So I dug up my collection of early ATLA development bibles, and over the next day or so I’ll type up bits I think you guys might find interesting. Sound good?
The first is essentially a style guide from 2005, meant for artists (storyboarders mostly I assume) working on the show. The intro pages are handwritten, interspersed with animation frames/layouts from early episodes:
“Not only is Avatar influence by Japanese anime, but also by the many incredibly talented artists who have worked on or still work on the show - in Burbank oand in Seol. One such artist is animation direction Jeong In. He helmed the animation on Avatar episodes 103 and 107. He brought an incredibly anatomical solidity and dynamism to his layouts and animation…
[several pages of animation and layouts from the Zuko/Zhao firebending duel in 103, with notes to emphasize the dynamism/crispness/solidity of the characters and the fire effects]
Another incredible artist who has worked on Avatar and influenced it heavily is Ryu Gi Hyun. Gi Hyun has animated a lot of signature scenes for Avatar (his most popular is the foaming mouth guy in 104, which was completely his idea). His drawings of our characters are so exemplary that JM Animation uses them as model and expression sheets for Avatar’s animation production. Now the artists here in Burbank are using his work as a model and feeding it back into the show.
Ryu Gi Hyun’s style is greatly influenced by 4ºC’s Koji Morimoto, but he definitely has his own touch. His drawings are ALIVE!
You really get the feeling that his characters eat, breathe, sleep, think, poop and barf - just when they are doing NOTHING! I even revised Aang and Sokka’s main models based on Gi Hyun’s suggestions. You get the idea: he’s a big influence for Avatar. Let’s look at his drawings…
[animation/layouts of Aang right after he comes out of the iceberg, as well as Sokka and Katara]
[many pages of screengrabs from the show, some of which are from the pilot, with notes about what to pay attention to]
[The last page is typed]
Suggested Viewing and Reading:
Samurai Champloo (series)
Cowboy Beebop (series)
Neon Genesis Evangelion (series)
“Beyond” - from Animatrix (directed by Koji Morimoto)
Abenobashi-Magical Shopping Arcade
Orang - Koji Morimoto art book
Groundwoork of Fooly Cooly
FLCL Design Works
Groundwork of Evangelion - The Movie 1 and 2
The Art of Spirited Away
Samurai Champloo - Roman Album
Graphic Books/Works by Range Murata
Cannabis Works by Tatsuyuki Tanaka
Innocence (second Ghost In The Shell movie) - Roman Album”
Still looking for the meatier series bible, it’s been a long time since I dug it out and it’s hiding somewhere on my desk.
But I found the promotional character bios from September of 2005. Zuko’s in particular is interesting:
“Zuko is an incredibly focused teenage Firebender who bullies and intimidates everyone around him. He is obsessed with capturing the Avatar. Prince Zuko is the oldest son of Fire Lord Ozai, ruler of the Fire Nation, and the great-grandson of Fire Lord Sozin, who concieved the war. When Prince Zuko was 14, he spoke out against his father and the Fire Nation’s conquest. To teach his insubordinate son a lesson, Fire Lord Ozai forced his son to fight him in a traditional Firebender duel. The Fire Lord defeated his son in front of his royal army, stripped the Prince of his birthright to the throne and banished him from his homeland, telling him the only way he will allow his return is with the Avatar, dead or alive. This is now Prince Zuko’s mission.
Each day, Zuko studies Firebending with his Uncle, the Fire Lord’s brother. Zuko is a powerful Firebender for his age and eager to develop his skills. But Zuko doesn’t know his uncle is under strict orders from the Fire Lord to teach his son incorrect Firebending. It’s the Fire Lord’s insurance that his son’s powers will never surpass his own. Zuko’s greatest weaknesses are his arrogance and impatience. He believes Firebending is the most dominant art and can never be bested by Water, Earth or Airbending. Zuko’s teenage overconfidence makes him believe he’s invincible.”
Amazing how much things changed, isn’t it? This is from before the head writer came on and they reworked Zuko and Iroh’s characters.
This kind of thing is why I roll my eyes at stuff like “Katara and Zuko were originally supposed to be a couple!” Even if that were true (and I don’t think it is) Iroh used to be evil and I don’t see anyone pretending that has any bearing on the show as it was actually made. Things change! Sometimes people have bad ideas and realize later that they were bad! Development material like this is interesting but the show itself is all that matters when it comes to the story and the characters and what counts as “canon.”
Not sure if anyone actually cares about this after all, but here’s another character bio from the 2005 series bible. This time: Aang.
“Aang is the hero and spirit of the show. This adventurous 12-year-old is the last Airbender and only known survivor of the Air Nomads, the arrow on his head a constant reminder of his lineage. His destiny is to learn the art of the Avatar and defeat the Fire Lord of the Fire Nation. But rather than save the world, Aang searches for adventure. He wants a life full of fun experiences, not heavy responsibilities.
Aang believes that people are either in harmony with the Spirit of the Planet or corrupt and mislead. Because Aang is the Avatar, he has a connection with nature as well as animals. If he’s lost, Aang is able to “listen” to the spirits of the trees, rivers, and mountains to “tell” him which way to go. He is a trickster hero uninhibited by social constraints, and constantly breaking taboos.
Opposed to the status quo, Aang loves stirring up trouble in an effort to bring about change in the world and in others.”
And five seconds later I found the IP bible.
I’m mostly just going to type up the series synopsis because it seems like that’s what you’re most interested in, but I do want to mention that the section labeled “Character Relationships” opens with, “The relationship between Aang and Katara is the emotional heart of the show.” (Also the Blue Spirit was once the Red Spirit. Wacky shit all around.)
But here is the series overview. There’s some pretty weird stuff in here, some of which I’d forgotten about.
“1st Season - Winter
The series begins on the South Pole during winter. It is here where Katara and her brother Sokka discover an Airbender boy (Aang) and his giant bison (Appa) inside an iceberg. Although Aang denies to Katara that he is the Avatar, she soon learns the truth when a young Firebender named Prince Zuko attacks the Southern Water Tribe, looking for the Airbender. In his first act of heroism, Aang surrenders to Zuko in exchange for the tribe’s safety. But with the help of Katara, Sokka and his flying bison Appa, Aang escapes Zuko’s war ship. Katara and Sokka decide to help Aang get to the North Pole so that he can find a master Waterbender from whom he can learn Waterbending - the first step to becoming the Avatar.
Of course, Aang isn’t in any rush to take on his Avatar responsibilities, so the kids stop at many fun and exciting villages and cities on the way. The first stop is at Aang’s childhood home, the Airbender Temple. There, Aang makes first contact with Avatar Roku - Aang’s previous incarnation and a mentor who will help him on his Avatar journey. He also befreinds a winged lemur - once a traditional Airbender pet. To Aang, Momo is a sign of hope that, somewhere in the world, his people are still alive.
As word spreads around the world that the Avatar has returned, the kids act more cautiously, sometimes disguising Aang. And with Zuko on their trail, the longer they stay in one place, the more likely it is that he will find them. The kids begin to learn whom they can trust - and whom they can’t.
Aang’s search for an Avatar mentor leads him to the Spirit World. During the Winter Solstice, Aang crosses over into the Spirit World and makes contact again with his previous incarnation, Avatar Roku. Roku reveals to Aang that a powerful comet is passing over the Earth at the end of the summer - and that the Fire Lord and his troops will harness this power to win the war. Aang now faces the daunting task of not only mastering the four elements but doing so before the end of the summer.
With time running short, Aang buckles down and begins to learn Waterbending alongside Katara. But Aang is unfocused and undisciplined and would rather play than practice. When Katara discovers an ancient scroll with the Waterbending lyrics (moves) illustrated on it, she believes that they have found a quick and easy way of learning Waterbending without having to find a master in the North Pole. However, after a series of mishaps, she realizes that you can’t learn from a “book,” but that you need the wisdom and guidance of a teacher.
Their journey North reaches a crisis point when Katara and Sokka learn Aang’s secret - fearing his Avatar responsibilities, he ran away from the Air Temple; and that this irresponsible act led to Aang being encased in ice for 100 years. Katara is furious with Aang; she believes that if Aang had not run away, then the war never would have started and her mother would still be alive. In an effort to prove to Katara that he’s now taking his Avatar responsibilities seriously, Aang tries Firebending before he’s ready and accidentally burns Katara’s hands. Aang feels guilty and vows never to Firebend again.
Meanwhile, Sokka is fed up with Aang’s irresponsibility and thinks that Aang doesn’t have what it takes to become the Avatar. Sokka believes it’s up to warriors like him to put an end to this war. When he finds evidence of the men of his tribe he sets off to find them, ultimately joining a small unit of Earth Nation warriors. After tasting his first real battle, Sokka’s romantic ideal of the warrior life is shattered. However, he begins to learn that his true destiny is as a leader. Meanwhile, Aang and Katara reconcile and Katara learns about her healing abilities - a skill closely associated with Waterbending. Aang promises to Katara that he will not make the same mistake twice - he won’t run away from his responsibilities and commits to getting to the North Pole.
With Zuko close on their trail, the kids finally arrive at the North Pole and find a master Waterbender to teach Aang. But because of the Nothern Water Tribe’s sexist culture, the master refuses to apprentice Katara - and her life long dream of becoming a Waterbender is in jeopardy. Aang exhaustively trains with the old Waterbender who proves to be a tough disciplinarian. Because Waterbending doesn’t come to him easily, Aang and the old Waterbender get frustrated with each other and abandon the lessons. The old Waterbender considers the unfocused Aang “impossible to teach.” When Katara finds out Aang’s lessons have stopped, she confronts the teacher and demands that he teach Aang - the future of the world is at stake. When the old Waterbender refuses, she challenges him to a fight and demonstrates her Waterbending abilities. Th old man not only accepts Aang back as his student, but her as well.
Winter culminates in a Fire Navy assault against the Nothern Water Tribe. Led by Zuko’s nemesis, Commander Zhao, the Fire Navy surrounds the North Pole with dozens of ships, intent on capturing the Avatar before he learns Waterbending. After a dramatic fight with Zuko, in which Aang spares Zuko’s life, Aang joins the tribe for a decisive battle. With Katara and the old Waterbender’s help, Aang creates a water tornado that drives the ships into the ice, immobilizing them. The remaining ships retreat. Collectively, Sokka, Katara and Aang’s heroism save the Northern Water Tribe.
The battle nearly kills the old Waterbender. On his deathbed, he tells Katara that she alone possesses the knowledge to complete Aang’s Waterbending training. With his newfound determination, Aang decides to continue into the Earth Kingdom and learn Earthbending. Instead of returning to the South Pole to save her tribe, Katara leaves with Aang to teach him Waterbending, knowing that without the Avatar no nation will survive another year. Sokka also resolves to continue the mission, vowing to protect them using his new warrior skills. But will Katara really transform the undisciplined Aang into the one person powerful enough to stop the world’s most destructive force?”
More later. Hope you guys find this as interesting as I do! Odd how it’s both very similar and completely different to the final season. Most of my favorite moments aren’t here at all.
Now for the Season Two overview, which is much much shorter and much much crazier. (But not as crazy as Season Three, which I’ll get to later)
“2nd Season - Spring
Throughout the spring, Aang, Katara, Sokka and Momo journey through the unfamiliar Earth Kingdom mainland, a vast continent full of natural wonders and fantastical creatures. Zuko, Prince Azul and the rogue Earthbender [I have no idea who this is and there aren’t any notes on him in other parts of the bible that I could find] continue their separate persuits, each hoping to capture the Avatar and win Fire Lord Ozai’s favor.
Aang’s search for an Earthbender leads him to Toph, a young, blind Earthbender whose arrogance equals his powers. Katara is immediately drawn to his confidence and sparks fly between the two teenagers. Aang’s jealousy of Toph causes him to compete for Katara’s attention. Aang trains more seriously, hoping to impress her. Sokka also disapproves of his sister’s relationship with Toph. He doesn’t trust the Earthbender and believes Katara’s attraction results from her sympathy for his blindness. In addition, Sokka resents Toph for taking away from him the group’s leadership position. For the first time, Sokka and Aang agree absolutely; they both want Toph out of Katara’s life. Without intending to, they begin to adopt each other’s traits in order to bring Toph’s huge ego down to size.
Early in the season, Zuko captures Aang’s bison alive and gives it to this father as a gift. Unable to fly, the group relies on Katara’s Waterbending to propel their raft down the Earth Kingdom’s many rivers. They travel south toward the Earth Kingdom’s last stronghold in the capital city. There, they meet the Emperor, a proud man who refuses to give in to the Fire Nation. When he meets Aang, the Emperor imparts his covert plan to invade the Fire Nation so that the Avatar may help his men in battle. The Emperor makes Aang promise not to reveal the mission to anyone.
Dying to tell the secret, Aang uses his trickster logic to invent a series of riddles so his friends can guess their mission. As Aang leads the group further south, Katara finally solves the riddle, absolving Aang from his promise to the Emperor. By spring’s end, the kids arrive at a huge, hidden camp where the Earth Kingdom forces prepare for a counterattack against the Fire Nation. Katara and Sokka reunite with their father and other tribesmen who have been working with the Earth Navy to construct giant battle ships for the invasion.
Aang, Katara, Sokka and Toph sail with the Water Tribe on the day of Black Sun. During the total eclipse, the Firebenders loose their ability to conjure flames and the Earth Kingdom ships ambush their shores, hoping to infiltrate and begin their march on the Fire Nation capital. Sokka’s father asks his son to fight with him. However, Sokka sacrifices his dream in order to stay with Aang. Sokka now believes Aang will fulfill his destiny as the Avatar and defeat Fire Lord Ozai. Sokka assumes responsibility for Aang’s mission and resolves to deliver Aang safely to his final duel. As the Earth Kingdom continues its assault on the Fire Nation, the kids enter enemy territory, embarking on the final, and most dangerous leg of their journey.”
Final installment of series synopsis:
“3rd Season - Summer
Summer marks the impending arrival of a comet that will empower Firebenders with strength enough to decimate the Earth Army, ending the war. As the troops continue to fight toward the enemy’s capital, Aang, Katara, Sokka and Toph make their way through the Fire Nation, a hot, barren land full of active volcanoes, searching for a Fire Master willing to teach Aang Firebending.
Having traveled for several years, Prince Zuko returns to his homeland to find his people enslaved and living in poverty. Outraged that his father has committed such heinous crimes in the name of the war, Zuko once again speaks out against the Fire Lord, this time vowing to take his throne and save the Fire Nation from ruin. In retaliation, Fire Lord Ozai deploys a team of his most deadly Firebenders to capture his son. Zuko grows his hair and takes refuge in a small village, living amongst his people for the first time in his life.
Along their journey, the kids enter the village and encounter Zuko, who asks for their help in defeating the Fire Lord. Convinced Zuko has set a trap for Aang, Sokka refuses his assistance. On the other hand, Katara perceives genuine change in Zuko and wants to use him as a guide through the Fire Nation. With no other options, Aang agrees to help Zuko in exchange for Firebending instruction. The kids cautiously accept Zuko into their group.
For weeks, they move through the country, hiding in caves and seeking refuge in villages. All the while, Zuko trains Aang in Firebending. However, Aang’s fear of fire prevents him from controlling the volatile element, for he still feels guilt over burning Katara. Furthermore, once Zuko fights his Uncle, the Prince learns that his former teacher was under his father’s orders to teach him incorrect Firebending. Under the tutelage of Zuko’s flawed magic, Aang cannot obtain the skills needed to defeat the Fire Lord. Aang realizes he won’t master the final stage of the Avatar’s magic before the comet arrives. The group decides to put off attacking Ozai until after the comet passes, but Aang understands the dangers of waiting. By then, the Fire Lord will join his Army’s frontlines and use his heightened powers to decimate the Earth Army. Facing up to his responsibility, Aang leaves his friends and sets out for Ozai’s fortress where he will fight the Fire Lord, alone. Meanwhile, the Fire Lord’s Firebenders catch up with Zuko and the kids and attack, capturing Zuko and Katara. Luckily, Sokka and Toph escape.
After a long journey, Aang arrives at the Fire Lord’s fortress. Ozai sets a trap and hundreds of Firebenders surround Aang. With his life threatened, Aang’s arrow tattoos begin to glow. His Avatar spirit awakens and uses the four elements to seal Aang inside a sphere of stone, similar to when the storm endangered his life. With Aang trapped, the Firebenders deliver Aang to Fire Lord Ozai, but even his remarkable powers can’t crack Aang’s protective shell.
While Earth Kingdom troops move closer to the capital, Sokka and Toph track the captured Zuko and Katara to the Fire Lord’s fortress, hoping to save Katara. Nearby, Sokka and Toph discover a fleet of fully operational zeppelins preparing to take off. In the Fire Lord’s eccentric menagerie, Sokka finds Aang’s bison, alive. Freeling Appa, Sokka flies him into battle and hijacks a zeppelin from the air. With the zeppelin’s firepower, Sokka destroys the rest of the fleet, clearing the way for the Earth forces to storm the Fire Lord’s fortress.
Inside the fortress, Katara and Zuko break away from their captors and search for Aang, hoping to help him. Zuko leads them through secret passages to his father’s chamber, where they encounter Zuko’s brother, Prince Azul. Azul’s Firebending is superior to Zuko’s, but with Katara’s help, they defeat the younger Prince, preventing him from helping his father battle Aang.
As the comet streaks through the sky, Ozai’s power doubles, allowing him to break Aang’s protective sphere. Aang emerges ready to face his destiny. For the majority of the battle, Aang uses Air, Water and Earthbending against the Fire Lord, but Ozai holds the upper hand. However, by watching the Fire Lord fight, Aang learns Firebending. Equally strengthened by the comet, Aang assimilates Ozai’s moves into his own and uses them to defeat the master. However, staying true to his ideals, Aang does not kill Ozai. Instead, using a technique available only to the Avatar, he takes away Ozai’s Firebending powers and leaves him a weak man.
As the Earth forces capture the capital city, Aang reunites with Katara, Sokka and Momo. Aang proves to his friends that he’s ready for the Avatar’s responsibilities.
Zuko claims the Fire Lord’s throne and vows to work with the Avatar to restore the Fire Nation to its proper place in the world. Toph returns to the Earth Kingdom to work with the Emperor in rebuilding his nation. Katara and Sokka rejoin their father and sail home to save their home and rebuild the Southern Water Tribe. Aang and Momo reunite with Appa and fly off in search of the Air Nomads, whom Aang believes lives in an unexplored part of the world. As the Avatar, Aang will travel the world, helping restore balance to the Nations. In the process, he will achieve what he always wanted - a life full of adventure.”
If real these provide stunning insight into the creative process and reveal just how much which was good in the series was the work of Aaron Ehasz (the true hero who brought us Toph and Azula) and the writing staff rather than Konietzko or Dimartino.