The amazing thing about his work for Avatar is the design of the Navi in the final film is very faithful to Jordu's original designs. This rarely happens with film designs as Jordu explains in the interview below. . . .
AMZ: Can you share a little of your creative thoughts while designing the Na'vi? Any inspirations other than what was requested of you?
JORDU: Jim [Cameron] being an artist, had already done a really fantastic little sketch sort of what he wanted. We were looking extensively at a photograph of the actress Q'orianka Kilcher, who appeared in The New World (2005), which is basically about Pocahontas. He loved the face of that actress because she was very beautiful and very unique looking. So he had done this very nice thumbnail and basicially I sort of worked from that image, but what Jim was really concerned about was everything working together.
He wanted that face to work with a body that felt convincing. Along with his sketch, I took photos of Kilcher, photos of Foxy Brown, and other ethnic women, and I did a maquette, which is a miniature sculpture, of what I think it should look like. I will never forget this, Jim had came into my office area where I was sculpting [the Neytiri maquette] and he said, "That's her! That's her! That's it! That's the look, right there!"
Now usually these things go through a number of iterations and changes - you can never really expect what you created in a maquette form, or Photoshop, or Zbrush, or whatever, to really look like the final film version. And what I did in clay, it appears to me it's exactly what's in the film - it looks just like that maquette.
AMZ: That's an amazing accomplishment! . . . the Cameron sketch you mention, what do you think of his artistic skills?
JORDU: Well, he's obviously brilliant. I thought that the thumbnail sketch he gave me - a very quick sketch done in color pencils - was just...right! I thought it captured perfectly the look and feel that the character should have, from the script. It's humbling when you have somebody who can direct the film, put together the film, write the film, and he can also design all the stuff.
But the really great thing about Jim is - he knows what he wants . . . he KNOWS what he wants! He's not one of those guys who doesn't know what he wants until he sees it nor is he indecisive. He is very, very specific, he knows EXACTLY what he wants.
AMZ: What artistic tools did you use for your designs, digital? traditional? Or was it more of an arsenal of different media?
JORDU: I was primarily hired to bring some unsatisfactory Zbrush stuff to life and also to add my own personal touch regarding design, which I did mostly in clay. However, I did a couple of color designs in Photoshop, but it was primarily the clay media that Cameron loved.
AMZ: About your artistic role for Avatar as the Lead Character Designer. The job title may imply what that entails, but I would imagine there's more to it than what audiences might think. Could you elaborate with an example what your responsibilities were for that position?
JORDU: Well, I'll let you know, the process is more organic than say, "and we have hired Jordu Schell as Lead Character Designer," it's not like that. It's not like you get put into this position where you have very specific duties or you have very specific power. It was an organic situation in a sense - Jim had a number of people doing things in Zbrush, which is a 3D modeling software, and he felt it was not capturing the right look. Something was missing, he just didn't feel like he was really getting it . . . . . it didn't feel right to him.
Now what's interesting about this, I was one of the very first four artists hired by Jim. So initially, it was me, and three other guys including Wayne Barlowe, who is a very famous alien creature designer. So the four of us were actually at Jim's house back in May of 2005, drawing and coming up with ideas. I can draw, and I think I am pretty good at drawing, but my forte' is creating things in three dimension using real clay, none of this silliness on the computer.
I have created maquettes for tons of movies and it's such a great impact when the director or producer sees something in actual three dimensions as opposed to simulated 3D like in Zbrush or some other program. So I really wanted to sculpt, I felt frustrated, and eventually Jim said he is not overly-looking for there to be any sculptures, he wanted everything realized in 3D. So after a couples months, I was let go. I thought okay, that's it, I guess that's my contribution to Avatar.
Well then, about three months later, I got another call from Jim saying, "actually yea, we do want maquettes. The Zbrush version just doesn't look right. I want you to come in and I want you to do these maquettes." He specifically wanted me to come in and do it. I came in and the main thing he wanted me to get started on was the actual design of the Na'vi, the main aliens. So I started some maquettes plus a couple of busts of Neytiri and Jim thought those were very helpful and said, "I want you to attack the body now."
There was a very crude Zbrush version of the body which didn't look organic - it didn't look convincing. So I did this maquette of Neytiri [the one mentioned above where Cameron said, 'that's her, that her!"] and from there I started doing ALL the characters. Jim wanted me to realize all of them in clay. And I remember him saying to me once, 'You're incapable of sculpting anything that doesn't have character," which I thought was a very nice compliment. So basically that's how I fell into the role of Lead Character Designer. He was sort of trying it out and thought, oh wow this guy is doing stuff that works.
AMZ: From seeing your work, that is a well deserved compliment coming from the man himself. How long did you work on the Avatar project? Was this an exclusive project or did you have to juggle other projects during this time?
JORDU: For the first phase back in the spring of 2005, I only worked on it for about a month or two, it was very brief. But in autumn of 2005 when he called me back, I was then on the project for two years, working on it from late 2005 to late 2007. During that two years of course, there were a lot of projects in my own studio that I had to oversee.
I was really only able to come into my studio in the evening and weekends, so it was a very, very busy time. It usually is here in my studio, but it was an unusually busy time with being away so much with the two year jaunt with Avatar.
AMZ: Your previous film projects include major productions such as Hellboy, The Chronicles of Narnia, and 300 to name a few. How do you compare Avatar with your previous projects in level of difficulty. Was it relatively at the same level or was Avatar less or more of a challenge?
JORDU: I wouldn't say it was less or more of a challenge. The major difference is that it was much longer. Most of these projects last for a couple of months, you know, maybe even six months. Avatar was TWO YEARS! More time than I have ever spent on a film project and it looks like it was also worth it.
AMZ: One of your signature specialties is horror characters and creatures. Since Avatar is more of a sci-fi fantasy than sci-fi horror, how did this impact your design approach for Avatar? Did you pull the horror reigns back a little to keep it in line with sci-fi fantasy or did you get to let your dark side run wild a little?
JORDU: The funny thing is, I think it's a bit of a misnomer that I am strictly a horror and monster guy. My reputation, if anything in this industry, is being an alien guy. I love making monsters, I love monsters and creatures, but I have become very well known in the industry as being a designer of aliens. In fact, that's why James Cameron chose me in the first place because he saw my alien creations on the internet and said, "I want that guy to do work for this [Avatar project].
So I think I can toggle fairly easy between doing alien creatures that are strange and beautiful and then also doing hideous monstrous stuff. And even stuff in between those two like fantasy work - trolls, ogres, things like that.
AMZ: You certainly have the versatility to thrive in the film industry. . . Were you a big horror fan while growing up? What horror media did you enjoy the most back then - movies, books, comics?
JORDU: Horror was the primary influence, the primary thing that got me into what I am doing today. I like science fiction a lot, but not nearly as much as I like good horror, ironically. 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite film, so my favorite is a science fiction film. But generally science fiction is not my favorite genre, horror really is. As a kid, horror movies were my major inspiration. I absolutely loved monsters and dark stuff, that was always my interest.
AMZ: You have created sculptures and designs for Aliens vs. Predators - Requiem and Alien: Resurrection, so you have an Alien connection with Cameron so to speak. Were you a fan of Cameron's movies before working on Avatar?
JORDU: Well, how could you not be? [laughs] Yea! The first film of Jim's I ever saw is still my favorite Cameron film, The Terminator. I was in high school in the fall of 1984 when I saw it at the theater and remember just being absolutely blown away. I was thinking oh my God, who is this person who made this film? This is science fiction done right!
And of course I was certainly a fan of Aliens and I even liked Titanic. My wife liked Titanic more than me being more a girly kind of movie in a way. But I have always liked his films, and his sense of story-telling, the hardware, the science fiction - and it looks like Avatar will be another leap forward.
AMZ: One last question on Avatar. There has been a lot of buzz about the photo-realism in the Avatar project. Care to weigh in on that? How close do you think it has reached that goal?
JORDU: It looks really, really close. Unfortunately, almost everything you see in the trailer is in glimpses, so it is difficult for me to judge it yet. The company that did the digital work was primarily Weta, and it looks like they did a phenomenol job and I'm very excited about it!