Avatar: The Way Of Water's Skimwings Almost Had Heads Like Dragons Or T-Rexes

"Avatar: The Way of Water" is close to hitting $2 billion at the box office, with no signs of slowing down. People are flocking to see the further adventures of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their passel of children, both biological and adopted, on Pandora. This time around, humans have returned to Pandora with nefarious purposes, as Earth is dying they're driven to exploit more Pandoran resources. They also have it in for Jake Sully, so they're hunting him and his family down. 

To escape and protect their tribe, the Sully/Neytiri clan head to the water to ask for asylum with the Metkayina, a group of beings who have evolved to be a part of oceanic life. This culture is bonded and deeply in touch with the aquatic creatures around them, like the sentient and poetic tulkun. Like the other tribe, they also ride beasts. While the tribe Jake Sully joined flies on the mountain banshees or ikran, the Metkayina ride on creatures called skimwings. They're challenging to tame but very effective hunting beasts. 

In the new book "The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water" by Tara Bennett, we learn more about the skimwings, how they're connected to the ikran, their design, and what they could have looked like instead. 

'We studied flying fish'

Production designer Dylan Cole was interviewed for the book and said that the design for the skimwings was fairly clear early on for director James Cameron. He explains:

"It's basically a giant flying fish. It actually glides using a wing-in-ground effect, which is how the SeaDragon works as well. What I really wanted to push was the head design. I felt early designs were too derivative of an ikran, but Jim said they are cousins. But I still wanted to explore further afield."

That certainly makes sense. Just as the Metkayina have developed arms and tails more conducive to swimming but remain related to the tribe viewers are more familiar with, it follows that some of the other creatures are related to each other. We also learn from Cameron that the skimwing propels its movement with its tail and not its wings. The production studied flying fish and how they worked for the design. They also based the mouth on billfish, which include marlins, sailfish, and spearfish, all of which have a sort of extended, thin mouth area. In addition, Cameron mentions gars, which have long and thin but less pointy mouths, and compares them to the "splayed teeth on a long bill as a Rhamphorhynchus or Pteranodon did." He even compared them to "a giant pair of chopsticks with teeth that can snatch things many times." 

Honestly, they're pretty terrifying if you think about them for too long. That 12-foot bill is lined with a whole lot of very pointy teeth, and even if you're not the prey they want to snack on, you wouldn't want to be on the business end of those things. That wasn't the only design option for the head, however. 

Design choices from dragons to gar

The head structure ended up being similar to that of a gar, but it could have been different. Cameron says of the design: 

"We had head designs for the skimwing that looked like everything from dragons to T. rexes to all kinds of things. We wound up going with the gar idea. I brought a plastic casting of a gar skull in as inspiration for the skimwing. When we saw it, we just went, 'Oh, that's great. That's scary.'"

Gar aren't particularly scary-looking in pictures, and dragons and T. rexes do seem like they'd be more frightening. Still, going by aerodynamics (and my visual-but-not-scientific opinion), it seems like dragons and T-Rex heads might be too chunky and unwieldy to fly so quickly with the thin and sleek bodies of the skimwings. A more solid head and mouth might work underwater, but it does appear that, in the air, that would make them too top-heavy to stay up while propelled by a tail in the water. 

We'll certainly be seeing these and many more creatures in the upcoming sequels if they get made. All signs point to yes for at least a third film. 

"Avatar: The Way of Water" is currently in theaters.