The Legend of Korra is about to begin. Seven years after Nickelodeon’s animated action/drama series Avatar: The Last Airbender became a demographic defying smash hit, the highly anticipated sequel series is poised to debut on TV screens nationwide on April 14, retuning fans to an elegantly constructed fantasy world that has grown and evolved as much as the series’ beloved characters.
This process of growth and change over time has not been limited to the franchise’s fictional inhabitants, but its creators as well. Joaquim Dos Santos (Justice League Unlimited) was hired as a storyboard artist in The Last Airbender’s second season, became a director for the series in the third and now is co-executive producer for The Legend of Korra. Newsarama caught up to him on the verge of the premier to ask him what has changed, what has stayed the same and why there is more to punching than just hitting someone.
Newsarama: What brought you back to the Avatar universe?
Joaquim Dos Santos: Honestly, working on the original series was like the pinnacle of my career up to that point including the stuff I did afterward, so I was just so excited that [Avatar creators] Mike [DiMartino] and Bryan [Konietzko] wanted to do more and wanted to bring me in on a more ground-level basis and include me creatively, I was super stoked, it was a no brainer.
Nrama: The Legend of Korra advances the clock on the Avatar world seventy years, what will fans see that they might not expect?
Dos Santos: [It will] be neat to see characters such as Katara, it will be neat to see them as a love letter to the original series, but what is neat about setting it seventy years into the future is that, and this holds true if you set the series in any time, is that the DNA is from the original creators so it will always have the vibe of the original. That's the coolest aspect, and one of the neatest things is the fan's response like: 'oh no, we were afraid because it was going to be set more modern, things are going to be all different!' They are different, but it still feels like the old show, so I think that's kind of the coolest thing: It’s the the same people, but it’s the same universe, the same vibe.
Nrama: Was it difficult to characterize Korra as being more than just not-Aang?
Dos Santos: Both series are about discovery, the hero looking within themselves and finding out more about themselves. Yes there are a lot of aspects about Korra that are the opposite of Aang, but that's not what informed the decision to go in that direction, Mike and Bryan just had this really cool idea and they went with it. As it turns out, as you will see, that Korra discovers stuff about herself that is shown right up front in the first episode completely the opposite of Aang, but there is stuff that she might relate to about Aang, she's her own person. I don't think the decision was 'just do something that is opposite Aang.'
Nrama: Thousands of fans saw the first two episodes during the preview weekend, what inspired the look of the show's setting, Republic City?
Dos Santos: A lot of it is old Shanghai/industrial revolution. We scoured the internet for a ton of references and we went and picked up a ton of books, mostly used books, that just had a ton of great photo-reference and speaking with the Art Director's hat on, we wanted all the [backgrounds] to feel like they were painted, to have a paint-style rough look. We hired two amazing [background] painters, young kids right out of school, that really just went for it. The mandate was for there not to be any Photoshop pre-made textures you tend to see a lot in US animation, just laid on things [making] the backgrounds feel manufactured. We wanted each one to feel like a painting, one you could touch and hold even though they are done on computers.
Nrama: As opposed to the original series, which traveled the world, the setting of The Legend of Korra appears to be static in Republic City, was that a challenge?
Dos Santos: It’s definitely a challenge, as Mike had just said and its totally appropriate: what [is] cool about the first season of Korra is that it plays like a big movie, so it’s got a real focus to it. Within Republic City there are a ton of different districts so you'll see, but setting it in a central location makes it play like a big movie, which is awesome. It [did] bring up some challenges, like you needed to hook up where things were, that is if they were looking from Harmony Tower in this direction this is the district they would be seeing so on a logistic level it’s tough to keep track of that stuff where if Aang was on some mountain somewhere it doesn't matter what he is looking out over as long as it looks cool, people aren't going to know what they are looking at there, but I have the feeling that more so than we've done that by the end of the first twelve episodes fans will have mapped out each location in Republic City and probably be pointing out to us: 'Hey, technically you'd be seeing this place if you were looking out from here!'
Nrama: Was there something in The Legend of Korra that you wanted to see or try that you didn't get the chance to in the first series?
Dos Santos: Yes, definitely. I'm a big fan of over-the-top action choreography and fight choreography. The original series was fantastic for that and it was all very traditional, rooted in traditional martial arts. One of the cool things in it, that didn't require my pushing at all, was that Mike and Bryan were setting [The Legend of Korra] seventy years later and the world had evolved and so had the martial arts. So we got to incorporate a lot of different styles and with the creation of the bending arena it gave us the opportunity to have these amazing sequences and have fun on a sort of Mixed Martial Arts stage where it wasn't big flowing robes and big over the top moves, there were more subtleties and small moves like little hooks and jabs and things like that for me as a storyboard artist and storyteller I can have a lot of fun with.
Nrama: New styles? Has the first series' martial arts consultant Sifu Kisu returned?
Dos Santos: Absolutely, we are still using Kisu [but] we also brought in a swath of other martial arts choreographers. We’ve got Steve Terada (Crank, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull) doing some of the more acrobatic moves and we've got Mac Danzig who is a UFC fighter and his training partner Jeremy Umphries who is also a mixed martial artist, for incorporating a lot more western boxing and kickboxing into the choreography. We kind of run the whole gambit from traditional to modern styles of martial arts. We’ve kinda upped the ante, to be honest I don't know where we are going to go from here! (laughs) We're going to have to start making stuff up!
Nrama: Without giving anything away, is there a sequence or detail that you are particularly proud of in the action choreography?
Dos Santos: One of the things that really helps the show stand out, and one of the things that attracted me to the original series initially was that the martial arts felt very real. When I was just a fan of the original show before I came on board I would wonder while I watched these episodes 'What are they doing? The martial arts look real!” On all the superhero stuff I worked on we would do stuff where guys were punching each other but it just looked like what an animator version of what punching someone else would look like it wasn't really grounding in any real thing.
With The Legend of Korra, the ability to hire all these really amazing artists and martial arts choreographers to do the little things, the little subtle stuff: a little hook to the body that actually looks like a real hook to the body that blew my mind. I could literally go frame by frame go through a pro mixed martial arts hook to the body and make it look realistic from the storyboards to the animation, very exciting.Can't wait for the weekend? Watch the first full episode right here! <div style="background-color:#000000;width:520px;"><div style="padding:4px;"><embed src="http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:episode:nick.com:1118289" width="512" height="288" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowFullScreen="true" allowScriptAccess="always" base="." flashVars=""></embed><p style="text-align:left;background-color:#FFFFFF;padding:4px;margin-top:4px;margin-bottom:0px;font-family:Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;font-size:12px;">Legend of Korra: "Welcome to Republic City" S1 <br/>Get More: <a href='http://www.nick.com/videos/legend-of-korra-videos'>Legend of Korra Episodes</a>,<a href='http://www.nick.com/shows/legend-of-korra'>Legend of Korra</a>,<a href='http://www.nick.com/games/legend-of-korra-games'>Legend of Korra Games</a></div></div>