Our upcoming Avatar fan film will follow Lu Ten, the son of “uncle” Iroh, so naturally the much beloved general himself will be making an appearance.
In this prequel we’ll see Iroh before he lost his son, and as a consequence his heart (and his waistline) will be a little lighter, his hair will be a little darker, and his outfit…well, I just can’t help myself if it happens to turn out a little bit flashier!
With our film shoot drawing nearer every day, this costume was created on a deadline, with long frenzied nights turning it from concept art to finished product in a mere thirteen days.
Rarely do I work so quickly, but before I set my hand to a single rivet or scrap of metal, I’d spent months contemplating everything that a costume for General Iroh needed to be. This article will explain each of these qualities and how the armor fulfills them.
A Modern Major General
A film costume tells you a lot about the character underneath, and one of the main things Iroh’s armor needed to communicate about the General was his rank.
In order to visually unite all the Fire Nation characters in the film, I’ve chosen to incorporate leather in all of their armor, always dyed the same deep burgundy red color.
You see it in Lu Ten’s armor…
…and on the Fire Nation scouts.
Naturally you’d expect to see the same leather on Iroh. But as much as he should look like he’s from the same army as his subordinates, it also needs to be clear that he’s the top dog.
One way to establish Iroh’s rank would be to smother his armor in ornate leather tooling, painted designs, and stitching.
This was what I did with Lu Ten’s armor, and it turned out epic.
Unfortunately, it also took me 2.5 years to build that armor. I simply don’t have the time to make another suit even fancier, and even if I did it would probably only wind up looking equal in rank to Lu Ten.
I needed to take a different approach to make Iroh look like a general, but I still didn’t want to leave his leather unadorned. Accordingly, I emblazened Iroh’s chest with a hand-tooled and painted version of my custom “Sozin’s comet” Fire Nation emblem, and I covered every leather surface with grooves in a geometric pattern of triangles and hexagons.
The main thing that I did to set Iroh apart from the rest of the army, however, was to add metal elements to his outfit. Lu Ten and the scouts are dressed only in leather, so seeing Iroh in a heavy suit of maille with gold plate on top proves that he is a cut above the rest.
In addition, Iroh’s face is framed by a thick ruff of coyote fur.
Fur has a magical ability to make even simple outfits appear opulent. It’s also another design element unique to the general.
Placed around the swordbreakers of his pauldrons, the fur makes Iroh’s shoulders look larger and turns him into a more intimidating spectacle.
The Iroh we Know and Love
Although looking fancy was important, it wasn’t enough to simply make a suit of armor fit for a general.
It had to be fit for General Iroh.
Iroh is arguably the most beloved character from the Avatar: The Last Airbender series. He certainly has a special place in my heart, and I really don’t want to betray his character in our film.
In the series we actually do get one brief look at General Iroh from before Lu Ten’s death. The episode Zuko Alone contains a flashback wherein Iroh writes a letter from the front lines to his nephew, the young Prince Zuko, and his sister, Princess Azula.
Here’s what he looks like.
Now, it’s fair to assume that when Iroh has time for letter writing he’s probably not wearing his full military regalia, but even so we get a feel for the style of clothing he wore at the time.
Iroh wears a breastplate, the size and shape of which is reminiscent of Japanese Samurai armor. This Eastern armor did a lot to influence my designs, but I’ll discuss that more fully in the next section.
Although he may not have “let himself go” yet at this point in his life, the Iroh we see in Zuko Alone is still a little portly. The layers of thick chainmaille and plate armor in my costume design give him the same thickness around the middle without letting him look completely flabby.
The other big insight we have into Iroh’s life before he lost his son is his nickname, “The Dragon of the West.” The Fire Nation bestowed the title “dragon” on any firebender able to defeat a dragon in single combat, and Iroh presumably got his epithet when he was believed to have killed the last dragon in the world (spoiler alert: he didn’t actually kill it). His “breath of fire” technique only increased his draconic fame.
In homage to this part of Iroh’s character, in our film he will carry a katana at his side which is decorated with a gilded dragon on the hilt.
A snarling bronze dragon is also seen on the buckle of his belt.
Of course, the most important thing I can do to make or break Iroh’s character on screen is cast the actor who will portray him.
Playing the quirky but powerful general will be Keoki, one of the wisest, funniest people I know in real life.
Add some mutton chops and a wig and he really looks the part too!
I mentioned in the last section that in the animated series Iroh’s breastplate appears to be inspired by the military traditions of Japan.
I took this into account when designing his real-life costume.
After reviewing both historical samurai armor and anime fantasy variants (I was particularly inspired by the armor of Madara Uchiha from the series Naruto Shippuden), I created this concept art:
This picture really captured the feel I wanted to attain in my final armor, but you’ll notice that although it is clearly Asian-inspired, it is not entirely Japanese.
There are several distinct European influences present in my final design. These were chosen for aesthetic or practical reasons, and also in order to make the armor unique to the Avatar universe.
After all, if the goal is to recreate a culture from a fantasy world, drawing too heavily from a single real-world source is counter-intuitive.
In my final design, the shape of Iroh’s breastplate is distinctly Japanese, and it is bound to the back plate with cords instead of buckles. Likewise the tassets (thigh armor) are attached with cords, as is typical of samurai armor.
From the European tradition, on the other hand, comes the large pauldrons (shoulder armor), which create sharp angles seen in a lot of Fire Nation armor.
In addition, on layered pieces of armor (the pauldrons and tassets), each plate is nested on the inside of the one above it. This is a European design, whereas Japanese armor follows the opposite pattern.
The number and position of the tassets is also European. In my concept art, I had a tasset falling directly in the front of the armor (Japanese style).
In the film, however, Iroh is scripted to do a fair bit of running, so it made more sense to split the tassets down the middle so that they fall over each thigh. This European style allows better leg mobility.
With all of these European nods, I considered adding another Japanese element to balance the cultural contributions–a thick black suede sash (called an “obi” in Japanese) around the waist, secured by the belt.
Obis secured by cords called obijime are characteristic of traditional Japanese dress, and are seen on many Asian fantasy characters as well.
Image from: Buttoncountry.com.
For now I’m just going with the leather belt without the obi, but if you’d like to see the extra sash added, let me know in the comments!
The last thing that influenced my designs was the amount of time that I had to create them. Although I have often said that “you can’t rush art,” this was a project I really did need to finish quickly. This time-saving mentality subtly influenced many aspects of the armor.
- The chainmaille used was part of my Faramir costume (read more about it here) and had taken a year to make. Repurposing it this way allowed the armor to look fancier without having to spend another year on an extra suit of maille.
- The geometric design etched into the leather is entirely made of straight grooves, which were fast and easy to make. Easy as it was to create, however, the hexagonal pattern complements similar shapes seen in the chainmaille quite nicely.
- The metal elements of the armor not only look nice, but also allowed me to rivet the leather directly to the metal and bend it into shape rather than taking the time to form and harden each piece of leather.
- Riveting the armor together took much less time than the stitching used in Lu Ten’s outfit, while at the same time adding more visual texture and metallic elements to the suit.
All in all, I was astounded by how quickly the armor came together, and how pleasing the result was.
For those of you hoping for a template, unfortunately I did it so fast that I didn’t create Adobe Illustrator images like I usually do. I created the whole thing out of my head (and sometimes cutting things out on cardboard) simply using my concept art as a guide.
On the one hand the mere fact that I was able to do this made me feel that I must have made some progress as an armorsmith over the last few years, but unfortunately it also means that I’m left with no way to reproduce the suit in the future.
A medley of influences from the animated series, real-world cultures, and military ranks came together to create this unique and striking suit of armor.
I hope you’re starting to feel some of the excitement that’s growing in me for this upcoming film shoot. I apologize that in the midst of my creative frenzy I haven’t been able to post much, but I hope that as my costumes now start to come to completion, you’ll start seeing more and more articles like this one.