Sneaking 'The Last Airbender'

Tara Bennett reports back from the set of M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender in Philadelphia, offering a glimpse of the director's first vfx-intensive adventure, courtesy of ILM.

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Paramount teases fans with the air bending effects in The Last Airbender.

Inside a vast warehouse in the suburbs of Philadelphia, VFXWorld got an exclusive peek at the movie magic being created for the much-anticipated, live-action adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon series The Last Airbender. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan and produced by blockbuster impresarios Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, The Last Airbender is Paramount's bid to create their own full scale epic franchise a la Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings.

Based on the successful animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (also exec producers on the film), the feature just wrapped principal photography at soundstages around Philadelphia and tells the story of a magical world split into nations representing the four elements: Air, Water, Earth and Fire. Their peaceful existences are thrown out of balance when the Fire Nation wages war on the other nations. Throughout a century a terrible war is waged until a small boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) ignites the hope of peace. An Airbender by birth, Aang is revealed to be the legendary Avatar, the lone person born with the ability to bend all of the elements to their will. In Book One: Water, audiences will come to know Aang and the world he is destined to save.

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On a private tour with other select journos, VFXWorld initially spoke to Marshall, who explained the scope of the ambitious film.

"We are creating a completely fantastical, make-believe world," Marshall said referencing the cavernous converted soundstage that was home to more than five huge sets representing key sites within the four nations. All of them were impressively practical while also including the telltale greenscreen drapes and vfx set extension markers that portend the vast amount of CG work to come.

Marshall continued, "A couple of firsts on this film for Night: One is shooting all this greenscreen. He's never really done much of that before…at all. He's expanding his talent and range and that's what I find exciting about it. He's taking his filmmaking style and applying it to this fantasy world, which he hasn't done before.

"And for me it's been really exciting because I haven't worked on a movie, that I can remember, that has a totally made up world. We get into a little bit of fantasy in Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, but they are still in the real world. But this is like our Star Wars. We get to have wild imaginative ideas. There are no limits. So the biggest challenge has really been creating this world and how we do it. The Production Designer Phil Messina and the DP Andrew Lesnie [The Lovely Bones and Lord of the Rings trilogy] and the set decorators have really worked together to find different places where we can incorporate what is there into our movie. You'll see that we use some of the structure of this old building to be part of our world," Marshall said in pointing to the steel footings and girders lining the ceilings of what were part of an old motor factory.

Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel gets to show his dark side as Zuko.

Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel gets to show his dark side as Zuko.

A few minutes later, we stopped and talk to Messina, who has been working on the film in pre-production development with the director since November of 2007. Even with two large warehouses filled with sets and satellite locations near the Delaware River that also house massively constructed villages (including the biggest set constructed on the east coast), Messina admitted that Airbender is still a huge CGI undertaking.

"There are a lot of visual effects in this movie," Messina offered. "We aren't going to parts of Asia so we are relying on visual effects to complete that for us. But the mandate has been to build as much as possible and have the actors be on some sort of real environment and try to keep the greenscreen in the background. On stage it's difficult to do that because you are always extending but as long as the actor's feel there is some real environment around them, I think that's where Night's comfort zone is."

The vfx are being created by Industrial Light & Magic (supervised by Pablo Helman) and Messina said they are already collaborating closely to create a unified design aesthetic with the practical. "I'm going to work with them after the film is over and get the roughs of the concept work to them so I can complete the world. So much is going to be left to visual effects and it's important to complete that world conceptually with them. They know that I have been thinking about all of this much more than they have and for much longer so they are using my ideas pretty consistently."

The other piece to the creative puzzle is M. Night. Known for creating films that are based on character and grounded in reality (despite their many sci-fi or fantastical themes), vfx have never dominated any of the director's previous works. Although The Last Airbender represents his first major CG film, he suggested that he is quickly adapting to the use of high-tech in his process.

"I'm not the most techie guy in the world, so if I can keep coming from character, I can keep it grounded," Shyamalan chuckled. "When we saw the cartoon, the mythology was so well thought out and had Buddhism, martial arts and CGI, but the kind that is character-based and that's coming from emotions. So I could tell ILM…and speak in terms of character point of view and be effective in that way."

Shyamalan admitted that he's already into the cut of the film so he can provide ILM plates to start their daunting work. "I usually don't touch editing until I am done shooting. But with a movie of this scale with the level of CGI, they need nine months to do a particular shot of waterbending. So I'm already editing to hand over the shots."

The first glimpse of what is to come with those vfx debuted with The Last Airbender teaser trailer on June 23rd. Showing an epic water scene with warships blasting flaming missiles at Aang's cliffside monastery, the director said that's just a taste of what audiences can expect. "The teaser we worked on forever. I shot it and it was my idea. We did it all ourselves as first unit and it was our big effort to come out and make a big splash." The Last Airbender opens July 1, 2010.

Tara Bennett is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.

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