COVER STORY: 'THE LAST AIRBENDER'
HOLLYWOOD — The Last Airbender is M. Night Shyamalan’s epic, live-action retelling of the popular Nickelodeon animated television series created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Eager to see how his moviemaking style would express itself on a large scale, Shyamalan chose the story of a magical young boy whom fate has chosen to save the world from an elemental war.
The movie was edited by Oscar-winner Conrad Buff (Titanic) and features some of the most complex visual effects ever produced by the artists at Industrial Light & Magic. When asked why didn’t he make The Last Airbender an animated movie, Shyamalan enthusiastically replies, “When we watched the cartoon. I thought, ‘Wow, I can make a great live-action movie out of this! That would be really phenomenal! We have the technology!” He says the inspiration was a really quick “organic moment.”
“One of the reasons Night wanted me to do this film,” recalls Buff, who edited Shyamalan’s previous movie The Happening,” is that I’ve done a lot of films that have CGI visual effects, and for him it was a unique experience. Most of his films have none. I could bring something to help him in a unique way.”
“Conrad and I have done two movies together, [so] we have a kind of a shorthand,” says Shyamalan. “He knows me — what I like.”
“Night had to commit to VFX sequences before he was even done shooting, which is not something he’s ever had to deal with,” says Buff. “We had to lock sequences to turn them over to ILM, because they literally needed months to do their work. So during shooting we would look at dailies every night. But I would frequently go up there [on set] during the day in anticipation of certain sequences that we were committed to turn over.”
From location to location, the day’s dailies were scanned and imported at DNxHD 36 and screened from Buff’s laptop running Media Composer cabled to an Avid Mojo, then projected to a Christie HD3K in a mobile trailer.
“I could play cut sequences for him,” Buff recalls, “on a relatively large screen just in the privacy of the trailer while he was having lunch. We could talk about them, make changes, adjustments. That really helped us advance the ball. It allowed us to commit to these things early and meet our deadlines for CGI.”
At Blinding Edge Pictures, Shyamalan’s production facility in Conshohocken, PA, Jon Petersen, senior engineer at Pivotal Post, Los Angeles, set up four Avid Adrenalines on the second floor of a 19th Century horse barn. Each Avid was running Media Composer 3.1.3 on Mac Pro “HarperTowns” with a DNxcel board and JVC DTV24L1D 24-inch HDSDI viewing monitors connected to a 16TB Unity media share system.
“This was my first time editing on the Avid in HD, which is wonderful,” says Buff. “Night always printed film until this time, and he likes to screen dailies.”
According to visual effects and assistant editor Carole Kenneally, at the Blinding Edge digital theater, “They would screen cuts or the entire movie straight from the Avid Adrenaline via HDSDI to a Christie CP2000M 2K projector at 1920x1080.” Echoes Buff, “We could watch it at the drop of a hat and we could watch it in stereo or in 5.1 in HD and have a pretty close-to-finished experience.”
Using a previs created by Daniel Gregoire at Halon Entertainment, Shyamalan got a good preview of what some of the VFX would look like. “We did the majority of Act III,” says Gregoire, which contains some of the longest effects sequences in the movie.
“We had complete guidance from Night,” he continues. The previs was heavily based on the “extensive storyboards” already created by Shyamalan and brainstorming meetings with cinematographer Andrew Leslie. The three of them would talk out ideas for shots and concepts, draw sketches, block something out on a laptop, and then send QuickTime movies to Buff.
Halon used Autodesk Maya and MotionBuilder to build custom rigs and special virtual cameras to shoot animations for the four elements where they could show the “volume, speed and intent” of the bending effect. “It was important to know how big it was,” says Gregorie. Would it be “a violent bending attack or a docile training maneuver?”
“I did have an advantage of having that material in the Avid,” says Buff, “and being able to utilize it when I absolutely had no image to work with or was trying to anticipate the timing of shots or how a certain sequence could evolve. Previs was a big advantage in this film for Night.”
With over 500 visual effects shots taking up almost an hour of screen time, Airbender challenged and enabled both the director and ILM to produce incredibly sophisticated visual effects.
“The conversation with the director always starts with, ‘Let’s make something nobody has ever seen before,’” says Pablo Helman, an Oscar-nominated (War of the Worlds, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones) VFX supervisor at ILM. “In this specific case the idea of the four elements and that the fire tells a story and has a beginning middle and an end, that’s kind of a brand new thing for us.”
“It’s my first time doing CGI,” reports Shyamalan. “I was learning on the job. I felt like the young kid and everybody else was the seasoned veteran. I thought, ‘Oh boy, I better learn fast!’ I felt comfortable being able to articulate a feeling. They could show me an illustration and I could spend half an hour telling them what’s working or not working for me; what’s not realistic, what’s not hyper-realistic enough; what’s not activating my imagination, what’s making it somber.”
“We did do a pipeline introduction,” reports Helman, “so that [Shyamalan] would know when things were presented what exactly we expected from him.”
“I would express, ‘This is too feminine or too masculine,’” explains Shyamalan, “I would talk a lot in those tones. ‘There are ways this can be more threatening. I am sensing this before I want to be sensing this, can you make it more of a surprise? Is there a more efficient way for the water to get from here to there? I’m not buying the physics of this moment, I want it to feel… can you make it like zero gravity?’ I would go on and on — eventually they can hear me in their sleep. And when they go to animate and come up with designs, and it starts to be in the sweet spot of the things that I was responding to.”
“Night has a specific way of thinking about sequences that takes into consideration really long shots,” Helman explains. “A complete story in one take. He takes the time to move the camera around the characters, connect the characters to something else that the character is seeing as opposed to a cut.”
“Normally you shoot CGI as kind of a slight of hand,” describes Shyamalan. “So you don’t stare at a thing too long, and you go to the next thing. There are a lot of cuts to create this slight of hand. My style of shooting is long takes and holding, and there’s a performance in the background in CGI, so it’s very naked all the time.”
One of Airbender’s VFX shots runs nearly five minutes long. “It’s a challenge from all points of view,” says Helman. “From the technical part, pipeline wise, starting to scan those frames in and manage the whole shot together with all the elements... multiple elements are going into the shot. When you are talking about bending: fire bending, earth bending, air bending, plus paint and creature work and all the compositing that goes into replacing the background, it gets pretty large very quickly.”
“That was a very tricky challenge for them,” acknowledges Shyamalan. “To be able to stare at it for a long time and live with it as the dialogue is going on in the foreground, as the Steadicam keeps moving around the characters.” It’s an “unusual combination of CGI and a long sinewy shot. The combination makes it very balletic.”
ILM’s shot production workflow was enhanced by a new pipeline pioneered on Harry Potter. It used NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 and 5800 professional graphics cards to create GPU-based renderfarms. (See our sidebar on www.postmagazine.com).
VFX sequences were sent between ILM VFX editor Tony Pitone and Buff and Kenneally as consolidated Avid media. “Pitone would send VFX shot versions as AAFs. We keep all versions of all shots organized by cut reel and VFX sequence,” notes Kenneally.
Airbender used Aspera for secure exchanging of specification specific QuickTime files between the studio, composer James Newton Howard and Skywalker Sound, as well as Efilm for DI file exchanges. “Aspera was also used to receive digital dailies of aerial plate photography that was shot, developed and processed in New Zealand by Park Road Post,” says Kenneally. “We uploaded everything MOS for security purposes, then all audio files were uploaded to another SFTP PIX System.”
CineSync was used to manage VFX review sessions between ILM and Blinding Edge. ILM and Shyamalan could simultaneously watch synced playback and annotate right on individual shots. “I would have the AAFs already cut into the editor’s Avid reels,” explains Kenneally. “This allowed Conrad and Night to work on the shots and manipulate the cut in regard to the progress of the VFX shots right away.”
“One thing I like to do on a show that has a lot of VFX,” continues Kenneally, “is to treat the VFX house just as I would the sound or music department. When the editor and director turn over a reel for music and sound, I would also turn over the entire reel MOS as consolidated media to the VFX vendor. This way, everybody is on the same page. It makes it easier for VFX and picture editorial to track and communicate. VFX also gets to see how the VFX shots are evolving in the cut.”
“Working with visual effects, you are editing two times,” says Shyamalan. “You are editing the performances and you are guessing about everything else because it’s not there. Once you get all the visual effects, which happens so late in the game, [you think], ‘Oh, it’s telling me too much. I don’t need to hang on this scene so long.’ You edit the movie all over again. So that was a new process for me.”
Shyamalan says the TV show is targeted at younger viewers and this film “got older with every iteration. “It’s still a youthful movie, no question” but it is “less youthful, less puckish.” Looking back over the experience, Shyamalan says, “It’s really healthy for an artist to go out of their sweet spot and learn new chops, and in retrospect that’s what happened.”