VFX: Netflix’s <I>Avatar: The Last Airbender</I>
June 14, 2024

VFX: Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender

Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is a live-action reimagining of the beloved animated series. The show follows Aang, the young Avatar, as he learns to master the elements of water, earth, fire and air in order to restore balance to a world threatened by Fire Nation.

Marion Spates (pictured) serves as visual effects supervisor on the show and oversaw roughly 3,400 shots, working with each of the vendors to review their shots and assets, while also providing creative direction and feedback. 

“I established the color pipeline and dailies review workflow, supervised the creation of all digital assets - including creatures, environments, props, etc. - and collaborated with our post and color team to dial in the final VFX shots for air,” Spates recalls.

The main goal of the show’s VFX is to give the viewer a similarly immersive experience to that of the original animation. 

“Since our show was live action, we focused on making the worlds contain real, tangible effects that could connect the viewer in today’s reality,” Spates explains. “For instance, the bending can become very magical because the effects do not adhere to real-world physics, so we tried to introduce a language in movement that could help ground those elements in reality.”

For creatures, the team focused on real-world animals, such as bison, bears, badger moles, ostriches and horses. The environment involved considerable world building. 

“Our production designer set the look for the show, and from there, we expanded the worlds via set extensions and full-CG environments using real world locations to drive the iconic sceneries, like Omashu, Kyoshi Island, Wolf Cove, Agna Qel’a, Pohuai and the Fire Nation Capital,” says Spates.

The on-set team typically used Canon camera bodies with a range of lenses for HDRIs and set photography. The team’s go-to LiDAR system was a Leica RTC360 laser scanner, which was used for scanning sets, which then became a starting point for set builds and camera tracking reference data. 

“Reference material is the key to getting shots done quickly and efficiently,” Spates adds. “While Post VFX uses a variety of toolsets to get the job done, our toolsets are ever changing, along with updated technology, but the following are examples of software used during production: Maya, Houdini, Nuke, Zbrush, 3DEqualizer, RV and Flow production tracking.”

Overall, Spates is very proud of the series, but points to a specific sequence that stands out as a highlight. 

“It’s Aang going into the Avatar state (KoiZilla) at the end of Episode 108,” he recalls. “The main challenge was trying to convey a water creature of this size. It needed to be big and powerful, but it’s made of water, so the first instinct was to go with something that has a bit more fluidity to its movement, while not losing the power and weight of its size. 

“Once we focused on its movements, possessing weight and strength like Godzilla, we allowed the water simulations to adhere to its performance. In tandem with the animation performance, we did many simulation tests to adjust the amount, speed and directionality of the waves moving through its body. The crashing waves added scale and complexity, which grounded it to the real world. Another challenge was discerning how much bioluminescence to have within its body. We did not want it to be over illuminated. Therefore, we went for a subtle internal vein structure that cascaded out from the Aang orb, along with a bioluminescence element to the crashing waves.”