In April, I was one of a group of journalists invited to the San Francisco offices of legendary special effects creators Industrial Light & Magic to get a glimpse behind the scenes at the process of creating the world of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender," the live-action adaptation of the elemental-magic kid's cartoon series. For all of Shyamalan's big, brawny blockbuster-level plots in his past films -- ghosts, superpowers, alien invasion, the end of the world -- it's important to note that "The Last Airbender" is the first real film of scale he's made. Movies like "The Village," "The Sixth Sense" and even "Signs" relied much more on atmosphere than effects, more on suspense than spectacle. "The Last Airbender," though, has to bring a fantasy world and the clash of mighty magic armies to life -- and Shyamalan wisely chose to work with ILM, the effects house that defined the look of modern fantasy, science-fiction and adventure on the big screen.
Visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman explained how he'd been working with Shyamalan for nearly two years, with much more work to come. "You need to see what the director sees. ... You have to have that vision inside of you." And, as Helman explained, you also need to see the outside world: "I went to Greenland. ... I had to shoot a bunch of helicopter plates and icebergs and stuff ... and then we had four weeks of principal photography in Greenland, which is about minus 40 degrees."
I asked Helman what, specifically, about "The Last Airbender" made it more than just another Joseph Campbell-style heroic journey. He acknowledged how that, at first glance, "The Last Airbender" might look like more of the same, and explained how Shyamalan himself is the X-factor for the film. "We've all seen situations where you get to the end of the end of the movie and there's a big battle and you don't know who's killing who, and you don't care that much. But because of Night's direction and his character-centric emphasis on performance, you come to care for the characters -- and when you get to the end, there's payoff. Yes, there's familiarity with the theme -- but that's life, isn't it? We all have to rise to do something we don't want to do."
Animator Tim Herrington explained the challenges of making the fantastic beasts of the world of "The Last Airbender" come to life. "The thing that drew me to 'Airbender' was the variety of creatures ... We have Momo, a lemur with bat wings. We have a giant flying bison, Appa, that's got six legs and a beaver tail and he's 16-feet tall, and we have a couple reptilian creatures. We have the Spirit Dragon, which is this giant serpentine creature with wings ... and we have the Komodo Rhinos, which the bad guys ride into battle. And we also have a digital human; we replicated Aang (Noah Ringer) as a stunt-double."
When Herrington spoke about the story challenges in creating Appa, it was interesting how much ILM and institutional cultural memory crept into his discussion of the mighty beast's role in the story: "The cool thing about Appa is that I kind of thought of him as a combination of the Millennium Falcon and Chewbacca. He's a sidekick character, but he's also the ride; he gets the kids from location to location. It was difficult to imagine how a six-legged mammal would move in nature. When we were researching this character, we looked at a wide variety of animals -- polar bears, bison, elephants -- to get the physics and the weight right. And we also looked at beavers, oddly enough, just to figure out the movement of the tail. Night thought of [Appa] as the big, quiet kid in the class. He's really quiet and calm and has it together. He's a sort of a gentle giant."
Finally, Visual Effects Art Director Christian Alzmann talked about the design challenges inherent in "The Last Airbender"'s fantasy world -- where mystical control of the elements earth, air, fire and water is used in combat. "A lot of the work we did in the concept phase was framing out these 'bending' events. What does the air look like? Because it's air and it's kind of hard to see." Alzmann laughed about the questions the team had to ask themselves: "'What does 'earthbending' look like? 'Firebending?'' And so on. And we could use the animated series, of course, as a guideline, but everything had to be a little more based in the real world. M. Night Shyamalan was very specific about having everything be very physics-based. He wanted there to be a little logic to the fantasy."
"The Last Airbender" opens nationwide July 1st.
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