who hailed from the forest, including Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and their kids; and one for the Metkayina, the reef clan, which took inspiration from Indigenous people who live on or near water, with clothing references from Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii and the Māori of New Zealand. “For the most part, they use their environment to create their clothing — shells, in our case,” Scott says of the reef clan. “Shells are highly decorative and fun to work with.” Scott and her team also used natural fibers; emulated seagrass, seaweed and corals; and incorporated feathers and skins into the looks.
Metkayina clan leader Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) wears what Scott calls a “toa guard,” the leather piece worn across his chest, which symbolizes the guarding of the heart to the Na’vi. “It’s symbolic, but it also offers protection and signifies your stature,” Scott says. “Tonowari’s is much more elaborate, heavier, and has more gravitas than [those worn by] the rest of the clan. He also has the mantle — the big, giant piece of power — with the tooth in the center. It’s extremely presentational, it’s very masculine.”
Jake and his sons wear a cummerbund of sorts as a symbol of manhood, until they arrive at the reef. “That’s a symbol of another tribe,” Scott explains, adding that they remove these as a gesture of respect to the reef people, and as a sign that they are trying to fit into their new culture.
Neytiri wears a necklace more reminiscent of 2009’s Avatar when the Sullys arrive at the reef. “Neytiri does not want to give up the forest. That’s where she grew up,” Scott says. “It breaks her heart to leave. So when I made that piece, I put it in that part of the movie to symbolize her taking her family, her home life, with her.”
Scott also used costumes to convey the personalities of the characters, including each of Jake and Neytiri’s children. Take, for instance, their adopted teenager Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), who’s a free spirit, envisioned as a collector. “She’s young. She has a lot of spirituality inside her. She would wander through her environment and pick up things and ornament herself with them,” says Scott. “Most of her costumes aren’t terribly organized. They’re meant to look more like a charm bracelet, because it’s irregular. She builds her costumes as she goes through her day.”
The necklace Kiri wears duplicates the one that Weaver’s human character, Grace, wore in Avatar. “She needed a link to her biological mother,” reveals Scott.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.