The Story and Background
For those who’ve never had a chance to watch the Nickelodeon cartoon, it’s a massive epic based in a mythical world that’s been divided into four sections, each nation having mastered control of one of the elements: fire, water, air and earth. This is done via a complex form of martial arts that allows one to "bend" the elements to their will. The powerful Fire Nation become imperialists who abuse their power by invading and defeating the neighboring nations, plunging the once-peaceful world into one of war and turmoil.
Two young teens from the Southern Water Tribe, Sokka and Katara, played by Jackson Rathbone (Jasper from the "Twilight" movies) and Nicola Peltz, find a young boy frozen in a block of ice. It turns out to be Aang, a mythical individual known as the Avatar, the one person capable of controlling all four elements who can bring peace to this world. Katara is the last of the Southern Tribe capable of waterbending, which makes her so crucial to Aang’s journey. When the Fire Nation discovers that the Avatar has been awaken, they pursue Aang and his friends in hopes of stopping them.
Shyamalan had established his career based on his original ideas, and not only would The Last Airbender be his first adaptation but also his first movie produced by a Hollywood legend, Frank Marshall, who had been associated with so many of Steven Spielberg’s biggest movies–Raiders of the Lost Ark, the "Jurassic Park" movies, Poltergeist–many which played a pivotal part in Shyamalan’s formative years.
This is planned as the part of a planned trilogy, each one centering around a different element that Aang has to learn as he travels through this mythical world with Sokka, Katara and Appa, the giant six-legged flying bison. (More on him later.) The movies essentially correspond to the three seasons of the show, the first movie covering "Book One: Water" with hopes to cover Earth and Fire in the next two movies. The Last Airbender is a movie filled with FX-driven action, but the mythology of this world has created opportunities for everyone involved to find or redefine themselves.
One of the first challenges faced by Shyamalan and Marshall, as well as one of the recurring millstones in terms of winning over the fans of the cartoon, was figuring out the right cast for some of the main roles, especially since the four main characters are under 18. Despite the flack they’ve gotten for casting American actors in roles thought to be Asian in the cartoons, they’ve done a pretty decent job finding actors that embody the characters from the cartoon, as well as not relying so much on name actors.
In fact, when the most famous actor in your movie is one who has only appeared in one other movie, then you know that Shyamalan isn’t making the normal "Hollywood blockbuster." That actor is Dev Patel, star of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, who plays Prince Zuko, the younger hot-tempered member of the Fire Nation who leads his army after Aang. This is a very different role from Patel’s previous one, as well as his character from the British show "Skins," because Zuko is all about the rage inside him and how he tries to keep it in control. (Look for our interview with Patel later this week.)
The real star of the movie is 12-year-old Noah Ringer, making his film debut as Aang as he has to carry the movie as the boy learning to fulfill his role as the Avatar. When we had a chance to talk to him on set, we were surprised how much his personality matched that of Aang from the cartoon. Similarly, Jackson Rathbone in real life has such an exuberant personality, similar to Sokka, that it’s hard to imagine that anyone would have any problem with him playing the role. While Nicola Peltz, who plays his sister Katara, has only had a few small roles including the daughter in Deck the Halls.
The craziest thing about so many people criticizing Shyamalan casting American actors is that he’s actually assembled an incredibly diverse cast including actors from all different backgrounds and ethnicities, using that to separate the different nations. For instance, the Firebenders are mainly played by Indian and Middle Eastern actors, while the people from the Earth Kingdom, who aren’t featured as prominently in the first movie, are of Asian descent.
Iranian actor Shaun Toub, best known for roles in The Kite Runner and Iron Man, plays Zuko’s uncle Iroh, who has joined his nephew in pursuit of the Airbender, while comedian Aasif Mandvi, best known from his appearance on Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show," was cast as Commander Zhao, a more dramatic role for the comic as he is playing a villain. We spent quite a bit of time talking to these actors on set and getting some idea of their personalities and their take on the material.
Creating the World
More than the casting, making the world from the animated series feel real was going to be a big challenge for Shyamalan’s team, especially because the filmmaker still wanted to make the majority of the movie in his Philadelphia neighborhood much like previous movies. The task of creating that believable world went to production designer Philip Messina, who has been Steven Soderbergh’s go-to guy for many of his bigger movies but with "Airbender," he was popping his "fantasy film" cherry, and his team would have to work closely with Pablo Hellman’s FX team to create anything that couldn’t be found or built in the Philly area.
While in Philly, we visited many of the sets, the most significant one being what was being claimed as the largest indoor set on the East Coast, taking up the entire expanse of an airplane hanger. This was the kingdom of the Northern Water Tribe, who were far more advanced than their Southern counterparts. This was a massive ice-laden structure with snow everywhere. We learned later that this was an all-purpose location for an enormous battle with the Fire Nation, with the ILM FX using green screens to block off certain areas then embellishing it with CG to make the place look enormous.
While many of the interiors were built on various local soundstages, including a large Naval Yard warehouse and an even larger airplane hanger, to create the South Pole land of the Southern Water Tribe, Shyamalan’s crew had to go to Greenland for three weeks where they built the igloos in which the primitive tribe lived.
Even with all the work done to find locations that suited the story, the ILM team often had to enhance the sets and locations or even create entire CG backgrounds, the latter being especially evident in the scenes involving the Fire Nation’s ships. They actually built a number of these ships on the Philly soundstages for the close-ups involving the actors, but in the bigger scenes, they had to create the entire fleet and all the backgrounds.
The Northern and Southern Air Temples were more examples of how natural environments were combined with CG enhancements, as the Air Nomads live high up in the mountains, which they can get to using their powers. To create their kingdoms, ILM artists took footage of actual mountain locations and added buildings and metal bridges to show how the Fire Nation had modified the terrain so that they can get around as easily as the Air Nomads. They also used CG to help maintain the otherworldy nature by adding temples and building the background to turn everyday Pennsylvania fields into the various lands they visit.
One of the main sets in Philly was the yard of the Northern Air Kingdom where the Fire Nation catches up to Aang, and a mysterious masked benefactor known as the Blue Spirit saves him from capture – if you haven’t seen the cartoon, we won’t give away who’s under that mask. On this set, we could also see the influence of the invading Fire Nation as the set builders incorporated the industrial pipes and beams of the building as part of the set, painting them in the Fire Nation’s distinctive red color.
Other locations we got to see first-hand included the tranquil ice cave where Aang meditates, a beautiful oasis of green-hued ice with a large hand-painted cherry blossom tree and a reflecting pool in the center. We got to walk around the Buddhist prayer room where Aang would face off against Zuka later in the movie, as well as the Hall of Avatars, which was in the process of being built at the building in the Naval Yard.
(Continue onto Part 2 by clicking "Next" below.)