The world is engulfed by the fires of war, and no one has the power to stop the inevitable destruction…until now.
For nearly a century, the Fire Nation has waged its deadly campaign for global domination over its fellow tribal nations of Air, Water and Earth. They offer but one choice to the tribes who fall to their might–complete surrender, or complete annihilation.
As the villagers vainly attempt to defend themselves, they stand behind the chosen few who can command their nation’s element and ‘bend’ it to their will. Backed by enormous armies and weapons of destruction, however, the firebenders have already eliminated every airbender on the planet and now, they turn their attentions to the Water Nation, headquartered in their northern fortress.
One day, young waterbender Katara (NICOLA PELTZ) is out practicing her skills with her brother Sokka (JACKSON RATHBONE) when they discover a young boy named Aang (NOAH RINGER). But as Aang’s airbending skills become apparent, Katara and Sokka realize that they have found more than just the last airbender. As the prophesied Avatar–the only one who can control all four of the elements–the young airbender is the lone weapon that can repel the Fire Nation’s onslaught and ultimately restore balance to the war-torn world. But can he master his bending skills and become the hero he needs to be before it is too late?
A master storyteller, Oscar®-nominated writer/producer/director M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN (“The Sixth Sense,” “Signs,” “Unbreakable”) brings the hit animated series “The Last Airbender” to the big screen, creating an epic, larger-than-life world that explodes with spectacular special effects, great action and exciting adventure.
The film boasts a talented youthful cast that includes–along with Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone–DEV PATEL (“Slumdog Millionaire”) as the Fire Nation’s vengeful Prince Zuko; SHAUN TOUB (“Iron Man”) as Zuko’s dedicated Uncle Iroh, aiding the Prince in his quest; AASIF MANDVI (“Spider-Man 2”) as the Fire Nation’s Commander Zhao, a military man without a conscience; and CLIFF CURTIS (“Live Free or Die Hard”) as Fire Lord Ozai, who will reject anyone–including flesh-and-blood–who stands in his way.
“The Last Airbender” is based on the series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” created by MICHAEL DANTE DiMARTINO and BRYAN KONIETZKO, who also serve as executive producers. Producing with Shyamalan are SAM MERCER (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “The Village”) and FRANK MARSHALL (the “Bourne” series, “Indiana Jones” series), with executive producers KATHLEEN KENNEDY (“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “War of the Worlds”) and SCOTT AVERSANO (“Killers,” “The School of Rock”).
Joining Shyamalan’s creative team are Academy Award®-winning cinematographer ANDREW LESNIE, ACS, ASC (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), production designer PHILIP MESSINA (the George Clooney “Ocean’s” series), Academy Award®-winning editor CONRAD BUFF, A.C.E. (“Titanic”) and costume designer JUDIANNA MAKOVSKY (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”). Serving as co-producer is JOSE L. RODRIGUEZ (“The Happening”). Rounding out the production are multi-Oscar® -nominated composer JAMES NEWTON HOWARD (“The Dark Knight”), along with the visual effects & animation magicians at INDUSTRIAL LIGHT & MAGIC (“Avatar”).
Starting in 2005, Nickelodeon began airing an original animated series called “Avatar: The Last Airbender” from co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The show struck a chord with a wide range of viewers. Soon, “Avatar” fever had spread to become an international phenomenon (the show now airs in more than 120 countries). It soon came to the attention of one of Hollywood’s best storytellers–M. Night Shyamalan. The double-Oscar®-nominated filmmaker comments, “‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ fell into my lap. It hit me like an epiphany.”
Shyamalan’s daughters had fallen in love with the series, particularly the character of the young female waterbender Katara. Intrigued by their unprecedented fan loyalty, Shyamalan decided to watch the television show alongside them, and then he too was hooked.
Clearly, there was cinematic potential in the series. Yet to adapt the 30-some hours of stories into a feature film would not be a task without significant challenge–including the filmmaker’s entry into a genre he had yet to explore in his previous work. “I knew from the moment I put the first words on the page, that to do a movie of this complexity, you have to put work into it. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who created the ‘Avatar’ series, spent six years constructing the mythology.
“It has been a real eye-opener and interesting learning curve for me to do something of this scale, while still wanting to maintain a level of perfection,” continues Shyamalan. “I was scared to death every day of shooting, as it could be so overwhelming, and there were so many unknowns. This movie is two-and-a-half times bigger than anything I have ever done.”
Since the filmmakers of “The Last Airbender” are devoted fans of the original series, they have one ultimate goal that they hope to achieve. “We want to create a film that will not only live up to the fans’ expectations, but also expand it to a worldwide audience in ways that only a full length live-action motion picture can offer,” says Shyamalan.
“Avatar” creators DiMartino and Konietzko were extremely helpful with the development of the screenplay for Shyamalan, helping to scale down the many stories to feature film size. “I can’t tell you how comforting it was to have them only a phone call or email away when I got in a jam. Their ‘Avatar’ mythology is so well thought out that they had an answer and a back story for all my questions.”
Shyamalan had toyed with the idea of doing a franchise type of movie for many years, but never connected with any material. But “The Last Airbender” seemed to have all of the elements that fascinated the filmmaker since he was young, when he first saw “Star Wars”–epic fantasy, fueled by an inherent spirituality, and featuring martial arts at its core.
Says producer Frank Marshall, who collaborated with Shyamalan previously on “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” “Night has such a signature filmmaking style and a unique way of telling a story. He has the ability to touch an audience in a way that is very broad. In this film he is expanding his talent and range, which is an incredibly exciting prospect.”
Adds producer Sam Mercer, “Night had been interested in and offered other franchise pictures before in his career, but until ‘The Last Airbender,’ he did not find one that he could make his own–organically, from the first words he put on the page.”
Shyamalan offers that his own comfort zone lies within the thriller genre and admits, “It’s good to change it up and teach myself something new and do something completely different.”
“The Last Airbender” explores Book One of the “Avatar” series that centers around the element of water. The film follows Aang, the Avatar, as he embarks on a quest to master all four elements in order to save the world. As in the television series, “The Last Airbender” journeys from the South Pole to the North.
To begin tackling such a tale, Shyamalan employed longtime collaborator, storyboard artist Brick Mason, and together the two plotted the film on boards for an entire year prior to the start of principal photography. Once cinematographer Andrew Lesnie signed on–who joined for one last pass at the storyboards–the movie was taken to the pre-visualization phase, working with Industrial Light & Magic and VFX supervisor Pablo Helman. At that point, scene-by-scene real-time animatics were rendered, creating a blueprint that enabled the filmmakers to see animated and edited versions of sequences (more than a third of the film was outlined in pre-viz prior to the beginning of filming). Further down the road, getting to watch pre-viz on-set proved invaluable guidance–and viewing them on iPhones was much easier than huddling around a single monitor.
Calling All Benders
Shyamalan was equally forward-thinking when it came time to cast the film. He comments, “I searched for a spectrum of cast members with all different kinds of acting chops. You can’t just choose one scale of actors.” The filmmakers were also mindful to people the four nations with diverse ethnicities.
The epicenter of that world is Aang, the Avatar, and the search for just the right young performer took six months and covered a lot of territory. When filmmakers received a DVD showcasing a young martial arts champion from Dallas, Texas, serendipity and fate collided.
Noah Ringer had begun practicing Taekwondo, the martial art and national sport of South Korea, at the age of 10, his skills later garnering accolades, including the title of American Taekwondo Association Texas State Champion. Early on, Noah had begun shaving his head to help cool off during training. When his friends and his instructor, all fans of the animated series, noted how much he looked like the television hero, they started calling Noah by the nickname of “Avatar.” Intrigued, he began watching the series on DVD, and he really connected with the non-stop action martial arts sequences.
When it was announced that Paramount was conducting international casting calls for roles in “The Last Airbender,” Noah–urged by his Taekwondo instructor–made a DVD audition tape, even painting the character’s signature blue arrow on his already shaved head.
“Noah is Aang. There is no way around it. From the moment we saw his audition tape, we could see the sincerity in those big brown eyes,” says Shyamalan. “He is dedicated to his craft and he truly cares and wants to work harder every day. His discipline is unprecedented for such a young man.”
Adds producer Frank Marshall, “From the get-go, Noah had a very Zen-like quality to him, and that is exactly what we were searching for in this character.”
Having to combine acting with his martial arts expertise, Noah says, “Night really helped me feel the focus and get that power and energy into my acting, which will help me forever in my life.”
In any compelling story of ‘good versus evil,’ everybody knows you have to have a great villain. So, getting someone to match Ringer in the part of Prince Zuko would be key..
Having just come off of the seemingly out-of-nowhere success of the Oscar®-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” leading actor Dev Patel was in search of a role as different as possible from his “Slumdog” character, Jamal. While publicizing the indie hit, Patel submitted himself on tape for the Prince, and later got ‘the call’ from Shyamalan, offering him the part.
Says Shyamalan, “In actuality, vulnerability is Zuko’s strong suit. Dev Patel’s sweet spot is vulnerability. Dev was that man-child when we cast him for the part, the perfect combination of anger and compassion.”
Offers Patel (who watched “Avatar” during downtime on the set of “Slumdog”), “Prince Zuko is torn between his passion and his struggle to regain his honor in his father’s eyes. I always loved the story, because it has a lot of lessons to be learned, and I have always been a big Bruce Lee fan, so of course I loved all the martial arts stuff in the animated series.”
When Ringer and Patel met on the first day of shooting, a mutual respect was formed then and there. Per Patel: “I saw this 12-year-old kid come onto the set of this massive film and was surprised to see that he was just unwaverable. His martial arts training had really given him this steadiness and determination to go for it, regardless of the challenge.”
Like Ringer, the young actress Nicola Peltz had also decided to submit herself for a part in Shyamalan’s latest film, and was called in to read for the role of waterbender Katara–and later, offered the role. Peltz had become quite familiar with the character, having faithfully watched the series with her younger twin brothers.
Like Shyamalan’s daughters, little girls everywhere look up to Katara and her strength as a young woman. Says Peltz, “She is an amazing role model for girls. Anything she puts her mind to, she’ll do–she is so physically and mentally strong.”
With both parents absent, Katara’s older brother Sokka gladly accepts the role of protector. Even though Sokka isn’t gifted with bending skills, he still possesses the soul of a true warrior. If Katara is ever threatened, he will spring into action with his boomerang or a spear. Cast in the part was Jackson Rathbone of “Twilight” fame, who brings a brooding physicality to the role.
Says Shyamalan, “In the film I grounded Sokka more, so, while there is humor in the film, he is not the comic relief. That gave Jackson more of a range to play with, and during the course of the film, you can really watch Sokka grow up.”
In addition to the trek he and his sister take, Sokka’s character also undergoes an emotional journey when he meets Princess Yue, played by Seychelle Gabriel, and falls in love with her. Says Rathbone, “In a way, Sokka is a hick from the Southern Water Tribe, and he goes to the big city of the Northern Water Tribe, where he meets this beautiful and sophisticated princess. Their relationship teaches him so much, and he grows up a great deal.”
Prince Zuko’s journey is fueled by the duties of family. After being shamed in battle, Zuko has been ostracized by his father, Fire Lord Ozai (played by Cliff Curtis). Zuko is determined to win back his father’s love and esteem. Zuko is aided by his Uncle Iroh (played by Shaun Toub), an ex-general and veteran of many wars, who acts as a mentor and confidante to the young prince.
The Fire Nation rules and is ruled by militaristic force–so it is no surprise that, on a personal level, the same philosophy of ‘might makes right’ holds true. It is the duty of the strong to push the weak aside and take rule. Believing himself a more accomplished leader than the Zuko, Commander Zhao (played by Aasif Mandvi) is out to take the place of the shamed prince, and will go to any lengths to earn the Fire Lord’s favor.
To fill out the cast with the tribesmen of the four nations, open casting calls were held all over the East Coast for actors who would be called upon to exhibit a list of skills from many disciplines–martial arts, the military, dancing, gymnastics. Calls were put out for actors of all age groups, including children (ranging from six to fifteen).
Men resembling Middle Eastern, Indian, Mediterranean and Italian peoples were cast as Fire Nation soldiers. A mix of men, women and children resembling those of Korean, Japanese, Mongolian and African descent were cast as the Earth Kingdom citizens living under Fire Nation rule. Likewise, hundreds of men, women and children resembling those of Anglo descent were cast as villagers in the Southern and Northern Water Tribes.
In the final tally, more than 6,000 actors were employed to make up the world of “The Last Airbender.”
Mastering the Art of Bending
Once Noah Ringer was cast as Aang, he only had about one month to train–as an actor, that is. He was surprised at how much the discipline of acting and the practice of martial arts had in common. Observes Ringer, “In Taekwondo, you listen to your instructor, and then respond. You do the same thing in acting with your director.”
Ringer trained with the stunt department for a couple of months prior to filming, incorporating his martial arts moves in complicated, choreographed fight sequences. Says Shyamalan, “Noah has a way of adding poetry to his moves, and at the same time, never losing his ‘Aang sensibility.’ On set, we had to pinch ourselves that this is not only his first movie, but also his first time ever acting. I challenged him everyday on the integrity of his acting, and he would come right back at me with ideas and interpretations of his own. He has a competitive instinct that makes him want to be the best he can be at everything he does.”
Nicola Peltz had played ice hockey for many years, and was thinking about playing professionally before she made the decision to pursue acting. Her athletic skills came in handy when training for the role of Katara, which included a regimen of martial arts training that started five months before filming began.
Says the New York native, “I started training on my own in Brooklyn and learned Kung Fu, which is a style of martial arts that is force against force. Then, a couple of months before we started filming, I went to Philadelphia and began training in Tai chi, then putting the choreography of the fight scenes together with Noah and Jackson.”
Nicola focused the majority of her training on Tai chi chuan, a martial art with a gentler, slower style and flowing movements. Tai chi uses internal energy to promote mental calmness and clarity, and it is the chosen style of bending utilized by the Water Tribe.
Four Cinematic ‘Nations’ Combine Forces: Martial Arts, Stunts, VFX and SFX
In the television series, bending was accomplished through the magic of animation. But for a live-action film, many elements would need to work in harmony in order to cinematically conjure the onscreen control of fire, water, earth and air. These four movie elements were martial arts, stunt work, visual and special effects.
Shyamalan has always been a big fan of martial arts and martial arts films. “I am a huge martial arts freak. I am one of those guys that has a statue of Bruce Lee in my office and has seen ‘Enter the Dragon’ dozens and dozens of times.”
While leads Noah Ringer and Dev Patel both hold black belts in Taekwondo, the style of martial art from Korea, they would need to work on transforming their moves to fit with those called for in the film. The world of “The Last Airbender” uses the Chinese martial art known as Wushu, which incorporates several fighting styles.
In the original animated series, four styles of Wushu were used to differentiate the four types of bending: Baguazhang for airbending, Tai chi for waterbending, Hung Ga for earthbending, and Northern Shaolin Kung Fu for firebending. The film utilizes the same styles, and the actors and stunt performers spent months training prior to shooting. The director even had Ringer watch Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” for reference.
There are thousands of different kinds of Wushu, and it is the way the moves are executed that determines the style. A parallel could be drawn to singing. There are many styles (pop, rock, jazz), all considered singing. But it’s the way the song is sung that determines what kind it is.
Patel remembers, “When I was younger, I had this crazy amount of energy in school, and I was always getting into trouble. So my parents put me in drama classes, and also gave me lessons at a Taekwondo school. I trained for eight years in martial arts and eventually became a black belt in Karate. Who knew I would ever get to put my skills to use?”
The young actor recalls a sign on the wall of the martial arts studio where he trained–Martial arts is not just about fighting, it is a way of life.
If it hadn’t been already, it certainly became a way of life for many in the cast and crew of “The Last Airbender”…for a few months, anyway.
And no matter how accomplished at martial arts the cast members were, they would still have to call on the stunt department. When the action proved too heavy for principal actors, they came to rely on the 61 members of the stunt crew, as well as a large team of stunt riggers, performers, and a Wushu trainer. Also, more than 90 of the hired extras arrived with prior martial arts experience, who were then further trained by the stunt team.
Habberstad and his team rehearsed the action sequences for four months prior to shooting. The staged fights were more like dances–choreographed to the last move, they would need to be performed with exact timing and precision. Says Jeff Habberstad, “We were onstage doing some ground work, and then we graduated to using wires. We’ve never done anything like this before, and we gathered up the best stunt riggers in the business. We couldn’t compromise on the quality or the look of it. Everything needed to be perfect, and perfectly safe.”
Even with all key cast undergoing martial arts training, the more challenging and complicated sequences warranted the use of stunt doubles. Every actor had a double, except for Noah Ringer…who had two.
Experienced stuntwomen Karine Mauffrey and Jade Quon worked tirelessly to create the effortless look of Aang’s airbending and waterbending fight sequences. Each woman brought a unique aspect to the role: Karine, a four-year Cirque du Soleil acrobat, brought style and grace to Aang’s difficult airbending moves; Jade, trained in martial arts and gymnastics, handled Aang’s big moves and wire work with might (a special harness allowed Jade to flip and spin on the wire simultaneously).
The stunt team employed a computer program called Navigator, which pre-programmed wirework measuring details on a grid, and displayed the speed of the movement on a graph. Helmed by two technicians, this exacting precision was operated with the touch of a button, giving them the power to perfectly replicate the stunt ad infinitum. Should adjustments be needed, the computer could handle that as well. This amazing combination of technologies gave the stunt performers the ability to ‘fly’ while suspended from a steel wire no more than one-quarter of an inch thick.
Says Shyamalan, “There are several big moments in the film where Aang surprises his enemies, and fights them so effortlessly. Even though we know his inner struggle is strong, he is still able to fend off attackers using his peripheral vision–it comes off almost like a ballet move. There are key beats in the film where I hope every adult and kid in the audience will be saying to themselves, ‘I wish I could do that!’” It was truly one for all and all for one to pull off the complex fight sequences–every department head needed to work in tandem with the others to accomplish some of the more daring tasks. “It was serendipity during filming the hard core action,” says Shyamalan. “Everyone fed off one another until we got the result we are all happy with.”
Another department of equal importance in the onscreen magic was the visual effects corps, headed by VFX supervisor Pablo Helman. His Industrial Light & Magic team would prove to be instrumental in building the fantasy world of “The Last Airbender,” beginning with the pre-visualization animation created months before filming.
And months later, when the cameras stopped rolling, ILM’s work started up again. The post-production schedule included six months to put all of the VFX shots in place, and another four to five months to perfect all of the details in Shyamalan’s sweeping canvas.
Helman explains, “We had a fairly long period of research and development to pinpoint exactly what ‘bending’ would be, would look like. One thing we knew was that, in order for it to work, it needed to be organic. It had to feel believable, but also, it should have the power to propel you into a fantasy world where anything could happen–it needed to have emotion.”
Shyamalan adds, “We want everyone to believe that bending is real. Bending should be a believable extension of human capabilities, an ability that is controlled with chi, and the chi can manipulate the element.”
But VFX would be called upon to do much more than ‘bend’–it would be required to do the ‘heavy lifting’ in the creation, embellishment and extension of environments. Shyamalan admits, “CGI used to be my nemesis–and now, having used it in this film, I understand it is an emotional storytelling tool.”
“The Last Airbender” also marked a departure in Shyamalan’s usual filmmaking process. On previous films, he didn’t go to the cutting room to edit until filming was complete. But on “The Last Airbender,” he began to cut during production. Then, he could send edited scenes to ILM so that they could begin their CGI work.
When possible, sets were constructed for filming instead of relying on the use of bluescreen. Says Helman, “In VFX we always prefer to have something there for the actor to perform with and react to. Then we take it from there.”
ILM did much more than create and extend environments. It was also called upon to create amazing creatures that could only exist in a universe where a handful of people can bend the elements. Among those creatures are: Appa, a six-legged bison, measuring 16 feet tall and 12 feet wide, that swims through the air in a motion derived from the movements of the manatee and platypus; the Fire Nation’s Kimodo Rhino, an animal ridden into battle, coming in at 32 feet long (including tail) and more than 17 feet tall; the flying lemur bat called Momo, who is especially fond of fruit; and the Dragon Spirit, who appears to advise and guide Aang on his treacherous journey. Without exception, these exceptional creatures began life on the set. Sometimes, they were no more than a point on which actors could focus, establishing an eyeline, or a simple chair rig, in which they could sit and simulate ‘riding’ the animal.
For the work of conjuring effects during actual filming, Shyamalan looked to the Special Effects team, led by Steve Cremin, who has collaborated with Shyamalan on all of his previous films.
One of Cremin’s biggest jobs was to create fire–which sounds simple enough, but as the predominant weapon of the Fire Nation, the fire in Shyamalan’s script is called upon to do many things. Cremin mostly utilized gas pipes (the rigging of which is very complex), but also created burning debris, flaming fireballs, torches and, of course, smoke. Nearly every type of fire made an appearance in the sequence where Aang and Zuko meet face-to-face. Within the circular set, cast and stunt performers were rigged with wires to walk the walls between explosions (provided courtesy of squibbed pots, wired to detonators outside of the camera’s eye).
In fact, whenever Zuko is engaged in hand-to-hand combat, he is encircled by a ring of fire. To achieve the beginning of firebending, a wire was strung across the set and ignited. Says Patel, “It’s an adrenaline rush–this flame ball rushing right past my face. In the fight with Aang, I would do a spinning hook kick, and as soon as my leg came around, one of the SFX guys pressed a button, making it look like a flame is coming out of my leg. Then it would zip down to a pot and smash it to bits. Destruction and fire, quite the combo.”
But, like Aang, Cremin was called upon to bend more than just fire–employing everything from hydraulics and air hoses, to water in all its forms, not to mention stunt rocks!, the SFX team could also provide instant bending of air, water and earth, giving the actors and stunt performers quite a bit to react to!
Designing “The Last Airbender”
The design transformation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series into feature film began in November 2007, when executive producers (and series co-creators) DiMartino and Konietzko handed over all of their sketches and designs from the show to production designer Philip Messina. In seeking to blow up this world from the small screen to the big, Messina and his art department began gathering references. Looking at everthing from travel and history magazines, to sociology journals, to tomes dedicated to dead languages, they slowly began to complile a bible of their own concept illustrations. From China to North Africa to India, even Medieval times, Messina ruled nothing out to inspire him during the design process. Later, Messina’s original conceptual art for every set stood as the ultimate reference throughout production.
Messina, who worked with Shyamalan as an art director on “The Sixth Sense,” says, “I had to think of what the communities of each nation were like. From the perished Air Nomads, to the grandeur of the Northern Water Tribe, versus the Earth Villagers who were more organic, to the industrialized Fire Nation. Designing the nations were like four pieces to a puzzle. Every time I changed one of them, it affected the other. I wanted to do them in concert with each other, and make them feel coherent, yet uniquely different.”
A year prior to filming, Messina was ready to build with a full art department and construction department of more than 250 artisans. The production designer collaborated closely with costume designer Judianna Makovsky, hair and makeup designer Ivana Primorac, and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie. Together, they sought to relate all design decisions–from a button, to a wig, to an establishing shot–so that no detail was overlooked.
Four Nations, Many Worlds
Perhaps Messina’s biggest design challenge lay in the fortress of the Northern Water Tribe (NWT). The impressive structure–which needed to appear is if made entirely of ice–is the setting for the last third of the film, which features the siege of the fortress by the soldiers of the Fire Nation (employing more than 400 performers in the battle sequences). Says Messina, “The NWT set was the hardest to design. You essentially have an environment that exists in a polar ice cap. You have to start questioning, ‘How do these people live?’ We took the conceit that they were one with their environment, and that they lived in this extreme climate by choice.”
Messina designed the NWT set with many Islamic, Indian and Turkish influences in mind. Utilizing more than 200 workers, the construction of the massive set took nearly four months to complete, and it slowly rose from the floor of an airplane hangar the size of two football fields laid side-to-side. To reinforce the feeling of being hewn from ice, the set was enrobed in thousands of gallons of blue- and gray-tinted polymer, all topped with Epson salt-based snow.
For the raw and natural sets of the Earth village, a rock quarry provided the perfect environment in which to build the outdoor sets. Designers co-opted the colors in the soil, rocks and surrounding wilderness into their palette. Primitive tent structures were built free-hand from the logs of the nearby forest, and the town took on the feel of a nomadic Bedouin encampment.
When scouting the quarry for the Earth village prison set, Messina was pleasantly surprised to find pre-existing industrial equipment right in the middle of the space. “Instead of fighting it, I thought we could incorporate it into our set. The huge tower and conveyor belt machinery felt like it could belong to the archaic and industrialized look of the Fire Nation.” A constructed pair of steel doors and catwalk later, the design challenge was transformed into an asset.
The design of the far-reaching Fire Nation–drenched in fiery reds and ominous blacks–stands distinct and alone from the looks of the other worlds…and for a very specific reason. Says Messina,”‘Avatar’ co-creators Mike and Bryan reminded me that the Fire Nation began as a tribal people, just like all the others. It was just so easy to label them as bad guys. But as their empire grew through industrialization, they also grew in power.” Messina’s resulting design is reminiscent of early industrialized America, mixed with elements of ancient Japanese culture.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Fire Nation Dining Hall, where Prince Zuko is humiliated in front of his rank-and-file tribesmen. The hall was constructed in the interior of a former power plant. Shuttered more than 25 years ago, the plant offered Messina a network of exposed pipes and walls with peeling paint. The production designer saw visions of Japan in the age of the shoguns and China under Communist rule, and incorporated them into the look of the dining hall.
When the film begins, the Air Nomads have already fallen to the military campaign of the Fire Nation, so Messina knew that the sets of this formerly great nation would be largely in ruin. He looked to ancient temples in, Cambodia for many of the references that inspired the design of the Northern Air Temple. The Temple is the site of a showdown between Aang, the Blue Spirit and a squad of Fire Nation soldiers. The set was built on a soundstage in northern Philadelphia, and while it looks to be entirely made of stone, rubber is incorporated into the structure to provide the stunt men a softer place to break their falls.
Clearly, four nations, each centered in a different climate, could not all feature the same clothing, so costume designer Judianna Makovsky and her team created unique looks for each nation. In total, more than 1,800 costumes and armor pieces and 50 pairs of shoes and boots were designed and built for “The Last Airbender.” Makovsky drew color palettes, shapes and designs from the “Avatar” series, and brought them into the real world.
All four of the resulting civilizations emerged as a mixture of ethnicities and diverse cultures–cultural specificity was avoided. Each featured a distinctive design and color palette. The Southern Water Tribe villagers were dressed in muted blues, browns and grays, trimmed with the roughest of fake fur. The more sophisticated Northern Water Tribe is awash in vibrant blues, purples and grays, utilizing richer fabrics trimmed with expensive-looking faux fur. The imprisoned peoples of the Earth Nation sport distressed costumes with colors and design touches from ancient Korean and Chinese dress. And Fire Nation soldiers are outfitted in blacks, reds and golds, with helmets and armor harkening back to warriors from the cultures of Japan, Russia and Mongolia.
In addition to the hundreds of makeup and wig designs generated and executed by the production, two signature “looks” took a special collaboration between Shyamalan, Makovsky and makeup and hair designer Ivana Primorac. For Prince Zuko’s facial scar, the team employed a prosthetic makeup artist to create a healed burn that looks as if flames had licked the Prince’s face; the basic design was futher stylized until it almost resembled, according to Makovsky, “the flames on the side of a muscle car.” The signature blue arrow that adorns Aang’s forehead was created by a New York City tattoo artist and is comprised of dots, almost like lace. Mindful that the mark not become distracting or overbearing–and to prevent any recognizable symbols or lettering–Primorac and the artist developed a wholly created alphabet based on a conglomeration of everything from Native American, Thai and Japanese calligraphy, to symbols from the practice of alchemy and Tibetan Mandala. The team came up with the resulting arrow, which was stenciled using blue-green makeup. That color resembles tattoo ink that has weathered the test of time.
No matter how many benders they had on the front lines, soldiers from the Earth Nation would still require weaponry. For that, Messina worked with the prop master. They came up with designs for various swords, spears and halberds (ancient battle axes) based on weaponry and armor from the Dark Ages and Medieval times.
On Location: Going Greenland
Despite its pastoral name, most of the continent of Greenland is an icy landscape. With the commencement of principal photography, production traveled to the tiny, already scouted coastal town of Ilulissat, Greenland (the town’s literal name means “iceberg”). There, all scenes of Katara, Sokka and the village of the Southern Water Tribe would be filmed.
Going all the way to Greenland for filming definitely shows the filmmakers’ commitment to authenticity. The site is accessible only by a small plane, and the temperatures during shooting sometimes dipped well below zero. Yet, to capture the stunning views of snow-covered hills against clear blue skies and a sea riddled with icebergs, all of the effort was certainly worth it.
Says producer Sam Mercer, “We felt strongly that the beginning of the movie should feel like a very real beginning to a journey. We came to Greenland because there is nowhere in the world like it; it is a one-of-a-kind landscape with icebergs, water and glaciers, all in the same place.”
Producer Frank Marshall (who had previously shot there) says, “One of the great things about this location for the actors is that they are among the real elements, so their performances are genuine. They are able to respond to being in the record cold temperatures in a natural and normal way. When we needed a location that called for ice, icebergs and no trees, we knew exactly where to go.”
As nothing could be left to chance, all details were gone over repeatedly. Continues Mercer, “After the challenge of transporting our equipment by ship in enormous containers from the U.S., we then had a huge checklist for every department, covering everything, from how you keep people warm while they are working, to how you keep the cameras from freezing.”
So the filmmakers, cast and crew–who were asked to “pack a little patience” in their suitcases–ventured to Ilulissat for the first nine days of filming “The Last Airbender.” All cast, crew and gear were then transported to remote locations just outside of Ilulissat via helicopter. To use the location to its fullest, scenes were filmed in multiple locations, from atop a frozen lake, to teetering on the edge of an ice cap.
The main location while shooting in western Greenland was the Southern Water Tribe Village, constructed against the stark backdrop of icebergs floating in Disco Bay. Building began two months prior to principal photography, and production designer Messina remembers, “None of us had ever built anything like this in an extreme environment before. We had paintbrushes freezing over before the first paint stroke was applied.” In all, the crew numbered some 150, and was comprised of workers from the U.S., Greenland and Denmark.
The village featured 11 full-sized igloo structures, which had been molded out of fiberglass in Philadelphia, transported piecemeal and reassembled on location. The set was dressed with animal hides, pottery, handmade drums, fish and netting borrowed from the locals. Antique wooden canoes were provided, courtesy of the local Ilulissat museum. Ironically, in between takes, the snow-covered igloos served as warming rooms for the cast, thanks to the presence of portable heaters inside.
The set was constructed upon government land protected by UNESCO World Heritage, which dictated that certain rules and regulations had to be obeyed. For one, the art department was not allowed to touch the ground with any of their building materials–so, all structures were bolted to the thick icy surface that rested on top of the soil.
In addition to the village where Katara and Sokka live, filming also took place in front of the strange frozen orb where the pair discover Aang. That set was built using mostly snow reinforced with Styrofoam.
One might expect a lag in technology in such a remote place, but that is not the case. Just prior to the arrival of the film company in Ilulissat, Tele-Post Greenland installed a high-speed Internet cable that ran thousands of miles under the sea. This technology was able to transport shot footage (that was then processed in Copenhagen) back through the Internet cable to the filmmakers’ computers. Dailies could then be viewed in the comfort of the production office rooms at the Hotel Arctic.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and all departments had to adapt their customary work habits to fit in the extreme climate. Ivana Primorac adopted the local practice of drying in the out of doors, despite temperatures well below zero–wet wigs soon froze, and when the ice was chipped away, a dry wig was revealed underneath. Extra care had to be taken when applying hair pieces (which would often go damp from contact with the skin)–all had to be completely dry before attaching, to prevent the piece from freezing to the performer’s head. Molds of the performers’ hands were taken, and latex castings were worn as gloves for added warmth. A skin-colored cap was created and stenciled for Noah Ringer, to protect his shaved head during wide shots. Actors were underdressed with extra layers of silk underwear, and costumes were reinforced with high performance polar material. Shoes were built on padded and insulated platforms, to keep actors’ feet from coming in close contact with the ice.
Despite the challenges of filming in such a foreboding place, Pablo Helman’s VFX team also discovered opportunities for adventure. The courageous crew spent several days on a large fishing boat, filming background plates of the towering icebergs. Per Helman: “The icebergs can tip over with no warning. The VFX department loved every minute of the adventure.” There was also an aerial unit that filmed the endless vistas from a helicopter’s overhead point-of-view.
Concludes Shyamalan, “The Greenland landscape won’t ever be the same. It is constantly moving and changing. Hopefully, we captured some of that uniqueness on film.”
It is precisely that landscape–along with the countless man hours of labor spent in building the world of “The Last Airbender”–that will prove magical to the audiences. Explains Dev Patel, “This film has that real aspect of escapism, where you can just go to the movies and be escorted into a different world for a couple of hours. We’ve created this fairy tale land with all these different nations, with all these fantastical creatures, and people manipulating these elements. To me, that’s a great thrill ride.”
In creating the journey of Aang, Shyamalan not only provided an odyssey for the prospective audience member, but also a trek of a more personal nature. Says the filmmaker, “‘The Last Airbender’ is intended to be a fun and action-packed entertaining summer movie, but underneath, it does address some serious topics, like the domination of one race over another, and balance, and connection to the planet–and all those things that interest me that you have seen in my other films. This whole process has been such a great growing experience for me, not just as a director, but as a human being–because I am a complete control freak, and when you have as many layers on a movie as we did with this one, you have to surrender controlling every aspect of a scene. Doing that made me go back a little bit and become a student again. And anytime you can become a student again, that is the way to do it.”
Concludes Shyamalan, “This film is just the beginning, as this is really one long-form story. Aang has to master all four elements and, in the end, acquire serenity. He was born into one, Air, but he still has to master Water, Earth, and then Fire, and that will conclude our trilogy. All in all, I deeply felt this was an important movie to be made.”
Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies Present A Blinding Edge Pictures / Kennedy/Marshall Company Production of An M. Night Shyamalan Film: “The Last Airbender,” starring Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, and Cliff Curtis. The visual effects & animation are by Industrial Light & Magic. The music is by James Newton Howard. The co-producer is Jose L. Rodriguez. The costume designer is Judianna Makovsky. It is edited by Conrad Buff, A.C.E. The production designer is Philip Messina; the director of photography is Andrew Lesnie, ACS, ASC. The executive producers are Kathleen Kennedy, Scott Aversano, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. “The Last Airbender” is produced by Sam Mercer and Frank Marshall, and is based on the series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The film is written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.