Even before creating this world, ILM would have to overcome the movie’s biggest challenge which was to create believable elemental bending FX, which play such a large part in the character interactions, particularly during battle. It wasn’t just a matter of creating fire or water but finding creative ways for the characters to manipulate these elements during battle with Aang’s airbending skills being the toughest. How do you show the movement of air visually in a way that has a similar impact and power as giant waves or fire bursts? The process began by putting together massive reels of source footage to watch how the elements reacted in various situations and that helped them figure out such problems.
Some people may not realize that the various bending skills require actually having the elements available to manipulate. Air is readily available as is earth in most locations, and there is water in the air in the form of humidity, but having fire around is another story. If you’re familiar with the X-Men villain Pyro, you know he doesn’t necessarily create fire but can manipulate it in different forms, and the same goes for the warriors of the Fire Nation who use fire cannons to create the element necessary to use their skills. Shyamalan really pushed the ILM to create fire that looked real, because he had never been convinced by CG fire before then. They took influence from videos at Burning Man where artists would use giant fans to create a giant pillar of fire.
ILM has spent many years perfecting their CG water going back to James Cameron’s The Abyss. For "Airbender," the team had to find ways for Aang and Katara to pull water out of a dormant state then have that water float in the air in different shapes. They watched NASA footage of how water behaves in zero gravity as inspiration, then evolved that process to the point where water could be turned into giant tidal tentacles to attack their enemies in battle.
As examples of some of the the film’s waterbending, we were shown two scenes, one of Katara practicing her waterbending skills, pulling a large globule of water out of a nearby lake and pulling it through the air as it starts to lose shape and discorporate before splashing down… right onto the head of Sokka! In another scene, we watch Aang meditating and doing Tai Chi while the water behind him bubbles and moves with him. In some of the action scenes we’ve seen (including in the trailer), we see how Aang is able to turn water into ice, encasing his foes.
Maybe one of the tougher things ILM had to do once they figured out how to create each of the elemental FX was to find ways of combining them during the battle sequences, the best example being a fight between Aang and Zuko, in which the former pulls water from a nearby urn and throws it at Zuko encasing him in ice. Zuko melts the ice using his fire and then chases after Aang, who uses his airbending to carry him up the sides of the walls while Zuko tosses fireballs at him. An even more impressive example was a four to five minute one-take sequence we were shown where our heroes enter the Earth Kingdom and get into a battle that involved all four elements going at once in a single shot that epitomized the long takes Shyamalan was using while making the movie. We also got a look at one of the title sequences used to introduce the different nations and their powers, each one showing an individual doing dance-like martial arts movements with their respective elements moving all around them.
Two of the characters from the cartoon fans are most anxious to see brought to life aren’t even human. They are Appa, Aang’s six-legged flying bison, and Momo, his flying pet lemur, and they’re both created entirely using CG. (The closest we got to "seeing" Appa on set was our chance to "feel up" the large white fur-covered construct that was his stand-in.) The challenge of making people believe these distinctive creatures could exist for real fell upon ILM’s Tim Harrington, who graciously showed us some of the work that went into that.
As with the bending effects, the first step in creating realism was to do research. For Momo, that involved going to the zoo to shoot footage of actual lemurs from Madagascar in order to see how they behaved. The designers and animators then worked together to figure out how Momo’s batlike-wings would retract into his arms when not flying or walking around on all fours. Because Momo has to interact so closely with Aang, it was important to figure out a way to shoot Noah’s scenes in a way that it makes it feel like he’s interacting with Momo, represented on set by a blue-screen bag.
In the case of Appa, who was described as "a cross between the Millennium Falcon and Chewbacca" or "the big quiet kid in the class," designing the creature wasn’t so hard, because the cartoon laid such groundwork for how he should look. Even so, they did have to figure out how this lumbering creature was going to be able to walk on six legs. For that, they looked at polar bears and imagined that the front two legs would act like arms that would work together as he walked. Harrington showed us the steps they went through in creating a fully CG scene involving Appa interacting with humans in a scene of the beast floating in the air with three or four kids playing with him by hanging from his paws.
He also gave us a look at some of the other creatures created including something they’ve dubbed "Kimodo Rhinos," the immense lizard-like beasts ridden by the Fire Nation as they invade different lands, in an extended sequence where one of the beasts is herded off an invading Fire Nation ship, climbs up the walls of the Northern Water city where its rider blasts the people below using a fire cannon. This was another example of how all of the different elements created by ILM were brought together in one CG sequence.
The final CG creature of note is Aang’s Spirit Dragon who we’ve yet to see in any of the commercials or trailers so far. This is a mystical creature that Aang encounters when he meditates and Shyamalan wanted something more with an Eastern flair that had the look of a "wise old man" with an emotive face, ad it’s very different from other movie dragons we’ve seen.
Is it Real or Is it ILM?
When you have a movie that relies so much on the work of CG animators, you may get to the point where you’re not sure how much of what you’re watching is real and what was done with CG. That may be one of the greatest accomplishments for The Last Airbender, which went so far as to use CG "facial replacements" to put Noah Ringer’s face on the body of his stunt double, a petite older woman, when some of the fight sequences got too dangerous for the young actor. Other times, they used the technology to create an entire body double for Ringer, while finding ways to seamlessly integrate the digital Noah with the real thing in what was shot on set.
The day before we arrived on set, Shyamalan had shot an elaborate fight sequence at the Northern Air Temple in which Aang and the Blue Spirit fight off hundreds of Fire Nation warriors, a scene that looked impressive when we saw the raw unaltered footage. Watching that same sequence after ILM had added the elemental bending and other enhancements gave us a good idea of what they’re bringing to the table even for scenes where you wouldn’t expect any CG was needed. After that sequence, Aang battles his pursuing warriors in the middle of a circle surrounded by shutters, another location we saw on set, but then ILM used CG to enhance that fight with Aang’s airbending opening and closing the shutters as needed to fend off his foes. Aang then runs off jumping across the tops of poles, and in the studio, these were maybe 2 or 3 feet high from the ground, but using CG, the ILM team makes it look as if Aang is jumping across poles high above a bottomless chasm.
Hopefully, that gives you an overview of some of the factors that went into making Shyamalan’s latest. We’ll have a few new interviews for you as the week goes on, leading up to the release of The Last Airbender on Thursday, July 1.