‘The Last Airbender’ fire effect a tricky element

For years, movie effects wizards have been on a quest for photo-real digital fire. The team at Industrial Light & Magic believes it has found it with its work on M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender,” which arrives in theaters Thursday.

“There’s so many movies that have done digital fire and not done it all that well,” said Craig Hammack, associate visual effects supervisor on the movie. “Usually, it’s almost believable but you still really have that feeling that it’s fake and it pulls you right out of the moment. You’re not left with the impressions of fire — heat, fear, natural movement, the whoosh. You’re left instead with this thing dancing in the air. That was a major challenge for us — and for me — going in.”

The film, based on the Nickelodeon animated series, presents a world of warrior nations who can manipulate — or “bend” — the ancient elements of fire, water, air and earth. The Fire Nation seeks to conquer all but then there is the discovery of a strange boy named Aang ( Noah Ringer) who is an Airbender, a race that no one has seen in a century and, more than that, he is revealed to be the Avatar, the only one alive who can command all four of the elements and, perhaps, bring an end to the fiery strife.

Each of the elements presented challenges to ILM, especially with Shyamalan’s insistence that the film have the tone and texture of reality. The filmmaker who created one of the signature thrillers of recent decades with “The Sixth Sense” insists that his films be rooted in naturalistic visuals so that when the story takes a turn into the fearsome or the fantastic there will be strong audience jolt, not just a shrug.

Pablo Helman, the effects supervisor for the film praised the way Shyamalan approached his work with ILM as “an actor’s director, not a special effects director” and talked about the emotions needed in each scene and story and character.

ILM has been in the business of movie magic since 1975 and the Bay Area company has played a significant role in 10 of the 15 highest-grossing films of all time. Still, Helman said, “The Last Airbender” presented a major challenge due to Shyamalan’s edict of realism. “These challenges are the reason we do what we do,” Helman said.

Hammack said the director wisely resisted the temptation to make a living, fire-breathing version of the Nick series.

“I came into it as a huge fan [of the TV series], it was one of the reasons I requested to work on it,” Hammack said. “My kids are huge fans as well. But I had to leave a lot of that at the door before even talking to Night. There’s the understanding that this is an adaptation but it’s going to have to make its own mark and the cartoon had really poignant reality to it but it was based pretty deeply in cartoon comedy as well and that’s a tough combination to pull off in a two-hour movie.”

Tim Harrington, animation supervisor on “The Last Airbender,” said the strange creatures that roam the landscape of the anime-based movie were also a challenge — there is, for instance, the startling Appa, a 16-foot flying bison-like creature with six legs. That wouldn’t be a problem in a movie with a fantastical feel but Harrington said keeping that airborne beastie grounded in a gritty, believable world was a tall order.

“A lot of big movies that are just chock-full of special effects start taking on a look of their own, they can look video-gamish or too over the top. He wanted to be a little more subtle and a little more believable,” Harrington said. “To me, [Appa] was kind of a combination of Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon where he is the furry sidekick but he’s also the kids’ ride as they go from location to location.”

“Star Wars” references are natural at ILM, which was founded by George Lucas, but when it came to digital fire it was a different mega-franchise that served as a starting point. Hammack said it was the lesson of Hogwarts that gave the “Airbender” team their spark.

“We didn’t have a fire system that would lend itself to the type of shots that we needed for this show, but we had this fire that we had done for the last ' Harry Potter’ film that was quite good. But it was limited in its use here because it was a series of two-dimensional simulations. We had to reengineer.”

Using reference images of flames being pushed through the air by giant fans helped. The ILM team also considered using a meshed image of real fire and digital fire but, in the end, went with the richer, deeper texture of computer-generated flame. So while “Airbender’s” stabbing, dancing fire is cutting-edge in its technology, its appeal is as ancient as a campfire.

“Fire is fantastic,” Hammack said. “It’s beautiful to watch.”