Q&A: Creative catch-up with Avatar’s masterminds

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.
November 25, 2008

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?
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. 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 the stand-alone episodes.
BK: You see that kind of construction 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?
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?
For me, I’m proud of every script and story we came up with because each one is unique in its own way, and we got to explore different genres and bring an emotional realism to characters at times. The story about Katara dealing with the death of her mom, for example, was pretty serious.

Given that there were limitations to what you could do with the concept on a TV budget and time line, are you thrilled that it’s now in the pipeline as a live-action movie trilogy?
I’m excited that it’s going to reach a whole new audience that may have heard about the show, but may not necessarily watch cartoons or watch Nickelodeon. Now they’re going to get to see this story realized on a much grander scale. For the last six years, we’ve been striving to make something with cinematic scope and depth for TV, and now we have Andrew Lesnie, one of the world’s greatest cinematographers, and he’s going to be shooting in Greenland and all these other fantastic locations. It’s going to be amazing to see our story and our characters living in a world as big as we had imagined. I’m really excited about that.

How does it feel to have M. Night Shyamalan directing?
The thing that’s really cool is that M. Night is a fan of the show first and foremost. His daughter introduced it to him, not his agent. It came to him in a very organic way. The first producer who got the movie going before M. Night came on-board, same thing. He saw it on TV while on vacation with his family. That’s been a recurring story for Avatar. Once people see it, most of them really connect with it.

What are the keys to running a creative team?
Try to squeeze in some management training to go along with your art school education (laughing). We had to learn it on the fly, usually in 20/20 hindsight.
MD: You’ve got to be patient with the people and the process.
BK: The second thing is sticking to the core of your idea and not getting so bent out of shape about the details. I’ve seen people waste a lot of time and emotional energy fighting over the smallest detail on other shows I’ve worked on, which can hurt the show in the end because it’s a bad use of time.
MD: You’ve also got to find the right people for the right job, and then trust in their expertise.
BK: That’s what we did with the Korean studios. We used Jam Animation, a really small company, and Moi Animation. In both cases, we handed over the reins and said, ‘You guys are in charge of the animation.’ Usually in North America, they do these timing sheets that specify exactly when characters should blink, and if you don’t animate it that way, you’re fined. We cut the animatic, sent over the materials and said, ‘OK, keep the scene that long and follow the storyboard, but the rest is up to you.’ That’s why the show looks like it does.
MD: We almost always got back animation that surprised us and that was better than what we were expecting.
BK: Most studios use their overseas animation houses like factories. But when I had the opportunity to train some crews in Korea on another show in 2001, I realized that they were a community of artists. They weren’t financially motivated – in fact they’d get penalized for making changes – and there was no creative incentive for them, either. So Mike and I tried to give them both of those things on Avatar.

Where do you go for inspiration?
For one-off funny ideas, watching the Nature Channel does it for me. You come into work the next day and say things like, ‘Dude, I saw the weirdest thing last night about frogs that can be frozen, and then they come back to life when they thaw out.’ These are the kind of funny side elements that we peppered throughout the show.
MD: Travelling. I went to Bhutan last year and visited Tiger’s Nest, which is a real-life Air Temple.

What do people most often misunderstand about what you do?
Most people think computers do everything, which is just not the case, even on CG projects. It takes as long or longer to do CG, and it’s as expensive or more expensive. Everyone is also shocked by how long it takes – the fact that it takes 10 months to do an episode usually blows their minds, and that 15,000 drawings go into each one.

Was it creatively limiting or liberating to work on a kids show after so much adult animation work?
It was pretty freeing. Nickelodeon was a great place to make the show because they really left us alone to do it. We got a few notes along the way, but the heart of the show is exactly like we wanted it to be. In that environment, it really blossomed.
BK: We worked on a lot of American animated sitcoms, which are funny to watch, but not very creative to work on. They tend to be very writer-driven, and if you try to add a visual joke or an animation joke, you usually get scolded and have to revise it on your own time. On some of those shows, I didn’t feel like an artist. I just felt it was a job. And the other thing is that these shows very rarely have true sentiment; they’re usually ironic or sarcastic. And so I was dying to work on something that could be funny or sarcastic, but that could also be heartfelt or moving or dramatic.

What advice would you give to creators on pitching?
You don’t need to have a really slick presentation. Have a clear concept, be realistic about what your target’s needs are, and communicate how your project meets those needs.
MD: The other thing is that it’s always worthwhile to work on a show that’s not your own first so you can learn how to run an animation production process. A lot of times, creators will sell a concept to a network and then get pushed to the side because they don’t know how to run the show.

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