M. Night Shyamalan's recreation of the epic cartoon Avatar has released its first official footage of the airbending Aang. Plus, we went on set, and learned how Night brought the 16-foot tall and 40-foot long flying Bison, Appa, to life.
Last Tuesday io9 was a guest of Paramount, along with a few other reporters, on the set M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, The Last Airbender. We headed over to Night's favorite cinematic city Philadelphia, to see what the the director of The Sixth Sense would do with an expansive fantasy world. Night is, in a sense, building an entire world with only the cartoon and a specific, but loyal, following of fans to keep him in check (some of the biggest fans being his own daughters, who were the inspiration behind his tackling the project).
For those of you not familiar with the Avatar world, the fantastical realm is divided up into four nations: Earth, Air, Water and Fire. They lived together in peace, until the Fire Nation took out the other three, plummeting the land into war. Many years later, a bald little boy Aang (played by the adorable and new Noah Ringer) awakens to find he is the last of his kind, the Airbenders and the balance of the nation's future rests on his shoulders. Together with his newly acquired friends, a rowdy brother and sister pair Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and the waterbending Katara (Nicola Peltz), the three set out to put the nation back on the track towards peace.
Unfortunately for them, the Fire Nation isn't too keen on the idea of Aang, and sends out a giant army after him (which you can see in the teaser) along with Prince Zuko (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel) who's full of spite and anger. We're actually quite excited to see this total departure from Patel's previous role.
While I'm still not sure how this film is going to be marketed to those over 20 and unaware of the Airbender franchise, Night's new world certainly has a gorgeous backdrop going for it. Each set we walked on was more expansive and detailed than the last. The ice cave that holds the Moon Spirit was completely transformed into a strange and ethereal space, with a towering cherry tree looming over a reflecting pond. Every single blossom on the twisted branches was hand painted individually, with three different shades of pink. It truly felt like a mysterious oasis where brilliant green mold grows over ice.
But that wasn't even the kicker. Night has constructed a life size representation of the Fire Nation battleships, that can unleash furious fire power and where Dev Patel told us he'd spar with his crew. Dusty crumbling temples were erected, with gold statues of past Avatars, and even those can't compare to Airbender's pièce de résistance world-building moment, which just so happens to be the largest set ever built on the East Coast... which we're saving to tell you more about later.
So how much did they diverge from the cartoon, to make a story about warring nations and it's citizens who can bend the elements believable? Producer Frank Marshall explained that they have high hopes to stick to a PG rating. "I'm not even sure we want to get in the PG-13 realm," he explained.
But the director did have to whittle some things away. While taking a break from filming in the dusty floors of the North Air Temple Night told us what had to be cut: "I took away a little bit of the slapsticky stuff that was there for the little little kids, the fart jokes and things like that. We weeded that stuff away and the other stuff came out. We grounded Katara's brother, who's the comic relief in the show. We grounded him, and that really did wonderful things for the whole theme of the movie."
For a man building an entire world, he seems supremely calm and focused on set, but I was relieved to see that even he was at times overwhelmed by the sheer size of this project, "There are two and a half weeks left of not being as scared to death, but there were plenty of days where I was scared to death of what I'm doing." This film is really the first time Night has worked with elaborate CG backgrounds, or worked on constructing his own franchise, for that matter.
But I know you all want to know, what of Appa the giant white Sky Bison who flies? You've been asking ever since the film was announced. How will is it even possible to bring such a mythical creature to life? While we got to glimpse the enormous white furry top half of the magical six-legged creature (who will be part mechanical and part CG, the top half being mecha for the actors). Production Designer, Philip Messina, answered our Appa questions, reassuring us all that "I think once you see him on screen, you will see the Appa from the cartoon realm brought to life, but [that] still has the essence of his character. He has a character and a personality, he's an actor in the film to some extent."
Good luck getting those six-legs in order, guys. Even though the crew has recently wrapped filming, they still have a long road ahead of them.
The official movie site is now up and running and has HQ trailers available for download.