My last few posts have focused on costumes for the Fire Nation characters in our upcoming Avatar, The Last Airbender fan film, but that’s not the only culture you’ll see on screen.
A fierce Water Tribe warrior will also play a major role, and outfitting him has required a whole different creative approach.
The latest addition to his arsenal is the most iconic Water Tribe weapon of all—the boomerang!
Inspired originally by Sokka’s beloved side arm from the series, this creation turned into a true work of art which draws from water-loving cultures of the real world
In this article it will be my pleasure to bring you along on my creative journey, as well as to offer a few how-to tips in case you’d ever like to make a similar weapon yourself.
Water Tribe Weaponry
In the animated series we’re exposed to a variety of Water Tribe armaments—clubs, knives, spears, machetes, and the odd meteorite sword, to name a few.
No weapon, however, is quite so memorable as Sokka’s boomerang.
I don’t know about you, but when Sokka lost his boomerang in the final battle it was probably sadder for me than when characters like Jet actually died…
Naturally if I was going to have a Water Tribe character in my film, then they would have to fight with a boomerang.
But what sort of boomerang?
It would be no good to just straight-up copy the design from the show. It’s Sokka’s special weapon, after all, and I’d hate to cheapen that.
Even without making my prop look like Sokka’s, I could make it look like it came from his culture. Whereas the boomerang in the show appears to be made from blued steel, most other Water Tribe weapons are derived from animal parts such as teeth and jawbones.
This worked perfectly for me. Most of my Water Tribe fan art so far has drawn on artistic traditions from two real-world water-based cultures: Native Alaskans and Polynesian Islanders.
Water Tribe betrothal necklace combining native Alaskan and Polynesian art forms. Click here to learn more!
If you’ll recall, several years ago I spent time in Alaska and was taught traditional art forms like bone carving and scrimshaw.
This project seemed like the perfect time to brush off that skill set and make a boomerang that drew on the natural curved shape of a jawbone—much like the jawbone club I once made for my father.
Jawbones are only long on one side, however, so to lengthen the other side I knew I’d need to add something else to the design.
My first thought was to use horn, since I’d had such a satisfying experience carving it to make the Star of Nimrodel.
Unfortunately the horn supplier I had in mind wasn’t going to be able to get my order to me in time for me to finish the project by Christmas (I was planning to give the boomerang as a gift). So, I turned to Polynesian cultures for inspiration and decided to make the remainder of the weapon out of Hawaiian koa wood.
This may have been a backup plan initially, but I’m really glad I went with the wood. Koa has a natural golden chatoyancy that looks almost like tiger’s eye and its figure is beautifully marbled. Here’s what the raw slab of wood looked like in the light.
By fusing the jawbone of a bison with exotic wood from tropical islands I was able to create a final look that was grounded in reality and screamed “water culture,” but which also had the uniqueness needed in a fantasy prop.
Form or Function?
Making a boomerang out of a jawbone had only one major disadvantage—it wasn’t going to really come back when I threw it.
I would have loved to make a real functional returning boomerang, but in order to fly the weapon would have to fit within some pretty strict aerodynamic design principles.
Sadly, Sokka’s boomerang doesn’t really meet the criteria for returning flight either. Some people have made adaptations of his boomerang that come back to the thrower, but you can see some big differences from the cartoon version.
The boomerang in the video above is a truly awesome piece of fan art, and is fully functional (something I always prize), but it doesn’t look all that dangerous.
For my film, on the other hand, it was more important that the prop look like a legitimate, threatening weapon, and that it look like it belonged in the Avatar universe—movie magic could fill in the rest.
With these ideas in mind, I sketched out several concepts:
The final design ended up as sort of a fusion of the first two sketches. The broader blade of the boomerang was peaked in imitation of Sokka’s weapon, and an S-shaped silhouette was reminiscent of flowing water.
As one last nod to the function of the boomerang, I actually built a second, low-detail “stunt double” out of a single piece of wood, which will function whenever something needs to be actually thrown on screen. The jawbone one simply turned out too pretty to put it through that kind of abuse.
After months of pondering and designing this project, I was actually able to build it in only a week, which is quite fast for me.
The jawbone is from a bison calf. I chose to use bone from a young animal because the proportions worked better for the curve I had in mind, and because I suspected it would have less cracks and take to carving better.
Even the calf jaw wasn’t perfectly shaped initially though. You’ll notice in the picture that the angle of the mandible (the peak of the jawbone’s bend) swells out. I used my bench grinder and belt sander to take this angle down to a gentler curve.
The other problem with the bone is that the inside of the jaw is concave.
To keep the boomerang symmetrical, I had to build up that inside surface with modeling paste. The color match wasn’t quite perfect, but once the paste was completely dry it made for a pretty acceptable bone substitute.
I cut straight across the bone with a hacksaw at points where I wanted to transition to wood.
To connect the two substances I took advantage of the fact that bones are hollow in the middle.
I put small screws into the end of the wooden pieces like so…
…then I covered the screws with expanding gorilla glue, put them inside the hollow part of the bone, and clamped the creation together. The glue expanded around the screws and locked them in place inside the mandible.
Once the wood and the bone were connected, I was actually extremely happy with the way it looked. The simplicity of the blank white bone brought out the gorgeous figure of the wood, and the end result was quite artistic.
I actually was so happy at this point that I would have liked to call the project done.
After much deliberation, however, I decided that although the beautiful simplicity of the blank bone would look great in an art museum, as a film prop the boomerang would look more grounded in Water Tribe culture if I went ahead and carved designs into it.
I settled on an abstract design which included curves, S-shapes, and peaks representing various forms of water, as well as a crescent moon and a Yin and Yang, both of which are important symbols to the Water Tribes.
I copied my sketch and glued it to both sides of the jawbone, then went over the pattern with a dremel tool. For more information on my carving process, see my “how to” post on the Star of Nimrodel.
The final creation may not have been quite as artsy, but it felt more like something a real Water Tribe warrior would carry.
Once the prop was finished and delivered as a Christmas gift, there was just one thing left to do—hold a photo shoot!
The boomerang seemed to naturally complement water tribe garb, and fit well in the warrior’s hand.
This was one of the simpler projects of 2018, but quickly became one of my favorites. I can’t wait to see how it looks on the silver screen!
I’d love to hear how it looks to you, as well as how you might have designed your own! Would you have added the carved patterns? Comment below with your ideas!