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NYCC 2014: Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino on “The Legend of Korra”

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Legend of Korra
Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino Legend of Korra
(left to right) Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino

By now, the team of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko needs no introduction (but in case you needed one, our earlier interviews with the either or both at New York Comic Con 2008, right before the premiere of The Legend of Korra, and last year’s New York Comic Con might be good places to start). The co-creators of Nickelodeon’s smash hit series Avatar the Last Airbender followed up their success with The Legend of Korra, with the latter series’ fourth and final season premiering just before the New York Comic Con weekend. We were able to catch up with the pair again at the con to look forwards and back on The Legend of Korra.

NOTE: This interview contains spoilers for The Legend of Korra Book 3. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

TOONZONE NEWS: I have to admit my first question is kind of a dumb one, but everybody used to call Lin Beifong “Lin.” Somewhere in the middle of book 3, everybody started calling her “Beifong.”

BRYAN KONIETZKO: I think even in book 1, people started calling her Beifong, because it was like, “Chief Beifong.” Now we have all these other Beifongs.

MICHAEL DIMARTINO: I think it did come up more when she was around her family.

BRYAN KONIETZKO: There is a line in book 4 that deals with that. She’s one of those kind of tough last-name people. It’s like a football team, they call her by her last name. It fits her personality.

LegendOfKorraBook3Trailer_17TOONZONE NEWS: I loved what you guys did with her in book 3, especially since she mostly dropped out of book 2.

BRYAN KONIETZKO: Yeah, she was one of my absolute favorite characters in book 1, and it’s not like we wrote her out of book 2 because we didn’t like the character. It’s just that we have a story and we have to use the characters that are most relevant to the story. But we even knew at that point that she would be a big part of book 3.

TOONZONE NEWS: After you got picked up for Books 2 (and then 3 and 4), it felt like you guys were aiming for bigger, grander things. I remember that the original plan was that they were going to be standalone seasons and they all still have distinct beginning, middles, and ends, but there were a lot of ties back from book 3 and book 2, and certainly from what we’ve seen from book 4 so far.

MICHAEL DIMARTINO: Certainly when we started at the time, it was going to be this awesome 12 episode miniseries. As things went on, we still wanted them to have their own sort of standalone feel, with different villains and different storylines for each season. Certainly as we went along, we could tie events to something else that we knew was coming up. It just gives you a little more time to do that, because you know you have the episodes to do it.

TOONZONE NEWS: Zaheer was a terrific antagonist in book 3, and I had read some earlier interviews where you had said that conflicting ideologies were driving a lot of the conflict in the series. I was wondering if there was anything specific behind his character or anything that inspired the Red Lotus Society?

BRYAN KONIETZKO: I think Tim (Hedrick), Joshua (Hamilton), and the writers and Mike and I all liked the idea of this rebel anarchist band of rabble rousers (laughs). It was fun. Previously, we had a revolutionary leader with Amon which was cool, but he was more about having a big a movement and getting strength in numbers behind him. It was fun to have more of people who are purely about chaos. I love that part when Zaheer is announcing that he’s assassinated the Earth Queen, and he doesn’t even say who he is or the name of his group. He’s not trying to gain fame or notoriety, where Amon was all about his persona. And you really couldn’t have two ideologies more different than Zaheer and Kuvira’s, so that was fun. We’re always looking for these really contrasting villains. It keeps it fresh for us. And we always say that once we figure out the villains, we figure out the story, and the villains really dictate the story. As the antagonists, they’re really pushing the story forward.

The Legend of Korra Zaheer Earth QueenTOONZONE NEWS: Did you get trouble for that scene when they assassinate the Earth Queen? I was pretty shocked that you went that far.

MICHAEL DIMARTINO: It’s not…we don’t get in trouble for things (laughs) because they know what’s going to happen. They see drafts of the script and storyboards and stuff.

BRYAN KONIETZKO: They were concerned that it was handled right.

MICHAEL DIMARTINO: For sure.

BRYAN KONIETZKO: They let us do it the way it was, which was pretty intense. And we weren’t trying to be more graphic than that.

TOONZONE NEWS: It sure raised the stakes and made it real.

MICHAEL DIMARTINO: Yeah, for the story to work, we just felt that he needed to assassinate her. We never want to do super-graphic things anyway. And we’ve been working in this medium long enough to know what’s acceptable and what’s not. We certainly pushed the boundaries of what you can do and stuff, but I think it’s good that it was shocking to people because that was the intent. It should feel like a big deal, you know? It isn’t every day that we kill off characters on the show.

TOONZONE NEWS: The TV business has changed a whole lot since you started doing Avatar

BRYAN KONIETZKO: Yeah (laughter). We know that.

the-legend-of-korra-book-3TOONZONE NEWS: Yeah, probably more directly than a lot of other show runners. But one thing in particular I wanted to ask about is that there’s been a rise in binge watching and the online fanbase building up information resources. You guys had a bit of that with Avatar, but these days it’s become a mainstream thing. Is that something that you guys think about? Is that something that you take into consideration when you’re writing stuff? Do you feel like you can get more complicated than you did before?

MICHAEL DIMARTINO: No. I thnk we kind of approached the Korra stuff the same way we did with Avatar. When Avatar came out, or when we were writing the first season, you could maybe buy the DVD boxed set or something.

BRYAN KONIETZKO: I think it was on iTunes back then.

MICHAEL DIMARTINO: Yeah, but there wasn’t the Netflix thing, of the binge watching yet. That kind of came later, but we still wanted to be doing this continuous story, trusting that people would be able to follow it week to week.

BRYAN KONIETZKO: I think I would say the shift towards that kind of watching doesn’t change what we were doing, because we were always writing in that way. Especially in 2002 when we pitched it to Nickelodeon, the idea of a continuous storyline in an animated series was pretty rare in the States, so we were already feeding into that. As much as we liked having the show on TV, I think we personally always thought of it as a DVD. That’s how I watched Cowboy Bebop. I always thought of it as a DVD series. Once the series finished its original run, then it lived on Netflix and did really, really well on it for a long time. I don’t have specific data for this, but we got the sense that the show got even bigger during that time. So I think it was just tailor-made for that type of viewing. It’s not on Netflix any more, but it’s on other types of streaming services now. It’s always done really well on iTunes, and the DVDs and Blu-rays do well, too. I think it lends itself to that. It’s funny because when the original series was on, the network was like, “Oh, your reruns don’t do really well. This show doesn’t rerun well.” We were like, “You have to play it in order.” And they didn’t believe that, and we would point to our DVD sales and iTunes sales and say, “People are paying to re-run it,” so obviously they want to see it in order. That’s just pointing more that we were already writing that way.

Legend of Korra BolinTOONZONE NEWS: I remember one of the big changes from the original series was that Toph was originally envisioned as a male character and then she became a girl. Was there something comparable for what we’ve seen so far in Korra?

BRYAN KONIETZKO: Well, one thing to note is that we came up with Toph when we created the series. The character Toph as a boy: a teenager was in the series bible that we developed before, but the charater we had in mind was very much Bolin. So in a way we got do that character later. And we love Toph, we love how she came out, and that Aaron Ehasz put his foot down and kind of demanded it. We ended up loving Toph. Once we decided to do it, we were all behind it. But, no, nothing quite like that in Korra.

TOONZONE NEWS: Is Book 4 mostly done or is it fully in the can now?

MICHAEL DIMARTINO: Not fully, but we’re in post-production on the back half of the season. Getting close, yeah.

TOONZONE NEWS: The change to go online and streaming only happened when you were already deep in, so you couldn’t make any changes or anything for that shift.

BRYAN KONIETZKO: No, but we wouldn’t have wanted to, anyway. That wouldn’t have affected the creative side. Our schedules are so drawn out, so all the writing had been done and all the principal recording on all the episodes, all the way through the finale. It just takes us so long to do the pre-production, the animation, and the post.

Legend of Korra Book 4 New York Comic Con 2014 Poster NYCCTOONZONE NEWS: The big prominent text in the trailer is “The Final Season.”

MICHAEL DIMARTINO: Yes. (laughter) It is the final season.

TOONZONE NEWS: I know that there’s the video game that’s set between Books 2 and 3, and there’s still the Avatar comics coming from Dark Horse.

MICHAEL DIMARTINO: Yeah, two more arcs on those.

TOONZONE NEWS: Have you guys given any thought to what happens later? What happened in the 3 year gap between Book 3 and Book 4, or what happens after Book 4?

BRYAN KONIETZKO: Oh. I would not want to revisit that.

MICHAEL DIMARTINO: No, we love the world and it’s a cool place and it’s very inspiring, but a lot of times we don’t have a notebook full of, “OK, right after Book 4, THIS happens, and between these two seasons, this and this and this happen.” Often, a lot of those fill-in mythology bits usually come out of a current story that you’re developing or something. I know that people get really upset over things like, “Well, did Zuko and Mai get married?” I get why they want to know that, but for me, I’m always like, “Until I really need to know what happened, I don’t want to just say an answer.” Depending on what kind of story we tell in the future, it might influence what went down there. I like leaving some things open-ended, which kind of makes people upset (laughter). There’s always going to be little loose ends.

TOONZONE NEWS: Can you guys talk about what you’re working on? Is Book 4 everything right now?

BRYAN KONIETZKO: We’re very busy. The crew is mostly gone and it’s down to us. The animators are working really hard at Studio Mir, so we’re just finishing up. But it’s still a full-time job. It’s still too early to talk about that stuff. But when it’s time, we’ll announce that.

MICHAEL DIMARTINO: We need a little vacation.

BRYAN KONIETZKO: I need a BIG vacation.

Toonzone News would like to thank Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko for taking the time to talk with us, as well as the always awesome team at Nickelodeon PR for setting it up. The Legend of Korra Book 4 is currently available via Nick.com, the Nick App, or iTunes. Keep up with the show via Nick’s official website, and with Bryan Konietzko’s Tumblr and Mike DiMartino’s Tumblr.

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Last pup of a dying planet, a young German Shepherd is rocketed to Earth, where he is bombarded by cosmic gamma rays emitted by a radioactive spider. Crash-landing in the forgotten land of Hubba Hubba, he is discovered by the Who-You-Callin'-Ancient One and his lovely wife Pookie. Instilled with their traditional American values, he spends his young adulthood roaming the globe, learning all the secrets of Comic-Fu. Donning battle armor fashioned from spilled chemicals splashed by lightning, he becomes the Sensational Shield of Sequential Art ACE THE BATHOUND! Look, it sounds a lot better than the truth. Born in Brooklyn, moved to Queens at 3 and then New Jersey at 10. Throughout high school, college, grad school, and gainful employment, two things have remained constant: 1) I am a colossal nerd, and 2) I have spent far too much time reading comics, and then reading and writing about them. Currently working as a financial programmer in New York City, while continuing to discover all the wonderful little surprises (and expenses) of owning your a home in the suburbs. Shares the above with a beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly understanding wife named Frances (who, thankfully, participates in most of my silly hobbies) and a large furry dog named Brownie (who, sadly, does not). Comics, toys, Apple Macintosh computers, video games, and eBay