AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER – The Weight Of Cinema Analysis (Part 2/4)


Consider visual storytelling How is it that a filmmaker is able to convey character and emotion, not only through words, plot and actions, But also through visual aesthetic, composition, color, lighting and so on? Like all of the best works of cinema, a great place to refer to for some answers is the 2005 animated series Avatar The Last Airbender Many cinephiles including myself have already provided in-depth commentary regarding the show’s many triumphs. Yet there is still so much left to say. It feels as though the conversation regarding Avatar The Last Airbender is only getting started, and I am so excited about it For that reason this video you are watching now is the second in a series of four that will focus on the filmmaking behind Avatar: the Last Airbender and take an in-depth look at certain aspects of the show that make it such a worthy piece of cinema. As I’ve mentioned before there are so many ways in which this series succeeds. For this video, I exclusively want to focus on the ways in which the filmmakers behind the series harnessed the truest and most effective power of their medium: pure visual storytelling. It is no doubt the greatest among avatar the last airbender’s many strengths is its characters. My previous video focused on the ways in which the screenwriters were able to set up the arcs of these characters in intentional were able to set up the arcs of these characters in intentional, simple and delicate ways. In doing so, I examine the arc of one of the main protagonists, Sokka. For this video, in order to examine Avatar: the last airbender visual storytelling, I would like to showcase another different, character, who needs no introduction, as he is certainly one of the most, if not the most compelling part of the narrative. This character is the banished Prince Zuko, and by the end of the series the Redeemer of his nation. Zuko’s journey throughout the narrative is long and difficult. But there is no question that it is a journey that is best conveyed visually and that in this way his story is masterfully told. This has done so from the very start of the series, where a very particular and unique character history is alluded to as soon as Zuko is introduced to the audience. Zuko’s scar, just like Sokka’s first line of dialog, gives a level of insight into the rest of his character that is lost to the viewer who might assume that this story was not being told with intention. This is not just any scar. This is an incredible injury. Therefore massive emotional and psychological injury is also implied. It is not a scar like Anakin Skywalker’s or Harry Potter’s or Inigo Montoya’s. It is a burn that covers the whole of his left eye, impairing his vision, and very apparently, marking him for life. Zuko’s vision is impaired physically nd this is made clear visually. But for all of his skill and wit, Zuko is yet blind to the clear emotional abuse that he has experienced from his father. He continuously desires to please him. Zuko is blind to the corruption of the royal house from which he descends, and he is indoctrinated into believing that his nation is fighting the war for noble reasons. These character flaws who are made clear through the narrative over time, are all alluded to in this one visual trait, that makes Zuko distinctive among all of his fellow characters. How do you convey visually that a character is damaged? Naturally, you damage him. How do you convey visually that a character is a lacking in correct judgment, numb to his true needs and blind to the clearest truths? Brilliantly you damage his eye. Zuko’s scar is the visual outward manifestation of a very real inward character struggle. Thus Zuko’s character arc from the beginning, from the moment the audience is introduced to him is all about seeing things for what they really are, not through a squinting and scarred eye, but instead clearly and accurately. His journey, from this moment on, is therefore conveyed through the duality of his nature. Between his broken self and his redeemable self. It is clear that Zuko’s duality is what informs his character arc from beginning to end. But how is this manifested visually? In addition to the most obvious example, duality is conveyed visually through the many personas that Zuko adopts over the course of the series. The Blue Spirit is for example Zuko’s alter-ego that, in the first season, visually represents Zuko’s lack of commitment and devotion to the Fire Nation. Zuko is not driven to see the Fire Nation as the harbinger of a new age, like Sozin, or as the ultimate conquering country, like Ozai. Zuko’s actions are always dictated by alternate motivations. Therefore, in the first season, the Blue Spirit visually represents who Zuko really is. As Batman’s true mask is Bruce Wayne, and as his true persona is Batman, so the Blue Spirit is Zuko’s true persona. Just as a scar can represent a character’s blindness, so a mask can represent a character’s masquerade, whether that is revealed when that character puts on that mask, or takes it off. Zuko hides his public persona as he ventures out as a rogue combatant, and he becomes a more real version of himself, a person who was willing to do whatever it takes to redeem himself to his estranged father. He wears Fire Nation colors. Yet he has no real devotion to the Fire Nation, and instead of covering himself in no real discernible costume in order to conceal his identity, Zuko dons a unique and striking mask, a visual feature further solidifying Zuko’s duality as the key defining element of his character. In the second season the Blue Spirit again visually represents the duality of Zuko, yet in new and more nuanced ways Now disbanded from the Fire Nation entirely, Zuko’s mask is no longer a visual symbol of lack of devotion to the Fire Nation, But rather it is a symbol for his unwillingness to embrace his new life in the earth Kingdom. In both season 1 and season 2, Zuko is most loyal to his pursuit of redemption over anything else, however false that redemption may be. And when he dons his mask, he conveys his twisted loyalty visually. That is why when the mask is left behind, as it is cast into Lake Laogai toward the end of the second season, Zuko descends into a spiraling contradiction of himself. He first portrays his willingness and excitement over his new life as a refugee settled in a new land, And yet he eventually turns to support the fire nation, knowing this will lead him to the destination he has so desired. Zuko attempts to depart from his pursuit of his father’s approval, but this only ignites something clearer and more fundamental about his struggle. As his mask is thrown into the water Zuko’s foundation for his identity is suddenly lost. In effect, Zucco’s true duality, true identity and true destiny is alluded to and eventually revealed in some of the most visually driven scenes of the entire series. The first of these visually driven scenes are Zuko’s two nightmares. Following his decision to give up his pursuit of the Avatar, Zuko collapses in illness as he is overwhelmed by his recent decision. Zuko envisions his life as the Fire Lord. Two dragons, blue and red, with the voices of two major influences in his life, talk to Zuko as he sits in his throne room. This scene is a visual reflection of a plot point yet to happen. As the blue dragon entices Zuko to close his eyes, to cut off his vision entirely, to live in the dark, so Azula tries to convince Zuko to forget all he has learned since being banished and come back to the house that has driven her, their father and their forefathers to the madness that is ultimately their undoing. [Blue dragon] Relax, Firelord Zuko. Just let go, give into it, shut your eyes for a while. The palace collapses around Zuko and Zuko is consumed by his own throne. This is all a visual understanding of the legacy that Zuko’s forefathers left him, and ultimately what might become of Zuko himself, should he follow in his family’s footsteps. Zuko, also envisions another reality, one in which his scar is gone, and he bears the identifying factor in which he has come to know the role of the Avatar by. Like his previous dream, This shot says so much about Zuko’s potential path moving forward. With his scar literally gone, Zuko may again see things clearly as they really are once again. With an arrow on his forehead, Zuko may accept that he too, like the Avatar, is responsible for the redemption of the Fire Nation and the world at large. For Zuko is destined to bring balance to the world as much as Aang is, And he is ordained with this task in the most visually impactful scene of the entire show, where this single truest destiny is finally confirmed. Zuko learns that he not only descends from a line of Firelords, but also from a line that traces back to the Avatar himself, meaning that his struggle has always been rooted in something greater than issues in his immediate family. His struggle is one that transcends space and time. It is a struggle between the balance and imbalance of the entire world. Therefore Zuko’s Redemption is the redemption of the Fire Nation, and the redemption of the world. And for that reason, Zuko is imprisoned in this reality, until he fulfills his true destiny and walks in line with his true identity. And for all of the narrative weight that is conveyed through the incredible music, voice acting and dialog, the very best part about this scene is that this context for Zuko’s character is primarily conveyed visually. You see, as Zuko is brought to greater awareness of his character defining struggle, it is actually he himself who is being portrayed as being the one who was behind prison bars, rather than his uncle Iroh who is literally incarcerated. The imagery of this scene is composed to make it visually apparent that while Iroh is the one who’s physically behind bars, Zuko is the one who is, narratively speaking, symbolically, behind bars. As the truth is revealed to Zuko, the camera pulls back to visualize Zuko’s imprisonment, and the camera pushes in, to reveal Iroh’s freedom. Zuko is pressed up at the edge of the image in shadowy darkness, as the bars cut him off from the seemingly free space in which Iroh sits before a patch of light. And at this moment I will say confidently that it is this image here that is the single greatest Image of the entire series, and it is solely because of the cinematic mastery in which it is presented. Imagine for a moment that the frame is composed opposite of what it is here, with Iroh pressed up against the edge of the frame and Zuko in open free space. What does that say about the characters in this moment? Well, I don’t really think it says very much and even if it did it probably wouldn’t be saying exactly what it needed to be saying in that moment. However, because of this very particular composition of the image, a distinct and clear message is conveyed perfectly. Zuko is trapped in the prison of his destiny. He always has been, and Iroh, of course, has been and always will be the guiding light that will help him see the truth and reality of every situation. Iroh will always help Zuko to see things as they really are. In spite of his inherently impaired vision and damaged heart, Zuko is uplifted by Iroh continuously throughout his journey, and through Iroh’s loving guidance, Zuko is eventually restored as a whole redeemed person. This is an entire character, an entire relationship, and an entire plotline, simultaneously captured in one image And so I think that all of these visual devices, from Zuko’s scar to his mask to his twin swords and so on, are all evidence of the mastery in which this story is told. They are able to teach discerning viewers how they might be able to harness the power of cinema more effectively and more artistically. It is amazing and encouraging to me that though viewers are able to become so emotionally connected to and supportive of characters like Zuko through superb dialog, plot, voice acting and so on, there is yet still so much to gain from that character, the plot and the themes of any story, when you simply consider one of the most unique and powerful tools of the cinematic form. Hey guys It’s so good to be releasing the second in four installments of this Avatar The Last Airbender Video essay series whatever you want to call it I’m so excited that you finally got the chance to watch it to hear that all the thoughts that have been brewing in the past months and to get an idea of how Visual storytelling is employed within Avatar The Last Airbender I’m interested in hearing what you guys have to say about this concept of visual storytelling especially in Avatar The Last Airbender Were there any particular notes that I missed, is there any other devices that you guys would like to share? I’d love to hear about all of them in the comments below. Start that conversation with your fellow viewers and and get excited about all the ways in which avatar is just an amazing show that’s visually told. I’m looking forward to releasing the next avatar video I have two more and also get excited to listen to the podcast which has new episodes coming out monthly And get excited for more video essays on more works of cinema coming out soon if you all could do me a huge favor that Would be really generous and helpful in support of this channel Would you be able to like and share and comment on this video as much as possible because? The last avatar video got so much Following that I didn’t expect and I’d really want to capitalize on the fact that I’ve released a new avatar video so that everybody who enjoyed the last video are able to see that a new video has been released for them to enjoy and think about and take note of so if you can really just Share with your friends make it known that this video has been released that would be really helpful to the channel and really help build up that following to help this channel thrive and Continue to bring content to you guys. That’s worthy of appreciation and worthy of reflection on it and so anyway I’m super excited about that and I really thank you guys in advance For all of your support and all that you do to help the channel grow It’s been so exciting to talk with you guys and hear about your thoughts and just develop Relationships with you guys over the Internet as much as possible and so I’m excited to continue to do that and I look forward to Hearing from you guys regarding this video specifically. I really hope you guys enjoy the video, and I look forward to next time Thanks you guys

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