Nerdist Writer’s Podcast

Bryan and I were guests on the Nerdist Writer’s Panel podcast with Ben Blacker. We talked about the creation of the show, the move to digital, and even about the Movie That Shall Not Be Named. Ben does a great job with the podcast and has had some big names on in the past, like Matthew Weiner, Damon Lindelof, and Vince Gilligan, so I was honored to be one of his guests! It’s a great podcast, with in depth interviews with a lot of showrunners from some of the best series out there. A great resource for aspiring writers and people who just like learning more about how a TV show is made.

Find the interview here on itunes. Also on the Nerdist website.

Just Create

New look! New blog! Well, not exactly…

I want to evolve this blog from being story-centric, to creativity-encompassing. There is a lot of talk in the marketing and blogging worlds about “branding” yourself, a term I despise. It reminds me of farmers branding cows. It’s limiting and I squirm at the thought of being put in a box. I understand the idea behind it – you want your potential audience to know what they’re signing up for when they buy your book or watch your movie or read your blog. Compartmentalization can sometimes be helpful, just not so much for me when it comes to living a creative life.

Korra hates being boxed in too! (animation by Studio Mir)

Korra hates being boxed in too! (animation by Studio Mir)

Part of what I’ve struggled with in writing this blog is figuring out exactly what I want to do with it. It initially began as a way to explore stories and understand why we need them, but it’s also been about Avatar and Legend of Korra. But my creative interests expand well beyond those things, into photography, painting, philosophy, spirituality, sociology, cosmology, nutrition, etc. There are many things which fascinate and inspire me. I try to remain curious and open to new ideas and new ways of understanding myself and the world around me. Story is one way to funnel a lot of these interests, but at the same time, it feels limiting.

I realized the overarching theme I want to explore is creativity and living a creatively satisfying life. So what does that mean, exactly? For me, it’s about living authentically, honestly, and as transparently as possible. It’s about listening to new ideas, taking what works in my life, and discarding what doesn’t. It’s about being proactive and creating a life that inspires me, and sharing what I create, hoping it will inspire others to pursue their own passions.

And this isn’t just about art and writing. Creativity appears in myriad ways across every discipline and aspect of life. I’m not a great cook. In fact I don’t really like cooking, but I am in awe of chefs who can take various ingredients and create something visually stunning and mouth-watering. In an age where craftsmanship has been too often replaced by automation, where fast-food becomes preferable to thoughtful preparation, we lose a connection to what matters. We lose a part of what makes us human.

I totally accept that I sound like an old man lamenting the “good old days.” But I’m not advocating we all move out to the woods, throw away our cel phones, and forage for our own food (though I’ve thought about it). But I often wonder if we’ve lost our connection to our more primal, spiritual selves by moving away from the physical and into the virtual.

When we started the Avatar production in 2003, the artists and I all drew with pencil (or pen) and paper. Other parts of the production used computers to color and composite the show, but by and large, there was a lot of physical evidence of our work. By 2010, nearly everything is done digitally. Everyone still draws by hand, but it’s with a stylus and Cintiq. The exception is at Studio Mir, where the animators all draw with pencil and paper, then scan the drawings into the computer to be colored and composited. The show looks better than it ever has, and I still think the style of each artist comes through in the digital medium, but I can’t help but feel like something gets lost along the way. It’s something small and almost intangible, but I can sense it, like a dream you can’t quite remember upon waking, or a smell that triggers a nearly-forgotten memory.

Would something be lost if this drawing of Tahno was done digitally? (animation by Studio Mir)

Would something be lost if this drawing of Tahno was done digitally? (animation by Studio Mir)

So I guess the reason I’m writing all this is to reaffirm my commitment to creativity, no matter what the form, and to hopefully inspire others to do the same. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter whether we write our novel by hand, or by typing it on a screen. It doesn’t really make a difference if we photograph with film and develop it in a darkroom, or make photos digitally — what matters is that we write the novel, or take the photo, or paint the picture, or cook the food. Just create.

Check out these TED talks (here and here) by Elizabeth Gilbert if you need a creative kick-start. She’s one of my favorite speakers on the challenges and joys of the creative process.

Comic-Con, Korra, and Being an Introvert

San Diego Comic-Con can be an inspiring, magical place or a hive of frustration and discontent, depending on your expectations going in. It’s been both for me over the years. I attended my first Comic-Con in ’97 or ’98 (I can’t remember exactly…)  At that time, it was a pretty big affair, but nothing like what it is now. Those were the good old days, when you could get a pass the day of, see any panel without waiting in line for days, walk the floor relatively unimpeded, and maybe even score a hotel room last minute. According to Wikipedia, attendance those years was a mere 42,000. By comparison, last year drew over 130,000. Ah, the simpler times…

Comic-Con 2004: Our very first Avatar panel drew a couple hundred people.

Comic-Con 2004: Our very first Avatar panel drew a couple hundred people. (From left to right): The moderator, Bryan Konietzko, Lauren MacMullan, Anthony Lioi, me, Dave Filoni, Giancarlo Volpe, Eric Coleman

In mentally preparing myself for this year’s con, I watched Morgan Spurlock’s Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, which is now streaming on Hulu. I remember hearing that he was shooting the doc at the 2010 SDCC, which was the first year we were there promoting Korra. It’s a great story about fans and creators that depicts a small, but from my experience accurate, portrayal of life at the con.

Last year, we had our first panel in Ballroom 20, which holds around 5,000 people.  Photo by Bryan, who was sitting next to me. Behind me are Joaquim Dos Santos, Janet Varney, David Faustino, PJ Byrne, Seychelle Gabriel, and Andrea Romano

Last year, we had our first panel in Ballroom 20, which holds around 5,000 people. Photo by Bryan, who was sitting next to me. To my right are Joaquim Dos Santos, Janet Varney, David Faustino, PJ Byrne, Seychelle Gabriel, and Andrea Romano

I have a love/hate relationship with Comic-Con, but watching this film made me appreciate what it has become and why it’s important to popular culture. Sure, it’s  more crowded and Hollywood-focused than it used to be. But through the people he followed, Spurlock showed how despite all that, it’s still a place where fans come to meet the creators of the things they love, express themselves through cosplay, and pursue their dreams as artists and future creators. The people interviewed in the film expressed how the Con was a place where they felt like they belonged. They didn’t feel weird or worry they’d be made fun of. They felt like they could really be themselves, which is a pretty beautiful thing.

Me and Bryan signing posters at Comic-Con 2004

Me and Bryan signing posters at Comic-Con 2004

It’s amazing to look back at that first SDCC I went to and where I am now. At the time, I never imagined being part of panels attended by thousands of people, or sitting at a booth where hundreds line up to get my autograph and picture. The thing is, I’ve never sought attention like that. Historically, I’ve pretty much tried to avoid being noticed. Part of that was from being self-conscious and fearing what others would think of me. The other part was from being an introvert. But that’s the amazing thing about Comic-Con, it can bring out the extrovert in all of us introverts (who I’m guessing make up 99% of the attendees.)

Susan Cain wrote a great book about introverts called Quiet. (She also did a TEDtalk about it.) I highly recommend it for all you introverts out there. Two big takeaways for me:

1. We live in a society that worships and rewards extroverts, despite the fact that many of the great innovations and creative leaps in the world were made by introverts.

2. We are born with certain personality traits, but we aren’t bound by them.  Cain writes, “Introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.”

Me and Bryan in an early interview at the Nickelodeon booth

Me and Bryan in an early interview at the Nickelodeon booth, before we became the media-savvy guys we are now.

That’s why, at an event like Comic-Con, where thousands of eyes are on me, I’m able to overcome my natural shyness and become extroverted for a while. I love Korra and the world I’ve helped create and I’m passionate about sharing it with others and meeting  fans of the show. It’s an exhausting event for sure, but always rewarding, especially when a fan shares his or her personal story about how Avatar has touched their life in some meaningful way.

Amon and Beifong cosplayers pose for Bryan

Amon and Beifong cosplayers pose for Bryan — Comic-Con 2012

I’m looking forward to this year’s Con more than any other. Book 2 is coming together beautifully and I can’t wait to finally share some of what we’ve been up to since last year. Hope to see you there!

Man of Steel: Why the Story of Superman Still Matters

action-comics-1-superman

I thought Superman’s time had long past. And I didn’t expect to enjoy the new movie as much as I did. How can there be anything interesting left to do with a character who has been around for 75 years and is all powerful? I thought as I headed into a 10:30 AM screening this past weekend (yes, I go to the movies alone in the morning sometimes). I found myself surprised by how much the story resonated with me.

Here’s what I loved about it: It’s a story about having the courage to be who you are. I’m not well versed in Superman lore beyond film and TV, so I realize this theme probably isn’t unique to this film, but it really hit home for me in this moment. Sometimes stories come along at just the right time and resonate with what you’re thinking about at the time.

The crux of the film for me was the father/son relationship between Jonathan and Clark Kent. Clark lives his childhood and early adult life not being able to reveal who he really is because his father taught him that the human race wasn’t ready to learn that that an alien with superpowers lived among them. His father, feared what others might think and how they would react. In fact, he staked his whole life on it.

There is a powerful scene where young Clark saves his schoolmates from a bus crash. (It was in the trailer, so I don’t think of this as a spoiler). Everyone is about to drown, and Clark is given a choice: let them die, or save them and risk showing them who you are. He wisely chooses the latter. But later, his father is upset with him. Clark asks him, “What was I supposed to do, let them die?” And his dad replies, “Maybe.” His dad is so set in his worldview — that people aren’t ready to understand the truth — that he would be willing to let innocent souls perish. It’s pretty cruel, but makes for a great conflict that challenges Clark to decide what he believes in and what kind of person he wants to become.

Even in spite of this, I found myself sympathetic to Jonathan Kent and didn’t find him completely unlikable. His words and actions were his way of protecting his son. But he was misguided. Who made him the one who decides if the world is ready or not to handle the existence of an alien?

The father represents any parent, or institution, or religion, or government that wants to prevent you (or me) from coming into our own and expressing who we truly are. This covers the gamut, from corporations not wanting employees to think outside the box, to a society that still isn’t entirely okay with gay marriage. They (the father figure) thinks they know best. They say they have your best interests at heart and they will protect you. But they are just fearful of what will happen when people are living their best lives. I think this part of the film got under my skin because I absolutely hate when someone assumes they know what is best for me.

There have been some articles written about the Christ symbolism in the film (which I found too heavy-handed). But I did find the movie spiritual in other ways. It encourages us to live an authentic life, one in which we follow our instincts as we struggle to figure out who we want to be and what we want to do.

What did you think of the film? What parts resonated with you?

Violence and story, part 2

Photography of Lascaux animal painting {| cell...

In writing my last blog post and reading all of your thoughtful comments, I feel that there is a lot more to explore about this topic.

For me, the question isn’t whether or not there should be violence in stories. It has been a part of story since the beginning. Looking at ancient cave paintings like those at Lascaux, I could imagine that some of the first stories ever told probably involved hunting animals and killing them.

Even children, left to their own devices, add a lot of violence to their imagined tales. In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall cites a scholar who studied children’s play patterns. He found that “the typical actions in orally told stories by young children include being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.  In their stories they portray a world of great flux, anarchy, and disaster.”

So if violence is somehow a part of our human nature, and inherent in our stories, the question for me is “why?”

“Fiction is usually seen as escapist entertainment,” writes Mr. Gottschall. But as he goes on to point out, if that were the case, “we’d expect stories to be mainly about pleasurable wish fulfillment” where nothing would go wrong.  That, of course, is not the case, as most of the popular “escapist entertainment” is full of violent acts. And if there were a story without any difficulty or struggle for the hero, it would not interest the reader (or viewer) because nothing would have happened.  “If there is no knotty problem, there is no story,” says Gottschall.

Stories are about trouble — trouble that happens to a character. And we vicariously live through that character and root for him or her to overcome those troubles and find success. This is the “happily ever after” part of the story. But if that happy ending isn’t earned, if the hero hasn’t suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet said, then the audience won’t enjoy the story.

There are a lot of books about how to write screenplays and novels. I’ve read my fair share. Some have been helpful, some not so much. But the one thing they all seem to agree on is that conflict is necessary in a story. If there’s no conflict, the hero has no way to be tested. No test, and the hero hasn’t earned their success or happiness.

As Lisa Cron writes in Wired for Story, “Story is about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict.” In our everyday life, we usually go out of our way to avoid change and conflict. They’re uncomfortable and difficult, and “In real life we want conflict to resolve right now, this very minute; in a story we want conflict to drag out, ratcheting ever upward, for as deliciously long as humanly possible.”

And what’s the one, sure-fire way to show conflict? Something violent happening to someone. Certainly this isn’t the only way. There are plenty of books and movies where characters don’t go to the extreme of shooting guns, or stabbing, or killing. But I would argue that even in the most innocent of stories, there are allusions to violence or death. Even in Elf, the absurd Will Ferrell Christmas flick, there is a scene where Buddy stands on a bridge, contemplating suicide.

So perhaps the violence issue can be reframed. I don’t think it’s possible or necessary to rid violence from stories. And what’s acceptable or not will always be debatable, depending on the venue in which the story is presented. But I do think storytellers have a responsibility to keep their intended audience in mind when they add violence to stories and know when to say enough is enough. Or to make sure the violence and conflict serves the purpose of the story and isn’t just there for amusement.

But no matter who the audience is, we all want the heros of our stories to show us what it means to suffer and persevere, so that we can be inspired to overcome conflict in our own lives.