Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko launched a genuine phenomenon in 2005 with Avatar the Last Airbender, melding influences from Japanese anime, Western hero’s journey epics, and Chinese wuxia tales to craft an action-adventure series that was unlike any other. The pair’s animation bona fides extended well before the debut of Avatar the Last Airbender, though. DiMartino was a director at the famed Film Roman studios for six years, garnering credits on the prime-time animated shows King of the Hill, Family Guy, and Mission Hill and also animating and directing his own short film “Atomic Love” (which has screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Nicktoons Animation Festival). The pair met when Konietzko began working as as a character designer at Film Roman for Family Guy, soon ascending to assistant director for Mission Hill and King of the Hill, working beside animation director DiMartino. Among Konietzko’s other pre-Avatar credits are a stint as a storyboard artist and later an art director for the Nickelodeon animated series Invader Zim.
Fan anticipation for a follow-up to Avatar the Last Airbender was finally met in late 2010, when the sequel series The Legend of Korra was announced, and anticipation has reached a fever pitch in advance of the series premiere this Saturday, April 14, 2012. Toonzone News was able to catch up with the pair via e-mail to discuss the origins of The Legend of Korra, inspirations for the series, potential obstacles, and the third most-often asked question directed at them.
TOONZONE NEWS: Back when we interviewed you guys at New York Comic Con 2008 and you mentioned a sequel series to Avatar the Last Airbender was in the works, you just mentioned having a “new idea” and sounded like it was very much a work-in-progress. When exactly did the idea for The Legend of Korra come up, and how much has it changed from then to now?
MICHAEL DIMARTINO: The idea for The Legend of Korra actually came around November of 2009. Nickelodeon came to us and gave us creative license to create a new story set in the Avatar universe. Although we’ve had other Avatar story ideas, we chose to go with Korra, as it felt different enough from the old series that it was creatively exciting enough, but not so different that it felt like a different universe altogether.
TOONZONE NEWS: How much of an attempt did you guys make to “get the band back together” of the original Avatar the Last Airbender crew?
MICHAEL DIMARTINO: We definitely have some returning huge talents including: Joaquim Dos Santos as co-exectutive producer; Ryu Ki Hyun as Supervising Producer (who animated on the first season of Avatar the Last Airbender and is infamous for creating Foaming Mouth Guy.) For Book 1, these two guys went above and beyond the call of duty, helping design a lot of the new characters as well as directing the 12 episodes that comprise Book 1 of “Korra.” We also had Ian Graham return as Storyboard Supervisor for Book 1 and Director for Book 2; Lauren Montgomery as Supervising Producer for Book 2; and Tim Hedrick and Josh Hamilton as writers for Book 2. And a lot of the animators at Studio Mir in South Korea had worked on the original series as well. And Andrea Romano is back as our voice director, too.
TOONZONE NEWS: The series was originally announced as something shorter before it was expanded to a 20+ episode season. How did the expansion affect the development of the show and your plans for the first story arc?
MICHAEL DIMARTINO: Book 1 was always going to be 12 episodes. When we started writing, we didn’t know if we would do more beyond that. Unlike the original series which had a three season arc, we designed “Korra” so that each season had it’s own villain and clear resolution, so they are more stand-alone seasons. Although there are definitely arcs that carry over from Book 1 to Book 2.
TOONZONE NEWS: I love the setting that’s inspired by Jazz Age urban locales, especially cities that mixed Eastern and Western influences like Shanghai or Hong Kong. When did you decide to set the series in a place like that, and how did your choice of setting affect the story you wanted to tell (or vice versa)?
BRYAN KONIETZKO: Once we did the math on how much later we wanted the story to take place after the first series in order to focus on the next Avatar, it worked out that it put us in something like a 1920’s era. This was good to us because it allowed us to show the world was progressing in a modern way, but without jumping too far ahead in the future where it didn’t feel like the Avatar universe at all. And we love the ’20s, so it was a really inspiring direction in which to take the series, especially to put our spin on it.
TOONZONE NEWS: Expectation is sky-high among fans of the original series, but how concerned are you about making the series accessible to new viewers? Were there any major or specific things you did in these first 10 episodes that were concessions to the incoming audience?
MICHAEL DIMARTINO: We definitely wrote it so that you don’t need to have seen the original series to understand this one. But there are plenty of nods to the old series and characters for fans of the original. We never felt like we had to make any concessions.
TOONZONE NEWS: Conventional Hollywood wisdom today says you can’t do a girl or a woman as the lead in an action/adventure movie or TV series. I know you don’t agree with this line of thinking, but did the decision to make Korra a teenaged girl trigger any flak during the development process? If so, how did you guys handle it?
MICHAEL DIMARTINO: There were a few days in the early going where we thought Nickelodeon wasn’t going to embrace Korra the way we wanted them to, but to their credit, they gave us and the show their full support and no one has looked back since. We just stuck to our original vision and eventually everything fell in place.
TOONZONE NEWS: Are there any great casting or recording stories you can share? I’m mostly wondering how you got Eva Marie Saint to voice Grandma Katara.
MICHAEL DIMARTINO: We couldn’t be more excited about the cast. They have breathed such life into these characters vocally. Eva Marie Saint is a pleasure to work with. She’s so sweet and always regales us with stories of old Hollywood.
TOONZONE NEWS: So what happened to Zuko’s mom (even if I may be the only Avatar the Last Airbender fan who really doesn’t mind not knowing the answer to this question)?
MICHAEL DIMARTINO: Glad you don’t mind, because I don’t have an answer for you. At least not yet!
Thanks to Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino for taking the time to speak with us, and Nicole Parker at Nickelodeon PR for setting it up. The Legend of Korra premieres on Saturday, April 14, 2012, at 11:00 AM (ET/PT) on Nickelodeon. Check out Toonzone News’ earlier coverage for more details. You can also watch the San Diego Comic Con 2011 trailer, more recently released video clips, and Korra-related news from the 2012 Nickelodeon Upfront.