AS: How did you first get connected to the Avatar team?
KS: I’d worked with Rick Carter on the Lost World which was the sequel to Jurassic Park. It was shot in Hawaii but the original plan had been to shoot it in New Zealand. We had started six weeks preproduction. We actually found all the locations, did a lot of work and quite late in the gameplan they decided not to come to New Zealand. Steven decided to go to Hawaii for reasons that weren’t totally clear. But I met Rick and got on with him really well.
When he was shooting Cast Away for Bob Zemeckis we eventually found this island in Fiji called Monuriki, about thirty miles off the shore of the main island of Fiji. And they needed somebody to explore the island and map it and work out where they could shoot on the island. Through a complete random set of circumstances I got the job. And once I got the job I said, Well, who is the designer? And they said, Rick Carter. I thought, God, I know Rick. I kind of went from map guy to art director overnight. And so that was my original tie-in to Avatar. As soon as I heard Rick was designing it I rang him up and I went up to meet with them. They hadn’t yet made the decision to shoot in New Zealand but then all the wheels clicked into place. And I came back and started crewing.
AS: When you go to the remote locations like Fiji do you hire crew out there or do you bring people out?
KS: Yeah, absolutely. We always try. The producers always want you to use locals, for obvious reasons. And case in point in Thailand, we basically crewed up out of Bangkok and then what I did was identify where there were gaps in the local skill base. I used a New Zealand construction manager because we were filming in the North of Thailand and also in the South -so we needed a split team. I needed someone who was used to coordinating a split construction department. And that was that initially but then we discovered that they didn’t really have a proper, professional greensman so I used a New Zealand greensman. And we ended up getting a bit stuck for scenic artists. They actually had some really talented scenic artists but they couldn’t quite adjust to the style of the job. We needed guys who could use an airless spray gun and spray buildings quickly. Age them and so on. They were more small scale. We ended up with a couple scenic artists but other than that I used a mostly Thai crew.
Similarly in Mexico they’ve got a pretty big film industry. On Zorro we basically crewed in Mexico. Funny enough, they had the same shortcomings. We ended up using a construction manager and a New Zealand greensman. In Thailand I found amazing sculptors and similarly in Mexico we found very good sculptors and fiberglass workers and metal workers. Very skilled people, very low maintenance. I’ve never done a job where you just go out and bring a film crew from overseas. Fiji is a bit of an exception. There are not really very many Fijians who are full-time film workers. There’s a really good gaffer but in the art department it’s slim pickins.