Craig J. Clark talks with co-creator Bryan Konietzko about the immensely popular action-adventure show.
Ever since it premiered in February 2005, Avatar: The Last Airbender has been a ratings phenomenon for Nickelodeon. The story of Aang, a young boy with the power to bend the elements who is called upon to bring order to his war-torn world, Avatar is the brainchild of seasoned animators Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. When asked how he would describe the show to someone who's never seen it before, Konietzko called it "an epic, Asian, martial-arts fantasy/action/adventure/comedy/drama series about the four elements. It isn't easy to fit it all into one sentence!"
DiMartino and Konietzko started their careers working on prime-time animated series like Family Guy, King of the Hill, and Mission Hill, but it wasn't hard for them to make the adjustment to a show aimed at younger viewers. "For us, adjusting to the younger audience wasn't the big difference," Konietzko said. "The welcome change was being able to create and work on a show that was always sincere, and had a lot of heart.
"It was fun to work on sitcoms, but, after a while, the self-awareness and satirical attitudes didn't seem like a good fit for our personal sensibilities. Sitcom episodes are often a parody or a play on another show, movie or genre. Mike and I wanted to make something that was native to a genre, not standing outside of it looking in."
DiMartino and Konietzko went to college together at the Rhode Island School of Design, where Konietzko helped DiMartino animate his senior film. "We enjoyed working together, so when I made it out to Los Angeles a few years later and Mike was already a director on Family Guy, he helped me get my foot in the door. I think we make a good team, because, while we are totally different from each other, we somehow share a lot of the same sensibilities."
After Family Guy ended its initial run, the team worked on two more series, after which DiMartino took some time to make the independent short animated film Atomic Love, and Konietzko went to work as a storyboard artist and art director on Invader Zim for Nickelodeon. But, after a couple of years, the two decided to become a team again. "By this time," Konietzko notes, "I had formed a good working relationship with Eric Coleman at Nickelodeon, and luckily he gave us an open door to come in and pitch."
They created Avatar's main characters' basic looks fairly quickly, during the two weeks between coming up with the idea and pitching the show. "I remember sketching Sokka and Katara on the back of a sheet of paper a mere hour before the pitch meeting!" recalls Konietzko. "Of course, their designs have evolved since then, but you would recognize them from those first drawings."
When they were coming up with the world and story of Avatar, DiMartino and Konietzko had a number of touchstones and influences, but one in particular stands out. "We've said this a lot of times, but it is still true that [Hayao] Miyazaki's work really inspired and continues to inspire us," Konietzko said. "Back in the late '90s I was getting pretty disillusioned with working on sitcoms -- then I saw Princess Mononoke and I was emboldened. My heart was so much closer to that kind of story, those kinds of characters and that type of tone. After that, Cowboy Bebop really inspired us in terms of being a great example of an epic series that had a wide breadth of tones. Then FLCL came along and rewrote the rules for everything, as far as I'm concerned!"
One thing that helps if you're creating a show aimed at younger audiences is remembering the sorts of things you liked when you were that age. Both Konietzko and DiMartino loved immersive worlds in movies, books and TV series, and Konietzko credits their "inner kid" with providing the main concepts, like "how cool it would be to bend the elements." He notes that, after that, their adult selves took over to create the complex world and its characters. "We try to be honest with this fiction, and I think that sincerity comes through in the final product. We're lucky that kids and 'inner kids' have really connected with the show."
It's impossible to know how successful you're going to be, though, until you get the work out there. Konietzko cites Brad Bird's Iron Giant as a beautiful and heartfelt film that should have been an instant commercial success. "Unfortunately the market isn't always fair. It can take a long time for a project to find its audience. All I can say is that I tried to enjoy each part of the process, from development, to the pilot, to each of the three seasons. I just wanted to enjoy it while it lasted, because working on your own creations is incredibly satisfying.
"The biggest goal I had was for Mike and I and everyone who has worked on the show along the way to finish telling this story. It would have been a shame if it were cut short before we could share the ending. Now that we are working on the final episodes of Book Three, I can say that the success of the show has been a wonderful benefit beyond my personal goal."
Avatar is also set to become a live-action film, to be directed by M. Night Shyamalan, with DiMartino and Konietzko serving as executive producers. So far Konietzko has found the experience felicitous: "Night has been really great and open with his creative process. We've had a few meetings so far, but it is pretty early in the process as he is finishing up another film first. We are really excited to see Night's interpretation of our work, and to see the show take on this new form."
For the immediate future, though, fans watching the third season unfold can expect the usual "epic, Asian-influenced martial arts, fantastical action, adventurous comedy, and dramatic showings of the four elements!" More seriously, Konietzko assures us that all of the various story arcs will culminate in an exciting conclusion. "Aang is getting ready to own up to his destiny as the Avatar."
Craig J. Clark is an occasional contributor to AWN. He writes an online comic strip called Dada.