Media productions are collaborative efforts. Whenever works of entertainment are discussed, people will rarely ever talk about the individuals who helped create and develop those works, especially for animation. Whenever they do, it’s usually in mediums such as live action tv shows/movies, and most often only the actors and maybe the director will be mentioned. I have no qualms to this. When it comes to the creator-consumer relationship, the most a consumer can do is pay for the work and form a judgment.
However, this doesn’t make the lack of credibility any less frustrating for me. We often hear the phrase, “give credit where credit is due”. I feel it is appropriate that generally, most people would agree that if someone creates something, they should receive credit for doing so, whether referring to a field of science, literature, visual art, etc. However, when it comes to entertainment productions, this can get complicated.
For any entertainment production, whenever the creator(s) are referred to, it is obvious that they are the ones who conceived the original idea of the finalized work. However, when it comes to film, there seems to be a misconception among many that the creators are the only people who matter regarding that work’s creation, outside of actors of course. I’m sure most are aware, at least subconsciously, that many people work on a film, as evidenced by the long rolls of credits many general audiences sit through just to get to the post-credits scenes in MCU movies.
When it comes to discussing the creatives behind movies, many conversations are reserved to the director and actors, though this isn’t to say that this is invalid. Film directors do have the most creative influence and say in how a movie is developed and executed, and certain actors attract the eye of moviegoers, whether for their celebrity status and/or performance reputation. But it’s crucial to know that they are also working with an entire crew and team, made up of multiple departments.
Screenwriters, producers, stunt coordinators, stunt doubles, visual effects artists, cinematographers, sound designers, editors, set designers, casting directors, music composers, costume and makeup artists, etc. all contribute to the production of a film. All of these are key components to creating a film, not even counting the licensing negotiations with distribution companies, and the absence of any can significantly impact a movie’s execution.
This extends to other art mediums such as novels, which go through their array of editors and publishers, comic-books (similar case though add in pencilers, inkers, colorists, letterers, publishers, etc.), and of course, animation. This lack of awareness towards other creatives and emphasis on the creator is what I like to call the “creator bias”, in which the result and execution of an art production are credited only to the creator. This can be both praise and criticism. I’ve found this bias to be somewhat damaging, as the marketing of a production being geared towards the creator can disregard others who contributed greatly to a production’s success. This is exemplified by a huge lack of knowledge concerning Mickey-Mouse co-creator, Ub Iwerks.
Ub teamed up with Walt and another animator named Les Clark to develop the earliest Mickey and Minnie Mouse drawings and did the bulk of animating, backgrounds, and designing lobber posters for theatres screening the early Mickeys. His legendary pace allowed him to handle the heavy lifting, an astounding 700 drawings per day. With Les Clark and Wilfred Jackson, Iwerks animated the third produced but first released Mickey Mouse short, Steamboat Willie (1928), and animated through the first year of Walt’s Silly Symphonies.
He left Disney in 1930 over creative differences and returned 10 years later, in which he left animation and worked with his first love of cameras and special effects. One of his first inventions at Disney was the multihead optical printer, successfully used in Song of the South and Melody Time for combining live action and animation. He developed the Xerox process of animation, which created cost-effective measures in the animation process by transferring drawings directly from an animator’s pencil on paper to cels. Ub’s innovations earned him two Academy Awards, and his cinematic contributions peaked with George Lucas’s application of optical printing in Star Wars (1977).
It was primarily thanks to Iwerks that Disney Studio reached the forefront in special photographic effects. His last work was the design of the film process for The Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World, and in 1989 he was posthumously honored the Disney Legends award. Iwerks is considered one of the greatest animation minds of all time who made his mark in both animation and motion picture technology and helped appeal animation to a much wider audience. I’ve included all this not only to spread awareness of Iwerks’ critical role in the development and success of Disney but to highlight the effects of creator bias.
Go out on the street and ask your average joe who Walt Disney was, and they’ll likely have some idea. But ask them who Ub Iwerks was, and you’ll very likely be met with no answer, despite all his significant works to the development of Disney and animation in general, and him living a bit longer than his friend.
There are other factors for Iwerks not being well known. Most people, at least here in the U.S, generally just don’t care enough about animation as an art form, as evidenced by the stigma and condescension surrounding it. To my frustration, I’ve heard many mislabel animation as a genre rather than a medium, and that’s just a discussion for another day. But I’m aware that everyone has different interests, and different people pay attention to different things. The world holds too much information for everyone to learn, let alone bother caring to learn.
But Iwerks being overlooked may also be a consequence of his own actions. I mentioned earlier that he left Disney in 1930, in which he sold 20% of his shares in the company and returned in 1940. He had pursued forming his own studio in that decade, a deal through Pat Powers, one of the co-founders of Universal Pictures who had a complicated relationship with Walt Disney Studios. Ub’s studio folded in 1936, and by the time he returned, he’d missed Disney’s period of greatest growth in animation—innovating in color and personality animation. His decision to work in the field of motion picture rather than continue in animation may have also veered attention away from himself, as Disney is after all, primarily an animation company.
None of this is to imply Iwerks is the only overlooked Disney co-founder, let alone animation figure in general. I’m sure most people can’t really name even one of the key animators from Walt Disney’s inner circle of the Nine Old Men. If anything, it proves how the creator bias influences public perception regarding certain companies, especially one like Disney.
There are many other examples to pull from concerning creator bias. One that comes to mind is Samurai Jack, and before you chastise me, let me elaborate.
Don’t get me wrong, Genndy Tartakovsky is a brilliant animator and animation director who is a genius in his craft, and the original concept of Samurai Jack is entirely his, one that goes back all the way to even his childhood. He clearly had the most creative influence and say in the show, he wasn’t the only person who worked on it. To pull off such an ambitious masterpiece like Samurai Jack by yourself doesn’t seem possible, and it was thanks to the contributions of other great directors, storyboard artists, writers, etc. who took part in a show that we know and love today.
Besides Genndy, directors included Randy Myers, Robert Alvarez, and Rob Renzetti; writers/storyboard artists were Bryan Andrews, Charlie Bean, Aaron Springer, Darrick Bachman, Erik Wiese, Chris Mitchell, and Paul Rudish. Rudish developed the 2013 Disney Mickey Mouse shorts, and along with Tartakovsky, co-created Sym Bionic Titan with writers Bryan Andrews and Bachman. And the notorious, beautiful backgrounds that makeup SJ’s expansive world was courtesy of its art directors Dan Krall and Scott Wills.
But there is one other show that I find to suffer much more from the creator bias, one that I am much more passionate about. Avatar: The Last Airbender is single-handedly my all-time favorite tv show, and I’m sure many others share this sentiment. Just like Samurai Jack, it bares brilliant writing, directing, pacing, voice acting, art direction, East Asian cultural aspects, worldbuilding, and animation, and for me, this show is a timeless masterpiece that showcases one of the best animation can offer, especially in the West.
Quick note, I have zero first-hand knowledge of the development process of Avatar. I’m just a fan who wants to bring attention to the skilled artists who worked on the show, and I’ll be pulling from various sources and the Avatar The Last Airbender: Art of the Animated Series art book, which I highly, highly recommend to fans. It provides a huge amount of insight into how hard the crew and cast worked to bring the amazing show to life, and highlights various artists who developed specific aspects that we see in Avatar.
Discussion of Avatar is widely present to this day, but when crediting the people behind it, I hear only the creators being mentioned. I’m not trying to invalidate them. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko were the ones who conceived the original and earliest ideas of the show, and are the reason the very concept of what Avatar is exists. Their ambitions were passionate enough to bring to Nickelodeon, where execs were convinced enough to allow them to create it.
But just like any other tv production, they worked with an entire staff of skilled writers, directors, character/prop designers, voice actors, storyboard artists, animators, and producers who wanted to tell a story they wanted to make and succeeded. Do you love Avatar’s character designs for the animals and people? You can thank primarily not only Bryan Konietzko for those, but also Angela Mueller, Jae Woo Kim, Seung-Hyun Oh, Ethan Spaulding, Jae Hong Kim, Li Hong, Aaron Alexovich, and dozens of other character designers for that. Love the show’s backgrounds? The creators conceived those concepts, specifically Konietzko for the art direction, but background designers Jevon Bue, Enzo Baldi, Ricardo F. Delgado, Jae Woo Kim, Tom Dankiewicz, and Elza Garagarza helped bring them to fruition.
The team of directors of the show are incredible too. Remember the scene in Siege of the North Part 2 where Aang and the Moon Spirit team up as “Koizilla” to defeat the Fire Nation fleet? That particular scene was storyboarded by Dave Filoni, as the episode was directed by him. Filoni later left after season 1 to become supervising director of the 2008-2015 Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series with Giancarlo Volpe. Speaking of Volpe, he directed most of the episodes (19 episodes), with notable ones being The Avatar State, The Chase, The Drill, The Guru, Day of Black Sun Part 1, The Firebending Masters, and Sozin’s Comet Part 2: The Old Masters.
Joaquim Dos Santos joined in season 2 as a storyboard artist and later a director on season 3, in which he directed the last two parts of the Sozin’s Comet series finale. Dos Santos has also worked on many other action cartoons that are part of many people’s childhoods, being a director on Justice League Unlimited, story artist on Justice League, Spectacular Spider-Man, and Teen Titans (2003). He’s also an executive producer, director, and writer on the Netflix Voltron reboot.
Ethan Spaulding brought a unique and wild flare to the TLA crew according to the creators in the art book. He was more into anime than them, which is evidenced by his directorial work on Nightmares and Daydreams. His other notable works The Boiling Rock Part 2 and Sozin’s Comet Part 1, and was a director on The Looney Tunes Show and a co-director on Batman: Assault on Arkham.
The story of Avatar would be much different had Bryke not collaborated with these specific creatives, but especially with the writers. Bryke always wanted Zuko to be sympathetic and a villain with redemption, but it was Aaron Ehasz, head writer and co-executive producer, who “brought a softer side to the writing of Uncle’s character. “In one of our first meetings, Aaron had described Uncle as a guy who is trying to enjoy his retirement, but gets stuck watching over his nephew.” This is an exact quote from Iroh’s page in the art book. Ehasz was also the one responsible for Toph being a girl. In fact, creators Mike and Bryan originally conceived Toph as a muscular boy, and A. Ehasz had to fight with them to have her be a girl.
The place where I feel the creator bias is most present is the discrepancy between TLA and Legend of Korra. While the latter does have its fans, many Avatar fans were disappointed with it and believe it as an unworthy successor. The reasons for Korra’s criticisms have been explored and discussed many, many times among fans and non-fans all over the Internet, but not many delve into the fact that it didn’t work for the same reasons TLA did: Bryke were the only writers on Korra with full creative control.
Unlike Korra, Avatar had an entire team of great writers working with Bryke to tell the now revered story with its compelling characters. In Korra, the absence of these writers, especially the Ehaszs, was obvious, particularly with the fan service, nonsense romance, plot holes, and uninteresting and annoying characters.
A blog called The Uncommon Comma by araeph I believe has the best commentary on the writing quality between the other TLA writers and Bryke. Much of the following information comes from this source.
In it, the blogger points to the top 10 rated episodes of Avatar on IMDb with their writing credits:
Sozin’s Comet: Part 4 – Avatar Aang – Written by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Sozin’s Comet: Part 3 – Into the Inferno – Written by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
The Crossroads of Destiny – Written by Aaron Ehasz
The Siege of the North: Part 2 – Written by Aaron Ehasz
Sozin’s Comet: Part 2 – The Old Masters – Written by Aaron Ehasz
Zuko Alone – Written by Elizabeth Welch Ehasz
The Avatar and the Firelord – Written by Elizabeth Welch Ehasz
The Day of Black Sun: Part 2 – The Eclipse – Written by Aaron Ehasz
The Boiling Rock: Part 2 – Written by Joshua Hamilton
The Siege of the North: Part 1 – Written by Aaron Ehasz
The Ehaszs may have written 25% of the total episodes, but they were responsible for 70% of the top rated ones.
Summarizing araeph’s points about Korra, the bending seemed to have become less impressive, no spiritual connection is required to enter the Spirit World, Korra lost all her past lives and rarely missed them, no deeper meaning is provided for bending, and many characters were rarely fleshed out to be three-dimensional at the favor of driving forward the plot. It may have been visually appealing thanks to Studio Mir’s artistic skills, but to me that further underlines the difference between Bryke and their fellow staff writers.
The other writers shared much creative control with the creators in TLA’s story. For example, Katara’s character was most often explored by the other writers, such as when she stole from pirates to improve in waterbending (The Waterbending Scroll, written by Tim Hedrick), when she discovered her healing abilities (The Deserter, written by Tim Hedrick), when she saved the Gaang in the desert (The Desert, written by Tim Hedrick), when she offered to heal Zuko’s scar, when she learned bloodbending (Tim Hedrick), when she and Toph fought over her being overbearing (The Runaway, Joshua Hamilton), when she had to overcome her anger at her father’s absence due to the war (The Awakening, Aaron Ehasz), and threatened to kill Zuko if he hurt Aang (The Western Air Temple, Elizabeth Welch Ehasz and Tim Hedrick).
Despite Bryke having written more of Aang’s screen-time heavy episodes, think of the times when Aang had to actually face his biggest challenges through overcoming his own flaws. For example, Aaron Ehaz wrote “The Storm”, in which Aang revealed running away from his role as the Avatar in the past and realized he needed to support his friends in the present. This episode also revealed Zuko’s backstory and thus had the audience truly understand his motivation, allowing us to empathize with him. He still had redeemable qualities and wasn’t willing to sacrifice his crew for the sake of his goal.
Aang demonstrating self-control and discipline that he had heretofore lacked by making it out of Koh’s lair? Written by Aaron Ehasz.
Aang fighting against his natural desire to run away and succeeding in becoming an Earthbender? Written by Aaron Ehasz.
Aang turning around after running away during the “Awakening,” realizing he can’t just abandon his friends? Written by Aaron Ehasz.
Aang pushing to keep going after the Firelord is missing from the invasion, then pushing on again even after the eclipse is over and he might die? Written by Aaron Ehasz.
Aang being questioned on how he will defeat Ozai if violence is never the answer? Written by Elizabeth Welsch Ehasz.
Aang accepting that he will have to take Ozai’s life in order to bring balance to the world? Written by Aaron Ehasz. (He also wrote Part 2 of Sozin’s Comet.)
The way I see it, Bryke are great worldbuilders. They love creating characters and worlds and designing them (and I’m sure many fantasy/sci-fi writers can relate) and plenty of their ideas have potential. But the execution of such ideas in Korra seemed lackluster. Why aren’t the Equalists heard from again after season 1? Why does opening the Spirit World portals not create a real cultural exchange between the two worlds? Why are characters like Mako, Asami, and Bolin barely fleshed out beyond generic archetypes and giving Korra romance drama?
Korra was a lost opportunity, but I didn’t find it subpar because it wasn’t ATLA. Saying things like “We should’ve gotten a sequel with the Gaang” is a sentiment I empathize with but not sympathize with, because it implies that it would’ve automatically been good just because it had the original characters (the comics disprove this in my opinion).
It implies that fictional characters/stories can somehow write themselves, but Avatar worked because it had a team of skilled, talented human beings working together for years to tell a story they wanted to see.
Korra had so much potential that I personally found it failed to live up to because Bryke went through the same ambitious process of developing Avatar without collaborating with same team of other writers who helped make it great. Even when writers Tim Hedrick and Joshua Hamilton joined them in season 2 and onward, and the two had to continue on with all the poor writing Bryke had already established.
Many people will often dismiss and ignore credits, seeing them as unimportant. I don’t fault people for not wanting to sit in front of a black screen that displays a rolling text of names they don’t know or care about, but I do find this notion a bit ironic. After all, those names are people who all contributed to the work they just watched, and if you enjoy that work, why would you not be grateful for the individuals who put forth the effort and time to create it?
I’m not saying you have to read every single credit that plays after a movie or show ends. But at least acknowledge that the shows, movies, comics, etc. you enjoy, the ones you had fun with, the ones that were your childhood, the ones which made you cry, tense, terrified, laugh, were all done by large teams of skilled and talented creatives, who all specialized in their crafts, and collaborated with each other to create something that you watched and made you walk away thinking, “Damn, that was good.”
What do you think? Leave a comment.