LoK: Background material
Transcript of responses to fan questions about The Legend of Korra by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

The following is a transcript of the videos posted on June 23, 2012 on KorraNation in which The Legend of Korra creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko answer fan questions asked of them via Tumblr’s #askbryke tag.

1. How has working on The Legend of Korra differed from The Last Airbender?

Michael Dante DiMartino: Definitely, one big difference was because it was a shorter first season than what we did on the old series, Bryan and I decided to write the first season ourselves, kind of like a big movie. We’d written a couple of quick spec scripts between the time of the first series and, then, Korra. We kind of had evolved as writers, I guess, and thought that it would be definitively another new challenge for us to really lay out a whole story ourselves and tell the story exactly how it was coming out of our heads. So, that was a really fun challenge, I think. But really, there are similarities, but because we were kind of evolving the whole animation process, I feel like things were different about that.

Bryan Konietzko: Yeah. That’s always tough to - As you know, we’re both executive producers on the show, and that means we’re overseeing every part of the process, and so it’s really hard to be spread so thin and have your day chopped up into little meetings all week long. It’s hard to really dive in to anything. And the writing was something - Mike spent much more time in the writers’ room than I had time for in the old series. But we both had a lot to do with that stuff, but this gave us a chance, like: Hey, let’s get in there and at least for the first season we’ll just write it. And that was definitely fun. And then we brought people like Joaquim Dos Santos and Ryu Ki Hyun in to kind of help us supervise a lot more of the storyboarding and the animatics and design and stuff like that. No matter what we do, though, it’s still really hard. It’s always fun, but it’s a challenge and just a ton of work.

2. What methods do you guys use to animate?

Bryan Konietzko: Avatar and Korra, they’re still what people call traditional animation. It’s hand-drawn. You know, some things have modernized. The crew here in Burbank, we use Cintiq tablets, so we’re still drawing, even though we’re drawing in the computer. But it’s still by hand. There’s no “animate” button. But a lot of our storyboard artists and artists overseas are still working traditionally on paper. They scan everything in, but they’re still drawing on paper. And, yeah, the animation is painstakingly done that way. On Book One of Korra, each episode had an average of 14,500 finished drawings. Those are just the finished drawings in the animation. It might be as simple as a little mouth movement, it might be a whole burst of fire exploding. It averages all out; it’s pretty insane. So when everyone is like: “Where’s Korra? Why aren’t there more? Why do we have to wait? Why does it take so long?” Because there’s 14,500 drawings per episode, and that’s just the animation. And there’s a lot more work before and after that.

Michael Dante DiMartino: We also used CG for the computer vehicles: the airships, the cars, the motorcycles.

Bryan Konietzko: You might have noticed in Korra there’s a lot more kind of fluid camera movement where it almost looks like 3D, but these are after effects to kind of deepen that stuff, so… We’re definitively trying to infuse some cool, like, modern stuff in there. But we still want drawings. There’s a human response to seeing something made by hand, and you can get a lot of the artist’s personality into it.

3. How did you all meet and start working together?

Bryan Konietzko: Mike and I met in college, in - wait…

Michael Dante DiMartino: 1993? Four? Two?

Bryan Konietzko: 1995. I was in high school in 93! In 1995, Mike and I met at Rhode Island School of Design. He was a senior, I transfered in as a sophomore. He was working on his senior animated film, his degree project. At the time, his homework was a lot more interesting than my foundation illustration stuff, so I volunteered to help him out. Even back in 1995, when I was like 18, 19 years old, Mike and I were working together. I was sitting there, painting cels and doing some background for him and stuff. We became buddies, and stayed in touch after he graduated and he moved out a while later.

Michael Dante DiMartino: Yeah, and then we worked together on shows like King of the Hill and Mission Hill. And then as far as meeting… Joaquim we met during the first series. He applied to be a storyboard artist.

Bryan Konietzko: Yeah, his wife showed him Avatar, and he was like: Man, I got to work on this stuff.

Michael Dante DiMartino: And when we saw his stuff we were like: Yeah, he totally gets it. And then Ryu we met in Korea. He was an animator and worked on the very first episode of The Last Airbender. Some of the great scenes with Aang - when they first meet Aang, he’s sneezing and all that stuff, that was Ryu’s drawing. And, of course, the famous foamy mouth guy.

4. Is the rest of Korra’s world as modernized as Republic City, or are there still those who hold onto their traditional ways of life?

Bryan Konietzko: It’s a good question.

Michael Dante DiMartino: Yes. One of the themes, definitely, in The Legend of Korra is the issue of tradition versus the modern world. We can see that through the technology in Republic City, and the fact that Republic City is kind of this bustling metropolis, and it’s definitely more modern. And then we have, like, Tenzin, who’s more like the traditionalist airbender guy. That’s why he even set Air Temple Island apart from the rest of the city - his little oasis of traditional values, or something, in this modern city. I think he represents the rest of the Avatar world. There are places that are a little more populated or a little more industrial. Probably the Fire Nation and parts of the Earth Kingdom. But, I think, the Water Tribes, other parts of the Earth Kingdom, they’re still … traditional ways and stuff like that.

Bryan Konietzko: Yeah. Our idea was that the United Republic, that new country that was formed out of the colonies, is the more advanced, more modern, probably the most modern part of the world. There’s definitely smaller cities that are modernizing, but, yeah, we like the idea that there’s some big parts of the world that are kind of hanging on to their traditional ways and not embracing it yet. I mean, that’s still going on in our world. So we liked this kind of interesting conflict between progress and tradition.

5. How long does it take to create one action scene?

Bryan Konietzko: There’s not a specific amount of time. It depends. But a lot goes into each action scene.

First, there’s the writing of it. Mike and I, we don’t try just to have: “Oh, and then there’s some fighting” in every episode. We try to make each fight or action scene have a story point. We try to, within that fight, make something happen story-wise, because there’s an outcome from the fight or action scene. So, there’s the writing side of it.

And then, storyboarding - you pick the shots and we kind of try to get in, again, to the story of the fight. Let’s break it down and give it a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s not just someone fighting, but it’s … I watch a lot of professional fighting, mixed martial arts and stuff, and the really good fights - I mean, there’s a real story there, a real back and forth, and you see the struggle, someone digging deep. So we try to infuse that into the storyboards.

And then there can be any number from one to three video sessions, where Sifu Kisu or some of our other martial arts consultants will get together with the directors, supervisors and board artists, and go through each shot, and do video reference for that stuff. And that takes - that’s over the course of a couple weeks. And we edit it all, and then, they have to animate it all, and Ben Wynn and Aran Tanchum do sound design and [inaudible] for all of it, so, I mean, it’s really… it takes a lot of work. And there’s usually more shots per minute in a fight scene, so it takes a lot of time.

So that’s why the shows that have a lot of action, man, they take a lot out of everybody. So, the answer is: a lot. A lot of time.

6. What was the inspiration behind the theme? Why all the revolution?

Bryan Konietzko: We wanted to do a kind of big conflict that was different than the kind we did in Avatar, in the original series. So, instead of you got one government, one country trying to take over the world, as was the case in Avatar, here we knew you’re going to be set in one really big city, and in that certain time period, that kind of 1920s-inspired time period, makes me think of revolutions, class warfare, strikes, class upheaval, stuff like that. So, I think it’s a perfect setting for that kind of story, and that’s the story we hadn’t really - You know, instead of the people at the top trying to take over the whole world, it was the people at the bottom trying to rise up. For us, it was a fresh challenge and gave us a different kind of villain, who was trying to rally… lure people in, seduce them into his ideology instead of somebody who was just, like, totalitarian, ruling over a country already.

Michael Dante DiMartino: Yeah. And part of the inspiration, too, came out of the character of Korra. We figured out that the best villain for her to have to face is someone who is vehemently against bending, the thing that she was so good at, and so excited about. That’s kind of where the inspiration came from for Amon’s ideology.

Bryan Konietzko: Yeah.

7. How do you guys do casting? When picking out the cast members, what do you look for?

Michael Dante DiMartino: The casting process is really one of the most fun parts to me. We have an idea of the character, we’ve written some pages for auditions. And then the casting department of Nickelodeon will search around and bring in different actors to audition. And some we will see live, and some are - we hear their voice samples or something like that. But when we did the main cast, we really did a pretty thorough search. And we brought in different combinations of people, just to see if everyone had chemistry together, that sort of thing.

So, I think the biggest thing we’re looking for is a… realism to the voice. Even though it’s animated, it’s not your kiddie-show cartoon show, super-wacky voices or anything, so, really, that voice actor - Most of the time it’s just their voice. They’re not putting on a voice, they’re not trying to affect it in any weird way. So we’re just looking for really good acting. And depending on the character, a range of acting. Especially for Korra - she can be tough, do dramatic moments, do funny moments. So it just depends on the character exactly what we’re looking for.

Bryan Konietzko: I find it - especially for the main cast, it’s always very hard. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the process, but… You have a sound in your head. It’s like a voice you’ve never heard, and you’re trying to pick that out from real people, from samples that have been turned in. And it’s not like: oh, this person isn’t talented, but it’s like trying to find…

Michael Dante DiMartino: … this doesn’t sound the way I imagined it to sound.

Bryan Konietzko: Yeah. It’s really weird, to imagine a voice.

Michael Dante DiMartino: It’s very subjective.

8. What made you want to dramatically change the technological advances in this new series, as well as the animation style?

Bryan Konietzko: As far as the technological advances, really, that’s just ‘cause the story takes place 70 years later, and we did really see quite a bit of technology in the Avatar story: from ships, to tanks, to Azula’s tank-train, the drill, all that stuff. So, years later, it’s advanced. Honestly, it probably could have advanced even more, based on everything we’d set up. But we didn’t want it to get too modern.

And then, as far as the animation style: we’re artists, so… I don’t know, like most artists, the second I finish something, I don’t like it any more. I think it could be better, or I see: oh, we could have done that better, this could be improved… And I also worked on the original series for six years or something, so…

Michael Dante DiMartino: I don’t think it’s so much like: “We got to change the style!” or something, it’s more the evolution of everyone, including ourselves, becoming better at what we do, and just be better artists.

Bryan Konietzko: Yeah, and I do think we were better artists by the end of the first series than we were at the beginning, but a lot of stuff you have to set in place and then you sort of have to follow it, like the character proportions, and I think by the end I didn’t care for them. I thought their heads were too big, and stuff like that. So when Joaquim and Ryu came in, as a big part of the team on Korra… The guys were amazing artists, so we said: Let’s get their design styles go into the DNA of the show’s aesthetics. We just wanted everything to age up a little bit, be a bit more specificated, and … we’re always trying to make it better, make it cooler than the last one.

9. What is your favorite scene thus far in Korra?

Bryan Konietzko: Well, everyone is going to be mad at me for saying this, and it’s not that I love to make bad things happen to characters, like, ha-ha-ha. I’m such a troll, whatever; all that junk. I think that the scene of Lin - It’s not just a scene, it’s the whole sequence of Lin Beifong deciding to sacrifice herself to protect Tenzin and his family, the airbenders. That moment of her looking back, deciding, and then just throwing herself into danger: I think that defines - it’s just the purest definition of her character, and it signals - again, it’s not that I like to see bad things happen to them, but it’s in those really difficult moments that you truly find out what a character is made of. And then all the way to her having her bending taken away, it’s just such a… even then, she’s still strong and defiant. It’s really beautiful.

Michael Dante DiMartino: I do love that one too. There’s so many great [inaudible]. One of my favorites is in episode 8, when Korra and Tarrlok  have their big confrontation in Tarrlok’s office. That whole tense scene of their argument, and then building up to their fight, and then the big reveal that Tarrlok is a bloodbender, and Korra’s reaction… That, I really thought it was very… just fun to write, and seeing it all come to life… Joaquim did a lot of cool storyboarding on that section.

Bryan Konietzko: The color came together, the lighting, Jeremy’s music, Ben’s crazy sound. It all really came together. That’s one of my favorites too. Good choice.

10. Which is more challenging (in both writing and animating) having a series where the group travels to different locations every episode, or having one main point of interest that is much larger and more intricate?

Michael Dante DiMartino: This is definitely something that we considered when coming up with Korra - again, just to differentiate it from the first Avatar. We specifically wanted it not to be a travelling show any more, from place to place, and all these different villages… So we thought it would be cool to center it in one location. At the time, we thought this would make things simpler and more manageable. It was really just as difficult, if not more difficult, because of… We raised the bar much higher as far as the quality of everything.

Bryan Konietzko: And that one setting was a metropolis.

Michael Dante DiMartino: Yeah, so it was just as intricate, if not more, than anything. I think, storytelling-wise, it was a good challenge of keeping everyone together. You can’t just run away to the next village or something to solve a problem. You have to be in this place with a bad guy who is trying to take over the same city you live in.

Bryan Konietzko: Yeah. If we had just been to some little village, it definitely would have been easier, but it’s just a vast, crazy place, very intricate. We’re really bad at making things hard for ourselves. Or: We’re bad at making them easy for us. No matter what we do, we always just make it too difficult. And we sit there and go: “Why didn’t we do this? We could have made it so much easier.” And so that’s what happens if you try to make a big epic.

11. What has been your favorite moment in the process of creating Korra?

Bryan Konietzko: It’s been a long time, and we’ve been on this over two years. We’ve had a lot of ups, a lot of downs, but there was definitely one moment that was really cool.

You know, when we did the original series, it was a new idea, it was a new story, so no one had ever heard of it, no one really knew us. So there wasn’t really that much attention on us while we were doing the first season before it came out. But on Korra, on the other hand, there was tons of attention. People wanting answers, leaks, information. We were getting fan letters, I guess, for the first or so year before Korra came out, or more than a year. I got, I don’t know, one every other day, or more, that was just like: “We do not want you to make Korra! This is not a story that your fans want! Blah, blah, blah.” And, yeah, it’s a pretty frustrating thing to open up and read. After a while I just stopped reading them altogether. And the thing we kept saying was: You guys didn’t even know what Avatar was when we were working on that! You don’t even know what we’re working on now, how do you know whether you want it or not? And the other thing is, we just want to work on stories that we believe in.

So it was really cool when we went to Comic-Con last year and we showed the trailer. It was the first time we were showing footage from the new show. And usually when we were showing a trailer at Comic-Con, people would be screaming and making noise all through the trailer, but this time everybody was silent. I was like: Oh no, it’s bombing, it’s totally bombing. I was sitting up on stage with Mike. But then it ended, and this explosion… the crowd just blew up. I turned to Mike, and it’s like we got knocked back. That was really…

Michael Dante DiMartino: That was a good one.

Bryan Konietzko: That was a good one.

12. Who has been your favorite character (in either series) to work with?

Michael Dante DiMartino: Obviously, we had many, many characters to work with, and when we’re writing for them or creating them, every one of them is very important to us. They all play important roles. I think for Korra, definitely, Lin Beifong became one of my favorites to explore, and see her backstory with Tenzin, and then her big moment in episode 10, where she had a big sacrifice moment to save Tenzin and his family was really cool, so… Bolin was very fun, ‘cause he’s just a big goofball, and provided a lot of nice humor, and just a little bit of lightness to a more serious story.

Bryan Konietzko: Yeah. In the old series, I think, Zuko was a big one for me. We’ve often talked about - he had the furthest to go for any character. He had the biggest character arc. And, I don’t know, I always related to his intensity at a personal level. And then Toph. I think Toph was a big one that - she just - There was a while a debate on: she was going to be a boy or girl, and what she was going to be like. But then once she happened, she was just fully realized. There wasn’t, like: oh we have to figure out her character. There was more to it than that, but she was such a cool, really strong character. [inaudible] too, but - ah, I love many of them.

13. Why did you decide to make Korra a girl?

Bryan Konietzko: When Nickel - [recording stutters] - we thought: OK, what’s it going to be about? We loved the old characters, Aang and his crew, but we felt like we had told their story already and we had spent a lot of time on that. So, the thing that kicked it off was, let’s do it about the next [inaudible] after Aang. We’ve shown throughout the old series that there were plenty of Avatars that were women. So we just thought, hey, that would be fun if we wanted to do something different. If we were going to revisit this world and spend a lot of time and hard work making these stories, it’s going to be fresh, new for us. So that was one really good way to make the character different than Aang. It wasn’t another twelve-year-old boy… it feels like we’ve gone down this path. It really freshened it up. And we love having strong female characters. It’s something I think we’re noted for, and…

Michael Dante DiMartino: Yeah, some of the most popular characters on the old series are Katara and Toph and Azula… We thought: hey, why not make the main character an awesome female hero. And it’s been cool to see everyone kind of embracing her: She’s the next avatar.

Bryan Konietzko: Yeah, it wasn’t a huge deal to us. But there was definitely a bit of trepidation, you know, the way people have an idea in their head… Statistically, the data says, a female lead in action… the story won’t work. Well, I don’t know. We just figured, that’ll be fine, and you see all these other movies and books and projects coming out right now that are really big, that have female leads, and - it’s part of the movement! Girl power!

14. What is the process of creating an episode from start to finish?

Bryan Konietzko: Man, that’s a big question. Well, it’s a small question, but a huge answer. You have to develop the whole concept and the whole look of the show first, before you even get into the episodes. And you have to decide what the overall story arc is going to be, who are the characters. We call it development, and that takes a lot of time. And then we get to writing.

Michael Dante DiMartino: Yeah, we spend a lot of time just talking about what the story could become, what these characters could do, before we even break down the individual episodes. Once we’ve had an idea for an episode, we take a few days to break it down, every scene, pitch out ideas for each scene. The writer writes the script, there’s some revisions, and then it goes to the storyboard artist.

Bryan Konietzko: Then we got to take that script, do designs for every single character that’s going to show up. If they change their costume, we have to design all of that. Every prop, everything they pick up, you got to design that. All the backgrounds, different angles. We have to do color for every one of those things and then - if they’re in night, day, fire lighting, sunset - we have to adjust all the color models for that or repaint the backgrounds for that. We’ve got a storyboard, every scene - not just the two of us, but many people - we have every scene from the script turned into panels that describe the shot, the acting, the characters - to put that together in an animatic… We’re running out of time! It takes us so much time to do this, we don’t even have time to explain all the phases. We haven’t even gotten to the animation!

Michael Dante DiMartino: Yeah, anywhere from ten months to a year on any given episode.

Bryan Konietzko: And Korra takes even longer than that.

Michael Dante DiMartino: And every episode overlaps, so there’s a bunch of episodes going on at any one time. Let’s see what happens at - two minutes!

Bryan Konietzko: It takes a lot of work!

15. Do you make the characters to fit the story or do you let the characters create the story for you?

Michael Dante DiMartino: That is a pretty interesting question. I mean, really, it’s a bit of both. In the case of Korra, I think, we had, obviously, this story being the Avatar universe, and we needed a new character, a new hero, to start with. So we started with this idea, the Avatar after Aang, that she would be a girl, her personality would be very different from Aang, more combative and aggressive and that sort of thing. So, in that sense, the story suggested that character. And then, once we had figured out what type of character she would be, then that kind of suggested what her specific story was. And this idea of her fighting to promote bending - she loved bending, and that suggested an idea of an organization or something that would be against bending, and that’s kind of where the Equalists and the idea of Amon came from. It’s really a back-and-forth process.

Bryan Konietzko: Yes, they’re both. I mean, Zuko, we just had this idea of this angry shithead guy who had a scar and his whole story kind of came out of that idea. So, yes, sometimes it’s the character designs, sometimes it’s the character… Sometimes, once the actor and the writing get together, they sort of direct the character somewhere you hadn’t expected. But, yeah, oftentimes I think it’s the story, the needs of the story.

16. What inspired the design of Republic City?

Bryan Konietzko: We just really wanted it to look like - what if Manhattan had happened in Asia, or something. But we still wanted to incorporate some of those influences from American and European architecture, from part of the 1920s and a little bit earlier. It’s just what we always do: we pull in influences from different sources, and try to get them to work in the Avatar world. And then, the mountains that surround Republic City were influenced by the Canadian Rockies. The idea was that Republic City was in a setting sort of like where Vancouver is.

17. What kinds of benders would you all be?

Michael Dante DiMartino: All two of us? I would be an airbender, perhaps. Although I would like to learn the Toph-vision thing. That would be a good skill to have.

Bryan Konietzko: And you’ve got room for the tattoos. I was, like, firebending. Although, actually, I hate fire. My only phobia is getting burnt, so maybe that’s not a good one for me. I don’t know, now I don’t have any - that has always been my stock answer for years.

Michael Dante DiMartino: Try water, it’s good.

Bryan Konietzko: Water is great. Only water.

18. How do you decide on the names for the characters? Most notably how did you come up with the name “Rohan” for the newest airbaby?

Bryan Konietzko: Picking the names for the characters is always a tough part of the process. Mike, in particular, grumbles he doesn’t like to commit to the names. You’re stuck with them for a long time, you know, so -

Michael Dante DiMartino: They got to be just right.

Bryan Konietzko: You got to get them right. We looked at a lot of baby name lists from different cultures for inspirations. Sometimes, well, we’d alter the name a little bit. Korra, you know, we wanted something that sounded Water Tribe-like but was easy to remember, and real quick and clear. And actually, after trying out dozens of variations on the K-name, we met a dog in Canada named Cora. And I said, “Mike! That’s a good name!” He agreed. And Rohan is my nephew. His father is from India, and it’s a traditional name. And I thought that would be a cool surprise for my nephew, my sister and their family. There you go!