Empire (UK)

No./13 Payakan-mania explained

The Avatar: The Way Of Water scene-stealer’s designers and fans on why this hyper-whale is winning hearts


WHEN JAMES CAMERON first briefed his design team on Payakan — the feisty ‘space whale’ who’s become Avatar: The Way Of Water’s surprise star — they immediatel­y began thinking about how to unlock his relatabili­ty. “Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc. was a reference,” laughs production designer Dylan Cole. “It started as a joke, but it’s 100 per cent the same problem: how much can you express with just an eye?”

In Payakan’s case: quite a lot. “You read Payakan through it,” says concept artist Constantin­e Sekeris. “He’s not some killing machine: he’s a hero. An outcast, [trying] to prove himself worthy.” Lead creature designer Zach Berger adds: “He’s a freedom fighter. The other [tulkun] are passive, but Payakan sticks up for himself. There’s something relatable in that.”

And this outcast freedom fighter has been making waves with audiences. Since The Way Of

Water opened, recently passing the $2 billion mark at the global box office, fans have gone mad for the aquatic exile, creating Payakan artwork, a song and even having him etched on their skin. “It’s just a great design,” says Avatar fan Christophe Abi Akle, who boasts a tulkun tattoo. “The double fin, the snout. I liked the idea behind [Payakan], too: you can’t always solve things with peace and philosophy. Sometimes you need action!”

Said song — ‘Jump, Jump Payakan’ — comes courtesy of Scott Gairdner, host of podcast The Ride. “The Payakan revenge sequence was like watching an athletic event. People in the theatre were standing, screaming, cheering,” he recalls. “It felt like an iconic moment. Payakan encapsulat­es everything that’s great about Avatar: beautiful to look at, disarmingl­y sincere, with surprising­ly gritty action.”

For the designers, witnessing Payakanman­ia has been “surreal”, laughs Berger. “An incredible rush.” Cole adds: “You never know how these things will land. On paper, [the tulkun] could sound silly, but once the characters are invested in Payakan, the viewer is, too. You’re along for the ride with him.” And the ride isn’t over. With Payakan confirmed to return for the next chapter, fans can look forward to diving deeper into the world of the elevated whale, with Cole confirming that they will be “exploring the whole tulkun culture and their hierarchie­s”. Brace yourself for the Tulkun Extended Universe.


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Surprise star tulkun Payakan gets close to Lo’ak (Britain Dalton); Having a floating good time together.
Top to bottom: Surprise star tulkun Payakan gets close to Lo’ak (Britain Dalton); Having a floating good time together.
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