The World of Avatar

The lush greenery of the movie’s alien planet comes to life at Garden by the Bay

Alien flora and fauna have invaded the Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay.

Acid-dripping plants and assorted creatures from director James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster film Avatar have sprouted amid the lush greenery.

They are part of an immersive installation created with the Cloud Forest in mind.

Avatar: The Experience, which is on till March 31 and organised by Cityneon Holdings, Disney Location-Based Experiences and Lightstorm Entertainment, comes in time to build the hype for the movie’s sequel. Avatar: The Way Of Water opens here on Dec 15 and visitors can get a sneak peek at a new creature called an Ilu at the exhibition.

Scattered through the Cloud Forest’s more than 72,000 plants are realistically detailed sculptures of the Na’vi, the bipedal humanoid inhabitants of Pandora; interactive stops where visitors can play with light and create their own Na’vi avatars; and what the creators say is the most sophisticated animatronic creature in the world.

The animatronic mountain banshee, with a wingspan of 10m and weighing about 2 tonnes, had to fit through a lift door measuring just 1.2m by 2.1m.

Cityneon’s chief technical officer Michael Mattox, 47, solved the puzzle by building it like a Lego structure. The four sections, he says, each fit into the lift with barely an inch to spare.

The idea for the show was seeded in 2017 when Cityneon’s group chief creative officer Welby Altidor first visited the Gardens and walked into the Cloud Forest dome.

The 49-year-old says: “The doors opened, I saw this water fall and I said, ‘This is Avatar.”

It took years of discussions with Disney and Lightstorm, as well as 18 months of planning, before the seed bore fruit.

There were unusual design and installation challenges for the Cityneon team. Mr Mattox says: “This is a living environment. There are unique parameters for what you can do and what you can’t do.”

The veteran who has worked with San Diego Seaworld and Cirque du Soleil adds: “Usually for an exhibition, it’s in a black box. There are no visitors and you don’t have to worry about lighting and sound.”

Here, the team had to work overnight for two months, shivering in the damp cold as temperatures dipped to 18 deg C, to install the show as the dome remained open to visitors throughout the day.

The glass dome means sound waves would bounce, so audio had to be carefully calibrated. Mr Mattox also had to worry about damp affecting the electronic equipment, as light and music are integral to the show.

Another challenge was that the works had to be designed to be viewed in the day as well as at night.

Mr Altidor resolved this by reaching for old-fashioned inspiration. He says: “I connected to the tradition of sculpture gardens, where you have a great garden, then you bring in sculptures or attractions.”

While indoor attractions can rely on darkness and lighting to hide imperfections, the Cloud Forest’s daytime brightness meant that the sculptures had to be designed and made to exacting standards to withstand close scrutiny.

Mr Mattox is particularly pleased with the Unidelta tree, one of the first works to be installed when works began two months ago. He says with a chuckle: “No one realised it was fake.”

The deception is complemented by the landscaping design. Mr Jeffrey Alan Courtney, 47, the Gardens’ senior director (conservatory operations), says an additional 5,700 plants were brought in for the show. These comprise more than 160 different species and varieties, including 20 that have not been displayed in the Gardens before.

He adds: “We selected plants that looked like they could have come from an alien planet, with bizarre yet beautiful forms, colours, leaf patterns, or flowers.

“To match the blue and purple tones in Avatar: The Experience, we chose plants with blue-hued inflorescences or silvery leaf patterns or colours, so they would reflect light and complement the display from day to night.”

Look out for the Aechmea ‘Blue Tango’, an eye-catching bromeliad with electric-blue flowers and contrasting hot-pink flower stalks, and the iridescent Blue Oil Fern (Microsorum thailandicum).

There are also plants that mirror Pandora’s life forms, such as the Colocasia ‘Pharaoh’s Mask’, whose leaves have exaggerated deep purple veins that bulge, giving it a ribcage-like appearance.

All the plants, Mr Courtney says, will remain in the Cloud Forest’s living collection after the show ends.

Mr Altidor says the Cloud Forest presents a great baseline because “I already have an incredible garden walk experience”.

This provided the foundation for the Avatar experience, which he designed to take into consideration logistics as well as visitor experience.

The dome is divided into five zones, offering a journey for visitors. Mr Altidor says: “It’s like when you write a piece of music. There are crescendos and diminuendos, peaks and valleys.”

The first zone eases visitors in with a photo opportunity in the form of a strategically positioned statue of a juvenile mountain banshee, before a light show at the waterfall draws them further in. This was planned so that visitors would flow through smoothly without clogging the pathways.

The interactive stations scattered throughout are designed to be as intuitive as possible. The Sacred Space stop, for example, has large “leaves” which visitors can touch to spark sound and light. But there are no text instructions. Instead, the “leaf” lights up, drawing the attention of visitors and enticing them to interact with it.

While the show is meant to entertain, Mr Altidor says Pandora’s story and the healing vibe of the Gardens combine to offer visitors a message. “We are not here to preach. But just going through this experience is a beautiful metaphor for how important it is to care for our world.”


Source: The Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.