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The Last Airbender” Behind-the-Scenes Facts

Every time I don’t think it’s possible to love this show more than I already do, I’m proved wrong.

1.

In an interview with the Animation World Network, series co-creator Bryan Konietzko said that he sketched Katara and Sokka’s character designs “a mere hour before the pitch meeting.” He added, “Of course, their designs have evolved since then, but you would recognize them from those first drawings.”

Apparently, only two weeks elapsed between Konietzko and co-creator, Michael Dante DiMartino, coming up with the idea for the series and pitching it to Nickelodeon.

2.

In the same interview, Konietzko listed some of his and DiMartino’s inspirations. He noted that the work of Hayao Miyazaki “really inspired and continues to inspire us,” and said that Princess mononoke in particular “emboldened” him.

Miramax / Courtesy Everett Collection

Cowboy Bebop was another inspiration, as a “great example of an epic series that had a wide breadth of tones,” as well as FLCLwhich Konietzko said “rewrote the rules for everything.”

Samuel Goldwyn Films / courtesy Everett Collection

3.

Mako, who voiced Uncle Iroh in the first two seasons, was offered the role by Konietzko and DiMartino without an audition. Following his death in 2006, Mako was replaced by Greg Baldwin.

In an interview with IGNDiMartino said, “Bryan and I had seen Mako in a couple films and we offered him the role without even hearing an audition. The first time he recorded, we knew he was perfect. He was really funny and brought a lot of warmth to the character. But he can also sound very wise and serious when he needs to. We’re honored that he was a part of Avatar,

Skouras Pictures / Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Pictured is Mako in the 1988 film, The Wash,

4.

Greg Baldwin was uniquely positioned to take over the role, all because of a present he’d received decades earlier. In 1977, he’d been given the soundtrack to Pacific Overtures, a musical for which Mako was nominated for a Tony for his performance as the Reciter. Baldwin told the Guardian“I was one of the few people who had been doing an impression of Mako for 30 years.”

Extremely lucky birthday present aside, meeting the high standards set by his predecessor was an intimidating task. Baldwin said, “I knew from the beginning I am not Mako. Mako was nominated for an Oscar, a Tony; he opened up the first American Asian theater in the US.”

Baldwin referred to the role he and Mako shared as “the father figure for an entire generation.”

5.

Tennis legend Serena Williams is a big fan of both Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel series, The Legend of Korraand she got the chance to appear in both,

Bradley Kanaris / Getty Images

In Avatarshe cameos as Ming, a Fire Nation prison guard who befriends Uncle Iroh during his imprisonment in Season 3. And in korrashe voices a female sage.

6.

There are several key differences between the unaired pilotwhich was produced as part of the pitching process, and the one that eventually aired on Nickelodeon. For instance, Aang is voiced by Mitchell Musso of Hannah Montana fame, rather than Zach Tyler Eisen…

…Katara is named Kya, which would ultimately be her mother’s name…

…and, tragically, there is no Uncle Iroh in sight.

7.

The different styles of bending each have roots in real styles of martial arts. This was suggested by the show’s martial arts and Kung Fu advisor, Sifu Kisu.

DiMartino told IGN“The circular movements of Ba Gua became airbending; the fluid movements of Tai Chi became waterbending; the powerful Hung Gar style was perfect for earthbending; and the fast, aggressive style of Northern Shaolin was the inspiration for firebending.”

8.

Sifu Kisu himself favors Northern Shaolin, the inspiration behind firebending. He told Men’s Health“It’s a very strong, dynamic style. It uses powerful hand and leg movements.”

9.

According to the GuardianToph, the blind 12-year-old earthbending powerhouse who sees by using her feet to sense movement and vibrations on the ground, was originally supposed to be a “muscled man.”

Toph’s voice actor, Michaela Jill Murphy*, was only 11 years old when she was cast. Murphy told the Guardian“Fans have reached out, saying: ‘I’ve never had a character who was blind, whom I could relate to, who makes jokes constantly, who is at peace with who they are. Too many times you see people with disabilities being Coddled. Toph does the opposite of that. She teaches us that what we see as weakness is what you let it be, unless you let other people define it for you.”

10.

Sifu Kisu told Men’s Health that Toph’s unique approach to earthbending leant itself to a unique inspiration: Her bending is based on Chow Gar, rather than Hung Gar. Sifu Manuel Rodriguez, a Chow Gar expert, was Toph’s character model for her bending.

11.

Head writer Aaron Ehasz told Vice that the look of the Fire Nation was originally more heavily (and exclusively) drawn from Japanese culture and history. But that changed when the show’s team realized that associating a single country with the nation most positioned as villainous would be a serious mistake.

Ehasz explained, “You want to be inspired without appropriating. You don’t want to accidentally say something about a culture. For example, early on a lot of the designs for the Fire Nation were inspired by designs from Japan, which was a problem — you have a bad nation, and if all of their designs were Japanese, you’d project a poor message about their culture. We completely reworked the art so that it would be more broadly inspired.”

12.

The beloved (but perpetually doomed) Cabbage Merchant wasn’t supposed to be a recurring character. His voice actor, James Sie, told Slate“I never invested too much in his backstory because I didn’t think he would be coming back. I just knew that he had a deep, abiding, somewhat strange attachment to his produce. That was my guiding principle, that he loved his cabbages. His life was cabbages.”

As for why the seemingly random character possesses such an enduring appeal, Sie said, “He’s that encapsulation of all of our frustrations and exasperation. We are all the cabbage merchant.”

13.

And now, for some behind-the-scenes tidbits from the trivia blurbs featured in Avatar Extras, One of the spookiest monsters from the Avatar universe is Koh the Face Stealer, a centipede-adjacent spirit who does exactly what you’d expect him to.

There were two other names that were considered for the character: Koh, the Expression Taker and Koh, the Mug Mugger.

14.

A significant aspect of Iroh’s backstory is his failed attempt to conquer the city of Ba Sing Se. The creative team discussed making a special about this period of time, but it never came to pass.

15.

Bloodbending is a variety of waterbending where powerful benders can control the movement of the human body by controlling the water contained within it. The writers jokingly referred to this otherwise horrifying form of bending as the “stop hitting yourself technique.”

16.

One of Toph’s eartbending rivals (and later allies) is called the Boulder. The show’s creative team hoped to get Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson to voice the character, but it didn’t happen. Instead, Mick Foley, another retired professional wrestler, became the voice of the Boulder.

17.

The message on Iroh’s son’s portrait that he sings to in “The Tales of Ba Sing Se” translates to, “General Iroh, I will see you again when victory is obtained. Your loyal son, Lu Ten.”

18.

On an episode of the podcast Avatar: Braving the ElementsDiMartino called “The Great Divide,” a Season 1 episode that’s thought to be amongst the show’s weakest, “pretty filler-y.” Konietzko referred to it as “terrible,” and added that he didn’t believe changing its ending “would have saved it.”

In the episode, Aang attempts to ease tensions between two tribes that have long been in conflict with one another. He does so by telling a white lie about the origin of the conflict, and as an added bonus, saves everyone from being devoured by giant canyon monsters.

19.

And finally: During the same podcast appearance, the creators revealed that Zuko was going to be an adult character, until Nickelodeon executive producer, Eric Coleman, suggested that a teenaged Zuko would be “scarier.” It was a note from Coleman that inspired the character to begin with, in fact, since he thought that Fire Lord Ozai needed “some boots on the ground.”

But as soon as Zuko was invented, they knew he was going to redeem himself and teach Aang firebending. Konietzko said that that plot point was in the series bible, a document used in creative development that compiles information about a show’s world, characters, and plot.

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