Inside the epic visual effects of <i>Avatar: The Last Airbender</i>
June 28, 2024

Inside the epic visual effects of Avatar: The Last Airbender

As VFX supervisors Jabbar Raisani (also an executive producer of the series) and Marion Spates were overseeing the massive amount of work necessary to bring the epic Netflix series Avatar: The Last Airbender to life, they knew they had a secret weapon in Company 3 Senior Colorist Siggy Ferstl. Ferstl has taken full advantage of recent technological developments in DaVinci Resolve Studio editing, color grading, visual effects, and audio post production software, his preferred color grading tool, in order to significantly expand the scope of work his filmmaker clients can accomplish during the color grading process.
Raisani had done something similar for all four seasons of Netflix's hit series Lost in Space. “They knew what I could do beyond traditional color,” Ferstl notes, although the work on Airbender was significantly more involved.

"We were able to complete a large amount of work in my color bay that would otherwise have had to go out to VFX vendors," he adds, saying that this method offered the producers a number of advantages, not least of which was the ability to fine tune elements in real time and in context. Traditionally, VFX shots are sent out to companies that specialize in VFX, where they are worked on and returned, which can be a days’ long process, especially during the iterative process of requesting changes and waiting for them to be delivered.

As with Lost in Space, Airbender was a massive endeavor set entirely in otherworldly environments. "Like an eight hour science fiction or fantasy feature film," Ferstl describes. Designed to pay homage to the beloved animated series, the show, created by Albert Kim, follows a young boy, Aang (Gordon Cormier), on his epic quest, along with companions Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley), through a spectacular world of magic and monsters to capture the precious Avatar and bring peace to a war torn world.

Unique Prep Work

Ferstl started to prep for the job six months before the production actually began delivering scenes to his color bay at Company 3 in Santa Monica, CA. Having been briefed on many aspects of the series' look (episodes were shot by Michael Goi, ASC, who also directed several, as well as Michael Balfry and Stewart Whelan), Ferstl started working within DaVinci Resolve Studio using Open FX and Fusion tools to come up with methods to achieve what would be asked of him, including altering whole environments, building and integrating digital lighting, creating digital "lens" and diffusion characteristics, and enhancing a number of key transitions in the series.

According to Ferstl, in order to give the imagery a somewhat more organic feel than the digitally shot material possessed, "We came up with ways to sort of 'dirty up' the image to take it away from a clean 'studio' vibe to make it more cinematic."

Using imagery shot through various strengths of several different well known glass filters as a guide, Ferstl combined a number of different diffusion, halation and softening tools within DaVinci Resolve Studio's Open FX plugins to create a custom set of digital "filters" to apply to certain shots in post.

He similarly put together a few image distortion tools to create a Lensbaby style defocus effect, and he combined Open FX functions to build and add in distinctive anamorphic lens style flare and lighting effects to parts of shots throughout the series.

The Color Grading/VFX Workflow

Ferstl made use of both a custom film emulation LUT to impose more of a photochemical feel to the images' contrast and a separate film look recipe (incorporated as an individual node) specifically to gather more of the colors in the camera original material to within a certain range that both enhanced the cinematic feel and added specificity to the hues of theAirbender world.

As scenes, and then episodes, started coming in for color grading, Ferstl and Finishing Artist Mike DeLegal, working at separate locations, made the most of both Company 3's extensive interconnectedness among its many studios and remote locations and DaVinci Resolve Studio's collaboration features, which enabled them to work concurrently on the same media and communicate with each other about every detail. While this kind of collaboration between Ferstl and DeLegal, who works primarily in the VFX centric Fusion page and handles digital fixes like wire removal, split screens, some greenscreen work and all manner of cleanup, has been possible for a few years, it was essential on Airbender.

"There are some elaborate transition shots before and after important flash forwards, where Aang sees his future," Ferstl explains. "The outgoing shot was done on the color page while I worked on the incoming shot on the edit page, which as a colorist I don't usually touch. That was a great example of where Mike and I had to be in very close contact because we really could both be working on the same shot at the same time."

VFX as an Expansion of Color Grading

Ferstl was among the earliest adopters of a handful of tools added to DaVinci Resolve Studio within the last couple of years, primarily Magic Mask and Depth Map, which have opened up a path for colorists to perform more tasks that traditionally lie within the exclusive realm of dedicated compositors. In skilled hands, these tools allow an artist to qualify (isolate) specific objects in a frame down to tinier levels of detail and in a fraction of the time it would take with traditional adjustments, such as keys and vignettes.

While these functions would be overkill for most color work, they are enormously important for VFX type work of this complexity, for example changing the look of the foliage or sky without affecting the people in the shot. The rotoscope work alone could take hours or days for a colorist to do, or it would be sent out to VFX vendors to have mattes cut and then returned to the colorist, but this is also a time consuming procedure.

As those familiar with the original animated series know, the Spirit World plays an important role in Aang's story. Scenes set in this otherworldly place were shot in a fairly straightforward manner with Raisaini and Spates then overseeing the enhancement of the space into the look we see in the show, one of lavender flora and unearthly skies.

"We designed elements of the Spirit World based, to a great extent, on the look of the animated show," Ferstl says. He added in "lens distortion" around the edges of the frame, anamorphic style flares for whenever there were light sources in the shot, and then introduced the specific lavender look to all the foliage, which was shot in its natural green form.

"Just keying all the greens and making them lavender color would have made everything look very one dimensional," he explains.

Influenced by the look of color infrared photography, Ferstl pitched the idea of creating a look inspired by the effect of the photographic method: "Rather than just adding a wash of lavender, we also created an effect that made the greens less saturated as they got brighter, and then that effect translated when we pushed the green into the lavender look. Other times in the series, the story called for a somewhat different look for the Spirit World, and because everything was built inside Resolve, we could adapt the contrast and reduce the saturation on top of the previous effects."

In addition, there was a large slate of shots for which VFX companies created CG lighting effects which were then handed over to Ferstl and DeLegal to integrate those effects with the people and objects in the shots. The effects of an explosion or a sudden flash of light would then interact with a character's face, clothing or with the environment in general.

Here again, Ferstl combined traditional color tools with the most sophisticated new tools within DaVinci Resolve Studio for isolating, shaping and refining every lighting element in each frame to help sell the effect and help the filmmakers realize the fantastic, unique look of the series.

The "air bending" phenomenon of the title involves, among other effects, a customized camera shake effect with some distortion that takes place during firefights as CG fire passes by. DeLegal recalls that Raisani and Spates brought the custom shake work to him and Ferstl rather than to a VFX vendor. DeLegal, who creates most of his VFX work in DaVInci Resolve Studio's Fusion page, explains, "They really liked that we could hand finesse the effect in each shot and then make any adjustments they requested almost in real time."

In fact, this is one of the major reasons why VFX supervisors like Raisani and Spates have, since their experience onLost in Space, brought more and more of this type of work to Ferstl and his Company 3 team. "We can do all this work in the grading process, and when we do, we can also control and refine everything in collaboration with them and without having to send every iteration out to another vendor and wait days for the results,” Ferstl explains.

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