Perspectives: Newsletter of the College of Arts & Sciences

UW Designer Channels Avatar for Exhibit

For the film Avatar, filmmaker James Cameron brought an imagined world to life through state-of-the-art technology.  A new Avatar exhibit at the Experience Music Project (EMP) provides an insider’s view of the film and all that was involved in its creation. To design the exhibit, EMP turned to Robert Mark Morgan, assistant professor of scenic design in the UW School of Drama.

An early design sketch for the Avatar exhibit.
An early design sketch that Robert Mark Morgan shared with James
Cameron during their visit. Courtesy of Robert Mark Morgan.

Morgan has designed more than 75 theatre productions, but designing a museum exhibit was a new experience for him. Planning began nearly a year ago. “It began very much like a theater piece, with the curator and staff coming together to brainstorm ideas,” recalls Morgan. “We sat around a table for two days, scribbling on a dry erase board.”  

Morgan also flew to Los Angeles to meet with Avatar director James Cameron for his input. Cameron’s vision: an exhibit through which visitors learn how the film was made but also experience Pandora—the world in which the film takes place—in a much deeper way. “Fans will be able to see in-person the workmanship behind the film,” Cameron explains, “whether it’s how scenes are captured or how a Na’vi costume was built first as a real-world garment, then produced digitally. It’ll create a tactile reality that’ll be a good companion to having seen the movie.” Interactive installations demonstrate the groundbreaking usage of motion capture, virtual and 3-D technologies in film.

Robert Mark Morgan
Robert Mark Morgan.

As the exhibit designer, Morgan’s role was to design the exhibit’s physical space. It had to be functional but also evoke Pandora—quite a challenge, given that 95 percent of Pandora was computer generated.  Morgan chose to emphasize scale, noting that the Na’vi—Pandora’s citizens—are 1.67 times the scale of the average human, resulting in a creature that stands more than 10 feet tall.  Five 15-foot-tall trees, carved from scratch, hint at that scale. Other props, including an arrow used by Na’vi warriors and an Avatar Program backpack and boots, are also supersized.

The exhibit also had to be accessible and durable, built to withstand an onslaught of visitors, including enthusiastic children. These concerns, says Morgan, are not a factor in most theatre productions. “In theatrical applications, you can have fabric that looks like a wall,” he explains. “Here you can’t get away with cheats like that. It’s been a learning curve. I found myself asking Addy Froehlich, the exhibits manager, ‘Will a child pull this off the wall if I put this here? Will there need to be disability access here?’”

Artifacts on display from the film include a full-scale Armored Mobility Platform suit used in the combat scenes, soldier uniforms, and the original, handmade models of the Na’vi characters and their wardrobes. To protect more delicate artifacts from UV rays, only environmentally friendly LED lighting is used. “People might not realize that every detail of the exhibit design is researched and tested," says Morgan, "down to the finish, the edges, the trims, the flooring, and the lighting.”

After its 16-month run at EMP, the Avatar exhibit will travel to other arts and cultural organizations in the U.S. Because each venue will be different, Morgan’s design had to be modular, providing flexibility in layout for each city. Fortunately, says Morgan, "I had the talented artisans at the Seattle Opera Shop fabricating the exhibit.”

"People might not realize that every detail of the exhibit
design is researched and tested, down to the finish, the
edges, the trims, the flooring, and the lighting."

Morgan describes the whole Avatar experience as "a thrill," but admits he was ready to return to his theatre roots by the time the exhibit opened on June 4.

“This has been a great experience, but I’m ready to go back to my bread and butter—theatrical design work,” he says. “Shows are created in six months, from the moment I’m hired to opening night. I enjoy that.”

The Avatar exhibit will be on view at the EMP through September 3, 2012. For more information, visit

Return to Table of Contents, June 2011 issue