TCR talks with Albert Kim, showrunner for Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender

By Sean Belfina 

Water, earth, fire, air. Fans of Nickelodeon’s beloved animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender know the rest. Its element-bending action, humor, and heart glued many to their television sets during its original run from 2005-2008. Heavily influenced by Asian culture, the show broke westernized fantasy stereotypes and spotlighted representation. Now, Netflix has adapted the show into a live action series starring an all-Asian and Indigenous cast. The series looks to remix the animated series and bring new viewers to this vast fantastical world. At the helm of this flying bison is Albert Kim, notable for his work on The CW’s Nikita and Fox’s Sleepy Hollow.

The Coachella Review spoke with Kim to discuss representation, bringing a beloved cartoon to life, and aspects of the show that may satisfy longtime fans. Warning: this interview contains spoilers for those unfamiliar with the original series.


The Coachella Review: So, I want to start with this question: What element do you see yourself bending?

Albert Kim: [laughs] That’s a tough one. I think the cheat answer is to say that I want to be the Avatar, because I can do all four. If I had to select a particular element, I think air because it’s the closest to flying, which has always been a superpower I’ve always wanted. Airbending is about being graceful. It’s slightly evasive. It’s about deflection. I kind of feel like that reflects my personality a little bit more than, say, firebending, which is a little more direct and fiery. So, I tend to think I’d be more of an airbender. But there are elements of all of them that I feel at different points. I would sometimes want to be an earthbender—more grounded, straightforward, and direct. But I would say air is my own.

TCR: Sticking on the topic of bending, the show is so visually stunning. The way the bending moves is so fluid, and the choreography is so well done. It’s all very accurate and reminiscent of the animated series. What was the process getting to that familiarity?

AK: Well, each of the bending styles is based on a specific martial art. For instance, waterbending is essentially tai chi, because it’s a very fluid kind of movement, whereas firebending is more of a northern Shaolin kind of style: very strong and dynamic. Same with the other bending disciplines. So our stunt team, led by Jeff Aro, started from that. They said, “Each of these bending disciplines is based on a martial arts style, so we’re going to build a movement vocabulary based on that.” Then, they modified it to make it more realistic in live action but also to accommodate our VFX. The stunt team worked very closely with the VFX team to ensure that moves didn’t partially obscure the VFX shots. We also tailored them to particular actors. We were really fortunate that both Dallas [Liu, who plays Prince Zuko] and Ian [Ousley, who plays Sokka] are both world-class martial artists. Dallas in particular has this incredible leaping ability. A lot of the kick flips you see in our show are actually something that Dallas excels at. So, the stunt team worked that into his bending style, which is something we incorporated in Prince Zuko’s fighting style. It was a combination of those factors that went into making up the specifics of each bending.

TCR: Speaking of the actors, there’s a scene in Omashu where Aang [played by Gordon Cormier] and Zuko go at it, and it really flowed well. Could you tell us about how that played out, and the process of casting actors that had the specific skills for this kind of show?

AK: Well, in casting, we weren’t looking at the martial arts background; that was a bonus for us that Dallas had those skills. We were looking more for actors who embody the essence of the characters that we already knew from the cartoon. Aang, for example, needed that childlike sense of wonder and optimism, as well as a warmth and innocence that we needed that actor to embody. Sokka, obviously, had to be funny and sarcastic but also needed a lot of emotional depth as well, because he had to feel like he was bearing a burden. All of those were things that we looked for when we were casting the actors. What was challenging was—and we imposed these challenges upon ourselves—we wanted to first make sure that we were ethnically accurate in casting these roles. We were looking to cast from Asian and Indigenous communities and talent pools. We were also looking to make sure we were age-accurate. Aang is a twelve-year-old kid in the cartoon, and I wanted to make sure we were close to that in our vision. I didn’t want to cast a twenty- to twenty-five-year-old to play a twelve-year-old, which sounds ridiculous, but it happens more than you think in Hollywood. It was the same with the other roles. I didn’t want a twenty- to twenty-five-year-old playing fifteen-year-old Katara [portrayed by Kiawentiio] as well.

One other burden we placed on ourselves was that the whole casting process was conducted top secret, so no one could know they were auditioning for Avatar. This meant I had to write fake scenes that had nothing to do with superpowers or our fantasy world. I think I wrote scenes about a math genius going to a special academy—I can’t remember at this point. But these actors didn’t know what or which character they were auditioning for. Still, when we were watching them, each of our actors seemed to embody exactly what we were looking for. Even through the process, we kept coming back to these particular actors and saying, “Gosh, what about Gordon [Cormier]? We should go back to Gordon. What about Kiawentiio?” So, there was something about them that just drew us to them from the start.

Going back to the other part of your question, for the Omashu scene between Aang and Zuko, I told our stunt team and choreographer that I wanted it to feel like the classic Jackie Chan fight: something that was set in an everyday environment using everyday objects around them, weaving their way through, and making it a little funnier in moments. That was the direction, and they ran with it. That’s why, hopefully, it feels so fluid and fun in a way.

Gordon Cormier as Aang in Avatar: The Last Airbender

TCR: How did you get involved with this project, and were you a fan of the original animated series?

AK: I was a big fan of the original animated series. I got introduced through my daughter. It was her favorite show growing up. She started off watching by herself, and I ended up joining her at first just to see what she was watching and help her understand what was going on. Pretty soon, I found myself watching it even after she left. I was just sort of sucked into this world like everyone else. So, I was a huge fan of the original series not just for all the reasons everyone knows—the storytelling, characters, and arcs—but also because this was a world based on Asian and Indigenous lore and communities, and that was incredibly rare to see at the time, even nowadays. So, I really appreciated that aspect of the story.

That was years ago. The original cartoon is close to twenty years old at this point. When Netflix approached me about this version of it, I was super excited because I was already a huge fan. At the same time, I was intimidated by it because of that same reason. So for me mentally, it was a process of deciding what I can bring to the table and how to make a version that’s different but lives up to the original. A lot of the translating into live action meant, for instance, casting Asian and Indigenous actors for those roles. Today, you don’t find other shows with a wholly Asian and Indigenous cast. So that was important to me. But also, like I said, it’s been twenty years since the original, so this was an opportunity to bring this story to a whole new generation of viewers.

TCR: I completely agree. As an Asian American, it was so good to see a whole show of Asians doing their thing and killing it out there with the acting. Was it hard to push for casting an Asian cast, and was your crew majority Asian, too?

AK: It wasn’t hard at all. It was one of those things that came up very early on in conversations with Netflix as well, with [the animated series’ showrunners] Bryan [Konietzko] and Mike [Dante DiMartino] and everyone. It was just a given. It wasn’t a hard push at all. There were times when we were on set, and I’d be standing with [cast members] Daniel Dae Kim or Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and we would say to ourselves, “This is amazing! Everyone here is either Asian or Indigenous.” It was incredible. We’re all veterans of the business, so we’ve been on a lot of sets, and it’s not something you see often.

And yes, a large portion of the crew was also from those communities. I wanted to make sure all our directors were Asian, and they were, as well as a significant portion of our crew, department heads, writers, all the way down the line. So, all of that, I think, is reflected in the show that we made because we all brought our lived experiences to the show. We all had the animated series to draw upon for inspiration, but I also wanted to make sure that we drew upon people’s personal lives and their experiences, as well.

TCR: This seems to be the trend now in Hollywood, being more diverse with its representation. What are your thoughts on that?

AK: I think it’s much needed, and I think there’s no going back. Now that doors have been opened, there’s hopefully no way to revert to how things used to be. I think we need the diversity of voices in Hollywood and our storytelling. And that’s become evident from everything we’ve seen, whether it’s from Beef or The Brother’s Sun or any of these shows that are out there now and are a big part of the conversation. In my mind, it’s hard to think that we could ever go back to a time when those kinds of shows didn’t exist. Same with Avatar. Hopefully we’ve opened the door, and this is just the beginning of… I won’t call it a trend, but just a new way of understanding how to tell stories in our business. It’s hard to tell what the future will hold, but hopefully it won’t revert.

It’s been an incredibly exciting few years recently, to see all these new voices get an opportunity, including mine. This show is an epic fantasy with a big budget, a lot of VFX, and huge production values, and that’s not something we’ve seen—a story like this set in an Asian and Indigenous world. Most of these big fantasy epics that we see are rooted in Western European lore, whether it’s the Game of Thrones or The Witcher. That’s what we’re used to seeing. So, it’s a little surprising that it’s the first time we’ve been able to do this, but hopefully not the end of it.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Uncle Iroh and Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender

TCR: I want to switch gears a bit and talk about my favorite scene from the show currently. It’s in the episode “Into the Dark,” and it’s an interpretation of the famous “Leaves from the Vine” scene from the cartoon. I thought it was so beautifully done. It builds so much on Zuko and Iroh’s relationship. It was different, but I felt it worked with the story you were trying to tell. I teared up watching it. Can you tell us the process behind creating this scene? How was the collaboration on set and with the actors? This is a very poignant scene for a lot of longtime fans of the original series.

AK: One of the goals in doing our version of the story was to do what I call “filling in the gaps” from the original. There [are] certain important moments that are either discussed or hinted at in the animated show that aren’t actually shown. Whether it’s the attack on the Southern Air Temple or the actual Agni Kai between Zuko and his father, or the death of Lu Ten, Iroh’s son. So those, to me, seemed like great opportunities for dramatization, because all of those are incredibly emotional moments. That, to me, was one of the reasons to do our version of the show: to be able to show those emotional and grounded moments that make it feel more like a three-dimensional live-action series.

I knew from the start, even before we wrote the scripts, that I wanted to do Lu Ten’s funeral because not only is it an incredibly emotional moment for Iroh, but it’s also the moment in my mind that brought Iroh and Zuko together. There was always that question of “how did Iroh become Zuko’s surrogate father” from the original, because they start out like that in a public place. What was it that brought them together? This [seems to be] one of those moments. But from Iroh’s perspective, [Lu Ten’s funeral] was the moment when things turned. Iroh is such a complex character, and they hint that in the animated series. He’s the “Dragon of The West,” the general that laid siege to Ba Sing Se, and an incredible warrior, but when we see him, he’s this kindly old uncle who drinks tea and spouts wisdom. How did he make the transition? What happened there? So, when we thought about it, it all seemed to hinge upon the death of his son. So that was a scene that we wanted to do, and we took great care in filming that scene.

We had an East Asian cultural consultant whom we relied heavily on for staging the funeral itself, to make sure everything felt right. From the set decoration to the set itself, to the costumes they wear, which are white. We wanted it to feel true to the funeral customs of the time. Dallas just killed in that scene. Paul had everyone on set weeping. It wasn’t like we were watching it on the monitors; it felt like we were there. It was incredibly emotional. That’s one of the scenes—and I’ve seen the episodes countless times now—that still brings a tear to my eye every time.

The added emotional punch comes from the music. Every fan will know. It’s new for the new viewers, but I’ll tell you, when we started production, there were a few pieces of music I automatically singled out from the original series and said, “We need to do our versions of these.” The top of the list was “Leaves from the Vine.” So, when we gave it to Takeshi Furukawa, our composer, he created something so beautiful, it just makes your heart stop. When he sent me that score, it took my breath away. I still have it on my phone and play it when I’m in my car because it was so good. So, it’s the combination of those things that makes that scene work so well.

TCR: What are you most excited for fans to see in the series?

AK: I’m excited for fans to see the whole show after all this time, and after all the build-up and expectations. I’m excited for fans to experience it for themselves because, at this point, there’s not a lot I can say about the specifics of the show until it’s out in the world. Obviously, there’s a lot of anxiety and trepidation about what we might do and the changes we might make. All I want to say is: watch the show, and then we can have this discussion, because there are things that I know not everyone’s going to love. Changes that we made might prompt debate, but I’m happy to have those discussions after the show is out and after everyone has seen it, because it’s very, very hard to judge something based on a comment, a leak, or a detail. You really need to watch it and then we can have that conversation—that’s kind of what I’m excited about.

Sean Belfina is an MFA student at UC Riverside Palm Desert and the fiction editor of the Coachella Review. Since graduating with a BA in English from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, he has worked with various after-school programs with hopes to inspire the youth, specifically those who grew up in rough neighborhoods, as he did. Born and raised in San Jose, California, he spends most of his free time working on his novel, an epic action-adventure, fantasy, and sci-fi inspired by his favorite comic books and manga, or shooting some hoops at a local basketball court.