Since meeting as students at the Rhode Island School of Design, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s professional careers intersected several times when they finally got a chance to pitch their own action-adventure TV series to Nickelodeon. According to the Not Just Cartoons, Nicktoons! volume, the pair broke all the rules on how you’re supposed to pitch a show, but the passion and excitement that the pair had for their creation shone through clearly enough for Nickelodeon to give them the green-light to start production.
It didn’t take long for Nickelodeon to boost the initial 6 episode order to 13, and then a full season of 20. Six years, three seasons, and more than 50 episodes later, Avatar the Last Airbender has proven to be a bona fide hit, as one of Nickelodeon’s most popular franchises that inspires a rabid fanbase of all ages. We were able to catch up quickly with Konietzko and DiMartino immediately after the packed Avatar panel at the 2008 New York Comic Con, where the affable pair graciously let us pick their brains about the show.
Please note that this interview contains multiple spoilers for the series.
TOON ZONE NEWS: You guys have always said you envisioned this series as a trilogy. How deep into the plot did you go when you first started putting the series together?
MIKE DIMARTINO: Storywise, we had figured out kind of the overall arcs of everything. We knew that there was going to be an eclipse, we knew there was going to be kind of a botched invasion, we knew that Aang was obviously going to face Ozai way down the line, and there was this comet coming back and stuff. So we kind of knew the big tentpole moments.
TZN: What about things like Zuko being descended from Avatar Roku?
DIMARTINO: Stuff like that came up more as we developed the storylines and things like that. We certainly hadn’t figured out every nuance and every detail of the story.
BRYAN KONIETZKO: The writing staff contributed a lot and helped flesh out a lot of that stuff.
DIMARTINO: Yeah, because when you’re writing for 60 episodes, the story ideas we had at first probably made up, like, less than a third of that. That’s why you kind of had to build the story. Like, Zuko, we knew, would join the group, but we didn’t know exactly when that was going to happen. It turned out to be much later than we had initially thought.
TZN: Does that mean you faked out yourselves with that whole season two finale?
KONIETZKO: No, no not really.
DIMARTINO: By that point, we knew that if he was going to join them, he had to go really bad first, and tick off a lot of people (laughs).
KONIETZKO: It was always our intention to give him the biggest character arc. He had to go through the most change.
TZN: What was the biggest element to the show that you hadn’t envisioned when you started it?
KONIETZKO: Toph being a girl, probably (both laugh). She was going to be a big, muscular guy, which is why that joke from the panel is funny to us (referring to the upcoming “The Ember Island Players” episode — ed). In fact, the guy in the opening title sequence, the Earthbender, was kind of a prototype of Toph, but Aaron Ehasz, the head writer, just really pitched that she should be a girl. And actually, I fought it for a long time, but I totally came on board, and now she’s one of my favorite characters. Once I was on-board, Mike and I came up with this idea that she was beating up all these big wrestler-type guys, and now I love her. I love that she’s just a tiny, 12-year old girl that kicks butt.
DIMARTINO: And I never would have thought that the potential Katara/Zuko romance was going to be so … you know, so big for people? Because honestly, that wasn’t our intention from the start (laughs).
KONIETZKO: We knew about it…
DIMARTINO: We knew there would be some tension, but it wasn’t like we were going to play that up too much, so it’s cool to see people getting into that romance stuff.
KONIETZKO: I think we’ve met some people where when he has her necklace in episode 109, people were like, “Oh, they’re going to get together.” (laughs) We were like, “Whoa! You guys are jumping ahead!” But, whatever…people see what they want to see.
TZN: You just mentioned Aaron Ehasz. One of the things I just read in the article in PiQ magazine was that he greatly expanded the role of Uncle Iroh.
KONIETZKO: Definitely. I thnk we had more of a harsh character idea for him. More of a strict kind of kung-fu sifu guy, and Aaron really humanized him. And what was cool was that the original idea was just a younger version of Iroh. He used to be that really hard-core general and military guy, and now he’s sort of in his golden years. Aaron and Mako, the two of them…there were a lot of neat pairings of people on the staff, like Jack DeSena and Yu Jae Myong, the animator. When that voice meets that animator, there’s like a little magic combination. I think that Aaron wrote really well for Iroh, and really humanized him, and with Mako, you know, it just made him such a lovable character. So there’s all these great little, like, chemistry moments that just work between the talent on the show.
TZN: Can we talk about Mako for a minute?
BOTH: Sure. Of course.
DIMARTINO: Well, when we starting thinking about who to cast, I think one of our first choices was Mako, who we had seen in a few movies.
KONIETZKO: Yeah, and we didn’t audition him. He was at that level where you just didn’t need to.
DIMARTINO: Yeah, it was like, “Oh, maybe we could get that guy,” and they said, “Well, he does offer-only,” and…
KONIETZKO: So we said, “Sure!” (laughs)
DIMARTINO: We said, “OK!” We hadn’t really known what he could do and what he was capable of. He came in and on the first day, we were like, “Oh my God, he’s amazing!” He just brought…he did bring that warmth, and genuineness, and…
KONIETZKO: …and wisdom, and empathy and compassion. He was just a great, great actor. We miss him. He is definitely missed.
TZN: Were you aware of any health issues he was having at the end of season 2?
KONIETZKO: Towards the end, yeah. And then, we took our first vacation during the series, and when we came back, we got the news, so it was pretty sad. But, you know, if it matters, we had actually written that Uncle would not talk for the beginning of season 3, and that actually had nothing to do with Mako’s situation. It was planned long before we knew that, so it just kind of worked out. And it gave us time to find someone to replace him, but it was just…it just happened that way. Coincidence.
TZN: Shifting gears to the youngest member of the cast, Aang is played by Zach Tyler Eisen. Where did you find him?
DIMARTINO: Well, the search for Aang was pretty long (laughs), trying to find the right actor to play him. He’s an actor who lives in Connecticut, and he records all the voices in a studio in Connecticut and in New York, and our voice director Andrea Romano works in Los Angeles. She uses phone lines and stuff like that to direct him. It took a lot to get and find him, but once we finally found him, we were like, “He’s totally amazing.” A really good kid.
KONIETZKO: He did ADR voices to complete finished episodes because we kind of had to redo a bunch. He did in, like, 2 or 3 days, about 7 episodes. He was so professional. What’s neat is his family’s done a great job of keeping him a real normal kid. He’s a real professional actor, but he’s really into playing music and hockey. He’s just a cool kid to hang around with. I haven’t seen him for a long time, we hear he’s almost as tall as us now.
We really wanted a kid. We didn’t want to do a woman playing a kid. Of course, everyone was worried about voices changing, and we were like, “You know, it’s a sequential show.” It’s supposed to be a coming of age story, so it didn’t concern us too much. We just thought we’d cross that bridge when we get to it. We just found out that they’ve been pitching his voice up, because he’s getting older and his voice is getting deeper, and our EMR person has been pitching him up. I didn’t even notice.
DIMARTINO: Yeah, for most of season 3, I think. But he still sounds the same.
KONIETZKO: Yeah, he still sounds the same. I didn’t even know they were doing it. That’s how convincing it was.
TZN: So you didn’t really have a plan in case his voice changed in the middle of the show?
KONIETZKO: I just thought we should just let it happen.
DIMARTINO: Yeah, we were like, let’s just keep going.
KONIETZKO: Do the Partridge Family thing, or…what was it, the Brady Bunch. Just write an episode about it.
TZN: All the interviews I’ve ever seen with you guys say that you guys work together really well, and there’s a very collaborative spirit between you two. What do you two disagree about?
KONIETZKO: We disagree all the time. In the early days, we’d play ping-pong, and whoever won got their way (laughs).
TZN: Do you remember any of the things that you disagreed on?
KONIETZKO: There was…when I look back on them now, it’s weird stuff.
DIMARTINO: Nothing huge, though. We really do have the same sensibility. We know what we like.
KONIETZKO: We finish each other’s sentences.
DIMARTINO: We know what the other person is going to like. We do storyboard notes, and stuff like that. More often than not, we’ll be separately drawing and then we’ll look and we’ll have drawn the exact same shot or something.
KONIETZKO: We have a lot of things that complement each other. We’re not the same type of artist. But it’s weird, because at the same time, we’ll totally finish each other’s sentences and if one of us is away at another meeting, we’re always careful. “Oh, I want to make sure you’re OK with this.” 99.9% of the time, it’s like, “Yeah. That’s exactly what I would have done.” What have we disagreed on? (laughs) I don’t know, probably something really stupid that was inconsequential.
DIMARTINO: Nothing of consequence. Nothing of major importance.
TZN: I’m sure it felt really big at the time.
DIMARTINO: We work it out.
KONIETZKO: We’ve been working together on and off for 10 years, on various shows and projects and helping him out on his film. We even worked together back in school, so we just sort of formed a common brain (laughs). It’s a little scary.
TZN: You said you have two weeks to finish off season 3. Do you know what’s next for you guys?
KONIETZKO: The one thing we weren’t joking about is that we really are helping on the movie quite a bit. Night has been very collaborative from the get-go, from the first time we ever met him. Very respectful of the project and of us. So we’re helping out a lot on that. Also, we’re just trying…we do have a new idea, and we’re just seeing if it’s going to happen or not.
TZN: Can you say if it’s Avatar-related, or is it something new?
DIMARTINO: Yeah. It’s a new incarnation of the Avatar story.
KONIETZKO: But, we don’t know. We’ll see if we can get to make it. There are things that we control and things we don’t. That’s all I can say.
Toon Zone News would like to thank Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko for their time, and Maria Poulos of Nickelodeon’s PR department for arranging the opportunity. The next Avatar DVD will be released on May 6, 2008, and new episodes of the show will debut in July 2008. Also, check out Toon Zone News’ New York Comic Con 2008 Avatar panel report.