The message of James Cameron’s Avatar is unapologetically green. “All life on Earth is connected,” the director told in his interview.... "that we have taken from nature without giving back, and the time to pay the piper is coming.” But Cameron took from nature, too. If the lush, alien jungles of Avatar feel eerily familiar, that’s because the director rooted them close to home. His muse for Avatar’s fictional moon, Pandora, and its wildly fantastical creatures, plants and landscapes was the planet Earth.
In May of 2005, before the film was greenlit by 20th Century Fox, a four-man team of designers began secretly creating Pandora in Cameron’s home in Malibu, Calif. The director gave them National Geographic photos, botany books and nature documentaries for reference. Says Neville Page, a concept artist and creature designer behind much of Pandora’s spectacle: “The best we could do was try to capture what nature has done so perfectly and expand on it.”
MORE after the jump!
MORE after the jump!
On Pandora: WoodspritesThe Na’vi, Pandora’s blue inhabitants, consider these glowing, floating seeds sacred. They come from the giant, willow-like Tree of Souls, which connects to all living things on Pandora and directly to the Na’vi deity, Eywa. The seeds are not just blowing in the breeze, they’re traveling with spiritual purpose.
On Earth: Deep-Sea JellyfishThe woodsprites’ pulsating, almost hypnotic movement mimics the motion of deep-sea jellyfish, which Cameron saw while filming his underwater documentaries. But when Cameron first painted his woodsprites in the 1970s, he modeled them on the seed-bearing parachute of the dandelion weed. Back then he called them “dandelion things.”
On Pandora: ThanatorEven the Na’vi don’t mess with this rainforest predator, which inspired Sigourney Weaver’s character to yell, “Run! Definitely, run!” The Thanator has armored black skin, a massive head covered with red and yellow quills, and — lest you mistake it for a friend — 9-inch teeth.
On Earth: Black PantherThe Thanator owes its big, bad, toothy blackness to another forest-dwelling carnivore, the black panther, the melanistic wildcats found in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Its unusual armored skin comes from the insect world — it is hard, but pliable, like the chitinous texture of a caterpillar’s cocoon.
On Pandora: Mountain BansheeThe Na’vi ride the brightly colored, dragon-like banshees — so called for their piercing cry — through the mountaintops of Pandora. Banshees have four feathered wings with a 45-foot span. Each animal bonds with one Na’vi warrior in its lifetime, connecting with its rider through a bundle of nerve fibers called a queue.
On Earth: ArchaeopteryxSometimes known as the “first bird,” the Jurassic-era Archaeopteryx was a major source of inspiration for the flying creatures in Avatar, including the banshee. The ancient creature is thought to be a transitional species between dinosaur and bird, since it has characteristics of both. In 2009, four years after the initial designs were made, a prehistoric bird fossil was found in China with four feathered wings, just as the banshee has.
On Pandora: HelicoradianThe spiraled orange leaf responds to touch by coiling up and sinking into the ground to avoid being eaten. The helicoradian is one of many kinds of zooplantae — part animal and part plant, or “planimals” — on Pandora.
On Earth: Christmas Tree WormThese multicolored, cone-shaped worms live in the coral reefs of the world’s tropical oceans, where Cameron saw them while scuba diving. Like the helicoradian, Christmas tree worms are sensitive to movement and retract when touched.
On Pandora: ViperwolfThese six-legged, canine-like jungle predators move in packs and slink to the ground or climb up in trees when stalking their prey. Most creatures on Pandora are fierce or powerful — the closest Cameron got to cute and cuddly was his viperwolf pups.
On Earth: MinkThe lean body and graceful motion of the mink served as inspiration for the viperwolves. The minks’ movement — creeping so low as to almost disappear while hunting — was mimicked in the scene in which a group of viperwolves circle Sam Worthington’s character, Jake, in the forest.
On Pandora: Hallelujah MountainsPieces of these mist-covered, mesa-like mountains rip loose and float in the sky, like icebergs in the ocean. Waterfalls flow from the peaks, and straggly vines and ferns dangle off the sides. The humans in Avatar coined these the “Hallelujah Mountains” because they’re a source of unobtainium, a mineral sought after as a solution to Earth’s energy crisis.
On Earth: China’s HuangshanLike the Hallelujahs, the peculiarly jutting granite peaks of Huangshan in Eastern China’s Anhui Province are often shrouded in clouds. In this case, art followed reality, which then followed art: Officials in a separate area of China, in Hunan province’s Zhangjiajie, renamed one of their craggy peaks the “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” to appeal to tourists.
On Pandora: ProlemurisThis herbivorous monkey-like tree-dweller has two bifurcated limbs, which it uses to swing from branch to branch. Many of the animals on Pandora are hexapedal (they have six limbs), while the Na’vi have four — two legs and two arms. With its bifurcated arms, the prolemuris serves as an evolutionary link between the four-limbed Na’vi and the lower six-limbed species.
On Earth: Ida, a Missing LinkThe prolemuris was designed as a transitional life form, an idea borrowed from evolution. Scientists point to transitional fossils or “missing links” to illustrate an evolutionary change. One such link is “Ida,” a 47-million-year-old primate fossil found in Germany that bridges higher primates with lemurs. Though Ida has a skeleton like a lemur, she has opposable thumbs, like apes and humans.
On Pandora: DirehorseThe Na’vi ride these calm, powerful, six-legged creatures, connecting with them through the queue. Direhorses grow to more than 13 feet in height, have a tough, plated hide and a long snout for drinking sap from Pandoran flora.
On Earth: ClydesdaleClydesdales, with their massive scale and strength, helped inspire the Direhorse. Designers also referenced the arched neck of Arabian horses and the gymnastic abilities of the Lipizanner breed. And how can one not notice the obvious head reference to anteaters?
On Pandora: Hammerhead TitanothereTwice the size of an African elephant, this herbivore has a massive, flat head, which it lowers when angry and ready to charge. When it wants to avoid a fight, the hammerhead raises a fan of brightly colored feathers on its head and roars.
On Earth: Hammerhead SharkThe shape of the hammerhead titanothere’s head mimics the flat, laterally distended head of a hammerhead shark. Its large body and herbivorous diet are modeled on titanotheres, a family of extinct mammals related to rhinoceroses and horses.
On Pandora: Neural NetworkThe trees on Pandora are connected by an electrochemical link that every living organism can access. A kind of organic superbrain, this neural network has 480 million more connections than the human brain. This is what the Na’vi consider their deity, Eywa.
On Earth: Rat DendritesPandora’s neural network is conceptually Cameron’s loftiest creation in Avatar. But visually, its model is a lot more humble — rat brains. The energy branches on Pandora connect to each other like the axons and dendrites of rat neurons.
Living Root Bridges of IndiaIn what’s a beautiful example of using nature without destroying it, a region in India (one of the wettest in the world) has over hundreds of years “grown” bridges. Using the secondary roots of a rubber tree called Ficus elastica, villagers have trained them into crossing rivers and creating a “living” bridge. As expected, the bridges take some 10-15 years to become usable. As a testament to their strength over time, however, some in the region are over 500 years old and capable of supporting 50 or more people at once.
Glowing Mushrooms of Japan and BrazilWhile Pandora has its fair share of animals that glow, it's the flora that really stands out after the sun goes down. Earth definitely does not have the same flair (unless you're on the Vegas Strip) but there are 71 glowing mushroom species that would beg to differ. One in paritulcar, found in the forests of Japan and Brazil, is called the Mycena chlorophos. They emerge during the rainy season, causing the floor to glow with spores. The light show generally happens in the late summer months -- but while there are tours offered in Japan, the mushrooms only do really well where, not surprisingly, there are no people to disturb them. Scientists still aren't sure why exactly the mushrooms evolved to glow at night -- but we're hoping it's a trend that takes off with other plants and animals.
Wulingyuan Scenic Zone, Hunan Province, ChinaWhile we can only speculate as to the inspiration of most on our list in creating Pandora, we know for a fact that the Wulingyuan Scenic Zone in China played a big role.
Hollywood photographers spent four days in 2008 taking photos of the mountains there -- and 25 minutes of the film was actually shot in the region. The park, a World Natural Heritage site, provided the inspiration for the floating mountains in the film. It covers some 266 square miles and is said to be 'The ampliative miniascape and the contractible fairyland'
Glow Worm Caves of New Zealand/AustraliaIn certain part of New Zealand and Australia, travel underground and suddenly it appears as if the night sky has followed you. Thanks to the Arachnocampa, more commonly called the "glow worm", cave ceilings are turned into stunning bioluminescent points of light. Granted, they're not actually worms, but larvae of the gnat fly. They spin a nest of silk on the cave ceiling and then hang down as many as 70 threads with drops of mucus (yum!) attached to snare prey. The larva all glow (even more brightly if they haven't eaten in a bit) to lure victims to the threads. Incredibly, nearly 100% of the energy input is turned into light (compared to the best light-emitting diodes at just 22%).
The Waterfalls of HavasupaiOne look at the opalescent waters of the falls of Havasupai in the Grand Canyon, and it's easy to see why they look like something straight out of Avatar. The mineral rich water tumbles over five major waterfalls - all of which are subject to change from massive floods that sweep down the canyon. Havasu Falls (pictured) plunges over 120 feet into a pool of blue-green waters and is one of the most photographed waterfalls in the world. Hiking to the falls can be a bit tricky (covering some 8-10 miles and descending 3,000 vertica feet), but campgrounds, supplies, and other facilities are provided by the Havasupai. This Native American tribe has existed in the Canyon for over 800 years.
To learn more about the Havasupai Waterfalls -- and the the people that protect them -- jump here.
Aurora BorealisOne of the most visually arresting aspects of Avatar can be seen in the depiction of the night time sky as a pulsing, undulating otherworldly organism, generating extraordinarily vibrant tones that alternately dance and melt into the distance, giving way to new waves of synergistic and impossibly seductive color. While it’s effortless to get swept away in the sheer cinematic majesty of it all, we are profoundly fortunate to be able to witness this type of naturally occurring light display with our own eyes – all we have to do is travel to a polar region! Hmmm, on second thought, that might not be so easy after all. According to countless scientists, photos of this glowing, upper atmospheric light show simply don’t do it proper justice -- guess you really just have to be there. Born out of photon emissions that interact in the upper atmosphere with magnetic energy and solar wind particles, a resulting ray or curtain like effect can be seen which is equally as magical as it is breathtaking. Best detected at midnight in a very dark, clear sky, residents in Yukon, Manitoba, Fairbanks, Norway and Iceland have the best chance of experiencing nature’s original laser light show, but during particularly strong periods of auroral activity, sky gazers in Scotland, St. Petersburg, Vancouver (BC) and even Michigan and South Dakota can also get lucky. For the rest of us, we can take comfort in the knowledge that we’ll always have Cameron’s celluloid version – accented with mysteriously alien bioluminescent creatures -- to keep our memories warm at night.
Borneo's Flying Animal SpeciesSuspending one’s belief while at the movies is often an absolute requirement, and yet Cameron’s cast of creature characters – from muscle-bound Dire Horses and armored Thanators to swift Viperwolves and massively intimidating Hammerhead Titanotheres – is actually somewhat easy to get accustomed to since they’re just slightly exaggerated versions of what really have or continue to exist on our planet. Of course, if the average person witnessed anything other than a bird flying through the air in real life, they might begin to question their sanity. Deep in Borneo’s woody, dense forests however, there are so many flying or “gliding” species – including careening snakes, flying frogs and soaring dragon lizards -- that scientists think evolution plays a greater role in this seemingly curious coincidence. Boasting a far higher tree height than comparable tropical regions, some theorize that Borneo’s many creatures choose to hang glide from tree to tree in an effort to navigate more effectively. Others are convinced that food sources – which are challenging to find on the rarely fruiting tree tops – have prompted adaptation to kick in via a quick and easy mode of travel. By gliding though air with the greatest of ease, 60 different species can cover more ground without actually touching the ground – a huge bonus in terms of exercising an effective survival strategy that they can take to the bank. Pandora’s mountain banshees would likely approve.
Bird of ParadiseBonding with a birdlike reptilian banshee proves to be no small feat for Jake Sully’s avatar form, who soon finds that he has his work cut out for him. The domestication process begins with him bucking like a bronco on his hand-picked red Toruk, but before long, Sully is able to successfully connect via its neural interface, enabling him to leverage the leviathan quite like that of a jet soaring effortlessly through the sky. One can easily see the visual parallel between Avatar’s vividly painted flying creatures and their real life doppelgangers, found almost exclusively in the New Guinea region. Sporting outstanding plumage, head fans and breast shields in a vast array of rainbow combinations, Birds of Paradise thrive in dense rainforest, moss and swamp habitat, favoring the edible fruit and insect treats that they can locate high up in the canopy. Noted for their highly ritualized and elaborated mating displays which last for hours on end, perhaps humans could learn a thing or two from their distinctive brand of “bird play”. Not surprisingly, their dapper looks have long made them the target of skin hunters anxious to cash in, resulting in the decimation of extensive populations. Considering the underlying current of exploitation being played out on Pandora, it seems as though these birds could certainly relate.
The Alien Plantscape of the Yemeni Island of SocotraMuch of the visual allure of Avatar can be found deep in the bioluminescent Pandorum jungle where whimsical floating seeds of Eywa share close quarters with the prehistoric yet Dr. Seussian landscaping. A veritable feast for the eyes, this bizarre backdrop -- conjured up by the imaginative mind of director James Cameron -- isn’t as far-fetched as one might imagine. Far from the heart of civilization as we know it exists an isolated archipelago found in the middle of the Arabian Sea, referred to as “the jewel of biodiversity” due to the fact that 1/3 of its plant species can be found nowhere else on the planet. Socotra (or Soqotra) is notable for its spectacularly unique native flora, reminiscent of the entirely indigenous pockets of life found in the Galapagos – such unusual plants are presumed to exist today largely due to the extreme isolation of the landmass coupled with unique conditions of drought and heat. Scientists think that the alien landscape, consisting of pink flowered elephant trunk Adenium socotranum trees and Dragon’s Blood Dracaena cinnabari trees (among many others), boasts actual botanicals that existed in ancient times. Once Socotra separated from the super-continent of Gondwana approximately 500+ million years ago, the tectonically isolated region was able to carry with it a diverse array of 825 plants, some of which suspiciously resemble what is depicted in Avatar. Of course, there is no better form of flattery than imitating that which Mother Nature created.
Venezuela's TepuiVenezuela is apparently harboring more than just one solitary Avatar-like dreamscape. The film’s floating Pandoran mountains appear to be a dead ringer for this towering, mile-high flat-topped mountain punctuated with hundreds of free-flowing water falls and seemingly symbiotic cotton-candy like clouds. Otherwise known as Mount Roraima, this 9,219 foot structure is ensconced amid emerald green tropical plants and rainbow bromeliads that peek out from behind jutting yet sculpturally aesthetic quartz sandstone. Those who favor mythical tales involving spiritually enlightened natives living in harmony with magical plants and flying dragons might prefer the alternative name given to this two billion year old geological formation – The Lost World, after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel. Due to its remote location far from the prying eyes and hands of the developed world, a diverse range of animal and plant species – completely unique to that area – have been able to flourish, including exotic-looking “carrot” formations as well as bell and pitcher-shaped flowers. Clearly, the Na'vi would feel right at home.
It's also worth nothing that the mysterious world of Pixar's "UP" was based on Venezuela's Tepuis.
Angel FallsReminiscent of the location where Jake Sully and Neytiri initially approach the dragon/bird hybrid Banshees and, together, take flight, Angel Falls – named after the first American aviator Jimmie Angel who soared across the 3,212 foot-tall natural phenomenon back in 1937 – is the pride and joy of Venezuela’s Canapa National Park. Referred to by indigenous people as “waterfall of the deepest place” or Kerepakupai meru, this spectacular wall of cascading rapids is located deep inside the jungle, just as Cameron’s Na'vi are. Earning the distinction of being the world’s tallest waterfall, it is commonly considered one of the eight natural wonders that every human being should make a point of seeing before they pass on. From its wispy atomized waters that dissipate in a lingering fog across the sky to the rainbow that is created when sun rays interact with perpetual sprays of moisture droplets, Angel Falls is not surprisingly a major tourist attraction made even more desirable given the fact that it is so challenging to reach. One of Mother Nature’s greatest treasures, this dramatic waterfall -- offering a dose of eye-candy in stark contrast to the sprawling backdrop of lush, tropical rainforests, grasslands and mesas – could easily be the secret real life twin of Avatar’s mythical Pandora settlement.
Bioluminescent Bay, Vieques, Puerto RicoGlow in the dark water? Is this for real?? If you travel to Vieques, Puerto Rico, the answer is a resounding yes! yes! yes! Thanks to the fortuitous trio of luminescent waters called La Parguera, Mosquito Bay and Fajardo, the undoubtedly surreal experience of wading in up to 160,000 microscopic dinoflagellates per liter can be yours. Say what? That’s right – just as Pandora’s diverse microcosm of otherworldly species were able to thrive in an unspoiled world, so too have Puerto Rico’s most miniscule residents for hundreds of years. This visual marvel was first witnessed by Spanish colonists in the early 1500s and they were so troubled by the sight – mistakenly attributing it to “El Diablo” or the Devil – which they purposely segregated the “tainted” water from the rest of the ocean by installing a massive man-made border constructed out of boulders. While this great effort put their minds at ease, they inadvertently helped the microscopic organisms – called “swirling fire” or Pyrodinium bahamense) to enjoy what would ultimately end up being the perfect conditions to procreate. With no ocean waves to wash them away and decomposing mangrove leaves providing them with a perpetually replenishing food source, the “dinos” have long enjoyed a microcosm in which they are shielded and nurtured, all at once.
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