‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ VFX Team Used Story as Their North Star

Based on the 2005 animated Nickelodeon show of the same name, Netflix’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” takes place in a fantastical world occupied by benders, people with the ability to control and physically bend or alter one of four elements — earth, air, fire or water. Only one person can control all four elements, a reincarnated being known as the Avatar. The series follows Avatar Aang (Gordon Cormier), the 12-year-old last of the airbenders who is tasked with restoring peace to the world and defeating the vicious Fire Nation.

A huge amount of work was put into the series’ special effects before any VFX professionals were brought onboard. Executive producer Albert Kim first worked with fight instructor Alan Tang and stunt coordinator Jeffery Aro to develop the distinct visual language for each of the four elements. They landed on using Northern Shaolin kung fu for the Fire Nation, tai chi for the Water Tribes, baguazhang for the Air Nomads and the Southern Chinese art of hung ga for the Earth Kingdom. After that was decided, Kim and the series’ directors had to be strategic about when to show bending on screen.

Avatar: The Last Airbender
Kiawentiio in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (Credit: Netflix)

“We had the benefit of having the original series on hand,” Kim said, noting that the resource was both “epic” and “something of a curse.” “At a certain point, it became a matter of, How much of this can we actually do, and what can we leave behind? If you were to translate what they did in the animated series into live action, we would have spent our entire VFX budget on one fight.”

One of the most visually impressive scenes in “Avatar” is Episode 4’s faceoff between Aang and King Bumi of Omashu (Utkarsh Ambudkar). Aang’s attempt to convince his longtime friend to help him quickly turns into a fight between air and earth that’s taken straight from the original series. Kim sees action sequences as being “like dialogue.” As such, he and the episode’s director, Jabbar Raisani, took care to figure out what this fight was trying to communicate.

For a pacifist like Aang, that means scripting moves that make it clear he doesn’t want to fight. For Bumi, a man who feels as though he’s been abandoned, that meant “pulling from some deep wells of rage,” Kim said.

Once the motivations and choreography were figured out, special effects supervisor Marion Spates stepped in. “We wanted the earthbending to not look like premade rocks that just get extracted from the ground,” Spates said. “We thought about how we could make a large rock made up of multiple materials —smaller rocks, mud, dirt, some roots and a little bit of leaf texture.” When it came to Aang’s airbending, Spates and his team took care to add flying sand into the scene to make it feel like these two characters were fighting in the same space.

Of the four elements, Spates said that airbending was the most difficult for him to create. “How do you visualize airbending? It’s air,” he said. They took unlikely inspiration from the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor aircraft. “If you look at the back of it where the engines are, you will see this really cool effect,” he said. “It’s the heat distortion that comes from the engine. That detail is what we use for our higher frequency detail that’s contained within the airbending.”

To give airbending more depth, the team would then add in elements from the surrounding landscape, whether that meant incorporating dirt, snow or water. “The idea was that those elements would be pushed through like a smoke simulation,” Spates said.

Added Raisani, “Story is king. So we were always looking at, ‘What is the story that we’re telling?’ Spending visual effects funds for the [sole] purpose of spectacle was not our intention.”

This story first ran in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap
Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap

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