7 cool special effects ILM created for The Last AirbenderS

The Last Airbender will carve a new path in visual effects, showing you things no movie ever has: water tentacles and gusts of fire. We visited Industrial Light and Magic, and saw what every other movie will be copying soon.

Whether Airbender satisfies fans of the classic Nickelodeon cartoon, and whether it succeeds in being a Star Wars for a new generation, one thing's clear after spending the day at ILM: It's going to be an innovative film from a VFX perspective, maybe as groundbreaking as The Matrix was in its day. Here are seven things the ILM team showed a group of visiting reporters a couple of months ago:

7 cool special effects ILM created for The Last AirbenderS

1) Fire that actually looks like fire. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman recounts that he went outside and lit some stuff on fire, so he would have a bunch of studies of real fire to show to director M. Night Shyamalan. But when Helman showed the footage of actual fire to Shyamalan, his response was, "You know what? That fire looks CG." Even real fire looked fake.

"[Shyamalan] didn't think he was ever really convinced by CG fire in a movie," says digital compositor Barry Williams.

What was the solution to creating fire that looked believable, and was able to "bend" in a way that still looked realistic? Burning Man! The designers got hold of some footage from the annual neo-hippie festival in Nevada, in which someone is controlling a pillar of fire, and barely keeping it in check. That footage gave the designers a clue to how to show the same sense of power and control, not to mention the structure of fire, in a simulation.

2) Showing water floating in a believable way. Another really challenging element to show being bent was water — the designers searched for ages to find some reference films for this element. They wound up with some YouTube videos, including one showing a guy punching through a water balloon, and one showing a guy being hit in the head with a water balloon in slow-motion.

Finally, they hit the motherlode: A NASA video of water in zero gravity.

The ILM crew showed us a video of Katara learning to bend water, filmed in Greenland. A ball of water flies out of the ocean and Katara tries to keep control over it. It starts to drip and finally loses its shape altogether. The messy water bubble flies through the air, and it does look impressive. It falls on her friend, and he's pissed.

View gallery »

A later scene shows a master of waterbending fighting, with snakes of water everywhere, and tentacles coming out of a steam pot. Katara manipulates the water to come out of some urns and cover the evil Prince Zuko, then freeze him. He looks around anxiously, and then he's encased in ice.

7 cool special effects ILM created for The Last AirbenderS

3) Figuring out what "air" looks like. The whole point of Aang is that he's an airbender, so what does it look like when you bend air? Is it like a gust of wind? Is it like clouds? In the end, the ILM team decided that what you want to see is what the air is pulling up — whether it's dust or snow, depending on what environment Aang is in. They used the same algorithm for air that they'd used for fire, except that they didn't render it as fire.

We saw some test footage showing Aang, with his hands tied, running around a room and climbing a wall while Prince Zuko shot fireballs at him. In another scene, Zuko shoots fireballs at Aang, who's spinning and waving his hands, using air to deflect them. In another scene, Aang is surrounded by spinning doors, and the Fire Nation is attacking him. He uses blasts of air to close the doors, and we saw how they rendered the lines of air.

"With the bending of the elements, you wanted to match the movements and the performance of the actor," says VFX supervisor Christian Alzmann. "You couldn't really start designing until you had that performance in the can."

The film-makers also decided that every type of "bending" should have its own martial arts style, just like a good Kung-fu film has the Crane style or the Dragon style.

Also, whenever someone manifests one of the elements, he or she has to do it in a way that's personal. We have to see it as an extension of their personality.

4) Momo, a CG creature with a real presence. In The Last Airbender, Aang has a pet flying lemur named Momo. The guy who brought Momo to life in this movie, Tim Harrington, also animated the famous sequence of Yoda attacking Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones.

Noah Ringer, who plays Aang, carried around a blue-screen bag that stood in for Momo. But when it came to putting Momo into the scenes, says Harrington, they had to make sure that Momo could really interact with Aang. The VFX crew spent a lot of time at the zoo observing real lemurs. Then they shot footage of Noah pantomiming with an imaginary lemur — sometimes he had to pull his arm in a little so that the lemur's limbs would have a place to go. "We really needed to know where his head is, where his shoulders are, where his arms were going to be," says Harrington.

The hard part was Momo's wings, which are based on a bat's. Harrington spent a lot of time figuring out how to get the light to scatter through Momo's wing membrane. The mechanics of how Momo flies were based on the giant fruit bat, which Harrington figured was roughly the same weight. But the wings had to be able to fold up and disappear when Momo wasn't using them. In an early prototype, they stuck out over Momo's forearms, but then the designers folded the wings one more time, "so they folded nicely over the forearm," says Harrington.

Here's a new TV spot that gives your best glimpse of Momo so far:

5) A six-legged creature that walks naturally. There's no such thing as a six-legged mammal in nature, although obviously insects are six-legged. So realizing Appa, the six-legged flying bison, was a major challenge, says Harrington. Early versions of Appa were "a bit too far off-model from the show," he adds, but the show's creators and Shyamalan guided the VFX crew back to the show's model.

According to Harrington:

We looked at polar bears, and we thought of the front two legs as arms that are offset slightly, and the back legs are legs... We looked at polar bears, bison [and] elephants to get kind of the physics and the weight right. We also looked at beavers. There are scenes where he actually swims and kind of uses his beaver tail in the water.

7 cool special effects ILM created for The Last AirbenderS

He showed us an early visualization in which Appa hovers in mid-air and a group of kids are hanging from his paws. Appa is looking over his shoulder, as if to say, "Let's get going." It starts as just a group of kids dangling in mid-air on a greenscreen, holding onto hangers that will be Appa's wrist pivots. Appa is added piece by piece, including his fur which responds to the wind, and his face, which has to be expressive and obviously intelligent — but not too human, or Appa becomes "creepy."

"[Shyamalan] thought of him as the big quiet kid in the class, who's really quiet and calm and keeps it together, but if a couple other kids get in a fight, he might be the one who steps in and keeps the peace," says Harrington. "Kind of a gentle giant."

Harrington and other designers faced similar challenges creating the Komodo rhino, which the Fire Nation people ride into battle — real Komodo dragons "have kind of a dorky walk," so the designers went for something closer to a bulldog's movements. He showed us an incredibly intricate composite CG shot of a Firebender riding a Komodo rhino off a ship, up a wall and over the top, where it shoots fire down at the people inside a walled city.

7 cool special effects ILM created for The Last AirbenderS

6) Facial motion capture. James Cameron's Avatar already pushed the envelope as far as capturing an actor's performance and translating it to CG goes, but Airbender may go even further. If you don't notice when Aang isn't being played by Noah Ringer, then Harrington and his crew will have succeeded.

There are actually three Aangs in the movie. There's Ringer, who's an accomplished martial artist and actually plays the character most of the time. There's his stunt double Jade, a girl who's roughly the same size and shape as Ringer, but you can kind of tell in some of the raw footage that it's not really Ringer. And then there's a CG rendering of Aang, who's doing some of the crazy acrobatics and ultra-dangerous stunts that no actor or stunt-person can do. We saw one scene where Aang flees the Fire Nation and runs and skips across a whole bunch of piers, which wobble realistically, and you can see that it's a long, long way down — this sequence is all CG, and there's a moment where the flesh-and-blood Aang drops out of frame for a second, and then reappears as CG Aang.

To put Ringer's face onto the other Aangs, Harrington captured a closeup of Ringer scowling and grimacing, with a billion dots to capture every aspect of the performance. This isn't just like Benjamin Button, Harrington points out — they didn't just have to put Brad Pitt's performance onto the old Benjamin Button without worrying if it was a perfect fit. "This has to be a one-to-one match," says Harrington. "This takes the geometry and shrink-wraps it, like dead on, to these dots, and animates it to the dots." So Noah's head is added to animated Aang, and in one or two cases, to the stunt-Aang, Jade.

7 cool special effects ILM created for The Last AirbenderS

7) Creating digital environments that feel like an extension of the real footage. The locations the film visits are based around the styles of the different tribes — so for example, when you visit the Northern Air Temple, you see a lot of precipices and mesas that only an airbender can reach. "They have the kites and they can control the air currents," says Alzmann. The production team studied a lot of temples in Burma and Cambodia and had someone actually do some filming in Vietnam, to make each shot look as real as possible.

Alzmann showed us one shot that started with a real valley, and then a computer generated temple and bridge were layered in — the temple is being sacked by the Fire Nation. In general, the team took a "less is more" approach to layering in computer-generated details to all the scenes, aiming for the most photorealistic images they could create. It was all part of the drive to make rural Pennsylvania and Greenland look like Asia.

Likewise, we see the huge armada of the Fire Nation, but the only physical prop was a short section of deck, and then the VFX team added the rest digitally.

7 cool special effects ILM created for The Last AirbenderS

The filmmakers put a lot of work into creating the contrast between the Southern Water Tribe and the Northern Water Tribe — you see that the Southern Water Tribe has lost everything and can't bend water very well any more, so they're stuck making igloos. Meanwhile, the Northern Water Tribe is the last bastion of free benders who haven't been captured by the Fire Nation, and their buildings have more ornamentation. Their architecture is loosely based on Tibet, and Alzmann and Barry Williams put a lot of thought into creating a layout of their city that felt like people could actually live there.