“Avatar: The Last Airbender” showrunner breaks down biggest remixes and Koi-zilla

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” showrunner breaks down biggest remixes and Koi-zilla

Albert Kim explains why some elements of the original didn't come together for the live-action adaptation.

Warning: This article contains major spoilers from Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Albert Kim, showrunner of the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender, knew his new series would be subject to scrutiny, given the diehard fans who would no doubt pick apart every creative choice in what he calls more of a remix than a strict adaptation of Nickelodeon's beloved animated classic. Now that the show is finally out in the world after years of development, he welcomes it.

"It's also very nice to have so many people so invested and passionate about the story. I'd much rather have that than be ignored," Kim tells EW. "So being able to be in the forefront of something like that is pretty exciting. It can't please everyone, and as long as you understand that it's all fair game, I'm happy that fans are having debates and discussing these topics. I just want to wait for them to do it after seeing the show. And then I'm really excited to see what they talk about and what they like and don't like."

On that note, now that Avatar: The Last Airbender has premiered on Netflix, Kim breaks down some of the biggest live-action remixes.

The cost of Koi-zilla

<p>Netflix</p> Aang channels the Ocean Spirit to become "Koi-zilla" in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'


Aang channels the Ocean Spirit to become "Koi-zilla" in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

Kim knew going into season 1 that they were going to pull off Koi-zilla — the moment when Aang (Gordon Cormier) channels the Ocean Spirit at the Northern Water Tribe and transforms into a giant koi creature made entirely of water. "It's funny to me that some fans out there thought we weren't going to do Koi-zilla," Kim says. "How can you tell the story without the Ocean Spirit creature?" But he notes it was both a practical and financial challenge.

"I knew we were going to do that ending, so we planned for that from the start of the season," he explains. "We planned on the sets that we were going to build, the VFX money that needed to be invested in that, the design of the creature, and making sure all the storylines organically led to that moment."

It did mean that he had to pick and choose what else he could pull off on the show with the remaining resources. "The Air Temple episode has an amazing battle in it, and I'm sure fans are going to go like, 'Why didn't you do that?' I wish I could, but it was going to be that or the Koi-zilla finale. So I had to make my choice there," he says.

Roku's Shrine was another example. "I love the sequence in original where they figured out how to crack the door," Kim recalls. "But when we got to that episode, we just didn't have the resources, frankly, both logistically and financially to be able to afford that on top of everything else we were doing in that episode."

Sorry, Flopsie

<p>Netflix</p> Flopsie appears as an Easter egg in Bumi's castle in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'


Flopsie appears as an Easter egg in Bumi's castle in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

Among the Easter eggs in Avatar: The Last Airbender are two statues that appear in the background of King Bumi's (Utkarsh Ambudkar) castle in Omashu. They appear in the likeness of Flopsie, who was Bumi's pet goat gorilla in the animated show. "We never tried to make Flopsie," Kim says. "Flopsie is not really a character. He's a pet, so it wasn't a huge sacrifice to not have Flopsie."

Bumi's arc marks one of the bigger story remixes in the live-action version. The original saw the Earth Kingdom ruler put Aang through a series of tests, while keeping his true identity as his childhood friend under wraps as part of these trials. That information is revealed up front.

"We talked about it a lot in the writers' room, but at the same time, it didn't work for a number of reasons," Kim explains. "Bumi's point in the animated series is to show that the Avatar has to essentially face the unexpected, which we also get across in our episode, too. But what was more interesting to me were what was going on with the characters. Bumi is a character who was deeply wounded. He's hurt by the fact that his friend Aang wasn't there in his time of need. Aang, on the other hand, is burdened by the guilt that he wasn't there for his friend who needed him. That, to me, was much more interesting than the specific set of challenges that he had to go through. Bringing those characters to an emotional head was where we started from and then we built using the elements of the original story."


<p>Netflix</p> George Takei voices Koh in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'


George Takei voices Koh in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

The writers' room mapped out the season in blocks of two episodes: 1 and 2, the Omashu arc of 3 and 4, and the Northern Water Tribe setting of 7 and 8. That left 5 and 6 to kick off the Spirit World arc, except there were multiple re-weavings that ended up happening as a result.

Though initially more standalone in the animated original, the live-action series combines the storylines for Hei Bai, Koh, Roku's Shrine, and the Blue Spirit all into one overarching plot. Investigating the disappearing Earth Kingdom villagers leads the Aang gang to the Spirit World, where Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley) become trapped by the face stealer known as Koh (George Takei)... which then sends him to speak with Avatar Roku (C.S. Lee) at his temple in the Fire Nation for guidance...which then gets him captured by June (Arden Cho) and taken into Commander Zhao's (Ken Leung) custody...which then prompts Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu) to free the Avatar under the guise of the Blue Spirit.

"It was challenging, but it wasn't any more so than the rest of the season," Kim says. "Because we knew we were going to get to the point where we saw the Agni Kai, there was a lot going on to set that up." The original series didn't fully show the proceeding events following the Agni Kai, the Fire Nation duel that saw Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim) scar and exile Zuko from the kingdom, but the writers used those moments to further beef up Zuko's backstory.

"Also, that's the one episode in the season where essentially Sokka and Katara are not in it. So it became a big Aang and Zuko story," Kim continues. "When you looked at it that way, that meant including the Blue Spirit and then also including the Agni Kai and some new scenes like the one post Agni Kai when Ozai goes to Zuko and banishes him. So it's a little bit of maybe putting the puzzle pieces together and seeing where they all fall. Once you do that, certain things just logically fall into place."

Past lives

<p>Nickelodeon; Netflix</p> Avatar Kyoshi arrives in live action in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

Nickelodeon; Netflix

Avatar Kyoshi arrives in live action in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

Netflix's live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender plays more with the mythology than the original's freshman season did. Visiting each of the past Avatar's temples allows Aang to commune with them, and even allow them to take over his body, as in the case of Avatar Kyoshi. As a result, we get to meet both Kyoshi and Avatar Kuruk in addition to Avatar Roku much earlier in the timeline.

Kim says he spoke with original Avatar creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko before they departed the live-action project over unresolvable creative differences. But the writers' room also benefited from all the supplemental Avatar materials that were released in the past years, including the companion novels and comic books.

"A lot of that stuff about those Avatars came from the Kyoshi novels," he says. "One of the Kyoshi novels talks a lot about Avatar Kuruk, same with the character of Kyoshi. The Avatars were useful characters throughout the season because they were able to confront Aang and voice his various conflicts, both as incarnations of himself and as characters on their own. One of the things you see is in episode 2 when he first talks to Kyoshi. We drew upon elements of what happens when he meets Roku in the original series and gave it to Koshi because we needed that element early in our series, to see the power of the Avatar."

A topic he explored with DiMartino and Konietzko was why the Avatar is the only one who can bring balance to the world. "'He can master all four elements, but isn't that the same as having four different benders?' 'No, he's also got the Avatar State.' 'Well, what does that mean?' So in episode 2, we see the power of the Avatar," he says.

Cracking Sokka

Netflix Ian Ousley's Sokka in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'
Netflix Ian Ousley's Sokka in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

Of all the characters translated to live action, Kim says Sokka was "a little less fleshed out" than the others.

"Katara had the trauma of her mother's death, which is also Sokka's mother, but you didn't see too much evidence of that with Sokka," Kim explains of the adaptation process. "Zuko obviously has the story with his father and the Agni Kai, and Aang has the burden of being the Avatar. Sokka is a little bit more of a blank canvas in that regard, so we built in more into his backstory, which is in the original, it's just a little subtler."

The writers decided to lean more into the absence of Sokka's father and the pressures of having to lead the Southern Water Tribe at such a young age, as well as his struggles being the only non-bender of Team Avatar. "What does that mean for a human being when everyone around you has these superpowers and you don't?" Kim says. "It's all there in the original, we just drew it to the fore a little more."

It also blended easily into the Princess Yue (Amber Midthunder) arc later on. "She's able to see through all of his bluster and all of his attempts at comedy, and sees this insecurity," Kim adds. "So that was great to play with."

The 41st Division

<p>Netflix</p> Ruy Iskandar plays Lt. Jee in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'


Ruy Iskandar plays Lt. Jee in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

A change to the original story Kim is most proud of is the 41st Division of the Fire Nation's military. In the Netflix series, the troupe was meant to be sacrificial lambs to distract enemy forces, but Zuko urges his father to appoint them as his crew in exile. The reveal cements the soldiers' respect for the Fire Nation prince and becomes a mirror to the found family element of Team Avatar.

"It's a small change, but it is so impactful in its way because it really drives home the story of Zuko's arc," Kim says. "He cannot find the compassion and love that he wants from his father because what he sees as a weakness in himself is his compassion. Then he finds it in this family that he's built with his crew. The message of the whole series really is about the family we make for ourselves."

The hardest VFX shot

<p>Netflix</p> Katara (Kiawentiio) saves Bumi and the Mechanist in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'


Katara (Kiawentiio) saves Bumi and the Mechanist in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

Oddly enough, Koi-zilla wasn't the most difficult visual effects sequence to pull off in Avatar: The Last Airbender; neither was the attack on the Southern Air Temple. That distinction falls to a rather small sequence involving water and an arrow.

In episode 3, Katara thwarts Jet's (Sebastian Amoruso) plot to assassinate the Mechanist (Danny Pudi) and King Bumi by hurling water at a flaming arrow. "That's one of the hardest waterbending shots in the show because it's just doing something that water really doesn't do," says Jabbar Raisani, an executive producer, director, and VFX supervisor on the show. "It's traveling a really long distance, it's going against gravity upwards, and we really struggled with it."

The VFX team experimented with the movement of liquid by throwing buckets of water in the air over and over until they had enough references they could pull from. "That was not literally put in, but that's the inspiration for how the water moves through space," Raisani adds.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is now streaming on Netflix.

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