Last summer, MTV News took a trip inside M. Night Shyamalan's mad-scientist brain when we visited the Philadelphia set of "The Last Airbender." The hyperkinetic director was in the midst of bringing "Airbender" out from the animated small screen and into real life, and the results were big, big, big — sets twice the size of football fields, massive green screens, hundreds of extras in elaborate costumes and a production budget two and a half times the size of any of his other movies.
"I'm scared to death," he admitted back then.
Yet, at the same time, Shyamalan knew exactly what he was doing. Now the results of that focused anxiety have arrived in theaters. Set in an imaginary world in which various tribes can control the elements of the planet, the film follows the century-long war that the Fire nation has been waging against other nations until a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) discovers he is the only person capable of controlling all four elements and bringing about peace.
As the tribes go at one another, the audience gets to sit back and take in all manner of badass weaponry and cool, CGI-assisted powers. Visual-effects supervisor Pablo Helman ("War of the Worlds") and set decorator Larry Dias ("Transformers") walked MTV News through the creation of these various features to give us the inside scoop about five cool weapons and powers.
The Fire nation is one committed to ceaseless warfare. Their weapon of choice, obviously, is all manner of wicked flames — flung in various ways at the enemy to cause maximum damage. It's fantastical stuff, no doubt, but Shyamalan wanted that computer-generated power to be grounded in reality. Helman's source of inspiration? The annual Burning Man festival in Nevada.
"Night wanted something that no one had seen before," Helman said. "And he wanted the fire to look different every time it was used. At Burning Man, they've got a bonfire there, and they put a bunch of fans around it so the fire looks like a tornado fire. That was the main inspiration. We showed it to Night and said it's a cool look, and he loved it."
The Water nation, meanwhile, is a more peaceful tribe — until they're challenged by the Fire folks and have to fight back. Their ability is controlling water and using it every conceivable way to eliminate the aggressor. Helman looked to the U.S. space agency to come up with something that would work for computer animation.
"We looked at NASA footage. They did some experiments with liquid water in zero gravity," Helman said. "If you look at the water in zero gravity, it behaves in a specific way. It stays together, it forms balls, and there's all this interesting stuff that happens inside the balls of water. That's what we showed Night, and he loved it. So we had to come up with a piece of software that allowed us to manipulate water in the same way."
The Fire nation doesn't just hurl fire. They also build huge, spiky metal spheres that they launch from their warships. Think of them like the scariest, flame-assisted catapults you've ever seen.
"The Fire nation is the only one of the nations that has industrialized, and we needed to create something that would work for them," Dias explained. "So for the military ships, we manufactured these giant orbs — basically a metal framework that would have fire put in digitally. They have huge spikes, they're flaming, they're intense. They inflict a lot of damage."
Zuko's Double Swords
"Airbender" features a slew of weapons, from Aang's powerful staff to the various swords of the warring tribes. But ask star Dev Patel what his favorite weapon in the movie is, and of course he's going to choose one that his character — the Fire nation's Prince Zuko — gets to wield in a seriously badass fashion. Too bad Patel himself didn't actually get to swing those double swords.
"I actually didn't use the two broad swords," Patel told MTV News. "Most of the other action I did. With two big, sharp swords in my hand, they had an amazing stunt guy called Stephen Oyoung, and he is brilliant with these two swords. He deserves lots of credit."
Here's the thing about the Fire nation: While they maintain a mighty army capable of manipulating fire, they can't create enough fire themselves to rein terror on their enemies. Instead, they have to cart around huge fire carriers that give them the raw material.
"We built these big fire baskets called braziers that are really ornate," Dias said. "We built them in different sizes. They have these poles that are decorated with spearheads, and four soldiers carry them. The Fire nation can't go to war without them."