Art director Aashrita Kamath talks about working on 'Avatar' sequels

Oct 29, 2017, 10:21 IST | Anju Maskeri

Art director Aashrita Kamath talks about creating fantastical worlds in the 'Avatar' sequels, working with James Cameron and how it's a genre where things could easily go wrong

In 2009, when James Cameron's Avatar hit theatres, art director Aashrita Kamath was still a rookie working at a Mumbai production house, making ad films. "I remember being blown away by the power and beauty of the world of Pandora; how the design was so detailed with every facet building up to a cohesive whole," she says.

Aashrita Kamath with director Jacob Andersen and cinematographer Sara Ross Samko
Aashrita Kamath with director Jacob Andersen and cinematographer Sara Ross Samko

Later, Kamath went on to work in the art department of films like the 2010 British comedy-drama West is West and Farhan Akhtar's Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara the following year, but fantasy remained a genre that held intrigue. Serendipitously, she bagged a job in the art department of The BFG, directed by Steven Spielberg and designed by Rick Carter, who had co-designed Avatar. "Later, I also got a chance to work on films with Stefan Dechant, who had worked on Avatar. And now, I'm art directing the sequels — 2, 3, 4 and 5! Life seems to have come a full circle," gushes the 30-year-old, who now lives in Los Angeles.

As an art director and production designer on set, Kamath's job involves understanding the plotline and then creating a world around it. "I try to look at the world of the film from the inside, to inhabit it and make sure it is driven by an internal logic. Each new fantasy world is an opportunity to allow the viewer to uncover a new truth about our real world," she says.

In fact, her initiation into fantasy happened early on when as a student at Rishi Valley School, a boarding school in Andhra Pradesh, she would devour books by JRR Tolkein and Roald Dahl. What she enjoyed most was the vividness with which the worlds were created. "I felt as though I was on an adventure with the characters," she says. It's this sentiment that she wants reflected in the film. The best designs, she believes, usually stem from a deep understanding of the story, since this is what the audience is ultimately connecting with. However, the viewer can also be picky, she cautions. "They can identify and reject gratuitous design instantly. So, it has to be fantastical, yet believable," she says.

It's for this reason that Kamath has been investing long hours collaborating with cinematographers and visual effects teams to maintain a coherent link between the look at a production level to what ultimately appears as the final film. And, having cinematographer Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi as husband comes in handy, considering it's easy to bounce off ideas and seek feedback. Interestingly, their love story goes back to their days at boarding school and continued even though they crossed continents for work.

"These days, our schedules are unconventional, though we embrace it and take the time off whenever we can." The couple normally avoids bringing work home. "But, we know that we have each other's ear if one of us has had a trying day," she smiles. In fact, they recently worked together on I See You a short film directed by filmmaker Manjari Makijany. For Kamath, the most interesting part of the process is the the research phase of a film that provides her with the opportunity to delve into the source material and kickstart the design process. "Sometimes, the references are specific. For instance, for the Boneyard set in Hong Kong, we looked at a lot of textural references for how whale bones looked as they aged, what would be growing on them since we wanted to work that texture into the carving of the bones," she says.

But when it comes to Avatar, Kamath wants to keep the design references a secret. "All I can say is that its going to be thrilling ride. I feel James Cameron has upped the ante with every film he's made from Terminator to Titanic to Avatar: the Avatar sequels will be no different!" Despite this, Kamath has her eyes set on India. "Back home, there is new wave of quality cinema that is being noticed the world over. I look forward to the possibility of working with them in the near future."

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