Andrea Romano (Voice director)
Dante Basco (Zuko)
(I have a really hard time distinguishing between Mike and Bryan's voices, so I may sometimes credit a statement to “Bryke” if I'm not sure which one said it. My apologies to Mike and Bryan for, you know, obscuring their individuality.)
Mike begins by introducing this as “the darkest episode of the series”. While the series has some darker moments (“the last Agni Kai” comes to mind), I think I agree that this is the darkest full episode.
As far as I recall, this is the first episode that has an actor on the commentary track. Since Dante and the voice director are both on here, it's only natural that they talk a fair bit about the acting and the recording process. They spend some time at the beginning talking about how the actor and the character meld together (this was mainly Dante saying this), and Bryke said that they observe the Korean animators showing up in the characters as well, particularly in Sokka. Andrea also compliments Jack DeSena (Sokka's VA) quite a bit for the “realism” in his portrayal of Sokka's goofy humor.
Andrea takes some time to explain how Dee Baker (VA for Momo, Appa, and all the creatures) works. Unlike the other actors, he records his part after the animation has been done. He watches the scene beforehand, then goes in to record and adds in the creature sounds to synch up with the animation, often switching back and forth quickly from one creature to another. Dante mentions that Dee is very well-known throughout the voice acting field for being able to do this unusual kind of work.
Bryke talks about how the airship fight early in this episode marks the first signs that Azula's sanity is unraveling, and says that they always planned for that to happen after Mai and Ty Lee's betrayal. It makes me think of some of the feminist criticism out there that Azula started to unravel when she was given more power (in “The Phoenix King”) and her inability to handle the power was what broke her—a la Lady Macbeth. I understand why some people didn't like this direction for Azula's character; but personally, I didn't feel like it really fit the Lady Macbeth trope, since, as the commentary here supports, it was being betrayed by her friends that pushed her over the edge, not gaining more power than she could handle as a woman.
Bryke says that they used a power drill for the sound effect where Sokka swallows the rose he had between his teeth. (This is in the infamous scene where Zuko pays a surprise visit to Sokka in his tent at night; Sokka was expecting Suki.) Andrea also talks about recording this scene with Jack and says that it took a lot of takes to get it just how she wanted it. She also says she usually tries to provide multiple takes anyway so that Mike and Bryan have an array of options for the final mix.
Andrea talks about how she sometimes has expectations for how a scene should go when she gets the script, but she tries to leave room for the actors to be creative. She says that she likes the ensemble style of recording, which was how this episode was done, since it allows the actors to react to each other and build off one another's creative energy. I thought this was interesting, because most of what I've heard about VA work has made it seem like it's the norm for actors to record alone or maybe with only a small portion of the cast. I kinda like knowing that this was not always the case for ATLA. (Later in the commentary, they mention that Aang's VA did record his part remotely, via satellite.)
This leads into Dante talking about working with Mark Hamill (who voiced Ozai), and how ironic it was to be playing these angsty father-son scenes with someone who once played Luke Skywalker, but is now in a role that is more like Darth Vader.
They talk about Aang's VA Zach Eisen as well. Andrea says that from the time they started recording, Zach's voice started to deepen a bit by the end, and that it actually worked well for making Aang seem more mature as the series progressed.
They spend a long time talking about ensemble recording vs. individual recording. Dante says that much of the first season the actors recorded together, but then they got busier and in later seasons they often had to record separately. He also says that almost all of his scenes with Mako (Iroh's VA in seasons 1 and 2) were recorded together. <3
Andrea says that in the flashback Mae Whitman (Katara's VA) and Jack play their own characters at a younger age very convincingly. They also point out that Kya is voiced by Azula's VA, Grey DeLisle. This makes me wonder if Dante and Grey did the voices for the younger versions of their characters in previous flashback scenes, such as those in “Zuko Alone”. I think young Azula probably is voiced by Grey; but young Zuko really doesn't sound like Dante to me.
They discuss Katara's use of bloodbending on the leader of the Southern Raiders. She learned it reluctantly; but it's still a challenge to resist using that power over someone. Bryke talks about how bloodbending goes back to the idea of chi in martial arts, which can be used to harm or to heal.
Bryke talks about Katara's dilemma, and how Aang, even though he has very little physical presence in this episode, still has an important role to play because he's like the little angel on Katara's shoulder. They also talk about how Aang has had more taken from him “on paper” than Katara has, because his whole society was wiped out by the Fire Nation—but it's not possible to really quantify suffering.
"The Ember Island Players"
Jack DeSena (Sokka)
Jessie Flower (Toph)
As it turns out, the very next episode has commentary with some more VAs. Yay!
Bryke: “This is the Avatar version of a clip show.” When this episode idea was originally pitched to them, they thought it was a fun idea, but that they'd likely never use it. Then, as the finale drew near, it seemed clear to them that it would work well as a lead-in to the finale. In season 2, “The Guru” fulfilled a similar function of recapping important elements from previous episodes.
Confession: I love the sound of Jack's voice. I'm just mesmerized by it. So mesmerized that sometimes I forget to pay attention to what he's actually saying, haha! (I love Dante's voice, too, but for some reason, I wasn't as distracted by it.)
They talk about how long the VAs have been working on the show. For Jack, he first worked on the pilot in 2003. Bryke says that he was eight, but that has to be an exaggeration. He was probably about 13 or so. Jack: “The voice breaks were a lot less forced then.” Jessie came on to the show the middle of season 1, voicing a pigtailed girl named Meng who had a crush on Aang in “The Fortuneteller”. Toph, of course, didn't appear until season 2. Mike: “We gotta get that girl [to play Toph]. She was really cute but had a lot of sass.”
Some of the regular voice actors provided voices for the actor versions of the characters in this episode. Dee Baker did Jet, King Bumi, and the Fire Lord; Grey DeLisle did Katara. Actor Aang was voiced by Rachel Dratch of SNL fame.
Jessie asks why they chose to have Aang played by a woman, and they explain that it was to make fun of the tendency to cast adult women VAs to play young boy characters in cartoons. They add that they had insisted that the kids in ATLA be played by real kids (or reasonably close to it, anyway), maintaining that since the characters were supposed to mature throughout the show, it wouldn't matter if their voices aged a bit.
They talk about the design of the special effects and backdrops in the play and how they wanted it to look like a realistic way that people could stage a play. They theorized that the backdrops would be based on hearsay about what distant locations like Omashu and the North Pole would look like.
In the reenactment of the ocean spirit wreaking havoc on the Fire Nation armies, actor Aang stomps on toy ships and even has a toy Zhao in her hand.
They talk about the voice director (Andrea, who was on the last episode's commentary track) and how she did a great job at getting the best performances out of them. Jack talks about how he had a hard time laughing on cue at first, and this resulted in Sokka having a very distinct laugh.
Bryke asks the actors what their favorite episodes are. Jack says he liked the more dramatic material he got to do in the North Pole storyline, and also “Sokka's Master”, because Sokka got to have “a huge sword”. Jessie mentions “The Library” and how cool she thought the underground library and the weird owl spirit were.
In the scene where actor Aang goes into the Avatar state, they mention that Mike did something like this for Halloween one year, using glow-in-the-dark face paint on his eyelids to look like Avatar State Aang.
They talk about how this episode brings out a lot of emotions for the characters and how refreshing it is to have a cartoon series that is serial in nature and allows the characters to have some real depth, unlike the more sit-com style show that dominates US-made cartoons.
In the scene where Zuko gets upset when someone tells him he has a cool costume, but his scar is on the wrong side: Bryke says he feels that way when he's at a convention and meets a fan who is angry about something and trying to “correct” him about the show.
Bryke asks the actors whether they prefer Kataang or Zutara, and they both give ambivalent answers. Bryke points out that Jet could still be alive somewhere. “That's the independent party.”
The sound effect for Aang's prop glider was actually provided by a recording of a toy version of Aang's glider that came out early in the series.
Actor Zuko's voice is provided by Dante's brother.
The final scenes where the Fire Nation defeats the Avatar and his friends were meant to be truly climatic action scenes, and not as cheesy as the rest of the play. It's meant to give the feel of something like Shaolin: Wheel of Life.
Jack compliments Dee Baker during the Fire Lord's speech at the end, and says that he would sometimes bring friends in when he knew Baker would be recording because he's so fun to watch.
Bryke admits that the last line (“But the effects were decent.”) was the script writer's dig at the M. Night Shyamalan film. At this point, the film had not yet been made (nor had the cast been announced), so it was only meant to be a friendly jab back then. *sigh*
I don't have much to say about Ember Island Players, so I'm not going to post a separate review of it. I think it's clever that the creators managed to come up with a creative way to review the story before the finale, and I like the way they poke fun at their show, its genre, and fan reactions/expectations. But the best part of the episode is how the characters react to their own past actions and to each other's. My favorite examples of this are:
- The awkward look Aang and Zuko give each other when the Blue Spirit “rescues” actor Aang, who pronounces him “my hero”. (In a bizarre twist, the play stages it as the Blue Spirit rescuing Aang from Prince Zuko.)
- The pained look on Zuko's face when he watches his actor self betray his uncle in Ba Sing Se and Katara asks if he really said those horrible things to Iroh.
- The horrified looks of all the characters when they watch their own defeat at the hands of Azula and Ozai.
All that's left now is the four-part finale. I haven't decided yet how I'm going to break up the posts, but right now I'm leaning toward one for parts 1-2, one for parts 3-4, and one for all the commentary tracks, so a total of three posts. I reserve the right to change my mind, though. :P