I had never really been “hooked” on a series before…
…then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked!
I was introduced to Avatar: The Last Airbender a few years ago, and the fantastic universe of the water tribes, fire nation, earth kingdom and air nomads ignited my imagination!
Right next door to my imagination lives my creativity, and the next thing you know, I was making art inspired by these mythical cultures.
The summer of 2015 was spent on this Airbender’s staff made as a gift (like many of my projects) to complete a fellow cosplayer’s vision of an ancient Air Nomad Avatar long predating Aang and his friends.
The creative journey was a thrill, and I’m excited to share a little bit of it with you.
Creating the Airbending Staff
Before I get into the nitty gritty of how the staff was made, my artistic choices will make a lot more sense if I explain some of the guiding principles that guided the project:
1) This was NOT intended to be Avatar Aang’s staff.
Aang’s staff—and the glider that it turns into—are iconic in the series, but I designed this staff for a character inspired by the Avatar world, not as a replica from the show.
Just from looking at the image above you can tell that my staff’s color scheme and some design elements are obvious departures from the Aang model, but this is to be expected, since the prop’s background story isn’t Aang’s. Rather, it is supposed to have been hand-crafted by a much earlier Avatar.
Each of the deviations from the Nickelodeon design were thoughtfully made…but I’ll get more into that later.
2) I was trying to make the cartoon into real life, NOT the other way around.
I have the greatest respect for cosplayers who dive into every detail of a book, film, or cartoon and strive to replicate it with perfect accuracy, but I tend to take a different approach in my projects.
By their very nature (2-dimensions on television), cartoons lack the depth and detail that fleshes out real life. When you take a 4-inch character and blow them up to 5 or 6 feet, you start to notice that the bright colors and simple design of the costume feel less realistic. The same goes for a prop like the glider.
So, instead of trying to approximate a cartoon, I asked myself a different question: “If the Avatar universe were real, how would this staff work…and what would it look like?”
The answer to this question sometimes put limitations on me. For example, I could use only materials (like wood, metal, and string) that would be available to a “real” Avatar.
3) The staff needed to have both form AND function.
In the real world, things that are effective are also often beautiful. The beak of an eagle, for example, is both a flesh-hook and adds a graceful taper to its silhouette. The curves of a sports car are likewise both aerodynamic and attractive.
The animated realm is different. We experience animated characters and props only as visual forms, while function trails behind on the generous coat-tails of cartoon physics.
To break the Air Nomad staff out of two dimensions and make it real, it needed both to work and to look good doing it.
This mindset created some the greatest challenges of the entire project. To see what I mean, read on.
Learning from the Past
I am not the first person to make a cosplay Air Nomad staff, so before I started the project I scoured the internet for inspiration from the creations of others.
I found that most staffs out there had form OR function, but not both.
For example, there were perfect staffs with ideal proportions to fit in a cosplayer’s hand, but which didn’t transform into a glider, and there were gliders with nice, taut wings, but they couldn’t turn into a staff.
Other versions could make the transformation, but the mechanics of transformation took up so much space that the resulting staff was bulky, heavy, and unwieldy. Plus, getting all the fabric from the wings shoved into the shaft of the staff was so troublesome that most of the time it just sagged loosely out of the sides.
My creation needed to be a small and lightweigh—practical as a walking stick or bowstaff—but able to quickly and effectively transform into a glider with at least a 6-foot wingspan, and then transform back without endless tucking of fabric.
The question was, how?
Function: The Glider
The obvious choice was to make the wings of the glider out of a Chinese fan.
Paper wings retain their shape better than fabric, and tuck away neatly. What’s more, Aang’s glider has creases between each of the wooden slats, which imply that the animators had paper in mind.
Paper wings make a lot of sense, but unfortunately, they didn’t work.
In my early efforts to create the airbending staff, I purchased two six-foot chinese fans. The first had very few wooden slats so that it folded up quite thin…but that meant the folds of paper were very broad at the end, making it too wide to fit aesthetically in a staff.
I returned that fan and bought another with many more slats. This made the folds much smaller, but all those stacked pieces of wood added up, and then it was too thick for the staff!
Hoping to find some third solution that I could make myself, I started studying the art of crafting folding fans. I was watching a YouTube video on the subject, when I happened upon this demonstration:
This fan didn’t fold…it rolled! My mind was blown.
Suddenly I realized that Aang’s rectangular staff and paper wings had me thinking in only two dimensions. But the answer to all my problems was to think in 3-D!
When I changed my mentality this way I instantly realized that the shaft of the staff didn’t need to have a rectangular cross-section. If I made it circular instead, I could get the exact same amount of wing storage space into a smaller shape that fit better in the hand.
After that paradigm shift, I realized that the ideal way to get the wings to store in a quick and efficient manner without endless tucking or folding was to simply roll them up from the center.
In the end, I developed a completely new design with a metal shaft running through the center of the staff. This was connected to a decorative wooden ball which allowed the user to manually rotate the shaft. The middle of the wings were secured to the shaft, so that when it rotated the glider neatly and quickly folded itself up!
Sure, it doesn’t quite “pop” in and out of place like Aangs staff appears to, but it works…and it looks good doing it. Plus, we’re dealing with an airbending avatar, so odds are that opening and closing the staff gets a bit of a bending assist anyways…
Form: The Art
The roll method for storing the glider was the first major innovation of the project. The second was the artistic detail which smothers the entire creation.
Aang’s glider is basic in color and design. The staff is brown and the wings are red…and that’s about all there is to it.
But we’d be remiss to imagine that all air nomad staffs are so plain.
After all, Aang was a 12-year-old runaway. He was still using a child-sized training staff meant for wear and tear over generations of young Airbenders.
But this wasn’t meant to be Aang’s staff. This staff was the creation of a fully realized and quite adult past Avatar. No doubt she would have lovingly hand-crafted it to reflect both her culture and her personality.
The general color scheme was drawn from the Shaolin monks’ pallet of reds, yellows, and oranges, since these monks were clearly a real-world inspiration for the Airbenders’ costume design.
I made a modification to this color pallet, however, by changing the yellows into golds.
This was done with the Air Nomad cosplayer in mind.
This particular cosplayer had blonde hair, which is completely unseen in the Avatar universe. But, rather than try to awkwardly sweep that detail under the rug (or under a wig), it made more sense to bring it right to center stage and make it the character’s trademark.
Perhaps this Avatar’s unique hair color occurred because of exposure to the Avatar state, much like Princess Yue’s hair was colored by exposure to the spirit world.
To match the cosplayer’s hair, I used a golden fabric for the glider wings (I know it looks yellow in the pictures, but it’s really gold…trust me). In addition, I used gold leafing to create the scrollwork that adorns the staff and chose a mother of peal with a gold hue for the inlay on the sides.
As I mentioned before, although Aang wields a plain brown wooden training staff, it is reasonable that the staff of an adult (especially an Avatar) would not only be a means of transportation but also a piece of art.
But what kind of art?
The series gives us precious little exposure to the decimated air nomad culture, which left me with a wide open opportunity to get creative.
Air, as an element, cannot actually be seen. We can only see things moving in it. What’s more, in the series, Uncle Iroh describes air as “the element of freedom.”
If freedom was the defining attribute of the Airbenders, then it seemed reasonable to me that in their art they would balk at the limitations of concrete representation and lean instead toward abstract expression.
So, I broke down the idea of aerial motion into two abstract shapes: a curve, and an elongated spiral.
I then arranged these two shapes into patterns which suggested movement, as if a handful of straw had been thrown into the wind.
These designs took care of decorating the front and back of the glider, but the sides remained plain brown.
Since the sides housed many of the moving parts of the creation, adding intricate filigree like I did on the rest of the staff would look too busy.
Instead, I carved out a groove down the left and right lengths of the entire staff and inlaid it with mother of pearl. This accomplished 3 important objectives:
- It decreased the weight of the staff, both visually and literally.
- It created crucial space for the locking mechanism to keep the wings extended (more on this in another post).
- The mother of pearl reflected light brilliantly and suggested the glow of the Avatar state.
It was a fairly simple solution, but it turned out beautiful.
And that was it! By combining form and function, I had created a beautiful airbending staff worthy of the ancient Avatar who once wielded it.
In the end, the staff did what I set out for it to do: It was a practical walking stick with a high-functioning glider transformation, while remaining a work of art in every form.
There were many more problems to solve before this piece was complete, like how to lock the wings in place, and how to reinforce weak points in a hollow staff…but that will have to wait for another post.
I’d love to end with a picture of this prop in full cosplay glory. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, the costume that goes with the staff isn’t finished yet…
…But what the heck, if I can Photoshop exotic monsters to life I can certainly pull off a fake cosplayer!
What do you think of my airbending staff? How do you combine form and function to bring fantasy to life in your cosplay efforts?