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.