After the conclusion of the Avatar Season One re-watch, we were fortunate enough to get some time from the profoundly brilliant creators of the original televised Avatar: The Last Airbender, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino.
Graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design, Bryan and Michael have worked on such shows as Family Guy, King of the Hill, and Invader Zim before creating Avatar: The Last Airbender.
This interview was conducted prior to the release of the M. Night Shyamalan film The Last Airbender, and Bryan and Michael requested that we not ask questions about the film. We were happy to oblige. It was our specific intent to ask questions that the average interviewer would not ask, focusing on the crafting of the show and unresolved mysteries. Let us know how we did.
How much was the target age demographic of Nickelodeon a restriction on the storytelling in the series? Were there things you wanted to do with the characters that just wouldn’t be acceptable in a kid’s show?
MICHAEL DANTE DIMARTINO: Aside from a few standards issues, Nickelodeon didn’t restrict us at all. We got to make the show we wanted and never felt like we had to hold back. But we were always aware that our audience was made up of a lot of kids, so it was a balancing act. Even though we had more serious episodes or moments, we always tried to temper them with lighter moments. In order for the story to feel epic, and to feel like there were real stakes involved, we had to go to darker, more serious places at times, and I’m thankful that Nickelodeon gave us that creative freedom.
Tell us about the process of writing an episode of Avatar, from constructing the show’s overarching plot through finishing a given script.
MIKE: The writing process was a long, multi-year journey, so it’s hard to sum it up in a few sentences. When we pitched the show to Nickelodeon, Bryan and I had blocked out the three-season arc and knew some big events that we wanted to hit along the way, like the solar eclipse and the invasion. Once the head writer and the writing staff joined the team, they helped flesh out the stories and filled in the missing gaps in Aang’s journey. We all worked on each story together, fleshing out the beats, working on rewrites, etc. It was a very collaborative story process.
Do you ever foresee yourselves returning to the world of Avatar to tell more stories set in that milieu? It’s such a rich world you’ve created, it must be tempting to return to it and explore some of the places the series doesn’t go.
MIKE: Oh, we’ve definitely got some ideas. But we’re keeping them under wraps for the time being.
Tell us a bit about the origins of the show. What was your background in writing or television prior to Avatar? How did you guys come up with the idea for the show, and what was the initial process of pitching it and then getting it produced like?
MIKE: The process was quite long and involved. Here’s my shameless pitch: We’ve detailed the story of how we created and developed the show in the recently published Avatar: The Last Airbender (The Art of the Animated Series) book as well as in a documentary that will accompany the re-release of the season one box set. We’re really proud of these two projects and they give a first-hand account of the entire creative process of coming up with the show.
Special attention is given to objects in the world of Avatar. Items such as Sokka’s boomerang, Katara’s necklace, and Aang’s glider have special significance. If one of these items is lost or broken, it remains so. What inspired this unique respect for continuity?
MIKE: To keep the stakes high and so the characters’ actions have weight and significance, we wanted to maintain continuity from episode to episode. We wanted to avoid the “reset” button common to most sitcom and action-adventure shows. The show is about the kids learning and growing during the journey. It’s much more like a movie in that sense, where a character starts out at point A, and ends at point B, a different and changed person. We did it not just with objects, but things like in season one, when Sokka and Katara’s sickness in “The Blue Spirit” was a direct result of the storm in the previous episode. I think it just adds a level of realism that helps the audience buy into this fantastic world.
What was the inspiration for the animals in the series? Some of them are unique, like the flying, six-legged bisons, but many are an amalgam of two existing animals, like the turtle-seals or horse-ostriches.
BRYAN KONIETZKO: Read the book!
Iroh’s journey to the spirit world is referenced several times over the course of the series. Care to enlighten us on what he experienced? Would this be something dealt with in the graphic novels?
MIKE: Iroh’s spirit world journey seems to have sparked the imagination of a lot of fans. That time period in Iroh’s life, following his son’s death, would be interesting to explore. How did he go from being the ruthless “Dragon of the West” to the peaceful, wise man we see in the series? It’s a great story of transformation. Maybe we’ll get to tell it someday.
If there is one part of the story you wish you could go back and tell differently, what would it be?
MIKE: There’s plenty of little things here and there that didn’t come out quite how we wanted, due to time and/or budget constraints. But overall, I’m happy with the way the story played out.
What were some of your inspirations for the series? It seems that you have drawn from George Lucas and Hayao Miyazaki. Who else?
MIKE: Miyazaki is definitely the big one!
BRYAN: Miyazaki, Gainax, Shinichiro Watanabe…
We hear that you’re working on a new series. Anything you can tell us about that?
MIKE: Nothing we can say yet, but stay tuned…
Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, and a columnist for Lightspeed and Realms of Fantasy. His fiction is forthcoming in the anthology The Living Dead 2. He holds a BFA in Film Production from New York University.
Jordan Hamessley is a children’s book editor at Penguin Books for Young Readers where she edits the Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Chaotic publishing programs, as well as developing original series. She is also an assistant editor for Lightspeed Magazine. She can be found on Twitter as @thejordache.