The acclaimed director of supernatural fables tells us about bringing the popular Nickelodeon series to the big screen as a live-action, vfx-intensive feature.
Once M. Night Shyamalan became a big fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, he was intrigued with bringing the animated series to the big screen as a live-action franchise. But this epic world and larger narrative scope, despite being steeped in the supernatural and spirituality, was certainly the most ambitious undertaking of his career. Fortunately, when it came to bending the elements of air, water, earth and fire, Shyamalan was in great hands with ILM (under the supervision of Pablo Helman). With The Last Airbender opening today from Paramount Pictures, the soft-spoken director discussed this potentially career-altering experience.
Bill Desowitz: What was this experience like?
M. Night Shyamalan: I've never been so drained because basically it's like two-and-a-half times the size of one of my movies. I guess I underestimated the toll that it would take physically and emotionally. That's probably what I can comment on. I know I've never been more excited about a movie. When we finished it and I did the sound check, I was really, really taken by it -- the subject of the movie. Maybe because the original idea wasn't mine, I could have a little more distance quicker. But it really helped me watch [the animated series] as an audience member at that time, which is very rare. But as a process, it was Herculean.
BD: But you can certainly see the spiritual and supernatural themes that interest you.
MNS: Yeah, there are a lot of conversations about faith that I use and the supernatural as the vehicle to talk about it.
BD: Talk about the collaboration with ILM, as your most vfx-intensive movie.
MNS: It was a long, complicated process of thousands of sessions of talking through shots and seeing each stage and trying to get a common language of aesthetics. And I screened the movie very early for the animators when there was nothing in it and I talked through my hopes and what I imagined was there. I really tried to approach it with a common philosophy. So there wasn't a bunch of boutique animators doing something but all under a common point of view. And I learned on the job about how to communicate my thoughts and what's important. At first, it was all overwhelming to convey from scratch everything I needed. But soon a language developed and ILM gave me the very best people that they had.
BD: A naturalistic aesthetic?
MNS: Yes, I definitely go for the minimal amount we can do. Where does the eye go? Very much about what it represents for the characters. If we're talking about creatures, I'll definitely talk in depth about their personalities. In ways, I talk to the animators as if they were actors and what the motivations are coming from.
BD: And it was important to visualize air, water, earth and fire. I understand you were concerned about CG fire?
MNS: Yeah, my original concern was that fire does not look real on film, even if it's real fire. It looks improbable and doesn't follow the rules of lighting and physics that you intuitively know. So I didn't know how we were going to circumvent this. But ILM eventually found a language and a movement and an understanding about that small band where fire looks good and believable. That turned out not to be an issue.
BD: What about changing the fire bending rule from the series, making it based on a physical presence and not coming out of nowhere?
MNS: Yeah, when I watched the shows that was just stuck in my craw as something that wasn't explained and that the rules weren't even for the four nations. It was an interesting idea to turn your chi into energy. But I felt that should be reserved for the highest fire benders. Each movie ups what people can do with the bending of the elements. So that's what I also love about the progression of the movies, until you get to the third one where you have perversions of how non-ethical people start using bending.
BD: And air proved too abstract?
MNS: Yes, that was an R&D process where they eventually found samples of smoke that were moving in wind tunnels and things that created a movement that I thought was ghostly and interesting and wispy: churned air that creates this kind of foam. That was the principle. And beyond that, it had to be from the environment. Air ended up being solved pretty quickly as well.
BD: Earth was a matter of particle simulation but what about water?
Water was the most difficult because it had a lot of physics involved. I wanted to get that kind of astronaut thing where they take the water out of the jug and let it float in front of them. I wanted that kind of effect and it took a long time to do each and every one of them.
BD: Let's talk about the creatures Appa (the flying six-legged gentle giant) and Momo (the flying lemur).
MNS: I grounded everything in a reality that I could defend and believe in; and Appa [flying] I couldn't get my head around, so I said we're just going to have to take a leap of faith. Otherwise, I think we would change the spirit of the show too much if we changed that character.
BD: And Momo, which we don't see a lot of?
MNS: Yeah, Momo's pretty cool. The second movie is pretty creature heavy and, hopefully, he will work his moments in a more significant way in the future. But I actually think he would exist in the real world.
BD: And the spirit dragon?
MNS: It's more of a Chinese dragon than a European dragon.
One of the sculptors made a beautiful maquette, and it was this long, snake-like thing, and I said, "Let's put that in a cave and coiled up, and only at the end, uncoil itself and walk by the boy and see it in its glory."
BD: What about the impact of the last minute 3-D post conversion?
MNS: Yeah, the last-minute decision for 3-D was basically a year in the making. It's an announcement that happens late in the game by the nature of the process. They can't do tests until you have stuff to show them from ILM, and I can't make a decision until you show me many tests. They can't even work on it until the movie is completely picture-locked. So it's always going to be late in the game from a conversion standpoint.
BD: Who did the conversion?
MNS: A company called Stereo D. They had brand new software and an incredible group of artisans that came and presented and presented and re-presented and convinced me. And my primary reason for doing it beyond what they showed me was I believed in their integrity and desire to protect the movie. Then we just went whole hog; they actually came after I saw Alice. I felt Tim did a really good job with the 3-D and enhanced the experience going down the rabbit hole for me and I thought it was custom-made for this: to be in a fantasy world and an alternate world, and it could help the immersion feeling and the suspension of disbelief. So I came home from Alice and I called Paramount and I said let's do it.
BD: So you didn't find the process intrusive at all?
MNS: No, but it was scary as hell because I told them I didn't want to hurt this movie in any way, and I said when I finish I want to be able to say that I prefer this version of the movie hands-down. And that's the truth. And they taught me a lot, too, about the misconceptions of 3-D: how it's not always coming out and that you want to create a sense of depth like you're looking through a window.
BD: What can you tell us about the second movie in this proposed trilogy?
MNS: Well, the R&D would start immediately as soon as they tell me to go for it, and we would map it out. I would tell them how much time I would need to prep it and this is how much post I'm going to need based on what I anticipate the amount of CGI is going to be. As soon as they call me, I'll meet with ILM to discuss the amount of creatures, the kind of effects that I'm thinking about. I have a rough first draft that I wrote that could serve as our jumping point for everybody's discussions and schedules. For me, it's all about schedules for these types of movies. If you give it the time, it'll work out. And I'm talking about the difference of two months or one month. That extra time is where all the answers happen.
BD: Have you figured out the third movie, too?
MNS: No, just the second one. I thought it was helpful for the first one to know what was immediately following it. And my favorite season is the second. I thought they found their stride and I love the storylines and the characters. The second movie will be even more truthful to the series.
BD: And if not the second Airbender, what would be you directing next? The supernatural thriller about the father and missing daughter?
MNS: No, it's not a girl, but it is that supernatural thriller. Yeah, it's all about schedule at this point. It's very tricky to figure out when we would want to have a second movie -- it could take two to two-and-a-half years to do properly.
BD: What's it been like taking on a larger epic scope?
MNS: There is a global tension that exists in one of these movies that is not just created by the characters but that the characters have to acknowledge. You have to instruct the actors in the writing to make sure that it's represented so when you do the intimate scenes it's in the context of the life and death of the larger things going on. That wasn't always the case with my movies with contemporary settings and contemporary issues. And I didn't have to bring into account the larger milieu. And so that was an interesting process to learn.
BD: What's the favorite among your films?
MNS: I think I have three. Is that close enough?
BD: What are they?
MNS: Unbreakable, The Village and Lady in the Water. I'm too close to this one to put it in the same category, but ask me next year. I feel committed to all these movies, but these are the three that I would run into the burning house and grab.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.