Inventing the plants of ‘Avatar’
James Cameron’s science-fiction blockbuster “Avatar” takes place in 2154 on the lush moon Pandora. To help make the set believable, Jodie Holt, chairwoman of the department of botany and plant sciences at UC Riverside, was approached to consult on the film’s plant life, as well as how a botanist would study such flora.
Holt, a plant physiologist, talked about her involvement in the film and the “Pandorapedia,” a detailed catalog of the moon’s features, including its many plants.
How did you become involved in the film?
I was called by Nicole Pitesa, [producer] Jon Landau’s assistant, in early 2007; she asked if I would be interested in advising an A-list actress in “Avatar” on how to be a credible botanist. The movie was in preproduction at that time. I later learned that Nicole had searched local universities for botany departments and found us at UC Riverside.
What type of advice did you lend them?
After being briefed on the plot and being shown early images of the plants on Pandora by Jon Landau, I met with Sigourney Weaver [who plays botanist Grace Augustine] and set designers to talk about how a field botanist would study and sample plants to learn about their physiology and biochemistry. We also talked about the idea of communication among plants, and between plants and the Na’vi, and how that might be explained. Subsequently, I worked with a set designer to ensure that his designs for the field and lab equipment were credible.
Can you give specific examples about the set?
I did not work on all the scientific sets and props by any means. What we talked about was the concept of plant communication, which is integral to the movie, and how this could be studied by Grace.
Since life on Pandora was intended to adhere to our known laws of physics and biology, it was not credible to me to suggest that the plants had any kind of nervous system. Instead, I suggested that communication among the plants could credibly be explained by signal transduction, an area of research that deals with how plants perceive a signal and respond to it. Since this process is still not well understood but is under active investigation, it made sense to use it as an explanation for Grace’s more futuristic understanding of plants. Subsequently, the set designer and I exchanged many e-mails about how Grace might sample plants and study this process.
In the actual movie, which I’ve now seen four times, I studied the equipment and labs -- and everything looks just fine and quite credible. The only real sample one sees Grace take is with a syringe, which is a reasonable thing to do. As far as field equipment goes, we agreed that 150 years in the future the equipment would likely be much smaller and more efficient, hence the small packs the scientists carried.
Overall I thought the science in the movie was fantastic! However, several of my colleagues noted, as I did, that the fact that Grace smoked could be a problem in the lab. The tobacco mosaic virus is common on cigarette tobacco and can easily be transmitted from a smoker’s hands to biological samples and contaminate them. I was never consulted about the smoking, as this was a part of Grace’s character separate from the science. Only biologists in the audience who work with molecular samples would think of this, however.
Later, in the fall of 2008, Jon Landau called to ask if I would be interested in writing descriptions of the plants, including fabricating Latin names, to be included in the games and book that were planned. The result was a set of Pandorapedia entries, completed in early 2009.
What were some of the names in the Pandorapedia?
In mid-December, a book was published called “Avatar: An Activist Survival Guide.” The plant descriptions I wrote are in Chapter 4. These include taxonomy (Latin names I made up using the correct rules of nomenclature), a description of each plant, and information about ecology and ethnobotany. Since some of the plants looked like Earth plants, while others were quite fantastic, and others resembled each other, I started by grouping them by somewhat similar appearance to develop a crude taxonomy.
For plants that resembled Earth plants, I gave them similar names, such as Pseudocycas altissima for a plant that looks like a tall Earth cycad. Others I named for their appearance, such as Obesus rotundus for the puffball tree.
This project was very challenging but also a lot of fun. What botanist would not want to “discover” new plants and name them herself?
I understand that some of these Pandorapedia entries are also contained in the games that were released. However, my husband and I have not yet achieved much proficiency at the video game, so we have not been able to explore Pandora and learn about the plants that way. Hopefully, we can get my young nephew to help us.
Did the film challenge you to think about what plants will look like in the future?
No, the movie is only about 150 years into the future, which is not a lot of time for major evolutionary advances. The real question I dealt with in working on both the movie and the Pandorapedia was how the environment on Pandora would have selected the many unusual, bizarre plants found there, as well as some that look very much like plants currently found on Earth.
I wrote an essay on this, which is also in the “Avatar Survival Guide.” The information on the environment of Pandora -- including the atmosphere, soil, gravity, etc. -- was provided by James Cameron, and I had to piece it together to create a credible explanation for how this environment would have selected the many strange plants on Pandora with their unusual adaptations.
For example, the atmosphere is thicker than on Earth, with higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, as well as xenon and hydrogen sulfide. Gravity is weaker. And there is a strong magnetic field. Given the role of the environment in plant evolution, one would therefore expect to see gigantism, less of a gravity response (which makes stems grow up and roots grow down), and possibly a response to magnetic fields, which I named “magnetotropism.”
Are there specific plants that you are most familiar with? Did this background aid the film in some way?
At UC Riverside, I study weedy and invasive plants. However, all my degrees are in botany and I have taught general botany for 12 years. In this class, I routinely challenge students to analyze plant morphology and anatomy to explain plant adaptations to the environment. These experiences teaching botany were incredibly useful to me in working on the movie.