Coincidentally coinciding with the 10th Anniversary of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Gallery Nucleus held a Legend of Korra/Avatar: The Last Airbender Tribute Exhibition containing the art of fans selected by Gallery Nucleus as well as some behind-the-scenes production art. Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, the creators of The Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender, appeared at the event to meet the fans. During the press hour before the official start of the event, I was able to interview them.
Matthew Berg-Johnsen: The Legend of Korra certainly had a rocky development and distribution process.
Mike: Development was fine.
MBJ: It seemed that Nickelodeon became less and less supportive of the series over time, with budget cuts for Season 4, a lack of marketing, and the pulling of the series off the air and distributing new episodes solely online. Such an unfortunate situation begs the question: Did you feel, during the development process, that Nickelodeon was starting to lose interest or rescind support with the Legend of Korra?
Bryan: I think it is easy when you’re a fan of one particular show to say that that show is being picked on, but I think it really was a bigger issue. It’s hard to really get into the details, but we happened to be at the forefront of the issue, and the issue is that the landscape of TV is changing. I know that from the outside even high-level journalists at major magazines and newspapers – no matter what Mike and I say in interviews to the contrary – they might think, ‘the show is violent, that’s why it got taken off the air’ or ‘this happened, that’s why it got taken off,’ but it had nothing to do with that stuff. Nickelodeon is in a position like every other network: dealing with the fact that people are leaving that model of watching broadcast and cable TV, and we have a show that did really well online. So, it ended up being fumbled, but it was meant to be this thing like, ‘hey, this is our show that does really well online,’ but it got messed up. So it’s really a changing industry, a changing landscape. All the studios are trying to figure out what to do, and we just got caught in the middle of the mess, and kind of bounced around a bit. We have always had the support of the executives right above us. They’re awesome. And they’re just as big of fans of the show as anybody.
Was it frustrating? Yes. It was very frustrating, and we wish things could have been done differently, but at that level, you can’t take it personally. I mean, you get angry and upset, especially when we made season 3 and we were so excited to share it.
MBJ: The unfortunate budget cut for season 4…
Bryan: It wasn’t all doom and gloom, you know.
MBJ: Well, the question doesn’t entirely have to do with the doom and gloom, haha. What was the original plan for episode 8 before the budget cut?
Mike: It wasn’t like there was an episode that existed. It was very planned out with the episodes and it was like, ‘ok, this seems like a place where we can do that.”
Bryan: There’s not a lost episode.
MBJ: So it wasn’t like they suddenly came barging in and said, “Stop making the episode!”
Bryan: Yeah, we weren’t that far along [when we learned about the budget cut]. These productions take so long, I mean like, an episode of Avatar took 9-10 months. An episode of Korra took a year to a year-and-a-half. So, you know, there are a lot of discussions about a season before you’re actually in-season and getting your hands dirty and all that stuff.
MBJ: As veterans of the industry, have you noticed any changes in the work environment?
Bryan: You mean the animation industry from when we came in until now?
Bryan: I don’t know, I mean, again just to go back to this idea that there is a golden age going on like, I’ve been at Nick on and off for 14 years… 15? 15 years. So yeah I’ve definitely seen it transition through a lot of eras and we were talking to a show creator of a new series- really nice guy- and he was like, you know, just asking kind of a similar question like, ‘how’s the studio,’ and I was like, ‘you know, I think this is the best time at the studio.’ There’s so much going on there that’s creative and creator-driven, and there is a lot of fresh talent that the studio pulled in. It’s a pretty awesome environment right now.
Mike: Yeah, I think if anything has changed, it’s the number of shows that are out there, because when I started I was on King of the Hill and it was just starting, so that was around the time a bunch of primetime shows were being picked up.
Bryan: They called it the ‘Toon Boom.’
Mike: Yeah, with Family Guy and stuff. It wasn’t like there were countless shows, I mean there was Cartoon Network back then, but they only had a few shows. Now there are more shows and a greater amount of younger people getting into animation. When I graduated years ago [from the Rhode Island School of Design], the animation department was not considered “cool” really, but like a couple of years after I left, it became really competitive to be accepted.
Bryan: Because of you?
Mike: No, I think after my graduation, people were going to school specifically to become an animator or work in animation.
Bryan: Yeah, to go back for a bit to that idea that Korra got very unfortunately caught in the middle of a shift–that shift is what’s allowing all of these new shows to be produced. I mean, DreamWorks’ deal with Netflix is insane in the amount of content they are making that is all going online – and it’s just for online. That never used to happen, and orders that long. Like, you’d be lucky to get a 6-episode pick-up for the first season, so it can be tough to get really good people because you’re like, ‘hey, come work on this show,’ and they’re like, “how long is it,’ and you’re like, ‘two months,’ and they’re like, ‘dude, I can’t leave this job for a two month gig.’ I did. That’s how I ended up in Nickelodeon; I left a long job to go work on Invader Zim because I was like, ‘I got to go where the creativity is, and this is an exciting project.’ It turned into two years and that led to Avatar and, you know, The Legend of Korra. Digital outlets are allowing for more content to be made, and that’s good for the industry. I mean, the industry always swells, it ebbs and flows. It always gets really big and then shrinks down, that’s inevitable, but yeah, it’s doing pretty well.
MBJ: It seems that the final scene of Season 4 has been very polarizing for the fanbase, with the primary complaint being the lack of a clear setup or progression to the relationship between Korra and Asami making it appear haphazardly thrown in. How would you respond to said criticism?
Bryan: I don’t agree. I just saw a really beautiful post that took all the moments between them from the beginning. There’s just stills from the beginning of the series to the end, and it looked like the most beautiful, natural progression.
Mike: Yeah, for every person that says, ‘no, there’s no set-up,’ I see like that thing, which is like, ‘it couldn’t have been clearer,’ and so obviously people interpret things their way.
Bryan: I mean, yeah, I addressed this in my post afterwards, saying the same thing. You don’t have to think it was done well, that’s fine. There are plenty of things in various shows that I don’t like, shows that my friends love and I’m like, ‘I thought that was terrible,’ or that aspect of the show I didn’t think they did well, and those might be celebrated parts of the show, and that’s totally fine. But I would counter, and I already said this in my post, to people that think, ‘this came out of nowhere,’ it’s like, ‘well, because you probably look at everything through a hetero lens.’
Mike: The people who didn’t even have it cross their minds as a possibility.
Bryan: Yeah, that it hadn’t even crossed their minds. And then, other people who… I mean, you don’t have to be gay to be like, ‘yeah, that’s cool, that could happen and I could see that.’ Sadly we have had some really – I mean of course, inevitably – some negative, nasty stuff and I’m surprised that those people even ever liked the show. If you don’t like it, then just go watch some other show. But yeah, I’m really quite proud of it and it was something that we didn’t think we could explicitly show in the show. Earlier, halfway through the series, it was just a question of how explicit can we be or will we be, and knowing that we can’t be totally explicit, it became a question of, ‘how do we handle it?’ I mean, you don’t want something up that you can’t pay off and that was the question in going, ‘well, are we just going to keep the door open or are we really going to try and pin this down,’ and so that was where we were wavering. Not like, ‘oh I don’t know, I saw a Tumblr post, we should do this at the end of the show.’ We were not going to do that for a show we worked on for five years – we don’t work that way, it just doesn’t happen. We are not so easily swayed, I mean we’re pretty stubborn and we planned years out, ahead of what people see. So, yeah, I’m just passionate about this stuff, and it’s funny to me the idea that people think we made the decision at the last minute, and therefor ‘they didn’t know what they were doing,’ because, like, anyone who says that is not a writer or doesn’t appreciate writing. I’m not comparing us to Miyazaki, but I’ve heard he often doesn’t know the end of his movies when he starts storyboarding them. But that’s writing and directing – it’s making a series of decisions and the only ones that were too late are the ones that came after we’ve released it. I mean, we’ve changed and tweaked stuff even after the mix sometimes, and it’s not because we read a post on Tumblr or Twitter or something. We are fine-tuning all along the way, and then when it’s done, that’s when the decisions are done.
MBJ: Well, I think you’re going to kill me for asking this, but there is a rumor that you two are working on a new ‘world-building’ series that you’re planning to announce at Comic-Con 2015.
Mike: No, it’s a rumor.
Bryan: I mean, hopefully we’ll be at San Diego Comic-Con this year and hopefully by then we’ll have been able to announce what we’re each doing.