Avatar Pilot - Commentary
Commentators: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
(Title sequence of pilot begins rolling as Mike and Bryan start talking)
Mike: Hi! This is Mike DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar.
Bryan: And this is Bryan Konietzko, the other co-creator. This is the first time Mike and I have watched this pilot, which was the test animation we made when we developed the series...I think the first time in a couple of years since we've seen this.
Mike: Yeah, so this was kind of the precursor to the main title we have now, where you see the four elements -
Bryan: And I actually just remembered that I animated these scenes.
Mike: Oh yeah! That's right, you did.
Bryan: I did the full animation, all the in-betweens.
Mike: Yeah, so this is kinda, this is the low-budget version of (laughs) the main titles...Katara's dialogue is kind of similar.
(still frame of Avatar Roku prototype bending the four elements, riding a waterwhip)
Bryan: And that sort of became Pakku, on the watersnake in the finale of...
Mike: So, you'll see a lot of differences in this animation, from -
Bryan: Design -
Mike: Yeah, design, costume -
Bryan: Names Katara's name is "Kya" in this.
Mike: Oh, that's right! That's right. We had to change her name. But you know, all the basics are there.
Bryan: Yeah, it had to be, it couldn't be an origin story, the network wanted it to just kind of be a sample of what the series would be like, so, it's kind of a more basic...
(shot of Aang, from behind, standing on a mountaintop surveying the landscape)
Mike: Even that shot's pretty similar to the last one of the main title.
Bryan: Mm-hm, yeah.
(Title sequence ends and pilot proper begins. Mike and Bryan interrupt each other. A brief pause and then Mike plunges ahead.)
Mike: Oh, I was just gonna say the theme, the actual Avatar theme that Ben [Wynn] and Jeremy [Zuckerman, aka The Track Team] did is similar too.
Bryan: Yeah. On this pilot, Ben and Jeremy both did sound design and music. Now, with the intense schedule of the series, they split it up. So that was some early
animation from Yu Jae Myeong, who does a lot of the episodes now. (Bryan seems to be referring to the opening scene of the kids flying on Appa.) He does really funny Sokka stuff.
(Zuko appears, dressed in the original Fire Nation armor.)
Bryan: (laughing) Wow! Look at that.
Mike: Yeah, I saw that. Obviously the firebender costumes are a lot different...even the voices are a little different, now that I hear them.
Bryan: Oh, I did that scene too. (He seems to mean a shot of Zuko and his men firebending in tandem.) So, Mike and I, when we got the approval to do this pilot, we went to Korea, and interviewed a lot of different studios, and we ended up going with Tin House and JM Media, which were two really small studios that had just done a really cool feature film, and...I don't know, they just had a cool attitude and, weren't trying to impress us, they just, they, really talented, and...so, ended up getting an apartment in Seoul, South Korea, and lived there for...actually I was there almost four months, 2003, for the production of this pilot, and Mike came over for several weeks, and did a lot of layout.
(The opening chase scene is over. The kids have taken refuge on an island where Katara is practicing waterbending.)
Mike: So there was a lot to accomplish in this pilot, which was, you know, get a sense of all the characters' personalities -
Bryan: A really short amount of time -
Mike: Yeah, get a sense of the bending that we wanted to do, and the action.
Bryan: So even back then we were working with Sifu Kisu on the martial arts consultation.
(Katara, attempting to maneuver some water into a bag Aang is holding, accidentally drenches Aang.)
Aang: I said keep it up.
Bryan: It's a different voice.
Mike: On Aang, yeah.
Bryan: Mitchell Musso.
Mike: Yeah, we recast Aang later.
Katara: (replying to Sokka, and referring to Aang) And he's not my boyfriend. (Aang is chagrined.)
Mike: Ooo, even in there, we see a little Aang/Katara shipping in the pilot.
Bryan: (laughing) "Ship". Oh, Aang's costume is a little different, he had this asymmetrical fold in his wind pants, that no one could draw. That was the first change I made. And, going into the pilot, I knew that a lot of the designs would need to be refined, but, it gave us an opportunity to test out some stuff. You know, obviously some stuff worked well, and some things didn't. Speaking of the designs, I should mention, Yoo Young Ki is a good friend of ours, and he was the animation director on this pilot. An amazing animator...he and I kind of brainstormed on these designs when I first got to Korea. He had some good advice. Actually, Katara's, like, hair loops
Mike: The hair loopies
Bryan: They used to hang down, just loosely, and Young Ki thought that would be too hard to animate, and thought they'd be moving around too much, so, he had the idea to tie them back, which actually ended up being an authentic Inuit hair style. There's some great Young Ki animation there. (He seems to refer to a shot of Sokka running greedily towards a berry bush.) And despite that, that we tied them back, to make the animation easier, everybody keeps animating wind in all the scenes. (laughs)
Mike: Yeah, that's true.
Bryan: So they keep blowing in the wind. I think I did this scene too.
(He refers to Sokka's encounter with the Rough Rhinos.)
Mike: Yeah, that one came out great.
(Katara and Aang are lounging on top of Appa's head, waiting for Sokka to return with food. A bird is perched on Aang's head and he is chewing a flower stem, somewhat a la Jet.)
Mike: Momo's eating bugs off Appa right there.
Bryan: (laughing) That's right.
Mike: We never did - we should do that more on this series. (laughing)
Bryan: That took a lot of retakes, I remember.
(Momo jumps up, alarmed by something, and perches anxiously on one of Appa's horns.)
Aang: Whaddya hear, Momo
Bryan: And this is Momo as "Lassie".
Mike: Yes - hearing trouble -
Bryan: (presumably mimicking Tommy Rettig from the original "Lassie" TV show) Whaddya hear, boy
(Aang grabs his glider and he and Katara fly off in search of Sokka.)
Mike: Oh, so when Aang opens his glider, that's kind of a more detailed thing than we normally show. He's actually using airbending to kind of open it.
(The Fire Nation compound comes into view around a cliff as Aang and Katara soar towards it.)
Mike: Eh, so there's a cool CG shot. (laughs) Or somethin'.
Bryan: Ehhh...not so cool. (laughing) I think we had the idea early on that there would be more CG. Actually, you'll see coming up the most CG shot that we've never tried to replicate...I think because I had to hand-animate all the fire. That was really difficult. (Katara is seen sliding down a rock path towards the compound.) I love that animation of Katara...sliding down there. That rock hill. (Momo scratches his ear with his foot while Aang and Katara argue.) This is a great moment where Momo is not paying attention to what people are saying, because he just doesn't understand -
Mike: Being an animal.
(Katara heads off alone to rescue Sokka, having convinced Aang that the Avatar's life is too valuable to be risked on such a mission. Aang gives her some parting advice.)
Aang: Kya! Remember - it's all in the legs.
Bryan: So he's giving her some...kung fu basics.
(The interior of the compound. A gang of Fire Nation soldiers are seen wheeling in, on a giant cart, the decapitated head of the sea serpent that attacked Zuko in the opening chase sequence.)
Mike: So here we see the serpent's head. (laughing) The controversial serpent's head on the cart.
Bryan: A lot of adults thought this was a "dragon car". Didn't make the connection that this was the serpent from the beginning of the episode - it's only like three minutes earlier but -
Mike: Eh, we learned a lot. (Zuko walks into the compound behind the serpent's head, a hawk perched on his shoulder.) Oh, there we have Zuko's hawk! Which was supposed to be, like, his pet but never really made it into the series. (laughing)
Bryan: I just want to point out that my three year old nephew knew where that dragon head came from. Now here's another scene I did the - I animated these scenes.
(Aang, waiting for Katara to return, is debating whether or not to follow her. As he ponders, he airbends a small rock up and down, in and out of Momo's reach, while the lemur gamely leaps after it.)
Bryan: That was pretty fun. Kind of based on my cat. It was kind of the - oh, that was a fun scene to animate. (laughs)
Mike: Yeah, that's a great scene.
Bryan: I remember just looking on the Internet for - I think I searched like "cats pawing at things" and studied -
(Zuko is standing on the wall of the compound, looking towards the sunset, arms crossed.)
Mike: This is a cool shot of Zuko just like, looking out.
Bryan: Great layout by Young Ki. He's really great at posing characters. (close-up of Zuko's face in side profile) I really like that detail shot of Zuko's scar. I remember spending a lot of time on that.
(Katara has been captured. Two guards escort her towards Zuko.)
Guard: Prince Zuko! We caught her trying to climb over the wall.
Bryan: I think that's Dee's voice - the voice of Dee Baker did the - so this idea - (Aang, on his glider, zips between Zuko and the guards holding Katara. A brief still frame as he passes between the camera and our view of Zuko's face; in the still frame, Aang is grinning maniacally.) - I love - and we tried to replicate in a later episode but - it came from this hilarious layout that Young Ki did where Aang just had this demonic, happy expression on his face and we were like, oh, we have to do a freeze frame. (Aang, having landed, is immediately encircled by Fire Nation spearmen.) I like those spears. Why didn't I use those spears in the series? Those are nice.
(The guards holding Katara [and Sokka now as well] throw the two down into a metal hole.)
Mike: So they fall like fifty feet into this -
Bryan: (laughing) Face first -
Mike: (laughing) Into the metal...metal hole.
(Aang has flown off into the scaffolding that surrounds the giant statue in the middle of the compound.)
Bryan: This scaffolding came out really cool.
(Fire Soldiers are climbing the scaffolding. Momo leaps down on them and twists their helmets around so that they can't see. They fall off the scaffolding.)
Mike: No, this is great...I always love this action sequence. Some good Momo...stuff...
Bryan: That was one of our earliest ideas...Momo flippin' guys...(Zuko's hawk flies in from off screen and attacks Momo) ...oh right, and then Momo's nemesis! The hawk. (Zuko firebends at Aang, who leaps up higher into the scaffolding) Some tan tui. That's one of the basic Northern Shaolin forms.
(A Fire Soldier runs up to Zuko. A section of the scaffolding is burning from Zuko's attack.)
Soldier: Sir! The scaffolding -
(Zuko pushes him out of the way and runs after Aang.)
Bryan: Oh, that was some...um...forget it.
Mike: (laughing) That [the soldier] was Bryan's voice.
Bryan: (laughing) Some horrible voice acting.
Mike: Yeah, it's probably, little pieces of the pilot have made it into the series in various ways, so, ideas...
(Aang is standing on some planks at the top of the scaffolding, catching his breath. Zuko bursts up through the planking.)
Bryan: You'll see some stuff like this later in Season 2...[episode] 203.
Mike: But yeah, I love the idea of them just fighting on this...on top of this...
Bryan: (Zuko is firebending at Aang) I like the way the fire came right from camera. Great animation by Young Ki there. (pause) It's almost like I'm seeing this for the first time.
Mike: I know, I forgot about -
Bryan: Alright! Here is some crazy...(Zuko's hawk is chasing Momo through and around the burning scaffolding) ...so yeah, and all that fire I had to kind of animate by hand over the top of this 3D animation.
Mike: Yeah. We don't - I don't think we've ever done a shot like this (laughing) in the actual series. Probably 'cause we learned our lesson from this.
Bryan: We thought - yeah.
(Momo flies between the uprights of a cooking rack, snagging the crosspole with his tail and swinging round it. As he swings upward, the hawk, right behind him, continues forward through empty space and crashes into a wall. He falls to the ground, stunned. Momo, hanging complacently from the crossbeam, scents food below. Characteristically, he begins helping himself.)
Bryan: This is pretty funny.
Mike: Yeah, this is classic...early Momo. Chowin' down.
Bryan: I like how he's just drinking...a little soup at the end. Washin' it down.
Mike: But yeah, even in this early pilot we tried to balance the action and the comedy stuff and find moments for both.
(Cut to Aang and Zuko, who are still going at it atop the scaffolding. As the scaffolding collapses, the fight moves to the top of the giant statue.)
Bryan: So, the fight we did in three stages. It was sort of on the scaffolding, and then, on this dilapidated scaffolding where they had nowhere to stand, and then the third stage is up on the head of this huge Avatar statue. Which, the concept is that they are retrofitting it to become Zuko's father, the Fire Lord. (Zuko bends fire daggers) It's the fire daggers, which don't show up that much in the series but...pretty prevalent here.
(Cut to Sokka and Katara, who are trying to escape from the metal hole. Sokka has tied what appears to be a forked stick to the end of a rope and he now throws it upward, hoping it will catch on something. An odd sound effect is heard.)
Mike: (laughs) What was that?
Bryan: (commenting on the music) I think that waterbending theme might have made it into the series.
Mike: Yeah! We hear that in the first episode, I think.
Bryan: Jeremy's, uh, theme there.
(Water is dripping from above into the hole and Katara is attempting to bend it, in the hope, apparently, that she can somehow use it to help them escape. Sokka cannot see the sense of this and is haranguing her.)
Bryan: This is one of the first times Jack DeSena just went off, improvising, and now we know we can just trust him to come up with some funny stuff.
(The water turns out to have been dripping from two tall storage tanks on either side of the hole. Katara's bending breaks them and the hole is flooded with water, propelling Katara and Sokka to ground level. Cut to the face of a nearby Fire Soldier as he looks upward and sees the water from the tanks cascading down upon him. A funny "bloop" sound effect is heard just before the deluge hits. Both Mike and Bryan laugh.)
Bryan: It's Ben's voice. That funny little "bloop"...is Ben's voice. (Cut to Aang and Zuko, still fighting.) So yeah, this was fun. I spent a lot of time on this when I was in Korea, doing the layout for this sequence. Aang kind of using his Ba Gua, more spiraling, circular footwork. Zuko does a dragon's tail kick here, I like this, to close him off. He realizes he has to box him in. That was a fun layout. (Zuko has cornered Aang at the edge of the statue's forehead. He bends the fire daggers again and their light reflects in his eyes.) I like the little fire highlights in his eyes. (The sunset is visible behind Aang, glittering on the water of the ocean beyond.) I love those sparkles, those came out really good. (Aang throws himself off the statue, inducing the Avatar state. In a burst of airbending, he runs back to the top of the statue and sends Zuko flying to the ground.) So this was something we did not really do in the series, where Aang (incredulous tone of voice) throws himself into danger to put himself into the Avatar state
Mike: Well, definitely the Avatar state became a much more complex device in the show and it was not just a simple power-up thing that he did here.
Bryan: Yeah. I like this though. (Aang grabs his glider and rushes after Zuko, intercepting his fall and carrying him to safety.) I like the timing on that kick, that, like, arc of wind that he sends out. That's a cool power. So, Aang's nice enough to save his foe and...(Aang sees that Katara and Sokka are still in danger and lets Zuko fall the short distance left to the ground. Zuko crashes into a wall and falls backward onto his poor hawk, who is still dazed from the earlier fall. Mike and Bryan laugh.) ...he just drops him.
Mike: Maybe he killed his hawk there, that's why he didn't make it into the show. (They both laugh.)
Bryan: I think it's alive. It shows up in episode thirteen. I think the idea we had in the series is that they were more like homing pigeons. They weren't so much specific pets. They were more like... (Aang has managed to rescue Katara, Sokka, and Momo, and they fly off) ...that was straight from some of the development work...that shot.
(It's unclear exactly what he is referring to; the shot just prior is of Sokka, clinging to the end of a rope attached to Aang's glider, and toting Momo's food basket, which he crashed into during the flight out. Katara, clinging to Aang's neck, cries out; she seems to have acquired a sudden fear of flying.)
Bryan: I never know why, but people laugh at that...Katara slipping there. (Cut to a disgruntled Zuko being helped to his feet by his men. His battered hawk wheels falteringly through the air behind him. Mike and Bryan both laugh.) Ah, he's alive. (referring to the hawk)
Mike: Forgot about that...yeah, he is alive.
Bryan: I like that - alive and well. (The gaang, on Appa, are flying away through the moonlit sky.) This shot's cool. That was another shot straight out of our development work.
Mike: This little calimba music makes it into the main series too.
Bryan: Appa's head's really small. (The show ends. Credits begin to roll.) There ya go, wow. Blast from the past!
Mike: Yeah. So, that's a never...never...never-before-seen-on-DVD, I guess.
Bryan: Yeah. We showed it at a convention...couple conventions I think. But, you know, different as it is, and a little rough around the edges, there's still a lot of great moments, and a lot of people worked really hard. I mean, the crew is so small on a pilot that it's almost just as much work as doing the series.
Mike: Oh, we did that over almost a year, and, you know, we do a whole season now in a little over a year, so...
Bryan: It's crazy. Thanks Eric [Coleman, executive in charge for Nickelodeon, whose name finishes out the list of credits]!
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