On Its 10-Year Anniversary 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Creators Give An Oral History of the Finale

Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender can probably recite the opening narration, delivered by Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, by heart. "Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, can stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar: an Airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he's ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world."

More than conceptually immense—opening in a fantastical world torn apart by the mechanized Fire Nation—Avatar: The Last Airbender proved itself to be a sweeping adventure story, with wonderful characters to match. Over three seasons, Aang and his friends roamed the land, learning new bending techniques, righting wrongs and staying one step ahead of disgraced prince Zuko, desperate to capture the Avatar and impress his father, Fire Lord Ozai. Divided into three seasons, or Books (Water, Earth and Fire), Avatar took on a grandeur and scope worthy of its inspirations, which included the movies of Hayao Miyazaki and the experimental anime series FLCL (Fooly Cooly).

Most miraculous of all, Avatar: The Last Airbender ended spectacularly 10 years ago with a four-part finale, "Sozin's Comet," that aired on July 19, 2008.

The finale is a rare accomplishment, ennobling the characters and bringing a satisfying conclusion to both its world and Aang's spiritual struggle between his beliefs and the violence the world wants from him as the Avatar.

"Sozin's Comet" enlisted the combined talents of three different directors and three different writers, plus a team of storyboard artists and animators at Moi Animation and JM Animation of South Korea. To celebrate the anniversary, Newsweek spoke with four people integral to the four-part finale, including the series' creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who would go on to create a sequel series, The Legend of Korra.

"Mike and I figured out a lot about the world, characters and story in the initial two weeks between creating Avatar and pitching it to Nickelodeon," Konietzko said. "We expanded upon many of those ideas in the subsequent months as we created the series bible and then the test pilot." The ambitious, unaired test pilot not only introduced early versions of Aang, Sokka, Zuko, Appa, Momo and "Kya" (later renamed Katara), but even included an early glimpse at the ancient lion turtle Aang communes with before his final confrontation with Fire Lord Ozai.

"Stories often take their own course once you start to write them, especially when you have the benefit of a writers' room and a team of people augmenting and adding to the material," Konietzko said. "By the time we made it to the series finale, Mike and I had been living with this story for something like five years. Everything had been expanded and detailed beyond what we could have conceived in those early development months."

Still, when looking back at the series bible—a document developed to serve as an internal guide to the characters, settings and overall narrative of a show in the early stages of development—Konietzko and DiMartino found many of their ideas for the finale already in place, years before Avatar premiered in February of 2005. "Aang sealing himself in the stone sphere; Sokka hijacking an airship; Katara helping Zuko to defeat Azula; Aang choosing to spare the Fire Lord's life and take his bending away; Zuko claiming his father's throne and vowing to bring the Fire Nation back into balance with the world," Konietzko listed, describing story beats built in to the grand sweep of Avatar narrative from the beginning.

"There were plenty of differences too. Azula and Toph were both originally conceived as male characters. Mike and I changed Azula to a female after development and Aaron [Ehasz, the show's head writer] was adamant during production that Toph be changed to a girl too. I'm really glad he won that debate!" Konietzko said. "Our character Bolin from The Legend of Korra is much closer to our original idea for Toph, so we got to have both and it all worked out."

In addition to DiMartino and Konietzko, who together wrote Part 3 and Part 4 of "Sozin's Comet," we spoke with Ethan Spaulding, who directed 12 episodes of Avatar, including Part 1 of the finale. Spaulding is currently at work on a "secret project" for Warner Bros. Animation. We also heard from Joaquim Dos Santos, who directed Part 3 and Part 4 of "Sozin's Comet" and is currently at work on Season 7 of Voltron: Legendary Defender on Netflix, which he describes as "almost like a sci-fi sibling" to Avatar and Korra.

DiMartino, Konietzko, Spaulding and Dos Santos described "Sozin's Comet," from its early production stages to its final moments.

Editor's Note: The following comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Creating "Sozin's Comet"

DiMARTINO: In many ways, it was the same as any other episode—we had the same amount of time, the same budget, the same crew. But since this was the end of the series, everyone upped their game. Since this was the showdown between Aang and Ozai, we knew these episodes (specifically the final two) would be more epic than any we had ever done before. And everyone rose to the challenge.

KONIETZKO: Well, in a roundabout way, we did end up with a bigger budget. The finale was originally only planned for three episodes, but once we storyboarded the final episode it became very evident we had more material than we could fit in the 22 minutes allotted. We were trying to convince ourselves we could squeeze it all in, but our executive Eric Coleman said, "Guys, this is obviously two episodes." But we were only picked up for twenty episodes, and it was the twentieth one.

Eric loved everything he saw, and didn't want us to cut anything, so he just told us to keep working on it as two episodes and he would figure it out. So we proceeded with that plan, working under the assumption they would find the money somehow. And to this day, we never heard another word about it—we just made an extra episode! That's how the series ended up being 61 episodes long.

SPAULDING: Directing part of the finale was different than directing a normal episode because I knew this would be viewed as a single piece. Making sure the characters were "in character" and going for the best shot or camera angle to realize the story for the audience were things I tried to be mindful of.

DOS SANTOS: It just felt bigger. The stakes were so high. I always try to create content that I know I would want to take in as a viewer, so if I can get close to that I'm usually pretty comfortable with letting things go. But going into the finale episodes I definitely had that "you'd better not screw this up" running ticker in the back of my mind.

Part 1: "The Phoenix King"

The finale opens on Ember Island, a Fire Nation beach party paradise, where Aang and the rest of Team Avatar are hiding out in an abandoned, decrepit beach house owned by Fire Lord Ozai. Zuko is furious that Aang isn't taking his training seriously, especially with Sozin's Comet just a few days away.

DiMARTINO: We always knew Zuko would be fighting alongside Aang and his friends in the finale. The episodes leading up to the end were designed to give Zuko more personal moments with each of the team before the chaos of the final battle erupted. Looking back, I think these episodes also showed Zuko testing out the waters of his new worldview, while his fight with his sister (and victory) cemented his commitment to Aang and becoming a different kind of leader than his ancestors had been.

DOS SANTOS: From a purely directorial standpoint I wanted to convey that Zuko was now a man who was growing in confidence as to where he stood in the world and what he stood for morally. He was in a constant state of evolution throughout the series. But this was that final big push.

Aang announces his intentions to keep training and to confront Ozai after the comet (which gives firebenders like Ozai incredible power) has passed. But Zuko explains why that's not possible: Fire Lord Ozai intends to use the comet's power to burn down the Earth Kingdom. It's now or never.

Tensions run high on Ember Island, where Zuko and the rest of Team Avatar try and convince Aang he'll have to kill Fire Lord Ozai. Nickelodeon Animation Studios

KONIETZKO: I would say fire is often the most difficult effect to animate, especially when it is drawn at the huge scales you see in the finale. We were very lucky to work with many incredible animators, such as Yoo Jae Myung (who since founded Studio Mir), who is a brilliant 2D effects animator. His style definitely influenced the look of the fire effects throughout the finale.

Disturbed by the thought of killing the Fire Lord, Aang sleepwalks out to a mysterious island. When Sokka, Toph, Katara and Zuko awake the next morning, Aang is missing. Meanwhile, Ozai declares himself the Phoenix King and sets off with a fleet of airships to destroy the Earth Kingdom, leaving Zuko's sister Azula in charge as the new Fire Lord.

Ozai adopts a new title: the Phoenix King. Nickelodeon Animation Studios

Part 2: "The Old Masters"

Despite all of his experience tracking down Aang when they were enemies, Zuko fails to find the Avatar. Instead, Zuko, Sokka, Toph and Katara travel to the walls of Ba Sing Se and make contact with Zuko's Uncle Iroh, a member of the Order of the White Lotus, a group planning to free the Earth Kingdom city from Fire Nation occupation.

Zuko's earlier attempts to restore his honor in the eyes of his father, Fire Lord Ozai, had lead to Iron's imprisonment. He's terrified of how his uncle might react to his presence, leading to one of the most emotional moments of the finale, when Iroh embraces his nephew and tells him, "I was never angry with you. I was sad because I was afraid you had lost your way."

DOS SANTOS: It’s so pure. It cuts through all the bravado and baggage and allows you to see what’s most important no matter what side of the fight you’re on. Nickelodeon Animation Studios

Meanwhile, Aang wakes up on the mysterious island. He meditates and asks for the advice of previous Avatars. Each advise him, in different ways, to kill Ozai. Unsatisfied with their advice, Aang soon discovers that it's not an island at all, but an ancient, wise being known as the lion turtle.

KONIETZKO: If you watch the 11-minute test pilot we made in 2003, you'll see a huge statue of the lion turtle in the opening sequence. And it wasn't just part of the production design—we were planning its role in the finale even that far back. As I recall, Mike and I were in Seoul visiting animation studios to find the right one to work on the pilot, and while touring around we saw an awesome turtle statue with an engraved monolith on its back. This likely stirred our childhood memories of Morla, the giant turtle in The Neverending Story, as well as the collective "World Turtle" myths we had encountered.

Aang seeks advice from a lion turtle. Nickelodeon Animation Studios

I think we were both attracted to the idea of something mythical from a time before the Avatar, something even more ancient and wise. About halfway through the series, I recall pitching some ideas about the original Avatar and the lion turtles to Mike. We thought it would be awesome to do it as a movie someday, but we were doubtful we would ever get the opportunity, so we ended up incorporating that origin story in The Legend of Korra with Avatar Wan.

Part 3: "Into the Inferno"

Toph, Sokka and his girlfriend Suki infiltrate the Fire Nation's fleet of airships, from which Ozai and his hand-picked troops rain fire down on the Earth Kingdom, incinerating everything in their path.

Toph, Sokka and Suki prepare to board one of Ozai's massive airships. Nickelodeon Animation Studios

DOS SANTOS: The fleet of airships was probably one of the more complex sequences in the finale. Integrating the CG to work with the 2D at that scale was quite an undertaking. Matching 2D character animation to CG models is a massive headache and we just buried our heads and went all in. Usually I'd say let's play more conservatively and make sure everyone has enough energy for the rest of the season ... but this was it. So we just threw everything at the wall.

Azula prepares for her coronation as Fire Lord, but is overwhelmed with paranoia, banishing her servants and advisers. Just before being crowned, Azula's ceremony is interrupted by Zuko and Katara. When Azula challenges her brother to a formal duel, or Agni Kai, Zuko accepts.

SPAULDING: My favorite moment from the finale is the Agni Kai between Azula and Zuko. Everything works, the visuals, the music, it is a very cathartic moment for television, animated or otherwise.

As their fight beginsZuko's flames searing red, Azula's an intensely controlled blue—the sounds of combat fall away, replaced by a haunting live string orchestration by composer Jeremy Zuckerman.

Zuko sidesteps Azula's blue flame during their Agni Kai. Nickelodeon Animation Studios

KONIETZKO: Jeremy wrote so much incredible music for the finale episodes. When he got to that scene he was a little stumped, I think mostly because he was burning out like the rest of us. I suggested a simple chord change, and then he was off running and wrote possibly my favorite piece of music in the entire series.

The slow tempo and melancholy mood paired with an intense action scene was inspired by Kenji Kawaii's score for Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell. I had read an interview where Oshii told Kawaii not to score what was happening externally in the action scenes, but rather what was happening in the Major's heart.

Years before that, Vangelis did a similar approach to Zhora's death scene in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Both of those sequences were especially powerful to me and this final duel between siblings was the perfect place for us to try it. Ben Wynn did a lot of wonderful sound design for all of the large-scale fire there, but at the mixing session we decided to filter it and turn it down in favor of the music, much more like the Vangelis Zhora scene.

DOS SANTOS: I've got to give credit to Bryan, Mike and Jeremy. I do remember really working to break that fight from a purely staging perspective. Taking the time to focus on the little things like showing Zuko's feet being pushed back by the force of Azula's blast. In all of our pitches we'd discussed the epic quality the fight needed to have but also the tragedy that was lying beneath the surface.

It was all hands on deck for that battle. I know Spaulding threw in as did Kelly (both of whom have gone on to do amazing work at WB and Pixar) it was like murderers' row for that sequence. Mike and Bryan were the ones who made the decisions at the music spotting session with Jeremy. When I saw the rough edit with the music for the first time I was moved almost to tears. It was the first time I'd been a part of a "kids' animated series" that pulled that kind of emotion out of me.

KONIETZKO: The result still gets me misty-eyed whenever I see it. Dean Kelly's storyboards for that sequence, and the animators' work on the characters and effects are all so beautiful. This was feature-level work on a kids' basic cable show.

After Zuko is struck by a bolt of lightning, Katara defeats Azula in Part 4 of the finale. Chained to a grate, Azula is reduced to wrathful thrashing.

Azula is driven mad by paranoia and the burden of power. Nickelodeon Animation Studios

DOS SANTOS: Who knows, if given the proper circumstances growing up if Azula would have turned out differently or if that was just her inherent nature. I think my big takeaway is that it's an incredibly tragic ending to that specific arc. For Zuko to have to watch his sister reduced to that state of pure feral rage ... again, kids' show. My mind was pretty blown working on it.

As Sokka, Suki and Toph take out the Fire Nation's fleet, Aang awaits Ozai, the newly christened Phoenix King. The fight spans Part 3 and Part 4 of the finale, with Aang losing the upper hand after he foregoes an opportunity to kill Ozai.

DiMARTINO: Here's a paragraph from Part 3 of the finale, written by Bryan and me. You can see it's not a beat-for-beat breakdown of the fight, but more of the vibe of what we wanted from the action. It helps too when Bryan is also the one who storyboarded this fight sequence.

"Aang and Ozai are in the heat of battle high above the raging forest fire. Like Ozai, Aang has the comet-induced super-Firebending, but he can only muster up firewall defenses and redirections of Ozai's relentless onslaught. Aang tries to mix up his offense with impressive volleys of Earthbending, Airbending and Waterbending (the latter from a nearby waterfall), but Ozai is a rapidly moving target. Aang is using all his best skills acquired over the last months, but they are not yielding results, and he is getting frustrated. Ozai dominates the fight and pushes Aang back among the tops of the rock towers."

Aang, battered by Ozai's assault. Nickelodeon Animation Studios

KONIETZKO: I am infamous for writing fight scenes beat for beat, punch for punch. I can't help it! I get excited when I see it playing out in my head. I storyboarded the second half of the fight between Ozai and Aang, so it was especially rewarding and satisfying to write that fight sequence and draw the storyboards, and then see it brilliantly animated.

DOS SANTOS: These fights were all about scale. I think you'll notice that we cut wide much more often to demonstrate just how massive the moves are as well as how they affect the surrounding environment. It was tough to find the balance in demonstrating that type of scale but still keeping the battles personal and emotional.

SPAULDING: The fight choreography in the scripts was pretty accurate as far as indicating the actual technique, since the different styles of martial arts were part of the storytelling from the beginning. Most of the fight choreography was worked out ahead of the storyboard process by Sifu Kisu [Avatar's Martial Arts Consultant] and Bryan, who were filmed as animation reference for every martial arts sequence.

DOS SANTOS: Different writers have different styles. I've definitely been on the short end of the stick and had a line that reads "epic battle ensues" and the five seconds it took to write that equated to two weeks of my life and a lifetime's worth of back pain… but I'd say on Avatar the fights were pretty spelled out. And when they needed a bit more explanation we had our storyboard kickoffs and Mike and Bryan would give us really clear notes on the major beats that they wanted to see. That would trigger the other artists to start pitching in ideas and by the end we'd have plenty of material.

DiMARTINO: Joaquim pulled out all his directorial tricks, and then some. And the animators and directors at the Korean animation studio worked tirelessly. I'm pretty sure this was the most fire effects we'd ever had in an episode! And you have to remember, none of the fire is computer generated—it was all hand-drawn, and beautifully so.

DOS SANTOS: I'd say the fire FX animation alone probably equates to what most shows spend on an entire season.

KONIETZKO: As for the fight choreography, we were absolutely trying to top ourselves. We knew that the comet would give the Firebenders extreme levels of power, so that ratcheted up the scale of the fights. But we also had more action squeezed into those episodes than we ever attempted before. So not only was each fight bigger, it was much longer, and there were more of them. It was incredibly taxing on the entire crew, especially the animators.

DOS SANTOS: We staged the show with an eye toward live action. I'd like to think that the vast majority of our compositions and blocking would still hold up in a live-action format.

Part 4: "Avatar Aang"

The final part of "Sozin's Comet" begins with Aang at a disadvantage. Unwilling to meet Ozai's brutality with deadly force, Aang retreats into a stone ball.

Aang armors himself in rock to escape Ozai's flame attacks. Nickelodeon Animation Studios

DOS SANTOS: I think at his core Aang knew that killing Ozai was not the answer. It's not in Aang's nature.

DiMARTINO: The series was always about Aang coming to terms with being the last Airbender, and what that means. It was important to him to uphold the beliefs of the Airbenders and carry their teaching on into the future. But it was a big struggle because he had tons of people telling him that the only way to solve the problem was to kill Ozai, which went against his core values. It was important to Bryan and me that Aang stay true to who he was and what the Airbenders represent. If Aang had killed the Fire Lord, I don't think he could have genuinely restored global balance because he would have been internally out of balance.

Ozai's brutal assault pummels Aang, until the Avatar is thrown against a rock that stabs Aang's lower back, unlocking the chakra frozen by Azula's lightning attack in Season 2. Aang now has access to the Avatar State, a powerful combination of his past lives.

The Avatar State is reawakened. Nickelodeon Animation Studios

No longer an uncertain child, Aang is now a specter of terrible anger and vengeance, his eyes glowing white. He subdues Fire Lord Ozai, but refuses to deliver a killing blow. Instead, he places his hands on Ozai's head and heart, touching Ozai as the lion turtle had touched him. Their energies struggle against each other, until Aang overwhelms Ozai with the determination of his spirit. Ozai slumps to the ground and discovers he can no longer firebend. Aang has taken his bending from him.

KONIETZKO: The "light battle" in the climax, when Aang is trying to take away Ozai's bending, was a tricky thing to visualize. I pitched it to Mike and Aaron as something like, "Then their souls flip inside-out and try to overpower each other." They thought it sounded cool but had no idea what it would look like, or how it could be animated. Frankly, I wasn't sure how to communicate it verbally. It was something I had to not only work out in storyboards, but also in color.

Ozai and Aang's energies duel. Nickelodeon Animation Studios

In the end, the animators handled it impeccably. I don't think we had a single retake on that sequence.

With Ozai and Azula defeated, Zuko is crowned Fire Lord. He declares a new era of peace between nations. Team Avatar reunite in Ba Sing Se, where Iroh has opened a tea shop. The finale ends with a kiss shared between Katara and Avatar Aang. But one lingering question remains, posted by Zuko to his imprisoned father: "Where is my mother?"

DiMARTINO: We didn't have time to address it in the finale, and a lot of viewers were upset about that. But the answer does exist in a graphic novel called The Search written by Gene Yang in consultation with Bryan and me. I mention it because a lot of fans still aren't aware that Aang's adventures continue in comic form, and one story is specifically about Zuko's search for his mother and learning about what happened to her.

The Response

DOS SANTOS: It was absolutely overwhelming. It was the first time I'd really experienced the phenomenon of entire families sharing in the viewing experience together. It was not any one specific group, it was everyone, from every walk of life. Truly beautiful.

KONIETZKO: One of the lasting impacts from the finale comes from Jeremy Zuckerman's score, particularly the climax, "Peace." That is another one that still gets me misty-eyed when I hear it. It's been really touching to see high school orchestras and kids on YouTube doing performances and covers of it. It is a shame that ten years later, we are still struggling to get his soundtrack released.

DOS SANTOS: For a lot of people breaking into the industry now, Avatar was the show they grew up with. So it's the biggest honor to hear that it impacted them in a positive way.

KONIETZKO: It is amazing how this series still keeps finding new audiences all over the world, every year. There is such a flood of TV shows, movies, video games, comics, and books, but somehow Avatar is still being discovered by each new generation. I see kids on social media whose entire accounts are dedicated to the original series, and they weren't even old enough to watch it when it first came out.

It is particularly touching for us when we hear about families that watch it together—sometimes even three or four generations of a single family. And it is awe-inspiring when fans share their personal stories with us about how the series or a particular character's story has helped them through incredibly difficult and dark times in their lives. For so many years, we were just focused on trying to finish telling the story we had set out to share. It is a surreal experience to see that story continue to live and grow around the world.