Avatar: The Last Airbender Live-Action CGI Vs. Practical Effects Filming Explained by DP (Exclusive)

By Russ Milheim Posted:
Aang in live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender

The Direct spoke with Avatar: The Last Airbender’s director of photography, who talked about the use of VFX vs. practical effects on Netflix's new live-action take on the beloved series.

For projects like Avatar, which are incredibly VFX intensive, finding that balance between those methods and something more practical can often be a tricky prospect.

A proper balance between the two is becoming harder to find with the growing popularity of The Volume (big, LED walls that can display a scene, making things more immersive than traditional green screens).

[ Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender Cast & Characters In Live-Action Show (Photos) ]

Balancing Practical Vs. VFX for Avatar: The Last Airbender

Dallas Liu as Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender

While speaking exclusively with The Direct’s Russ Milheim, Avatar: The Last Airbender director of photography (DP) Michael Balfry spoke about balancing VFX with practical effects for the production.

"I guess it all starts in prep," the filmmaker noted, which is where they "talk about what [they can] achieve that is practical:"

"I guess it all starts in prep, you know, that's where we talk about what we can achieve that is practical… Obviously, the flames are not practical. Waterbending is practical only up to a point. If someone is bending, I think it's in Episode 4, maybe, where Katara is by the campfire, and she knocks over a container. The water that comes in the frame is VFX. But the object that's knocked over is practical. So there's a mix and match. But again, it is a VFX-heavy show. We're in four different environments that don't really exist in our world today."

The use of bending is not the only significant point of VFX in the series. For most of the show’s run, Team Avatar is accompanied by large, digitally constructed animal companions.

"Momo is completely VFX," and the special effects team did actually "[build] the upper half of Appa:"

"Momo is completely VFX. I have to hand it to them; they did a brilliant job throughout the whole series. Whereas for Appa, special effects built the upper half of Appa. So that our actors could be sitting on a saddle. And we could be off the front of their head and just come off from the head and into the close-ups of our actors. And then, visual effects created the bottom half."

Katara, Sokka, and Aang riding Appa in Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender

The entire "Appa apparatus" was created to give those sequences "that illusion of movement," Balfry elaborated:

"And this whole Appa apparatus that was created, which was rather large, was on a gimbal. So it could tilt and rock and spin. So, it gave it that illusion of movement. So when they were going somewhere, they'd end up going like that. And then you add a bit of wind and, in your lights, you add a little bit of light movement. And here we are, clouds are going by, and you're way up in the air."

The DP made sure to clarify there was a practical Momo doll on set for the actors, which "was a huge hit:"

"Yes, there was. For the actors, there was a Momo doll... And Momo was a huge hit, the doll. Everyone said, 'I want one! I want one!' It was very sweet."

As for the scene that presented the most unique challenge for the DP, he pointed to "the climax at the end" with the Northern Water Tribe, elaborating on how "it was a beautifully huge set" where "creating fight scenes" was a highlight:

"I would say the climax at the end when we're the Northern Water Tribe. The fight scene… That was unique because, I mean, it was a beautifully huge set with a practical bridge and getting in there and creating fight scenes. And then also being underneath the bridge and creating a whole water world that was pretty unique. The opening and then at the other end of the opening of the sequence, the chase. To me, that was a great challenge. We had a lot of fun doing that. And when I saw that put together, I just went, yep, I think we nailed that."

The Ocean Spirit defending the Northen Water Tribe in Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender

Another element of the same final episode is the ominous Ocean Spirit, which may be the best VFX in the whole series.

While Balfry did not do much work on most of the Ocean Spirit’s sequences, he did have a "pretty darn simple" role to play in helping special effects "accentuate it up:"

"My end was pretty darn simple. We had Aang on wires floating. So he could rotate slowly and feel as if he was suspended in the air. And I just added a little bit of flicker, just to motivate it. So that [special] effects could accentuate it up to the point where they felt it was realistic. So, from my end, it was very simple."

Like many other projects these days, Avatar: The Last Airbender utilized The Volume consistently throughout the production.

For Balfry, "it was the first time [he had] worked on something to that scale," which included an LED wall "about 90 feet wide" and "25 feet high:"

"It was the first time I've worked on something to that scale. I've worked on smaller rear projection or Valios screens and LED screens for other shows. This one was much larger. It was about 90 feet wide and about, I can't remember, 25 feet high. And we had the ceiling as well, that projected an image. We approached it almost regular filmmaking, yet we were learning as every day it would be something—'Oh, we okay, we can do this."

Continuing, Balfry shared how, when filming on The Volume, they were "limited" by "how much slow-mo [they] could do:"

"We're limited to how much slow-mo we could do. Which in an action sequence, that can be very helpful if you want just to accentuate a moment of someone flying through the air or any kind of action. So that was, you know, we're kind of going okay, so let's figure out how we can do this and what our limits [are], and we ended up pushing technology as much as we could."

The filmmaker went on to explain another unique challenge that cropped up because of The Volume, which got in the way of filming with two cameras at once:

"Filming two cameras side by side with the same background, we couldn't do it at the same time... Let's say A-camera would have a priority. If the A-camera moved, the B-camera wouldn't be static; it would see the background moving. And that would be unusable. So we ended up shooting straight on and then profiling a bit more just to get a different background. So that was something we had to adjust."

At the end of the day, Balfry admitted that one of the most crucial additions The Volume gave to the production was how it "[created] new environments" that "cost a fortune to build on a stage:"

"Creating new environments, environments that would cause a fortune to build on a stage. I think that we're creating four different worlds that the Airbender goes through. That was, I think that's where you can just let your mind or your imagination just run free."

The entire interview with Michael Balfry can be seen here:

Avatar: The Last Airbender is now streaming on Netflix.

Read more news about Avatar: The Last Airbender:

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- In This Article: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Release Date
February 22, 2024
Dallas Liu
Gordon Cormier
Ian Ousley
- About The Author: Russ Milheim
Russ Milheim is the Industry Relations Coordinator at The Direct. On top of utilizing his expertise on the many corners of today’s entertainment to cover the latest news and theories, he establishes and maintains communication and relations between the outlet and the many studio and talent representatives.