×
Back to IndieWire

Inside the Tulkun: Designing the New ‘Avatar’ Scene-Stealer

Production designer Dylan Cole tells IndieWire how Payakan became a wondrous design challenge.

avatar way of water

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

20th Century Studios

 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

One of the highlights of “Avatar: the Way of Water” is the whale-like tulkun, which bond with the Metkayina reef people. The tulkun are not only majestic and powerful, but also highly intelligent, emotional, and spiritual. They have forsaken violence and communicate verbally with the Metkayina and even sing together.

The film’s scene-stealer and unsung hero is the tulkun called Payakan. He’s a fierce killer, shunned by tulkun and Metkayina alike, and forced into lonely exile. Yet he bonds with the misunderstood Na’vi teen Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), the second son of Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). Payakan makes quite a thrilling entrance during a fight with the great white shark-like predator, akula.

These and other creatures of the Pandoran seas were part of the world-building efforts of the “Way of Water” art department, led by LAFCA production design winners Dylan Cole and Ben Procter. It was important to have alien and new designs, but still familiar enough to be relatable; in terms of the tulkun design and how it moved, Cole referenced whales, sharks, and seals. “It was almost like more sea turtle/whale/seal because its tail could bifurcate and then fold down and flatten like a seal,” he told IndieWire. “And so a lot of the movements weren’t trying to have it move like a whale. If you notice, it twists a lot — it curves on itself.”

For many of the scenes with Payakan, the art department made a large, practical fin that an actor could hold onto, such as when Lo’ak rides the creature. Then they had a spot for his eyes, so they could match the eye line during the interaction. “Sometimes we were dragging the fin through the water so you could have the proper resistance,” said Cole,” and then other times when all the kids are climbing on him, we built a set that approximated his back with the blowholes and the plating, so that we could set that in the tank and they could perform on that.”

20th Century Studios

For some of the underwater performance capture, actors played the tulkun with their legs bound together in the tank, in order for the creatures to perform human-like dance choreography. A scene with Tsireya (Bailey Bass) dancing with her tulkun was cut from the final film.

One of the hardest designs for Cole was the inside of Payakan for a scene when he invites Lo’ak to tap into his large, colorful membrane to glimpse the creature’s most tragic memory. “It’s Jonah, right? Going into the mouth of the whale,” Cole said. “But it’s also an enchanted cave from old fantasy stories. So it’s sort of combining those two things and getting that bioluminescent pattern. The roof and the sides of the mouth are our kind of standard bioluminescent colors — the cyan and blues. And then what we did is just concentrate on it to give you a focal point where we start getting into some of the purples and then when it unfurls it becomes gold. It was important for their relationships that [Lo’ak] understand the history of Payakan.”

Cole, Procter, and the art department populated an entire ocean from the sea floor up, from many species of coral and water plants (many bioluminescent) to dozens of fish designs, covering bait fish to apex predators. Though their main reference for the akula was a great white on steroids, the source for the mouth was something scarier — to Cole, at least. “Speaking from a personal fear, I don’t like snakes,” Cole added. “So I wanted to think of like a rattlesnake. And the way it really opens wide up top and even going further than a snake where the top of its mouth bifurcates open. And so to stick that kind of head on a shark, we tweaked the body.”

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , ,


Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox