The Stuff of Legends
If you were at RISD in the mid-’90s you may have crossed paths with a masked superhero armed with an oversized Nerf gun. That was Iguana Man – aka Bryan Konietzko 98 IL, now best known for co-creating and executive producing the popular Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender and the more recent hit The Legend of Korra.
When Konietzko returned to RISD last week, he addressed a standing-room-only crowd, speaking about his student days and the sometimes rocky road from RISD to LA. “It’s every job I ever wanted rolled into one,” he told the crowd of admiring students.
Recalling his struggles to find his way as a student, Konietzko explained that he was always hugely energetic and ambitious but wasn't sure how to focus that energy or develop his own style. But once he met Mike DiMartino 96 FAV soon after transferring to RISD as a sophomore, things began to change. In fact, that friendship proved to be “key” since the two have gone on to become longtime business partners.
Still, as graduation approached, Konietzko remained ambivalent about the future and figured he’d try to make it in New York as an editorial illustrator. But when he showed his portfolio to his then-hero, illustrator Steve Brodner, the response was: “I don’t see any love in this work,” pretty much deflating the aspiring young illustrator’s hopes. At the same time, Brodner absolutely raved about the storyboards in his portfolio.
“Your work is a like a lie detector,” Konietzko told the assembled RISD students. “If you don’t enjoy doing it, no one will enjoy looking at it.”
Konietzko recognized that his skills were better suited to animation and left for LA, where he reconnected with DiMartino, who was directing the animated TV series Family Guy and was able to help his friend get a job there, too. The super-popular show had made its creator and producer Seth MacFarlane 95 FAV the highest-paid TV executive ever a couple years after he graduated from RISD. “Working at Family Guy was like getting paid to go to grad school,” Konietzko said, adding that he worked insane hours and volunteered to take on every additional project he could.
After spending the next few years working on a variety of TV series, Konietzko became art director of Invader Zim, “the most evil thing ever made for children.” But when Zim was suddenly cancelled in 2002, he and DiMartino were ready to try their hand at developing their own show. Nickelodeon Creative Director Eric Coleman, whom he’d bonded with on Zim, advised Konietzko to pitch a show focused on “boy, action, adventure, legends and lore” – a formula that inspired Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Drawing like a maniac for two weeks solid, Konietzko said he felt like a kid again, imagining an ancient world that incorporated his love of yoga and martial arts and offered something soulful. Success rarely comes from that “million-dollar idea scratched out on a napkin,” he told students. “You’ve got to work an idea like it’s a job.”
Over the next six years, he and DiMartino wrote the series together and executed their magical vision. (The first season inspired a live-action film that was written, directed and produced by M. Night Shyamalan, but the movie was a something of a flop.) Work on the animated series was exhausting and relentless – so much so that Konietzko and DiMartino both swore they would never do it again. But when Nickelodeon called again in 2008 and offered them carte blanche to create a follow-up series, they could not refuse. They came up with The Legend of Korra, an animated series with a committed following.
“Animation is brutal,” Konietzko noted, “especially Season 1, where you’re creating absolutely everything from scratch.” Exhaustion aside, it’s clear that he has found his calling and values what he learned at RISD, including “how to think” and how to be objective about his own work. “A lot of stuff I learned at RISD about [infusing work with] energy really sank in.”