Avatar: The Last Airbender creator/writer/producers Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko attended the Rhode Island School Of Design together, then put in their time in the animation trenches, with DiMartino working on Family Guy, Mission Hill, and King Of The Hill, and Konietzko on Family Guy and Invader Zim. They got their break when Nickelodeon green-lighted their idea for Last Airbender, which grew into a three-season, 61-episode saga that told a complete beginning-to-end story, airing online from 2005 to 2008. Thanks to its elaborate story, intelligent themes, and impressive action, the series became a major hit, with word of mouth gradually growing as it found an audience among kids and adults alike. Two significant things happened to the franchise in 2010: M. Night Shyamalan released a disastrously terrible live-action film adaptation of the show’s first season under the title The Last Airbender (DiMartino and Konietzko have politely refused to discuss it in interviews since its release, deflecting questions about it by drawing attention to their current work instead) and Nickelodeon announced the green-lighting of DiMartino and Konietzko’s new animated series set in the same world, around 70 years later.
That series, The Legend Of Korra, launches April 14 on Nickelodeon, though the first two episodes were given an early airing online at korranation.com. Like Last Airbender, Korra centers on benders—martial artists who can manipulate the four elements—and the Avatar, a spiritual leader capable of manipulating all four elements, with sufficient training. Unlike Last Airbender’s protagonist, Aang, who was trying to halt a civil war, Korra’s eponymous protagonist is dealing more with her own training, her lack of a spiritual side, and a growing anti-bender movement. The A.V. Club recently talked to Korra co-creator and executive producer Michael Dante DiMartino and series co-executive producer and director Joaquim Dos Santos about designing the new series, working with real martial artists to create the bending moves, and the secrets of directing stellar action scenes.
The A.V. Club: Mike, what’s your working method like with Bryan as you develop and write these stories?
Michael Dante DiMartino: Well, for the first season—Bryan and I wrote all the first 12 episodes together, and really, the process is… part of the process is me and him sitting in a room, throwing ideas back and forth. And then we’ll go home at night and chew on it a little bit more, and usually the next day, when one or the other of us comes in, goes, “Oh wait, I had an idea of that thing we were talking about.” It’s like a ping-pong thing, where we go back and forth and just build on each other’s ideas until we both get to a place where we’re just like, “Yeah, this totally makes sense,” and kind of work out all of the kinks of the story. We try to be as thorough as we can as far as any story holes, so we’re pretty thorough with that.
AVC: You and Joaquim both had the full Last Airbender series behind you as you were going into the new one. What did you learn from the first series that you took into the second one?
MDD: We learned a ton from working on the first season together, and I think part of the motivation coming into The Legend Of Korra was to basically up the game on everything. Our direction was, Bryan wanted to really do a different background style. We all thought the animation in general could just be better. We’ve all grown as artists and writers from the first series, and Bryan and I were passionate about telling kind of the next chapter in this universe. So we were excited that it was only 12 episodes—that it was pure story, no filler episodes. It was kind of like one big movie thing. So we took a different approach with writing, as far as that goes—thinking of the whole story as one big mini-movie, I guess. It’s like the equivalent of three movies.
Joaquim Dos Santos: Yeah, I think it was just upping the sophistication of what we had done the first time. We now, from the outset, put in place a bit more time and budget for compositing and lighting, just to make the show look fuller and richer. I mean this was just basically—looking back on the original series as fans, it was still awesome as it was for us as artists who worked on it. There were a bunch of little nagging issues that really only the people that worked on it probably see, or people that have more of an eye for that kind of stuff. But this was our big chance to make up for a lot that stuff.
AVC: From the first two episodes, it’s clear that many of Korra’s story aspects are direct opposites of Last Airbender’s. Was there a conversation where you specifically sat down and said “Okay, Aang was male, Korra should be female. Aang was uncertain, Korra should be overconfident. Aang was constantly on the move, Korra should stay in one place,” and so forth?
MDD: Yeah, I think Bryan and I consciously wanted to do something very different from the first series, because we didn’t want to just repeat the same story beats, where an Avatar has to learn all the elements and fight in a big war. We wanted to differentiate it as much as we could from the old series. So yeah, we were like, “It’d be great if she was a little older, was a teenage girl.” And then, yeah, just trying to come up with a different type of conflict that we hadn’t done, so it’s like this class-warfare thing. That kind of came out of—Korra’s the hero, and because she is so identified with bending, and thinks it’s the greatest thing in the world, the biggest threat to that is someone who is against that, who doesn’t like bending or benders, who wants to see their kind taken care of. So yeah, certainly some of it was conscious. Some of it was out of whatever natural story instincts we had, that we were interested in exploring.
AVC: There’s often a prejudice in action-based stories, especially for younger audiences, that thinks girls will tune into a series with a boy protagonist, but not the other way around. Was there any kind of argument or concern about having an action series with a female protagonist?
MDD: Not for us. [Laughs.] Bryan and I always thought—in the first series, Katara and Toph and Azula were such popular characters with boys and girls. We had plenty of boys coming up to us at Comic-Con or whatever and saying, “Man, Toph is my favorite character, I love her.” So we knew it would just be a natural extension of what we had already established in the first series. So it didn’t seem like a strange evolution of the old show. And we had shown there were several Avatars in the past that were female. It just made sense with our story and our world that there could be a female Avatar, and all the testing on the show and everything has shown that girls and boys love it equally as much.
JDS: It’s funny too, like I tend to find that anybody who has or might have a resistance to it has this mentality, this weird kind of 1970s, ’80s mentality. It probably had some legs back then, because Princess Leia was always the last figure I bought when I was buying Star Wars stuff. But it’s just a different era. It’s just a different time. And all the kids we meet now, like all the boys, Toph is literally their favorite character. It’s crazy. So all that stuff just doesn’t apply nowadays.
AVC: One of the really unique things from the first series is the way each bending style is drawn directly from a specific martial-arts style. Is it challenging making the animation that specific?
MDD: Definitely. It’s a big challenge, because on Legend Of Korra, now we have, what is it, like three different?
JDS: Three martial-arts consultants.
MDD: And we’re recording multiple sessions of each performer, and each individual scene and move that’s in the storyboard. So literally any bending move that’s in the storyboard has some video reference of it somewhere.
JDS: Yeah, there’s some dude that was doing that flip or doing that strike probably three or four times before it actually made it to final animation.
AVC: Do you tell them, “This is the bending effect we’re going to produce, what martial-arts gesture would make that?” How does the process work?
MDD: Usually, because we’ve had such experience now with the original series, you know, when we do our thumbnails, that’s just to get a sense of the staging. The storyboard artist can do a general punch pose in his rough storyboard, and we’ll take that into a session. We usually have a kickoff session with a martial-arts consultant, and we go through the main beats in the script that have action in them or bending in them, and he’ll give us a very general reference, so the storyboard artist will have at least something to look at and get inspired by. And they can kind of embellish on those moves a little bit. We’ll then show that rough storyboard back to the martial-arts consultant for the second session, and he’ll do something that’s a little more locked down. At that point, we’ll have a big internal review, and oftentimes story points will change, or action beats will change. Things will just be revised because we’ve got better ideas, at which point we’ll revise the drawings and have a third and fourth session with the martial-arts consultants to pin that stuff down.
AVC: Have the martial arts been expanded in Korra? Now that metalbending is its own distinct school, has its visual style changed?
JDS: The visual style of the traditional bending, the earthbending, the waterbending, all that stuff is more or less the same. There’s some new tricks up our sleeves and stuff, but Bryan and Joaquim both are big mixed-martial-arts fans, so there’s a little more like modern style of fighting in there.
MDD: It’s opened up a bit. Republic City represents that big melting-pot aspect of the Avatar universe, so it’s the blending of all these cultures, and that affects the martial arts as well. All the forms were pure. The earthbending was pure, and the firebending and the airbending and waterbending were really pure forms of kung-fu in the original series. Now you’re mixing them all up and kind of mashing them together and bringing in elements of Western boxing. So it’s definitely become more advanced that way.
JDS: We tried to show the conflict between the traditional and modern styles of fighting. In the second episode, when Korra is super-bored with her traditional air-bending training, she’s pro bending [professional bending in an competitive arena] for the first time, which to her is much more dynamic and fast-paced and crazy and all this stuff. To her, that seems much more valuable at that point than [the training exercise of] walking through the spinning gates or whatever.
AVC: The Last Airbender was often a very dialogue-driven show, an ensemble show. Is it a challenge making that visually interesting, when you’re dealing with your characters sitting around talking at length?
MDD: Honestly, we need to have scenes of people sitting around talking, because there’s no way we could have animated that much action in a show. It’s already pushing the limits. But we try to make it as interesting as we can. Certainly for Legend Of Korra, even in a scene where, like, on paper they’re sitting in a council chamber talking, and people aren’t moving around as much, the backgrounds are really pretty to look at, the lighting’s really pretty. So you know, even in so-called static scenes, where there’s not much action or something, it’s still always a visual treat, I think.
JDS: And I’ll say, this kind of ties into the question you had about the martial-arts video reference and stuff. I came into the original series as a storyboard artist on the second season, and I thought I knew everybody in action-adventure as far as animation goes. So when I saw Avatar for the first time, I was sitting at home with my wife, and I was wondering, “Who the heck is making this? Because everything looks better.” The action looked kicked up 12 notches, but the dialogue scenes had a real interesting look, and something that was more compelling, and made you want to look at the screen more. It’s because there was just more attention being paid to those details, whereas in other action-adventure shows, it’s all about the dudes punching each other, and the dialogue scenes kind of seem to get thrown to the wayside.
AVC: There’s a really strong moral streak running through Last Airbender in terms of Aang’s pacifist stance, and the lessons his gang learns about responsibility, adulthood, trust, all these other things. Are these lessons you specifically wanted to teach kids?
MDD: I think they’re great lessons for kids. I think when Bryan and I come up with these ideas, or write an episode or whatever, we never try and do a lesson for people, or preach anything, but I think, yeah, for ourselves, they’re interesting things to think about. They’re healthy things to think about in people’s lives, and I’m proud that they are good messages that kids have resonated with, and parents have resonated with. So yeah, for me it’s always trying to find that balance between making an entertaining, fun show you want to watch just because it’s a cool story, and also weaving in those deeper lessons or whatnot, but not hitting people over the head with them at all.
AVC: Is there a specific moral lesson running through Korra that you can identify?
MDD: I mean, the big arc for Korra is really about her spiritual side. So not so much of a lesson per se, but it’s more about her realizing that fighting or aggression or going in guns a-blazing isn’t always the best solution to a problem. There’s maybe a more peaceful, diplomatic way to go about a problem. That’s what’s cool about the first season, like, that she definitely tries to fight the problem head-on at first, and starts to realize it’s a more complicated situation than that. Just “beating the bad guy” is not necessarily going to solve the problem. It makes things a little more complicated for her.
AVC: The biggest name we currently know is involved in the new series is J.K. Simmons as Katara’s son and Korra’s mentor, Tenzin. How did he come on board?
MDD: He was one of the actors who auditioned for the part, and Bryan and I loved him from Spider-Man and Coen brothers movies, and stuff like that. He brings such a great warmth to the character, but also he can be really funny, really heartfelt when he needs to be. His range is just amazing. When he came in and read the prologue to the first episode, you know, usually we do multiple takes of actors for any particular line. He literally came in and read it in one shot. We were like, “Yep, that was it. All right, well, you can do another one if you want, but we pretty much got it on that one.” So yeah, he’s been such a great guy to work with.
AVC: There seems to be more CGI in the first couple of episodes of Korra than there was in Last Airbender. Is that impression correct?
JDS: I think there is, only because we have elements that require it a bit more. In the original series, in the third season, we had the airships, and that was a big reveal for the latter part of the third season. They’re floating all over Republic City from the outset, so you’ve got things like cars, you’ve got things like airships. So it’s more content-driven that there’s more CG, there just needs to be, but we’ve done a heck of a good job of integrating it with the look of the show so it doesn’t feel jarring. I’ve worked on a few shows in the past where the CG just didn’t integrate at all into the 2-D style of the show.
AVC: You say the need for CG comes from the new technology—cars, for instance—which has been one of the things fans have commented on from watching the first two episodes online. What went into developing that technology, in terms of thinking about how your society changed over 70 years?
MDD: Bryan and I were just thinking of what was the level of technology and industry in the 1920s era in New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong. And we call it steampunk-lite, a little dash of Jules Verne-y steampunkness thrown in there. Really, we were just drawing a little bit on history, a little on fantasy with the airships and stuff like that, but given that little extra science-fiction twist. Just a touch.
JDS: Yeah, when you think about the availability of that technology in the real world around that era, and then you throw into the mix the fact that there are benders in this universe who can manipulate the elements, it pushes that stuff a little further along.
AVC: What’s next for the franchise after Korra? Do you have a sense of where you want to go, if there are more stories you want to tell, if you want to take it to the big screen?
MDD: We’d love to do an animated feature someday, for sure. We’re working on the second season right now, writing that and getting that all storyboarded and everything as we speak. But Bryan and I, when we ended the first series, we had other ideas. Actually, Korra wasn’t a specific one we had at the time. It came a little bit later. We definitely have ideas of where the universe goes. I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do next, but we’re pretty locked into Korra right now, and it’s a pretty crazy schedule, us getting these first two seasons done. We haven’t had much time to take the future seriously yet. [Laughs.]
AVC: Joaquim, is it true you’ve got a nickname just based around your direction of action sequences?
JDS: [Laughs.] Yeah.
MDD: “Dr. Action”?
JDS: “Dr. Fight,” I think they call me. Yeah.
AVC: How do you feel about that? You sound a little nonplussed.
JDS: You know, it’s great. I love action scenes, and I grew up on Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Star Wars and RoboCop and Terminator and all the good stuff kids should be watching. But I mean, it’s great. I don’t know. Could be worse. I just want people to appreciate the awesome dialogue scenes that are in Korra as well.
MDD: “Dr. Acting.” The acting moments and designing characters and all that stuff.
AVC: Is there a secret to directing a good action sequence?
MDD: Good question.
JDS: Hell of a question. Usually, we’re just flying by the seat of our pants, so you don’t really have a lot of time to think about it. But no, I think you want to tell a story within each fight. I think you want to incorporate elements of whoever’s participating in the fight into what they’re doing. That’s why I think Azula and Zuko [confronting each other] was such an awesome and powerful scene. Those characters had such strong personalities, and it carried through into each moment of the fight. And also just surrounding yourself with incredibly talented storyboard artists and directors who are able to share in the vision. A lot of times, what happens with these scenes for U.S. animation is that they just get handed out to people who don’t necessarily communicate. You’ll get an action scene, but it won’t necessarily tie into the body of the entire show, so having good communication and thinking a little bit when you’re choreographing these sequences.
MDD: Even when we’re writing the scripts and the action sequences, we’re always trying to find, like Joaquim was saying, “What’s the story of this scene?” Whether it’s action or a dialogue scene or whatever. Action scene, obviously the conflict is a lot easier to see than maybe a dialogue scene. But there’s always, you know, one character needs something, or is trying to get somewhere, and someone else is trying to stop them. What are their individual motivations? You try to weave it in early, and then it definitely evolves and gets pushed in all the directing and animating stages.
JDS: Thinking of each person’s fighting style as an extension of their personality helps.
AVC: Mike, What kind of involvement have you and Bryan had in the Dark Horse Last Airbender books that are coming out right now, tying the two series together?
MDD: We’ve been very involved. We worked with Dark Horse on the art-of-Avatar book [Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Art Of The Animated Series] that Bryan and I wrote and put together with them, and we had a great working relationship with them. When they came and said, “Hey, we want to do some comics. We have this great writer, Gene Luen Yang, and a great group of artists in Japan to work on the comics.” So yeah, I’ve been working with Gene pretty closely on the first three books, and then we’re actually just starting to come up with ideas for the next batch of stories. But it’s been a great collaboration, and it’s nice to be able to tell some more stories in that fold, with the old characters, without having to do the entire animation part of it. [Laughs.]
MDD: Not that it’s easy to draw comics, but it’s a lot fewer drawings than trying to get it animated.
JDS: It seems like magic to me, because I just see the artwork come in and I’m like, “Wow. That’s great, because it magically happened.”