Saturday morning at New York Comic Con, the massive Empire Stage was filled to capacity for the official panel for The Legend of Korra, Nickelodeon’s sequel animated series to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Vice President of Series Animation Megan Casey introduced the enthused crowd to a panel that included co-creator Bryan Konietzko and Co-producer Joaquim Dos Santos, in addition to three members of the voice cast: Janet Varney (Korra), P.J. Byrne (Bolin) and Steve Yeun, who in the upcoming two-part episode “Beginnings” is the voice of Wan – the very first Avatar.
After Casey introduced the panel Konietzko greeted the audience and passed on the best wishes of his fellow co-creator Michael DiMartino, who was said to be in India “meditating on the spirit world”. This brief preamble led straight to a screening of “Beginnings, Part 1” ahead of its October 18th premiere on Nickelodeon at 8:30 PM EST. The end of this article will include a recap of the episode for curious readers.
With the episode screening concluded, Konietzko discussed the genesis of the story idea for “Beginnings”. He and DiMartino first had the idea for that during second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender in 2006. They didn’t know how and when they’d be able to tell the story, but with Book 2 of The Legend Of Korra they decided that the “timing was right” for it. The episode’s distinctive aesthetic was an attempt to take after the Chinese ink wash paintings and Japanese wood block art of the past, which required creating a “whole new style guide” to put it into practice on screen. Konietzko praised the work of the entire creative team and the animation of Studio Mir for the presentation and expressed his satisfaction with the end result, remarking that “we couldn’t be more happy with it”.
Janet Varney was asked about the most memorable act of fan love she’d ever received. At that, a fan screamed “I love you!” prompting a quip from her that this settled the question. Varney proceeded to say that she couldn’t single out one thing, instead commenting that she finds herself “blown away” by the time and effort put into fan art by fans of the show. This prompted an anecdote from Joaquim Dos Santos that there are three people on the series’ staff that were discovered through their fan art, followed by another from Konietzko about the very first piece of Avatar fan art that came 11 and a half years ago from his nephew Alexander, back when Avatar: The Last Airbender existed only as an idea and setting laid out in a series bible put together by him and Michael DiMartino.
The next question was for P.J. Byrne about his thoughts on the relationship between Bolin and Korra’s cousin Eska. Byrne joked that he thinks his wife enjoys it, that “she loves the power women have over me!” Byrne went on to disapprove of the matchup, remarking to the audience that if anyone there was in that kind of relationship then he hopes that they would get out of it.
Steve Yeun was then asked if he was aware of Avatar or The Legend of Korra before his opportunity to voice Wan came along. Yeun answered affirmatively and said that this was thanks to his friend Andy, who got him into the comic book for The Walking Dead and later introduced him to Avatar as well. Yeun expressed gratitude at being able “to be part of this whole amazing thing,”, going on to say that while working on it “all I could think was ‘how am I gonna mess this up?'”. But his experience working with the staff was very positive, and he singled out voice director Andrea Romano in particular for the “gracious” treatment he received. Yeun also expressed appreciation for the way Korra comes off as a family show.
Varney was asked about the impact of the show on her career, to which she answered “it’s completely changed” my life and that her job is “the best job in the world.” Thanks to it she’s had the chance to do plenty of traveling to meet fans of the show, and also feels inspired by its storytelling. “The most magical thing that could have happened to me came with Korra,” she said, “and I’ve just been so grateful.” Konietzko proceeded to divulge that Varney was in the midst of recording Korra’s lines for Book 4.
In response to Joaquim Dos Santos, Steve Yeun confirmed that Korra was his first animated project, and a new experience for him compared to his time recording for video games. With games, he was doing basic work. “…all I did was choking #5, choking #7, how different can you choke?! So when I came into this, I took it seriously and I knew what you guys had.” Yeun also noted how ADR recording was a different experience, as the schedule isn’t the same and you don’t record in the same room with other actors.
Another question had to do with a favorite line coming from Bolin. For Varney, it was his “I want to be on your back” line when Korra’s Polar Bear Dog Naga picked up Bolin during Book 1, which Konietzko revealed was actually improvised by P.J. Byrne. As for Byrne, he likes the scene from A Leaf in the Wind from where Bolin is bluffing to Toza that Korra is “with him” and that they’re “together” and then awkwardly tries to backpedal when Korra says they’re “not together, together” and more like friends.
Yeun was then asked about his experience watching a character he’s voiced vs. seeing a character he’s performing in live action. Yeun said he can separate himself from the character he’s playing on screen, though he also “can’t even watch Walking Dead with other people, let alone a thing I’m not experienced in with a thousand people.” He enjoys that interaction with the fans though, and praised the “beautiful” animation of the show. At that, Varney said she was “so taken with all the spirits” and asked for background about where they came from, to which Konietzko responded that they were inspired by the approach taken by Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away. Much credit for them belongs to artist Evon Freeman, as the spirits were mostly developed from concept art that she was asked to draw.
After all this, the panel ended with Bryan Konietzko talking the audience through the entire process of bringing an episode of The Legend of Korra to life, starting with the original script going forward through such steps as designing, storyboarding, sound design, music and more, all the way through the final cut. One striking revelation from this is that an average episode of The Legend of Korra requires 15,000 individual drawings. To illustrate the creative process Konietzko treated the audience to a short clip from the 10th episode of Book Two, which intriguingly depicts Korra and Tenzin’s daughter Jinora venturing into the spiritual realm together. In the clip Jinora is astounded by the sights while Korra advises caution and asks her to stay close, but Jinora soon rushes off in her wonder. Korra soon pursues to keep her in sight only to cross the path of a spirit resembling a lemur, who crossly tells her to watch where she’s doing. Below you’ll find impromptu video taken of Mr. Konietzko’s complete narration, followed by the promised synopsis of “Beginnings, Part 1.” For more Toonzone coverage of New York Comic Con, click here, and don’t forget to check out our interview with Bryan Konietzko, P.J. Byrne, and Joaquim Dos Santos.
SYNOPSIS (WITH SPOILERS) FOR “BEGINNINGS, PART 1” BEGIN HERE
In “Beginnings,” a delirious and amnesiac Korra is aided by people in Fire Nation clothing, the elder of whom recognizes that Korra’s spirit is plagued by dark energy that must be cleansed. Korra is lowered into a deep pit where a spiritual experience begins, first through meeting past Avatars and eventually a man called Wan, who tells Korra how he became the first Avatar. Wan’s life was a struggle in a city in the distant past, ruled by the dictatorial Chu family, and his kind-heartedness often led to self-sacrificing deprivation. He gains the power of Firebending from a source familiar to fans of Avatar, but his refusal to give it up leads to his exile into the fearsome “spirit wilds.” There, his selflessness wins over the anthropomorphic denizens, who adopt him as a sort of pet after he saves a deer-like creature from hunters from his own city. Eventually, Wan’s example inspires a peaceful revolution in his city and Wan himself goes on a further spiritual journey. Unfortunately, that journey seems to end in disaster when he inadvertently releases an evil dark spirit, setting both human and spirit realms on a path to annihilation. But the tale also reveals to Korra what she needs to heal herself…TO BE CONTINUED.