Avatar: The Last Airbender is pretty weighty intellectual property. The original animated show, which aired from 2005 to 2008, is almost universally beloved, with devoted fans who still sing the viral hit "Secret Tunnel" to this day.

The 2010 live-action feature adaptation, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, was not well-received, and among die-hard fans, is never mentioned.

So costume designer Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh, when she was asked to join the new Netflix series adaptation, understood the weight and importance of this work (especially since she's a fan of the animated series).

The show follows four different nations, each tied to an element: the Water Tribe, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. The Fire Nation, set on ruling as an empire, wages war against the other nations. The only person who can stop them is Aang, the Avatar, the one person in the world who can master all the elements.

At first glance, Khaki-Sadigh's costumes are extremely faithful to the source material, backed by thoughtful research and given original touches. We were able to hop on Zoom with her to ask about this research process, how she distinguishes between the different nations in this world, and advice for working in costumes.

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' | Final Trailer | Netflixwww.youtube.com

Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: How did you get into costume design?

Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh: I knew that I wanted to be a designer of some sort, mostly. I was planning on going into fashion when I was growing up, so I directed most of my courses towards that. After high school, I went in and I did a diploma in fashion design, and then I went to university to do a business degree. My first year there I realized my university that I was at, University of British Columbia, offered a theater program and they offered Design for Film and Theater.

So I switched majors and went into that because it was more in line with what I wanted to do, and I started to learn, and I did my degree. I got a BFA in Design for Theater and Film and I got out of there and started working in theater and designing costumes for plays and musicals. I had an opportunity after a couple years of being out of school that I got an opportunity to do a film for a friend.

She was hired as the costume designer, and unfortunately, she couldn't do it due to a bit of an overlap, so she asked me if I could step in for her and take over, and I sort of stepped in.

I had no intentions of going into film. I was going to stay in theater, actually. I went and I did that as a favor to her. I kind of fell in love with the world of film a lot more by being embedded in it. Sort of from there I started kind of taking on more film projects and doing movies of the week to Independence and then starting to do work on TV series. Yeah, the rest is history, and I'm here.

NFS: With Avatar, specifically—it has such a dedicated fan base, and I believe you're among them.

Khaki-Sadigh: Yes.

NFS: You're a fan of the show. Where do you even start with something that has such entrenched love, and ideas about how it should look? What's your process?

Khaki-Sadigh: For me, the most important thing was trying to kind of find a balance between the real world and the animated world and trying to kind of really combine the two together in a way that honored both of them. So I took basically the history and the culture that the animation was sort of inspired by and then I started to do further research into it and kind of learn more about it.

About those cultures, and those regions, and their history, what was going on in those time periods and during those countries, and every little aspect that I could learn from them and then try to expand on it and expand on the regions and really sort of figure out how I could bring that world and mesh the two together.

So that was really the first process aspect of it, and then it was really just then taking each character and each world and just really kind of fine-tuning in and trying to kind of pick the most iconic parts of the nations or each character that we really wanted to feature and then making it sort of read into the real world.

Aang in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'Aang in Avatar: The Last AirbenderNetflix

NFS: One thing I've noticed about the show is that it's so saturated. The environments are so rich, and I think that the costumes play a really big part in that. The colors are just so vibrant and bright. I feel like when people go for realism, it's like, "Well, let's dull it down, and let's make it grimy."

Khaki-Sadigh: Yeah, I think that that's a lot of times what happens is people think "real world" and people think muted and bland, and it's not always the case. Yes, present-day, in our contemporary world, we live in a very muted world. We dress in more neutral colors and we have a more sort of neutral palette that we sort of keep in our closet. We only bring out the bright colors once in a while.

But when you go back in history, especially cultures such as the Asian cultures or the Indigenous cultures, there's so much vibrancy in those cultures, and in their arts, and in their clothing, and especially in those time periods that it really is not fair to sort of mute that down in a sense to just make it sort of relatable to present day. I think it was nice to be able to play on that vibrancy. It just brings such a richness into the world and also brings out the richness of those cultures, which represents them.

NFS: You've touched a little on this already, but designing specific looks for each of the separate nations, what were you trying to emphasize for each group of people?

Khaki-Sadigh: I think just really sort of like their world and what their reality is based on, what they have access to. Kind of like any country, what that country has access to or what that country does in order to showcase their history and all that kind of thing. So that's also what we wanted to do with the nations. With the Air Nomads, for example, they're a peaceful nation. We wanted to make sure that we sort of portray that they're all vegetarians or vegans, so there's no animal products used in any of their clothing.

Everything is either wood, or natural fibers, cottons, organics, dyes are organics—and we wanted to kind of play on that. So we used a lot of linens, and wools, and a lot of cottons so that it kind of brings that into that world and sort of like the consistency of the dyes and the colors that you see, it all comes from the nature.

My inspiration for the Air Nomad colors is really fall and fall palettes and pulling those earth colors out of there into it. Whereas you have the opposite of it, which is Fire Nation, so there's so much rigidity and there's so much other materials that they use. There's materials such as metals and golds that show richness, and that show power, and that show structure and industrialism in it as well.

There's also other variations from other cultures embedded into the Fire Nation because they're able to travel, because they're able to trade, and because they're able to go to places they bring stuff back to use in their own world. So that's also another sort of aspect of it. The Air Nomads really don't have that. Same with the Water Nation. The Water Nation, especially the Southern Water Nation, is very secluded.

They're in their own little bubble, per se. So they only have access to what is around them because they've been so segregated because of the war and separated from the rest of the world that they don't have any access to anything else and they can't do the trades. So their garments and their materials that are used in their world is either like animal furs, or animal skins, or bones, and things that they can sort of find within their own world.

Commander Zhao in Avatar: The Last AirbenderCommander Zhao in Avatar: The Last AirbenderNetflix

NFS: Is there a costume that was particularly difficult to design?

Khaki-Sadigh: I mean, the simplest one was the hardest one to portray, which was Aang's costume. I think at the end of the day it was really just not so much the design of it, but it was more like the conceptualizing of that design. Picking the right material so that it would move with him and had flexibility to move around with him, to show the air bending and his movements. Finding the right color, that one paid homage to the original animation and then also was sort of realistic in our world.

All of those little aspects of it made it a little bit harder to portray. I mean, the other thing is his look is so simple, but we still wanted to add something to it without making it overly complicated and overly decorated. Again, the Air Nomads are very much inspired by Tibetan monks. It's very a simple life and everything is simplicity, and it's not over embellished. Trying to kind of create something that is simple, but it's still has a bit of depth to it, is always sometimes creates some challenges because we didn't want it to read too flat when it was on camera, and we still wanted to have some texture and movement and all of that, but it still represented the Air Nomad culture.

NFS: How many designs were you tasked with?

Khaki-Sadigh: Everything.

NFS: Do you have a number? I would love to know.

Khaki-Sadigh: I had about 131 cast, and probably about 50 or 60 stunts, and then we had tons of background. So basically, yeah, a lot.

Probably, yeah, over 400—400 or 500 designs, if I had to pick a number.

Avatar: The Last AirbenderAvatar: The Last AirbenderNetflix

NFS: Do you have any advice for people wanting to get into costume design?

Khaki-Sadigh: It's understanding characters is really important. Understanding character developments and arcs. Really there's no actual starting point. You just have to sort of jump both feet in and sort of start learning things as you go. I suggest most of the time when people come to me for advice, I'm like, "Get in and shadow a designer, if you can. See if it's something that you really, really want to do." It's a rewarding job if you love it. If you don't love it, and if you just want to sort of get into it for the glory, there's not much of that in there, so you have to really love what you do. The hours are long. It's a very demanding position.

Creativity is only a portion of what I do, even though it comes across as the biggest portion, it's not. It's a lot of managerial, and budgeting, and financing, and time management. You have to be able to understand and read scripts, and be able to analyze them, and be able to have that psychology to analyze the characters that are in the script, so that you can create and develop that personality.

Yeah, if you have an inkling that it's something that you want to do, or something that you are passionate about, or that you have interest, get in there and talk to other designers, talk to people who are in the costume department. Get in there and try and shadow them, see what they do and see if that's really sort of what, it piques your interest. It's a lot different from the inside than it is from the outside, to be honest.

Really, that sets the tone. Once you've done that, there's things to learn is about coloring, learning about fabrics and materials, garment construction, illustration, all of those courses that can be taken to understand fashion history, costume history, history in general. A lot of times I go back and do a lot of research into art history because that helps sort of visually represents art history, and I can see sort of things kind of through images.

But I also go back and read history, history because... Especially for this show, I did a lot of research into history. Like how war effects countries, trade routes affect countries, what they have access to, what they don't have access to in certain time periods. What colors existed in different socioeconomic status, how the environment surrounding them affected what they wore and how they wore things.

All of those things affect what we wear, and affects how we look, and how we portray ourselves to the world. So it's really important to have understanding of those. Every project that I do, I have a tendency to go and look at it, whether it's contemporary, or whether it's period, or even if it's a fantasy period, you kind of have to have an understanding of the world and the environment that surrounds you because that all affects what you wear, and how you look, and how you portray yourself.

So it takes a lot of research and a lot of studying. I'm constantly learning, which is something that I love doing, but if you're not in love, if you don't like learning new things and you just want to be able to draw something and have it be created, it's not always the best thing for you.