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ILM Bends Fantasy into Reality in The Last Airbender


Director M. Night Shyamalan brings Nickelodeon’s popular animated series, The Last Airbender, to the big screen in a live-action adventure created with the help of the visual effects, 3D matte painting and animation artists of Industrial Light and Magic. Although the team was faithful to the original television show, incorporating key elements, they also needed the film to look completely realistic.

With visual effects-laden movies being de rigueur nowadays, unless a film is an Avatar filled with groundbreaking advancements, it can be easy to miss the achievements that are part of a continuum advancing the craft and technology of visual effects. Nevertheless, when a creative and technological heavyweight such as ILM is involved, one can expect an artistic integrity and impeccable craft that raises the bar and moves us even closer to “reality.”

As with all the filmmaking crafts, story is the common component that drives creative decision-making in visual effects and animation. The Last Airbender tells the tale of a world ravaged by a century of war between its four nations – Air, Water, Earth and Fire. A reluctant-savior, young Aang (Noah Ringer), discovers that he is the lone avatar with the power to manipulate all the four elements and restore balance to the devastated lands.

Pablo Helman Photo Courtesy Industrial Light & Magic

Veteran visual effects supervisor, Pablo Helman (Star Wars: Episode II, War of the Worlds) helmed the ILM team. After reading the script, the team reviewed each scene and talked about the various effects needed to tell the story. Working together with the director, a methodology was formed for the film that reflected the director’s vision. “You need to be able to see what the director sees, because after principal photography, I come back to ILM and work with about 300 people to impart that vision into the film,” explains Helman. “You have to have that vision inside.”

The director imparted his filmic vision on his first meeting with Helman. “He gave us this big book with the whole movie boarded,” reveals Helman. “He said, ‘This is my movie.’ Knight is committed and completely engaged. His vision was right there.”

The creative teams at ILM were charged with visualizing the world and the distinct environs for the elemental tribes – Air, Water, Earth and Fire. Additionally they needed to animate the mythological creatures that inhabit the world and enhance stunt work with digital doubles. Most importantly, they had to create the signature effects used for manipulating, or as the title implies, “bending,” the elements. “The work was challenging,” shares Helman. “We had to figure out what “bending” is for fire, water, air and earth.”

Helman and the ILM team love working on things that have never been seen before. The film presented that opportunity. When the project was started, the technology had not yet been developed to create the desired effect. They began “bending” the elements in the hardware, meaning the computation was in the computer graphic cards as opposed to using software. That allowed the work to be previewed very quickly. Getting the effect right could take sixty or seventy takes, a lot by the usual standards. According to Helman, it had to do with performance,  “Knight was directing, just like he would actors.”

“For an effects artist, this show was a dream to work on,” reveals associate VFX supervisor Craig Hammack. “Fire, water, air, the typical things that you have to work on as an effects artist, came together in this film with a director who is grounded in a naturalist style. He will not let you venture into fantasy.” According to digital production supervisor Daniel Pearson, early tests on the water bending effect served as proof of concept for both the team and the director, “to give him some sense of confidence that he could direct the water to do what he wanted it to do. They went and did their shoot after this.”

Earth bending was difficult due to all the particle work, which could not be rendered in hardware, but because of the reality-based expectations, the hardest elements to effectively bend were fire and water. “Being able to render the fire in hardware allowed us to get more iterations throughout the day in order to see what we were doing,” says Helman.  Ultimately, the challenge was not only “how to make an effect like fire look realistic,” but then make it behave in an unrealistic way, but still be believable to the audience. “It’s a very fine line understanding what is it that makes it look real,” he said.

Fire and water are traditionally difficult effects to recreate. To the usual problems, add the element of scale to the mix and the difficulties are amplified. “For the water we had three scales,” explains Helman. “Small scale was basically a bathtub size, something like that. Then we had the medium scale water, which was about fifty feet. Then we had the ocean. For the three different scales you had to figure out different techniques. Not all of them work the same way.”

Visual effects art director Christian Alzman and digital matte department supervisor Barry Williams were on the front lines conceptualizing what an effect like air bending would look like. “We used the animated series as a guideline, but everything had to be photo-real and based in the real world. Knight was very specific about wanting everything to look-physics based,” explains Alzman about the process. “We would key frame moments through the shots. We’d get the plates and paint in the air over the top, getting that swirling look. It took a while to realize we didn’t really want to see the air. We wanted to see what the air was pulling up. We wanted to draw in dust or snow.”

Another important guide that the artists had to take into account was that they had to match the movements of the actor. Until they had the “performance in the can,” the designing the effects could not really begin. And since each character was unique, the director wanted each of their styles of bending to be unique.

Since it takes so long to learn a particular skill set, much of Helman’s crew is specialized.  In terms of matte paintings, this was the biggest show that Helman had ever done. Williams elaborates about creating the environments for the four nations, “Each has their own characteristic, design esthetic, architecture and all that.” Inspiration was taken from references all over the world, from Buddhist temples in Burma to Monument Valley in Arizona to give the design “some real world tangibility.” The team tried to minimize the impact of the set extensions and enhancements to capture the director’s photo-realistic vision by creating the different worlds without totally replacing everything. “Sometimes, less is more,” said Williams.

All of the painting had to be 3D because the visual style included long duration shots in which the camera was always moving. The live-action footage of the end battle scene, which was enacted on a huge 200′ X 200′ set, had to be incorporated with stills of the landscapes shot in Greenland, as well as the low-angle lighting that the crew had captured while on location there, so that the artists could create 3D matte painting that looked realistic when all elements were composited together. Using the digital backgrounds created from the stills imported into the computer, the camera could be animated to get the angles needed for the different shots in the film.

In terms of animated characters, the show contains creature work, digital double work and fight scenes with thousands of characters. Animation supervisor Tim Harrington shepherded the stages of character creation and animation. “Because the Airbender in the television series is very acrobatic, it was decided early on to use a combination of wire-work and animation to recreate that in the film,” says Harrington. Multiple cameras were used to capture the subject from different angles, so as to recreate that character in the computer.

According to Helman, the young, first-time actors in the cast were very receptive to the process that was used to capture performance for the digital double work. “We had Noah in our motion capture studio, surrounded by monitors so he could see the scenes in which he needed to act, over and over,” explains Helman. “We kept capturing data until we had what we wanted. With a new way of capturing data, we’re able to do digital double work using exactly the performance that the actors gave us.”

One of the benefits in working at a facility such as ILM, are the tools available to artists always looking to improve results. “We started our traditional way with the cage that draws the facial controls. Then we decided it was a small enough number of shots to try something new,” explains Harrington. “We developed the proprietary solver that snaps the geometry – essentially shrink-wraps it – to the base.” The resolver made the digital replacement a one-to-one match that was completely accurate.

The wide variety of creatures in the film drew Harrington to the project. “We have a lemur with wings, the giant flying bison who’s got six legs and a beaver tail and a couple of reptilian creatures – the spirit dragon, this giant serpentine dragon with wings, and the komodo dragons that the villains ride into battle.”

In creating the creatures, the team referenced nature. They looked for examples of the same size and weight as the animated film character, so that what they created would be believable, and then developed hybrids from different animals to make each new species unique. The lemur Momo’s wings, and the mechanics of how they fly, were based on a giant fruit bat. During the later stages of character development, other elements, such as texturing, hair or scale simulation, light and shadow complimentary to the live action, and life-like eyes, were added to each character to make the final animation appear as real as possible.

The team also observed actual animals in order to know how they would act, using that, along with the director’s take on the personality of each creature, in animating the character. “Knight thought of the lemur as a street kid, an opportunist looking for a warm place to stay, maybe some food, but when things get dangerous he might just take off,” shares Harrington.

Involvement on project was intense for Helman and his team.  It began with six months of pre-production.  Helman then went to Greenland two weeks before production to shoot helicopter plates, after which he spent four principal photography weeks there at frigid temperatures of -40F.  Production moved for three months into the Philadelphia region, shooting on stages and at area locations.  The shoot culminated with another helicopter shoot in Arizona’s Monument Valley. The work at ILM continued until all told, Helman had been exclusively on the project for about one-and-a-half years.  Many on the team worked almost as long.  And in the time they were helping M. Knight Shyamalan tell his story, Helman and his team were able to do something never done before — they bent the elements.

“As a visual effects person, my first meeting with a director always goes something like this…’give me something I have never seen before.’  And my thought is, if the material is there, we can always come up with something.”


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