If there’s one feature of The Legend of Korra‘s second season that truly stands out, it’s the level of intricacy and immense variation of design being implemented. No prior season has dealt with such an array of styles, along with a persistent adoption of diverse color palettes and highly distinguishable environments. From the luminous mountain tops surrounding the Southern Air temple to the darkest depths of the Spirit World, the season wows its audience with confidence and ultimately embodies a visual marvel more resembling of an enormous art piece, than a television production.
When delving into the realm of animation, it’s important to remember the amount of effort required to produce a living, breathing world. In a commentary for Avatar: The Last Airbender, Bryan Konietzko recalls a major difference between filming a live-action television series and an animated one, and that’s the work involved in capturing each setting. It’s significantly easier to film real life, where a three-dimensional and functioning society is already set, than it is to draft a location from a blank slate, filling in the details from scratch.
That being said, how many creative staff members do you wager died in the process of designing Book 2? In all seriousness though, the immaculate envisioning of Book 2 was clearly not a weekend chore, and I believe the episodes “Beginnings Part 1 & 2″ and “A New Spiritual Age” are the season’s most shining examples of this.
“Beginnings” boldly encompasses an entirely new art style for the series, washing out the colors and flattening details to mimic a historic Chinese wood-block painting. Head director on The Legend of Korra Joaquin Dos Santos mentioned the challenge in dealing with a brand new art direction and how other technical aspects of the production had to be altered as a result.
So not only was the visual layout contorted, but so were a number other design stages to compensate for any influential variables. Toss in several newly crafted characters and locations, and you’ve got yourself a big, steamy bowl of design soup where even the noodles are spiced to a particularly large degree. Oh, and let’s not forget that all this effort is for a mere two episodes.
Korra and Jinora’s Spirit World trek doesn’t do anything to appease the artists’ sore wrists, as it too requires a vast amount of artistic planning. Characters have ventured into the Spirit World before in the original series, but the degree of minutiae on display was hidden by a sepia color scheme and a shroud of fog. Such is not the case with the Spirit World 2.0 (trademark!) in The Legend of Korra, where the environments are heavily lit and overflowing with colors.
In general, creating spirits to populate their depicted habitat is a very detail oriented task (as shown in both this and “Beginnings”) and with “A New Spiritual Age,” the design team really knocks it out of the park. Nothing feels real, as in nothing is mistaken for a domain in the physical world, and it makes for a highly immersive atmosphere for the audience to experience. That’s an indicator of successful design work.
Technicality aside, one of the nice parts about having an incredibly talented creative team on hand is that, even when the animation might be lacking (ahem… Studio Pierrot), the settings and the material that exist within them still refrain from blandness. There’s always a plethora of attributes on our television screens to loll over, regardless of the way they move (the impressive painted backdrops in each episode come to mind).
Designing, really with any form of media entertainment, is a tiresome effort, but when it comes together to develop a reality that would otherwise be nonexistent, there’s something magical about it. In the grand scheme of things, this ability to breathe life into something like a drawing (to animate it) is what attracts me and many others toward animated movies and television.
The Legend of Korra is a large composition of drawings, essentially, but it becomes actuality when one is watching it, which is due in large part to the artists cooped up in their drafting rooms. Book 2, specifically, boasts the widest range of artistic development in the Avatar franchise, and as far as the animated medium goes, is a protruding reminder of what can be accomplished with a skillful production team.
Comparatively speaking, every season of Avatar: The Last Airbender introduced a handful of varying settings, but all of them fell into the same stylistic assortment: Water Tribe themed for the first season, Earth Kingdom themed for the second, and Fire Nation themed for the third. Even Book 1 of The Legend of Korra remained fully urbanized for its twelve episode duration. Book 2 doesn’t appear to have an exact elemental theme, which I suppose is fitting since spirituality is nonspecific to a single nation, and so we find ourselves in the Water Tribe, Airtemple, and Republic City all in one episode. Not to mention the Spirit World and other styles that run alongside those locations.
If you decide to revisit Book 2, whether it be online or on DVD, and even if you were disappointed with the story and character, at least view it as an extremely impressive artistic piece. As I echo my own words, the visual architecture is one condition of Book 2 that absolutely deserves the fandom’s highest praise.
I know that I’ll be purchasing my copy of Book 2 on Blu-Ray so that I can soak in its visual splendor in the best quality possible. Who’s with me?