Korrasami Confirmed

Now that Korra and Asami’s final moment is out in the world, it seems like an appropriate time to express how I feel about it. I didn’t want to say anything right away so the audience could experience the finale for themselves.

The main themes of the Avatar universe have always revolved around equality, justice, acceptance, tolerance, and balancing differing worldviews. In subtle and maybe not so subtle ways, Avatar and Legend of Korra have dealt with difficult subjects such as genocide, child abuse, deaths of loved ones, and post traumatic stress. I took it as a complement when Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair called the show subversive. There were times even I was surprised we were able to delve into the really tough stuff on a children’s TV network. While the episodes were never designed to “make a statement”, Bryan and I always strove to treat the more difficult subject matter with the respect and gravity it deserved.

And over the years we’ve heard from numerous fans, in person and online, how Avatar and Korra have influenced their lives for the better or helped them overcome a life struggle or setback. I am always humbled when people share their personal stories with us and I am grateful that my love for telling stories has been able to help people in some small way. So while Avatar and Korra were always meant to be entertaining and engaging tales, this universe and its characters also speak to the deeper humanity in all of us, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, culture, nationality, or sexual orientation.

Our intention with the last scene was to make it as clear as possible that yes, Korra and Asami have romantic feelings for each other. The moment where they enter the spirit portal symbolizes their evolution from being friends to being a couple. Many news outlets, bloggers, and fans picked up on this and didn’t find it ambiguous. For the most part, it seems like the point of the scene was understood and additional commentary wasn’t really needed from Bryan or me. But in case people were still questioning what happened in the last scene, I wanted to make a clear verbal statement to complement the show’s visual one. I get that not everyone will be happy with the way that the show ended. Rarely does a series finale of any show satisfy that show’s fans, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the positive articles and posts I’ve seen about Korra’s finale.

I’ve already read some heartwarming and incredible posts about how this moment means so much for the LGBT community. Once again, the incredible outpouring of support for the show humbles me. As Tenzin says, “Life is one big bumpy ride.” And if, by Korra and Asami being a couple, we are able to help smooth out that ride even a tiny bit for some people, I’m proud to do my part, however small it might be. Thanks for reading.

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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.

Writing the Premise

This is the first of a 3-part post about the writing process for A:TLA and Legend of Korra. My goal is to describe the steps we take to bring a story from an initial idea to a finished script. Although this applies specifically to a half-hour animated TV show, I think the principals can be used when approaching any writing project. I also will provide examples of the premise, outline, and scripts from episode 207 “Beginnings, part 1” to show how the story evolved. I want to take some of the mystery out of the writing process. We’re used to only seeing the shiny final product, which seems to appeared fully-realized on TV. I always enjoy examining the process it takes to get to a finished book, movie, or show, so I hope you find this helpful.

Rough animation of Avatar Wan by Studio Mir

Rough animation of Avatar Wan by Studio Mir

Writing stories is a daunting process. My early attempts at creating short stories and scripts always fizzled out after several pages. I’d have what I thought was an intriguing premise or character, I’d set them in motion, expecting narrative fireworks to erupt, then… nothing. I’d put the pages away, always wondering how to go from an idea to a finished story. Jump forward to Avatar, and my first experience working with other writers in a writing room environment where I learned how to break a story down into beats. I’ve now done this process 113 times over the course of the two series. Combined with studying more about story structure over the years, I feel like I finally have somewhat of a handle on the story writing process. It makes it a little less daunting, but it’s still always challenging. I guess that’s what I really love about storytelling — it’s almost like a puzzle and creating new ones always brings up new problems to solve and pushes my creativity and imagination to new places.

Different shows have different ways of “breaking” a story. I honestly don’t know why it’s called this, since you’re actually “fixing” or “finding” a story, but that’s the industry-speak for what goes on in the writer’s room. For each season, the stories all move from very general to specific. In the case of Korra, for each season or “Book”, me, Bryan, and our writers brainstorm general ideas for the whole season – We ask ourselves big questions like: What’s the theme? What’s Korra’s emotional arc? Who’s our villain? We also come up with random ideas for a scene, or a cool action sequence, or even a vague notion of wanting to see a particular character more. So this first stage is about getting everything on the table and seeing what resonates with us. This process usually lasts a few weeks, but it’s an ongoing process through the season, since we don’t figure out every story beat up front. But once we have a sense of the beginning, middle, and end, we move on to the premise phase. Plus, the production moves so quickly, we usually have to start writing before we’ve figured out the entire season.

Quick sidebar:

In the case of shows with continuous storylines like Lost or Breaking Bad, there seems to be a myth that the writers have (or should have) figured out everything from the start. TV just doesn’t work that way, due to the demands of production schedules (unless the show is True Detective, which was written all by one writer before production began). In an interview before the Breaking Bad finale had aired, creator Vince Gilligan was asked:

In interviews last summer you still weren’t sure how Breaking Bad was going to end. Was this just a matter of specifics? Or had you still not decided whether Walt was going to live, die, or go to prison?

His response?

“It was everything. We knew very little as of last summer. We knew we had an M60 machine gun in Walt’s trunk that we needed to pay off, and that was about it. We kept asking ourselves, ‘What would satisfy us? A happy ending? A sad ending? Or somewhere in between?’”

He’s talking about the final season and they had a machine gun in Walt’s trunk and weren’t even sure how to pay that off. That’s how these types of shows work. Every season is a new storyline with a new set of problems for the writing room to solve. So the best you can do is have a plan of which direction you’re headed, but realize that you’re going to have to figure out the path a bit on the fly.

As George R.R. Martin has said, regarding Game of Thrones:

I have a broad sense of where the story is going; I know the end, I know the end of the principal characters, and I know the major turning points and events from the books, the climaxes for each book, but I don’t necessarily know each twist and turn along the way. That’s something I discover in the course of writing and that’s what makes writing enjoyable.

Okay, back to the writer’s room.

Once we’ve decided on the major character arc and overall plot of the season, it’s time to tell that story episodically. Enter stage one:

THE PREMISE

For this part, we take all those ideas we had in the general meetings and make episodic stories out of them. Some episodes come easily, like season premieres — certain things are just going to have to happen, according to the story we want to tell. Other episodes are a little trickier to figure out. The premise discussions are basically a more focused version of the season overview discussions. For me, the episode starts to click when I know the character’s emotional arc for that episode. For example, in Book 1, Bryan and I had a big hole where episode 4 was supposed to go. We knew we needed something there, and had a bunch of plot ideas for it, but nothing that clicked. Then we hit upon the idea of Korra dealing with her fear, after learning of Amon’s power to take bending away, which was her biggest nightmare. Once we knew what Korra would be dealing with emotionally, it was much easier to tailor the plot around that.

When the writing team has a handle on what that story is about, one writer is assigned to an episode and has a few days to write up a 3-4 page premise, including a log line which is the quick pitch of what the episode is about. Our premises are pretty detailed, though as you’ll see in the example, there are still a lot of missing pieces to figure out. Our goal in the premise is to hit all the main plot points and emotional beats. It needs to be clear what this episode is going to be about and what the character is going to go through.

After a first pass of the premise is done, we usually all discuss it further as a group, figuring out any of the problem areas. The writer revises it, then it’s off to the network for notes!

Quick sidebar #2:

Premise is a word that is thrown around a lot in the writing world, and it can have different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. For our purposes here, I’m using it to refer to the actual document that we create, which includes what is traditionally is known as a premise — that one sentence blurb you see on the Netflix or Amazon descriptions. For this episode it was: “In order to regain her memory, Korra must delve deep into the Avatar’s past and learn the truth about the epic and mythic origins of the first Avatar.” What follows is a summary of the story that explains the premise in more detail. Some might consider it a treatment or outline, but as I’ll show next time, our process splits up the premise and outline phases. Every writer and every show will have their own way of getting the ideas on paper.

The link below will take you to the “Beginnings, part 1” premise, written by yours truly, though by now I hope it’s clear that this is hardly a one-man effort. It’s important to have one writer in charge of writing each episode so it has a consistent voice and tone, but as with all Avatar and Korra scripts (and most TV shows), it takes a group effort to create each story.

Korra_207_Premise_10.12.11

A few things you’ll notice if you’re familiar with the episode. Korra is much more talkative in the opening of the premise and many of the characters have yet to be included, like the Huntsman, the Chou Brothers, Aye Aye, and Mula (Wan’s trusty cat-deer). On page 3, there’s a mention of a man who has lost his mind from being out in the wilds, which later became Yao, the half-tree man. But even though there is a lot missing and the story still needs to be fleshed out, you can see the main beats of the final episode are all there: Wan being bullied, stealing the fire, being outcast, surviving in the wilds, and splitting Raava and Vaatu.

I realize this is a rough overview of the process, so if anything’s not clear, feel free to add questions in comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Next up… THE OUTLINE!

 

Your inner creative vs. your inner critic

How do we balance our creative minds with our critical minds?

“If you take life absolutely seriously, you must realize there’s the counter-play to it, that the world of law is simply an optional world. When you do something you create a pattern that excludes other possibilities, and there comes a time for opening up to all possibility and the creative act.

“Actually, everybody who has ever done creative work of any kind knows this moment. You make your plans in terms of what the mind can think of, and if you hold to those plans you’re going to have a dry, dead piece of work. What you have to do is open out underneath into chaos, and then a new thing comes, and if you bring your critical faculty down too early you’re going to kill it.” – Joseph Campbell

When I think of creativity these are the words that come to mind: flow, exploration, inspiration, curiosity, no rules, freedom. The word critical makes me think: reasoned, intellect, decision-making, organized, categorized, clarity, communication.

In the act of making art, writing, music, etc., we use our creativity as well as our critical minds. Is one more important than the other? When should we put aside our “creative” minds and put on our thinking caps? There’s no simple or firm answer. For me, I often flip back and forth between the two.

Last week, I spoke to some local high school students about what my job entails. I only had eight minutes with each group of students, so I had to figure out a way to succinctly sum up what I do. My official job title is “co-creator and executive producer”, which is always cumbersome to say, with the added problem being it doesn’t clearly express all the things I do on the show. But in preparing for the students, I realized that these roles encompass the creative aspects of my job and the critical aspects.

On a daily basis, I switch between “co-creating”, which involves everything from the initial ideas for the series to developing and writing episodes, and “executive producing”, which means reviewing and critiquing storyboards and animatics, as well as overseeing different aspects of the production. I enjoy the creating aspect of my job more, but both are necessary to making the show. I think this can apply to our own personal projects as well. You don’t need to oversee a crew of people to be an executive producer of your own work.

So when is it time to put aside our creative sides, step back, and look at what we’ve made with a more critical eye? It’s a personal choice, but like Joseph Campbell warns in the above quote, it’s important not to let your inner critic show up too early in the creative process, or you might risk losing the spark of energy fueling your ideas.

The creative mind says to the critic: “I hate rules! Just let me be free to roam and explore and make beautiful things.” The critical mind says to the creative: “You have some interesting and inspiring ideas here, but I don’t understand some of the choices you made. It’s not clear what you’re trying to say.”

Creative: “You just don’t get it, man! This is the pure expression of who I am.”

Critic: “But don’t you want your art to communicate with others?”

Creative: “I want chaos!”

Critic: “You’re impossible.”

Creative: “Leave me alone!” (Storms out of room.)

The creative mind is a bit of the rebellious teenager, while the critical mind is the more mature adult, trying to make responsible decisions.

So why can’t we just live in the blissful world of the creative mind? It sounds fun. But if we did, I don’t think we’d ever finish a project, and even if we did finish, it wouldn’t effectively communicate with others. Of course, we don’t want the critic running the show either, for exactly the same reason. That self-critical voice that assuredly exclaims “my work sucks” isn’t really helpful when it comes to completing a project and sharing it with others. The inner critic also has a tendency to work on something until it drains all the life from it.

Balancing the creative and the critical came up a lot in the Korra writer’s room. At the start of each season, we carve out a couple weeks where Bryan, the writers, and I just focus on idea generating. We throw out any and all ideas, trying not to criticize them yet. This is where we talk about big picture concepts — what the season’s about, what we’d like to see the characters do and how we’d like them to grow, who’s the villain, etc. But we also pitch on smaller ideas too —  cool action set pieces, funny character moments (like Bolin becoming a movie star), or ideas for new locations.

At a certain point, we then take a more analytical look at all the ideas and figure out what works and doesn’t depending on what we’ve decided are the story and themes for that season. Usually, it’s pretty clear what will stay and what won’t. Those idea generating sessions were a great way to let our imaginations wander freely as we explored new possibilities for Korra and her world.

I’ll leave you with something to consider: In your life and work (whatever you consider your work to be), do you tend to be more creative or critical? Is there a way to bring more of one or the other into your process?

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.