Co-creators Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko look back on the lessons, accomplishments, and challenges of creating their epic animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender.
In honor of the recent release of Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Complete Series on DVD, Konietzko and DiMartino discussed their influential series. Check out our review of the comprehensive box-set and take a trip down memory lane with Bryan and Mike.
Interview with Bryan Konietzko and Mike DiMartino:
Looking back on Avatar: The Last Airbender, what do you feel was your greatest accomplishment with the series?
Mike: I’m very proud that we were able to tell the whole story that we intended to tell from the beginning, and tell it in a compelling way. In television, you never know if the first season is going to catch on and if you will have the opportunity to continue with the characters’ stories. So it’s quite remarkable looking back that we set out to tell a 3-season story arc and were able to do exactly that.
What was your greatest challenge in creating the series?
Mike: The creating part wasn’t as hard as the executing part. Although the creative process certainly has its own challenges and frustrations, it was mainly me and Bryan in a room, coming up with ideas and Bryan sketching concepts of what the characters and world could look like. We were excited by all the possibilities.
But once we were picked up for a series, the reality of making those ideas into concrete, 22-minute episodes is a whole other challenge. Finding writers, artists, and a crew whose sensibilities matched the show was essential. There was a lot of trial and error early on to figure out the best way to produce the show with the time, money, and talent involved.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from creating Avatar? Was there anything that helped you in creating The Legend of Korra?
Bryan: All of our experiences on Avatar prompted us to shape and streamline the production on Korra in some places, and add to it in others. We added an additional step to the art direction process to achieve more cinematic lighting in the final animation. We hired an After Effects artist to do pre-visualization of advanced camera moves, and handle a lot of retakes in-house. And we lengthened the schedule for the animators. Those modifications to our workflow changed the look and feel of the animation dramatically.
Avatar deals with a lot of spiritual concepts, and of course, Aang is a hero who is more comfortable meditating than fighting. It’s not your standard story in children’s entertainment. How did you approach incorporating these elements into the series?
Mike: Even though we were obviously aware we were making the show on a children’s network, that never stopped me and Bryan from exploring the themes and ideas that fascinated and inspired us. One example of this was “The Guru” episode that Bryan and I wrote about Aang opening his energetic chakras – a fairly unfamiliar concept to most westerners.
The challenge there was to make it not just an educational lesson, but to dramatize it and see how Aang struggles to deal with his past mistakes in order to grow, which is something people of all ages can relate to.
Something fans particularly love about Avatar: The Last Airbender are the rich, complicated characters. How did you go about creating your cast? How do you know when a character is complete, and ready to begin their journey?
Bryan: The world we created suggested to us the characters we might find there. Further down the road in development and production, the world suggested the characters we needed.
But I don’t know if a character is ever complete, which is something we like. In the type of storytelling we do, they are always evolving, growing, making mistakes and learning. I think we know characters are ready to fit in a story when we know what it is they want and why.
What was the most important thing you needed to know about the Avatar world to begin telling its story? Do you have any advice for fans looking to create their own stories?
Mike: There are a couple things we’ve learned over the years. One, we usually begin with the world or a broad concept of what the world is like. Then we add the characters. Not everyone works this way, but Bryan and I have found this has come naturally to us.
Two, we need to find our villain, or main antagonist, that the hero will have to face. Without knowing who the hero is going to come up against in his or her journey, it’s difficult to develop a plot.
Can you share any fun moments from production on Avatar?
Bryan: We had an awesome crew full of a lot of friends, former colleagues, and schoolmates. It was a stressful, tedious endeavor, but there were plenty of laughs in the long meetings. I think watching an encore of the series finale with a few thousand fans at San Diego Comic-Con was a fun highlight for me. Mike and I wish we could watch all of the episodes that way!
Was there a particular moment when you realized just how beloved and impactful the show had become?
Bryan: I think we are still reminded on a fairly regular basis, even all these years later. The other day, my wife and I were walking our dog, and an Irish wolfhound galloped towards us off leash. The owner noticed and yelled the dog’s name, “Zuko!”
Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Complete Series is available now.