‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Filmmakers Explain How They Visualized Bending for Live-Action | How I Did It

“The most important thing was being true to the animated series,” VFX supervisor Marion Spates tells TheWrap

Bringing the world of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” to life was no easy task, but the team behind Netflix’s hit live-action adaptation was up to the challenge. The series is based on the beloved anime, but the world of animation offers up a bounty of choices in telling the story of individuals who can bend the elements to their will. Visualizing that for live-action was one of the new show’s first — and tallest — orders.

“In the anime, they give it color. So we leaned into the image of an F-22 engine, the heat distortion that it produces,” visual effects supervisor Marion Spates said in a new installment of TheWrap’s How I Did It, presented by Netflix. “And then our last ingredient was whatever environment Aang is in, let’s just pull the material from there. So he’s pulling up sand, if he’s on a deck of a ship he’s pulling water from the ship.”

One of the hardest elements to nail down was water.

“In Episode 103 there’s a Katara character arc that is based on bending with the water whip. I find that water is something we all understand as humans and when water doesn’t obey the rules and laws of physics, it starts to break visually,” executive producer, director and VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani said. “So I found it the most challenging, to take something that was water-bending-based to a fully realized version of that event.”

But before the visual effects come in, it starts with what’s captured in camera. For supervising stunt coordinator Jeffrey Aro, that meant pulling from kung fu movies.

“What was fun about ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ is that this is an homage to kung cinema. Water and earth are heavy in weight, Tai Chi is soft and fluid like water,” he explained. “Hung Ga, Wing Chun — these are southern style martial arts and we leaned on those because they’re hard and powerful, which reflects earth. Fire and air, they’re light and they move quickly so we went to the northern style of kung fu from China. Fire is explosive and sharp so we used Bajiquan, and to contrast that with air which is Baguazhang, it’s circular and unpredictable.”

Aro noted that he grew up on kung fu cinema, “so to be able to have something that my four and two-year-olds can start watching that they’ll grow up with, I’m really excited to be able to give them something that I think is timeless.”

Raisani said he came to the live-action series as a fan first.

“The first question I asked myself as a fan is, ‘Why are we making this into live action?’ And it was really to bring this to an audience that has never seen it before,” he said. “And for those of us that had seen it, to get to see it again through new eyes, that’s really what we sought to do is to widen the scope of people who were fans of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender.’”

Spates reiterated that through the entire process, the original animated series was the north star.

“The most important thing was being true to the animated series and making sure that when anyone was watching the show, they felt like that was in that world.”

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is now streaming on Netflix and has been renewed for two additional seasons.

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