Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, well, 15 years ago, Nickelodeon premiered a TV show that is still considered to be one of the best animated shows of all time: Avatar the Last Airbender. In the era of Spongebob, Fairly Odd Parents, and Drake and Josh, this show stood out for its animation style, intense storyline, and unique characters.
Although it aired on a children’s network and is widely considered to be a children’s show, Avatar appeals to many different audiences and age groups. It’s a series of breathtaking animation and detail, funny quips, and heart-felt moments.
How it came to be
- In the early 2000s, Nickelodeon was shifting its focus to include shows that explored more mythical and legendary storylines. Eric Coleman, the Vice President of Animation Development approached Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and asked them for a show pitch. The men returned one month later with the early concepts that would become Avatar: The Last Airbender.
- The original Aang was a bald kid with no arrow, though he was drawn with a robot cyclops and and polar bear that both had arrows. The robot monkey was the first inspiration for Momo, while the polar bear became Appa.
- Inspired by documentaries about antarctic exploration, the team developed a show concept about nations of people, based on the four elements. One of the key pieces of the puzzle was how to create an action show without too much violence. So, they created the idea of bending elements instead of weaponry. They pitched the story to Eric Coleman two weeks later, and the team started working on a pilot. Bryan went to Korea for a few months to work with artists there on the initial eleven minute episode.
- The characters were complex, and animators would sometimes spend as much as 15 hours in the studio, trying to complete the pilot in time. Once the pilot tested well, the show was greenlit for 13 episodes!
- The tricky part about the show being picked up meant that they now had more work to do with pretty much the same deadline. Bryan and Mike put together a large team of writers, animators, and musicians to get the job done.
The Making of Avatar
- The martial arts
- The team was dedicated to learning traditional Chinese martial arts styles, so they sought out Sifu Kisu, a martial arts teacher who helped them develop the individual fighting styles of the four nations.
- Another martial arts teacher, Sifu Manny, came in to help develop a different style for Toph. Because Toph is a blind character, her fighting style would be different than other characters in the show. Sifu Manny’s method was rumored to have been created by blind warriors on a remote island.
- The style worked for Toph because it could be achieved without having to look at an opponent.
- Brian and the director would take the script for each episode and choreograph the fight scenes with live actors as reference for the animators.
- The Animation
- The creators wanted an expansive view of the universe, with wide shots of beautiful landscapes.
- The variety of imagery made the show much more dynamic than many other animated children’s shows at the time; with wide, medium, tight, and detail compositions that gave the viewer a strong sense of the universe
- They wanted it to be cinematic.
- The Music
- Jeremy Zuckerman and Ben Wynn were the track team that created the music for the show.
- The story
- In a world of elemental magic, there are four elemental nations: The Northern and Southern Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. The Avatar, the one person who can control all elements, upholds the balance of the nations. The Avatar is reincarnated into a young boy named Aang, who is reawakened after being frozen in ice for 100 years, to embark on a dangerous journey to fulfill his destiny. With the help of friends he meets along the way, he will have to fight to bring peace to the world.
- The success of the show came from how well it was made, but what truly connected with fans was the story and characters.
- The story was meant from the beginning to have a finite ending, with three seasons and 61 episodes.
- No matter how upset it made creators and fans, Bryan and Mike were consistently clear that the show would end, and building toward that ending was what made the story so solid.
- Played by Zach Tyler, Aang is a young monk from 100 years in the past.
- Michael and Bryan initially imagined Aang to be from 1000 years before the events of the show, from a more advanced civilization. In early drawings, he had a futuristic staff and robot sidekick.
- The air nation, which Aang is from, was inspired by Buddhist and Tibetan societies.
- Aang is a cute, fun-loving 12-year-old kid that was thrust into an impossible situation with immense responsibility. He is a skilled martial artist, and as the Avatar he is the most powerful bender in the world. But, because of his nature and upbringing, he is hesitant to use that power to hurt others.
- Aang goes through a lot of change in the series, though he never abandons his beliefs, even when everyone tells him he should.
- Played by Zach Tyler, Aang is a young monk from 100 years in the past.
- Voiced by Dee Bradley Baker, Appa is Aang’s best friend and flying bison. The artists were inspired by manatees and bison to draw Appa. His six legs were a direct reference to the Catbus in My Neighbor Totoro from Hayao Miyazaki.
- Originally there were going to be 20 bison, which was broken down to just a small family of two adult bison and their calves. Eventually they settled on only one.
- As we said before, Momo was originally a robot! But, his name was Momo-3. The show slowly became less sci-fi and the creators transformed a talking robot to a cross between a ring-tailed lemur and spotted bat.
- Momo was almost dropped from the story, but instead Aang finds him at the deserted air temple as a symbol of hope for the future.
- Momo was also voiced by Dee Bradley Baker.
- Voiced by Mae Whitman, the creators considered Katara to be the heart of the show. In a parody episode called “The Ember Island Players,” the show jokes about Katara’s infatuation with hope. But, this was a big part of her character.
- To the creators, it was important that there would be a strong female lead to appeal to young girls watching the show. The show itself was targeted to boys, but Bryan and Mike always knew that young girls would also be interested in an action-adventure epic as well.
- Katara’s original name was Kya, but there was a video game character named Kya and it had to be changed. Her second name was Kanna before they settled on Katara. Kya is Katara’s mother’s name and Kanna is her Gran Gran.
- Played by Jack De Sena from the All That reboot, Sokka was very clearly the comic relief of the show. He was created with Katara to have a sibling rivalry, and was meant to appeal to the audience as an everyman.
- Sokka has one of the best character arcs in the show, as he transforms from a brash kid that hides his insecurities with humor, to a confident leader of Team Avatar.
- Voiced by Jessie Flower, Toph is the toughest character and one of the most powerful benders on the show. Toph comes from a rich, pampered background where she was forced to be someone she wasn’t. Although she was born blind, she learned earthbending from blind badger moles.
- Toph was originally a male character, until one of the head writers, Aaron Ehaz of Dragon Prince fame, suggested they make her female. Aaron argued for a long time until finally he won over the creators. The idea of taking such a huge, brash personality and placing it in a cute young girl really worked with the character.
- Jessie Flower originally voiced a character in one episode of season one, and the creators liked her so much that they asked her back to play Toph.
- Even though they thought including another female lead would connect to girls, the most comments about Toph came from young men who cited her as their favorite character.
- Seugn Hyun Oh, a supervising director was quoted in saying, “She is blind, but I don’t know how to express in English, she just won.”
- Voiced by Dante Bosco (Hook) Zuko is a fan favorite. He undergoes possibly the most change of any character in the show, and introduces the audience to the concept of a villain you can root for. Zuko has a complicated past that the show reveals over time, and acts with a sense of purpose. The show begins with him knowing exactly who he is, and we watch him become more and more unsure over time.
- Originally, the show only had one villain: the Firelord. Zuko came about when Eric Coleman asked about a character that actively pursued the avatar and Zuko was born.
- Uncle Iroh
- Another fan favorite, Uncle Iroh was voiced by Mako and later Greg Baldwin.
- The creators initially thought Iroh would just be a teacher, but then they decided it would be more interesting if he were related. Aaron Ehaz described him as a man trying to enjoy his retirement but was forced to watch his nephew instead. It was Mako though, the original voice actor, who gave uncle the level of wisdom and personality that made fans fall in love with Iroh.
- Jennie Kwan as Suki
- Grey Griffin as Azula
- Azula is one of the most complicated and layered characters in the show. She is a villain audiences loved to hate, and she shoots blue fire to stand out against Zuko’s orange fire.
- James Garrett as Avatar Roku
- Mark Hamill as Fire Lord Ozai
The finale is a rare accomplishment, ennobling the characters and bringing a satisfying conclusion to both its world and Aang’s spiritual struggle between his beliefs and the violence the world wants from him as the Avatar.
- Primetime-Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Animation in 2007
- Kids’ Choice Award for Favorite Cartoon in 2008
- Peabody Award in 2009
Drink of the week: The Jasmine Dragon
Here’s a link to the documentary: