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AIR, WATER, EARTH, FIRE: WHO’S IN THE WORLD OF THE LAST AIRBENDER

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AANG
Played by Noah Ringer
Where You’ve Seen Him: Never, Aang is Ringer’s first acting role.
Character insight: “I’m Aang the Avatar – the peacemaker. I’m the fourth element – Air. It’s about family: every line, every sentence of this movie is all about family and how it can get stronger.”
On getting cast: “I never thought I would be here. I got the role from an open casting call. My tae kwon do instructor pulled it over from the internet and said, “May you’ve got to try out for this part. You look just like the character and you do martial arts.” We sent in a little DVD and two or three months later they called us back and we went to Philly. I got to meet Night and [producers] Sam [Mercer] and Frank [Marshall]. Night’s been a great guy from the beginning.

KATARA
Played by Nicola Peltz
Where You’ve Seen Her: Mackenzie in Deck the Halls
Character Insight: “I’m waterbender from the Southern water tribe. If you are waterbending, you have to imagine the water in your hand and Night really wants you to have emotion when you do the moves. You aren’t just doing moves, because if you lose concentration then the water can just drop. You have to have 100% focus. In the movie Master Pakku says, “Let your emotions flow like water.” I learned Kung fu is a force against force, and Tai Chi, which is waterbending, is using another person’s force against themselves.”

SOKKA
Played by Jackson Rathbone
Where You’ve Seen Him: Jasper Hale in The Twilight Saga
Character Insight: “Originally I auditioned about two years ago for Zuko so I got to meet with Night a year ago for that role. But then they called me back in to read for Sokka. It was a pleasant surprise because I really like doing comedy. I have that range with this character and he grows a lot throughout the series. I did a chemistry read with Nicola and Noah. It was amazing when we all got together it felt right. One of the main themes of this film is family. You have the good side with Katara and Sokka who are so connected to each other as brother and sister they would do anything for one another. And then they bring Aang into their family because he has no family and they go off on this quest to save the world. Then you have Zuko, who isn’t really a bad guy but in a bad situation trying to get his family back together. It’s the opposite spectrum of family. It’s a beautiful theme.”

UNCLE IROH
Played by Shaun Toub
Where You’ve Seen Him: Rahim Khan in The Kite Runner
Character Insight: “I play Uncle Iroh who I believe is the spiritual compass of the movie. He is the man who truly believes the world needs to stay in balance in order for us to survive. It’s interesting because I think it relates to our lives these days. He truly believes that by applying your power to conquer others it comes back and hurts you in the future because it causes the world to go out of balance. He is an ex general so he has seen a lot. He used to be a warrior. Surprisingly, he is very powerful but he doesn’t show it at all. He lost a son and now he is content with life. He believes life is to be enjoyed. His nephew Zuko has become like a son to him so he tries to keep an eye on him.

ZUKO
Played by Dev Patel
Where You’ve Seen Him: Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire
Character Insight: “I’m firebender and I control fire. I can manipulate the element and use it to fight with in combat. The great thing about this film and why I wanted to do it is that you can express the way you’re feeling with the way you fight. A lot of this is physical acting and there’s a couple of fight scenes where I fight Noah, who plays the avatar, and the dynamic with that is so different, because I’m fighting with aggression. I’m trying to catch this kid and hurt him and damage him, whereas he’s trying to neutralize me because he’s a monk. If I’m upset, you see that in the way I spar with the people on my ship. Fire is an element you associate with venom and aggression. It’s unpredictable, and that’s really it in a nutshell. He’s unpredictable. He’s a firecracker, Zuko.”


COMMANDER ZHAO

Played by Aasif Mandvi
Where You’ve Seen Him: Dr. Kency Dhuwalia in Jericho
Character Insight: “Whenever you play a villain, you can’t play a villain. You have to play him with a certain point of view. For me, Zhao has a very specific point of view. It may be warped and you may disagree with him, but his point of view makes sense to him and within the universe and the world he is looking at. I think Zhao believes he isn’t doing anything villainous. He is doing things to protect the world that he sees needs protecting and he believes that he and the Fire Nation are the only people that can protect the world in that way.

ILM TAKES ON THE CHALLENGE OF BENDING THE ELEMENTS

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One of the biggest visual-effects challenges on M. Night Shyamalan’s fantasy epic movie The Last Airbender was that word: airbending.

It refers to the power that characters have to literally bend the air to their will; making it flow, rush like a wind, blow like a force.

How, exactly, do you depict airbending?

“Even though it’s called The Last Airbender, we had to do airbending, and … nobody really knew what that was going to look like,” Pablo Helman, the film’s visual effects supervisor, told a group of reporters visiting Industrial Lights & Magic headquarters in San Francisco in early April. “If it was going to be smoky or if it was going to distort the background. We also wanted to go away from the derivative kind of things.”

Ultimately, the effects people decided not to depict it at all. Rather, they depicted its effect: Blowing clouds of dust, whooshes of fog or smoke that happened to be there, rippling nearby water.

The solution reflects ILM’s approach to the film’s other massive effects, which include bending of fire, water, and earth, as well as creation of mystical creatures such as the enormous six-legged white furry “Sky Bison” named Appa or the flying lemur-like Momo. And that was: Do something you haven’t seen before. Helman and a team of 300 visual-effects artists came up with the movie’s magical fantasy sequences over months and years of pre-production, filming and post-production.

“We basically had to design and figure out what bending is for fire and water and air and earth, and it was kind of a journey of discovery that the director and us took together, it was really, really very challenging, very difficult work,” Helman said.

We previewed some of the effects at ILM. We watched footage of various character – Aang (Noah Ringer), Katara (Nicola Peltz), and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) – manipulating the various elements. In one scene, Firebenders jure swirling columns of flame that arc and slam against the ground, or balls of fire that are propelled like bombs. Katara summons a spinning, dripping ball of water, which hovers in midair; other characters direct streams of water that freeze instantly into ice. A man conjures a block of earth out of the ground, which solidifies into a wall. And Aang, twirling in a martial-arts kata, shoots blasts of air at approaching enemies.

In all, Helman says the challenge was making the effects look and feel real. “M. Night’s aesthetic is different in the sense that he wanted the show to look realistic,” Helman says. “So how do you make it look really realistic and then make it behave in a completely different way? I mean if you really think about how we as people judge if something is real, it’s two things: It’s the way things look and the way things behave. So we can make it look like fire, but if it behaves in a specific way, you’re going to say, well that doesn’t look real. So it’s kind of a very, very fine line in understanding what is it that makes it look real.”

Compounding the challenge: Shymalan’s demanding eye. In particular, the director didn’t like the idea of computer-generated fire because he said it always looked fake. This wasn’t helped when Helman and his team showed Shyamalan test footage of real fire caught in an updraft: The director said even the actual flames looked fake.

“We did have to develop new techniques and new software and hardware to do things, like for instance bending fire and bending water,” Helman said. He adds: “I think fire and water were the most difficult ones because, again,… of how familiar we are with fire and how Night wanted these elements to look completely realistic. … Sometimes we’d do, say, 60 or 70 takes on a [visual-effects] shot. … And then earth was difficult also, because it was all particle work. And then air, we had to all kind of discover it.’

One things safe to say: You haven’t seen anything like this before.

SciFi Magazine: The Fourth Element

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It’s been a rough few years in theaters for M. Night Shyamalan. After exploding onto the scene back in ’99 as the writer/director of the classic creeper The Sixth Sense, Night made a reputation for himself (for better or worse) as “that twist director.” That title that was all well and good until 2004′s the Village, which launched big, and then fell even bigger at the box office based on its tenuous last-act twist. His subsequent films – The Lady in the Water and The Happening – also underperformed and got excoriated by audiences and critics.

So what’s an auteur to do?

Taking a page from the George Lucas handbook (one of Night’s biggest cinematic influences), Night decided it was high time to make his epic. Startling yes, but perhaps even more surprising is that Night ventured outside of his notebook of ideas and perused the potential of others’ imaginations.

“I was trying to do a long-form movie, one that you could do over two or three movies with a long mythology,” Night says of his search, “I was toying with a lot of the franchises and thinking about them. I never found the one that was the perfect match, where I could say something about myself. I’m not good at disappearing into a movie. That’s not my thing, but I would love to find out where my accent is complementary to the piece so it feels like its true and it’s told with this thick accent that I have. The best thing that happened was that it wasn’t an agenda or anything like that. I had been looking, agents were looking, and I was offered these other franchises but this one came from my own family in the kitchen.”

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Fangoria Interview (June 2010)

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On the flipside of this undead dynamic is Jasper Hale, surrogate brother to lead bloodsucker Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Played by actor/musician Jackson Rathbone, Jasper has a mythology that dates back to the Civil War, where he was vampirized on the battlefield before being adopted by the pacifist Cullen clan and taught to keep his bloodlust in check… for the most part, anyway. He certainly slips up a few times, but her, to err is inhuman.

Rathbone has been keeping busy outside of the Twilight films. He has one of the lead roles in The Last Airbender, the latest from M. Night Shyamalan, as well as a couple of solid (and pretty gruesome) horror efforts under his belt, including the recent Clive Barker adaption Dread. Fango pulled the intelligent, articulate Rathbone away from his lust-crazed fanbase for a few minutes to talk about Twilight and its legacy.

Fang: The novels dedicate a lot of space to Jasper Hale’s backstory. Are we going to see more of that material in the films?

Rathbone: Definitely. Eclipse holds very true to the book, and we’re going to see a lot of that. Jasper was turned back in the Civil War when he was one of the youngest majors, a reall standup guy.

Fang: Jasper becomes a pretty ravenous vampire. What’s the best thing about playing a character like that, and what’s the most difficult?

Rathbone: You get to go to their animalistc side and explore that movement between extremes. Vampires have a connection to humanity, but they have to do this horrible tihng to survive. That’s a big draw for the audience – “Would I take someone else’s life to survive?” The question only gets deeper if you know that by doing so, you get to live eternally. And the hardest thing is playing a good vampire; you just don’t get to kill enough people…

Fang: A lot has been written about the moral movement of the movie vampire as a pop-culture icon. They began as symbols of evil and have slowly become more accessible and human.

Rathbone: Yeah, they started off with Nosferatu and Dracula in the ’20s and ’30s and then saw this huge leap with Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire. I love the book and the film. Really, vampires help us explore our humanity in different ways, and they put a face on our desires to live more exotic lives, to feel more deeply. It’s interesting that as the ages have fallen and technology has brought us closer together, we’ve been putting an increasingly human face on our monsters. That’s what the arts do; help us put our deepest fears and anxieties and hopes and dreams on display so we can work through them. That’s what Dread is all about.

Fang: Clive Barker has seen some extraordinary adaptions of his writing recently. Midnight Meat Train was criminally under-marketed and Dread has a similar idea; facing the unfaceable and the way it changes us. That seems to tap into the zeitgeist pretty heavily.
Rathbone: I would say so. Of course, that sort of stuff has always been around. Look at Dostoevsky and Notes From The Underground or Kafka. It’s a way of looking at the psyche, at how our choices shape who we become. Selfishness or righteousness and the difference they make and whether we are willing to become a conscious part of the process.

Fang: That certainly brings up the question of what the nature of dread is. Is it just biological? Or does it point us toward something other than that, like the idea of a soul?
Rathbone: Spirituality is something inherent in everyone, the sense of what we believe, what our tribe believes. I like to equate human emotional traits at their most basic level. At their most primal emotions seem to boil down to love and fear. But that stuff is buried, even for people who approach sprituality in an organized way. It has to do with how we talk about it. That’s why I love doing a lot of different creative things because it brings me into collaboration with others, and we draw on that stuff.

Fang: Are you going to keep working in fantastic film?
Rathbone: Ideas aren’t things I like to say no to. I have gotten other horror scripts that I’ve decided to pass on for some reasons or another, but I’m certainly open. Twilight is not really a horror film, it has vampires in it, but it’s more of a romantic action piece. Dread has horrific elements, but I’m not sure it qualifies as pure horror. It’s so based in reality, the horror is inside the characters. That’s what appealed to me most about it. It was a story worth telling. That’s why I love to make movies, make art, why I’m involved in music.

Fang: With things going so well right now, have you had the chance to think about the instability of the business? What happens when Jackson Rathbone isn’t as in demand as he is right now?
Rathbone: That’s a great question. When I was 14 I was in Grease, and that was when I fell in love with music and acting. I actually quit the football team to pursue drama which wasn’t a popular decision with a lot of my friends. I understand what it’s like to not be “in demand.” In fact, I understand what it’s like to be a little bit of a pariah! And when I went to LA, I was by myself, busting on Venice Beach, just trying to make money. There was certainly no demand for me [laughs]. I definitely remember the days when it was hard to get in a casting director’s door. It might be a different game now, but it’ll just keep changing. It’ll be a new game. My goal is to keep doing what I love and to surround myself with other artists who are like minded. Kurt Vonnegut talked about that. He said you have to surround yourself with people who cause you to be a better person and a better artist. Your life and your art have to feed into one another for you to enjoy both.