Working with M. Night Shyamalan on a live-action movie trilogy based on their animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, co-creators Mike Di Martino and Bryan Konietzko shared their insights on the creative process with KidScreen Editor Jocelyn Christie at the Cinekid Festival in Amsterdam last month.
When you look back on the experience of making Avatar, what were the greatest creative challenges you had to work through?
BK: Well, Mike and I came up with the overall arc in two weeks. We created the concept, the characters and the stories for the three seasons. I don’t want to say that was easy, but it came very quickly. When we pitched it to Nickelodeon, we said three seasons at 12 episodes each, and then that’s it. And they said, ‘How about 20 each?’ because that’s their normal cycle for a series. So our biggest creative challenge was fleshing out that arc. Mike and I both have very cinematic sensibilities when it comes to structure, and we very easily could have set the three animated seasons up like three movies.
MD: We wanted each story to stand on its own so the audience could just watch the episode even if they hadn’t seen the ones that aired before. It was a bit of a mandate from the network, but it was a good one. It was also really fun to play around with different genres. Sometimes we’d do very epic episodes that tied into the main story, and sometimes we’d explore love-story or thriller elements and comedy in stand-alone episodes.
BK: You see that in series like X-Files and Cowboy Bebop, and we definitely got inspired by those shows.
MD: Artistically, I think one of the biggest challenges was keeping up the quality of the animation, because on a TV budget and time schedule, it’s really difficult. We had an amazing crew working very hard to keep that level high.
BK: And preventing burnout was really hard. People would just pour their hearts and souls into an episode to make it as good as they could, and the next day they’d have to start a new episode, and they were probably late on it because they were exhausted. You don’t want to crack the whip, but how do you rally the troops? We were lucky. We worked with great people State-side and overseas who were very invested. I mean the animation director didn’t leave the studio for three months. The art composers put up their own money to hire a real orchestra for the last four episodes. That’s how much people cared about Avatar.
What were the biggest technical hurdles you encountered in development and production?
BK: I was the art director for the show, and a lot of design decisions are about streamlining things so they can be animated. Avatar was a very ambitious show, and trying to animate some of the more complex elements that are organic to the story – like Tong Dynasty clothing – on a TV budget was impossible. In the middle of the second season, there’s a big ball scene where everyone is dressed in fancy clothes, and that was just brutal. But I’d say the biggest challenge was this lion-turtle creature that’s the size of an island, thousands of years old, and encrusted with trees – it just called for a extraordinary level of detail. We tried to go back to Japanese animation in the ’80s before they were doing a lot of CG – so more like sliding painted elements. That was the approach we went with, and it just didn’t work out. If I could now, I would go back and CG the thing. But we just didn’t have the budget or time, and we were already doing these big airships in CG that took a lot out of what we had to work with. And at the end of the day, when you’re making a TV show, you have to know when to say when.
What single element are you most proud of when you look back at the completed series?
MD: For me, I’m proud of every script and story we came up with because every one is unique in its own way, and we got to explore different genres and brought an emotional realism to characters at times. The story about Katara dealing with the death of her mom, for example, was pretty serious.
Look for part two Thursday on KidScreen.com.