Life Science Blog

An Interview with Jodie Holt, the Botanist Behind ‘Avatar’

Before 'Avatar' could hit the silver screen, it needed one plant scientist’s green thumbs up

March 7, 2010

Many viewers of the recent science fiction blockbuster Avatar marveled at the fascinating alien creatures that inhabit the lush moon Pandora. There’s the armored panther-like Thanator, the Hammerhead Titanothere—a cross between a hammerhead shark and a rhinoceros—and the Great Leonopteryx, a massive four-winged predator who is part pterodactyl, part dragon. Taking center stage, of course, is Pandora’s indigenous humanoid population—the sinewy, blue-skinned, 10-foot-tall Na’vi.

But what about Pandora’s plants? Living among the familiar (albeit gigantic) flora in Pandora’s tropical forests are strange and beautiful specimens, like the carnivorous Helicoradian—whose spiraled orange leaf recoils when touched—and bioluminescent woodsprites, which are sacred seeds that resemble airborne jellyfish.

The flora and fauna of Pandora, as well as the Na’vi, are largely the creations of artists and designers who worked on Avatar—but they didn’t work alone. Several researchers from universities in Southern California lent their expertise: linguist Paul Frommer helped create the Na’vi language; ethnomusicologist Wanda Bryant developed the Na’vi’s musical culture; and biologist Jodie Holt consulted with the production team about Pandora’s plant life and the role of the botanist.

In the interest of scientific accuracy, the creative team behind Avatar called up the botany department at the University of California, Riverside, looking for a plant scientist to consult with actress Sigourney Weaver. Weaver plays Dr. Grace Augustine, a scientist who specializes in alien plant life and leads a team of researchers investigating the biology of Pandora. UC Riverside Field biologist Jodie Holt, who studies weeds and invasive species in particular, agreed to collaborate.

Holt assisted Avatar in two phases. First, she coached Weaver on how a botanist acts in the field and answered a set designer’s questions about plant communication and signaling. Some time later, she returned to the set to help name and describe the plants and animals featured in video games and books that supplemented the film’s release. Holt wrote a chapter on Pandora’s flora, as well as essays on the environment and invasive species, for a kind of fictional field guide to the alien moon called Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora (An Activist Survival Guide).

Scienceline called up Holt to learn more about her experiences.

Q: How did you personally get into botany? Was there a specific moment?

A: Absolutely. I took botany [in college] and in the very first lab we looked in the microscope at onion root tips. We could see the chromosomes dividing. I think that was the first time I really realized plants are alive, that they do many of the things animals do, and I was just totally hooked—I thought this was unbelievable. I’d always been outdoors and camped, hiked, and gardened, but it wasn’t the same as seeing plants from a biological and scientific point of view. I remember looking up from the microscope and going, ‘Whoa!’ because these chromosomes were there and they were huge. The professor looked over and started laughing, but I thought, ‘This is it.’

Q: Did you design the plants in Avatar yourself?

A: No, an artist created the plants. Some botanists might cringe at how they were designed. I ended up loving it, but I still thought, ‘Gee, they should have asked me to actually create them!’ But then they would just have ended up kind of ordinary, since I am no artist!

Q: What sort of questions did the creative team behind Avatar ask you?

A: When I first went down to the studio, I was told a little bit about the story and shown some images of plants and then immediately taken out to talk to Sigourney Weaver and the set designers. They started out asking how I would dress and what I would carry with me into the field, because the set designer was going to come up with equipment and perhaps a couple of the costumes.

And then we got on the subject of what Weaver’s character [Grace Augustine] would do, how she would approach a plant. [Augustine] is like an explorer—a botanist discovering new plants, wanting to learn more about them, what they are, and how they relate to plants she already knows. So I talked to them about looking at DNA and taking samples. In some cases, you might want to sample a plant’s little growing tips. I told them where to find growing tips on leaves and stems and I ended up giving them a botany lesson.

Q: In the movie, didn’t the researchers use syringes to draw samples from inside trees?

A: I am not entirely sure what one would get by jamming a syringe right into the trunk of a tree—that was not my idea.

I thought [Augustine] was going to take little bits of leaf tips or growing shoots and put them in containers to take them back to the laboratory. But I can see how from the perspective of a film maker, it probably would have been hard for the audience to figure out what she was doing. It would have taken too long and it would have involved carrying stuff around. Jamming a syringe in and pulling something out is much more dramatic. You could certainly do that, but you probably wouldn’t get DNA. That was kind of funny.

Q: How did the unique conditions of Pandora influence your advice about its plant life?

A: [Pandora is] a moon where the conditions are different from Earth: you have lower gravity, you have a denser atmosphere, you have toxins in the atmosphere and a different light environment. So this different environment would have selected plants that are vastly different from plants here (although some of them look like plants on Earth).

I was concerned that I would be in danger of making them too boring. I think plants are exciting the way they are, even though most people don’t. I was asked to try and give each plant at least one ‘hook’—something that would really capture the reader. So I tried to give them a foundation that sounded really credible and then give them an exciting feature that people wouldn’t expect.

Interestingly, a lot of those were features that already exist on Earth, but people don’t know about them. So I exaggerated them. There are a lot of plants that respond to touch—it’s a normal response. It’s what causes tendrils to grow around a post. That big orange Helicoradian was simply responding to touch in a great, big, dramatic way. I was able to use normal botany from Earth to describe it, but it’s exaggerated.

I did create a couple new properties, too. Pandora has a really strong magnetic field that we don’t have here. So I invented a plant response to magnetic fields. After Googling it and doing a bit of research, I found there have actually been a couple of papers showing some plants have the ability to respond to magnets, which I thought was pretty cool. So I gave it a logical name, which is magnetonasty [‘nasty’ meaning movement].

It’s funny. I think if I gave what I wrote to the students in my botany class next quarter and asked them which of these things are false and which are real—I think it will be an interesting exercise. I tried to make it sound really textbooky, but exciting. It was really fun to do and it could be a really good teaching tool, you know. Why does this plant look like it does? Try to explain it on the basis of the environment where it lives.

Q: What was the inspiration for the bioluminescent flora that lit up when people walked on it?

A: [Cameron] has been really enchanted by the tube worms and bioluminescent creatures in the ocean, which have presumably evolved that because there is so little light. So his idea was that on Pandora, it would be like the far north where you have constant low light. He envisioned the living things on Pandora being bioluminescent. What I wrote in a couple of the descriptions was that plants evolved bioluminescence as a way of attracting pollinators, given that they had evolved in a very different light environment than we have here. I am not aware of any plants that bioluminesce [on Earth], but it’s not far-fetched to think that it could happen.

Q: How about those jellyfish-like woodsprites that come from the holy tree?

A: I think those were something Cameron conceived of a long time ago. They are supposed to be seeds and they may have some kind of non-physical communication between plants and animals. They certainly seem able to hone in on animals and humans, and move towards them.

Q: What was it like to see Pandora’s plant life onscreen?

A: I’ve seen it four times now and, to me, over half of the plants look very familiar—they look like rainforest trees and ferns. It’s very inviting at first and then, as you get pulled into the environment, you start seeing some of these strange plants that glow and move and have bizarre colors. They are intermingled but not so much that you feel it’s scary and freaky and you don’t want to go there.

Q: Are there some plants you wrote about in the supplementary materials that didn’t make it into the movie, or that you wish were more prominently featured?

A: There are some pretty amazing images in this book of plants that I didn’t even see in the movie. I probably need to watch it a few more times to make sure they aren’t there—they’re certainly not prominent, though.

There is one I just loved, I don’t why, but I just loved it. It’s called the Banshee. I looked up the word “banshee” and it’s got some mythological roots—the wailing banshee was this poor, miserable, ostracized woman. And this poor plant was so ugly. I gave it the ability to move and orient itself toward infrared radiation, which means it would point itself towards animals and humans and then eject its poison leaf tips. I made it a very unpleasant plant, but I felt like, ‘You poor, sad, misunderstood plant.’ So I gave it some useful properties: it’s edible and has some other things that would be useful. For some reason I was just captivated by this plant that everyone would think was so hideous and scary—that they would just avoid because of its name and appearance. But it was really lovely the way they designed it—in a scary, hideous way—but really lovely.

Q: How have people reacted to the portrayal of plant science in Avatar? Did your colleagues notice any mistakes?

A: There were a few little things that could have been done differently that only my botany friends would detect. I’ve had so many people tell me that when Sigourney Weaver used the pipette in the lab, she picked it up upside down. You would get air in it that way. I haven’t seen that, so I’m going to have to go again and look. The other thing people have criticized is the fact that Sigourney Weaver chose to make her character smoke. For me, if she chose to do that for her character that was fine—but anyone who works in a laboratory with samples involving DNA knows that tobacco carries the tobacco mosaic virus and it will contaminate your samples. In the laboratory, if we’re assuming she is doing something with DNA from a plant, she would want to either get rid of the cigarettes or use gloves. People have written to me from all over the place, going, ‘Did you tell her to smoke? She shouldn’t be smoking!’ And it’s just because it’s not good laboratory technique.

Q: Some people would be surprised at the abilities of Pandoran plants, even though we can find many of those abilities in plants here on Earth. What do you think about the public perception of plants’ capabilities and how it’s changing?

A: You know, I have taught botany for many years and given a lot of presentations about plants and I can tell you right away the public—the majority of people that aren’t interested already—they see plants as the green backdrop to their lives. They don’t notice or even consciously realize that plants respire like we do, that they take in oxygen, they move; some plants can track the sun; some flowers open and close during the day; some leaves fold up when you touch them; plants have ways of attracting pollinators by the ways they look and smell. It’s just not in their consciousness to notice these things.

What we really notice are things that move, things that are colorful, things that threaten us, and things that are basically right in front of us. And plants, relative to animals, are pretty still and pretty green. I’ve had so many people contact me after seeing this movie or after attending one of these little promotional events we’ve done and say to me, ‘Whoa! I cannot believe how visual and stimulating the plants were. I walk outside and realize there are plants everywhere.’ Like when you get a new car and suddenly you see your car everywhere on the roads or a woman who is pregnant suddenly notices everyone who is pregnant. This movie has really done that for people and I think that’s fantastic.

Q: Have you been asked to work on the sequels to Avatar?

A: No, but I hope I will! I hope I’ll be asked again in the future, but there’s been nothing formal in place yet.

About the Author

Ferris Jabr

Ferris Jabr has a Bachelors of Science from Tufts University and an MA in journalism from New York University. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrisjabr.



SJ says:

Very informative interview. Enjoyed reading it. Too bad there isnt a science writing Oscar at the academy awards.

aaa says:

There is definately a great deal to know about this issue.
I love all of the points you have made.

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