Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Saturday, July 23rd was Avatar Day for fans at ComicCon 2011. Hot off the heels of a morning signing and a packed fan panel, The Last Airbender: Legend of Korra panel commenced at 4:00pm. Held in a room that could seat 2,000 people, the room filled up an hour before the panel started and eventually stragglers had to stand in the back. Fans waited anywhere from five hours to at least one hour just to get in; at least a hundred people were turned away at the door.
Senior Vice President Roland Poindexter of Nickelodeon–a self professed fan of A:TLA– introduced Executive Producers Michael Di Martino and Bryan Konietzko, followed by newly promoted co-executive producer Joaquim Dos Santos and supervising director Ryu Ki Hyun. The executive producers were then joined by Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn from The Track Team responsible for the soundtrack.
Without further ado, the team cued up the first teaser trailer to Legend of Korra. Unlike the screaming crowd at ComicCon 2007’s the screening of the A:TLA Season 3 trailer, this year the crowd fell reverentially silent…
After the trailer ended, the crowd immediately broke into wild cheers. Bryan Konietzko expressed his relief. Apparently, the creators have been getting a lot of fan mail complaining about a sequel and demanding that they stop making Korra.
“It’s really nice to hear your reaction to this show we have been slaving over,” Konietzko said.
DiMartino and Konietzko shared their excitement about the new series–a new location, new time period, and new characters have given them the opportunity to expand creatively and improve upon the world created in the original series. To get a “fresh take” on an Avatar world set 70 years later, the creators pulled in Joquim Dos Santos and Ryu Ki Hyun and promoted them in lead roles.
“The most important thing was ‘we’ve gotta get Joquim and Ryu, or else we can’t do this,'” Konietzko said. “These guys sacrificed a lot to come work with us, and we appreciate it.”
Dos Santos is probably best known to Avatar fans for directing the 2008 Avatar: The Last Airbender series finale, “Avatar Aang.” Korean animator Ryu Ki-Hyun was a supervising director on Avatar: The Last Airbender and is also closely involved in character design for Legend of Korra. To the benefit of the entire production, all of the top creative leads contribute artistically, with Dos Santos, Konietzko, and Ki-Hyun sharing art direction duties. Dos Santos explained that this is unique from other shows and helps the production remain its integrity.
The team then jumped into a series of production art from Legend of Korra. All four leads collaborated to design the lead character, Korra.
“We really wanted Korra to be different from Aang. Other than being female, just different in her personality and everything. That is really refreshing for Mike and me. We will be writing a scene and stop and pinch our selves and say ‘Aang never would have said this. Aang never would have done this!'” – Bryan Konietzko
Rather than design Korra themselves, Di Martino and Konietzko phoned Joaquim Dos Santos and pitched their concept of the character. Joaquim took a first shot at the design, establishing Korra’s attitude and physicality. Ryu Ki Hyun, the strongest artist of the bunch, then fleshed out Korra’s design, resulting in her final look.
“We kind of wanted her to look like a snowboarder, a tomboy, kind of a tough, athletic girl,” Konietzko explained.
“The idea was to break the conventions of what female superheroes are,” Dos Santos added. “She’s tough. She’s rugged.”
“The idea was to break the conventions of what female superheroes. She’s tough. She’s rugged.”
The creators shared some technical details and facts about Korra, including a full “turn” (front, back, left, and right) of her design, and a design of young Korra. Korra’s full body figure is seven ‘heads’ tall, which is a different proportion that what was used for the younger characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Korra is seventeen, and already knows water, earth, and firebending.
The panel then segued into the reveal of the new Team Avatar. This time, instead of a brother and sister pair like Sokka and Katara, Korra will be joined by two brothers, Mako and Bolin.
To demonstrate how the peace created by Aang and Zuko resulted in more harmony between the Four Nations, Mako is a firebender and Bolin is an earthbender because one of their parents is Fire Nation and the other is Earth Kingdom. Mako and Bolin live in a “modern metropolis” in the United Republic. According to the creators, the United Republic was founded by Aang and Zuko after the war as a place where where Benders and non-Benders from all four Kingdoms could live together in harmony.
The task of designing the two brothers fell to Ryu Ki-Hyun. Mako is a handsome Firebender with short cropped hair swept towards the front of his face. “If you’re wondering, we did name him after Mako,” Konietzko said, in honor of the Asian American acting legend and voice actor of Uncle Iroh. (Read our bio on Mako Iwamatsu.)
Bolin is a stockier, charming Earthbender with short cropped hair swept back, kind of like a duck. Bolin takes a lot of his personality and character design from the original character concept for Aang’s Earthbending master, Toph (before Aaron Ehasz suggested that the role of Toph be changed to a young girl.)
“Mako is kind of the brooding, little bit Zuko-ish,” Di Martino explained. “Bolin is his younger, goofier brother. He’s kind of naive.”
Konietzko then introduced his design for Naga, Korra’s animal companion. Naga is a polar bear dog based on a polar bear and golden retriever.
“One of the three original concepts [for A:TLA] was this bipedal, polar bear – dog character,” Konietzko said. “So, kind of like with Bolin, we found a place for that character in this series. This is Naga, Korra’s best friend. It’s a girl, in case you were wondering! She’s also inspired by dogs we each have.”
Bolin also has a pet, Paboo, a Fire Ferret that is part Red Panda and Black-Footed Ferret. The panel also introduced new breed designs of Sky Bison and Lemur, discovered by Aang after the war.
The crowd roared in delight as the creators introduced Aang and Katara’s descendants.
“Korra is Aang’s reincarnation, which is different from being [Aang and Katara's] daughter,” Di Martino said. “Aang and Katara did have three kids, the youngest of which is an Airbender named Tenzin. We know that Korra has learned water, air and fire but has yet to do airbending at all. In this series one of her missions is to train with Tenzin and learn Airbending.”
Tenzin and his family live on Air Temple Island, an offshoot of Republic City. He’s married to Pemma, a non-bender. They have three children together and Pemma is pregnant with number four. Jinora, the eldest, is a bookworm, the second daughter Ikki is talkative, and their youngest child is their son, Meelo.
The character of Meelo is inspired by the son of a former Rhode Island School of Design professor DiMartino and Konietzko visited in Amsterdam. The creators advocated for a cute Meelo, but Ryu Ki-Hyun insisted that he be ugly. (He ended up pretty cute anyway.) As the panelists reviewed the designs for the children they noted Ki-Hyun’s attention to detail as the most technically proficient artist of the group.
Bryan Konietzko and Joaquim Dos Santos worked on the design for the Equalists, including their revolutionary leader, Amon, who has the Chinese word 平 (peace) emblazoned across his chest. [The spelling of Amon's was confirmed by Legend of Korra storyboard artist Ian Graham on his blog.]
Amon leads a group of “henchmen” trained in chi-blocking (the technique Ty Lee used in the original series to block bending abilities.)
The panel then showcased the design for the metalbending cops of Republic City. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Toph was the first Earthbender to discover the technique of metalbending. Seventy years later, although it is still a rare technique mastered only by the very few, there is now an “elite SWAT team” of metalbender cops. The design for the cops is based on 1920s New York City police uniforms, crossed with samurai armor. Similar to the Dai Li’s Earthbending restraint techniques, the Metalbender cops use ziplines to swing across the city and throw metal cables to nab people.
With that, the panelists introduced Toph’s daughter, Chief Bei Fong, leader of the metalbender cops and a “tough cookie.” The audience immediately started chanting “Who’s the daddy?” The panelists pretended not to hear this question. “I don’t know what you are yelling, but we have to keep moving,” Konietzko said with a smirk as he moved onto the next series of slides.
The producers showcased a series of concept artwork they used to help Nickelodeon envision the look of the new series. Film noir and steam punk elements have worked their way into the roaring 20s-atmosphere of the Four Nations 70 years later. In the artwork, Korra rides Naga and chases after Fire Nation gangsters driving a getaway car, fights metalbender cops, and takes on chi-blockers in a shady alleyway.
A new element introduced in Korra will be “Pro Bending,” which builds on the ‘bending as a sport’ Earth Rumble concept from the original series. Pro-Bending is inspired by Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) tournaments.
In Republic City, teams comprised of the three popular bending disciplines (one Earthbender, one Firebender, and one Waterbender) take on one another in live gladiatorial combat.
In the concept art, Team Avatar is depicted as one of those teams (Korra waterbending, Mako firebending, and Bolin earthbending) wearing uniforms and protective gear.
“We have the most kick butt animation crew, top to bottom!” – Joaquim Dos Santos
The creators announced other talent working on Legend of Korra, including comic books illustrator Joshua Middleton, who was brought onto the team by Dos Santos. Middleton created a limited edition giclee of Korra and Naga for the convention. Film animation director and storyboard artist Lauren Montgomery also returns to the Avatar franchise. The audience cheered when told that both Josh and Lauren were seated in the audience.
The panel shared that Legend of Korra is broken into two seasons. Season one has 12 episodes and was Nickelodeon’s initial episode order. Season two is comprised of the back 14 episodes ordered by Nickelodeon after the show’s release date was pushed back from 2011 to 2012.
Keywords About the New Series repeated throughout the panel: 1920s Jazzy Shanghai Manhattan, industrial revolution, subdued colors, cyber-steampunk 1925.
The creators then played a martial arts reference footage video for the audience, presenting the three primary styles of fighting that will be incorporated into Legend of Korra: traditional Chinese martial arts, mixed martial arts, and “tricking.”
The video opens with Sifu Kisu (the martial arts consultant for A:TLA) performing traditional Chinese martial arts, a style familiar to fans of the original series. Kisu’s footage is followed by reference footage of MMA Champion Mac Danzig and MMA fighter Jeremy Umphries and martial arts ‘tricking’ footage from Quest Crew’s Steve Terada and stuntman Jake Huang.
These performances are used as video references by the animators as they animate the fight scenes in the show.
The Track Team, led by Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn. The Track Team had participated on a separate Comic Con panel with the Avatar creators and composers from Falling Skies and Dexter, The Character Of Music two days before. Since scoring the soundtrack for Avatar: The Last Airbender Zuckerman and Wynn have also taken on projects for DC Comics, including the film Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam.
The Track Team is just beginning to develop basic concepts for the Korra soundtrack as they score the first episode, based on Konietzko’s idea of 1920s New Orleans Jazz fused with traditional Chinese instrumentation. In order to create this soundscape, The Track Team has brought in a new musician proficient in Chinese wind and percussion instruments.
For special moments in the series, the soundtrack will also incorporate Western orchestral instruments, such as a string quartet, as showcased in Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s dramatic series finale score.
“We are excited to approach [the music in Korra] from a more mature angle,” Wynn said. “Not saying that the original was more childish–nothing was wrong with it stylistically, but it was its own thing…Seeing these visuals, the story–it has been stepped up even from Avatar. It’s more sophisticated, more adult, and we really need to step it up as well.”
Echoing comments from the soundtrack panel just days earlier, Bryan Konietzko urged fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender to “keep bugging Nick to release the soundtrack.” The creators have been fighting for a soundtrack release, too. (Click here to sign an online petition requesting Nick to produce a soundtrack. This long-running petition already has 1400+ signatures.)
Michael DiMartino thanked the audience, the team producing Legend of Korra and Nickelodeon for giving the creators support and creative freedom. Much to the chagrin of fans, the panel shared that there is still not a release date for Korra.
“It’s going to happen, we just don’t know when,” Konietzko said. “It’s going to happen. It’s like being on a taramac at the airport. The plane is okay, you just have to be in line. We need your continued patience and–trust us–it will all be worth it.”
The panel concluded with an encore screening of Legend of Korra teaser trailer.
“We need your continued patience and–trust us–it will all be worth it.”
After the trailer ended, nearly all 2000 audience members shuffled out of the room. (After waiting several hours for the Korra panel, it was time for a bathroom break!)
Full video of the panel was filmed by Avatar: The Last Airbender fan Yumchucks and is available on Youtube.
For more ComicCon photos, check out our gallery at the Racebending.com Facebook Page!