An examination of the processes of making contemporary US television animation reveals the transcultural nature of both the production and the final product. This phenomenon can be observed in the background designs of Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise. The television series Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-08) and its sequel The Legend of Korra (2012-14) are set in a high fantasy world divided into four nations – the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads – with subsets being introduced over time. Although these nations are visually and culturally distinct, the visual and aural components of the two series nevertheless mark them as Asian. While a non-specific Asian identity was ascribed to this fantasy world at every stage of production, this article will focus on the creation of backgrounds, (henceforth abbreviated as BG). These BG paintings are the most static design elements of the shows, lacking the plasmaticity of character or prop designs. Through their creative decisions, crew members mediated the tendencies toward mimesis and fantasy, affecting how their adaptations of real-world referents functioned as fantastical cultural signifiers.
In order to address how and by what means the production of BG designs and paintings represent and convey a transcultural identity, I have adopted a mixed method heavily indebted to the production studies of John T. Caldwell (2008) and of David Rosen (1990). Using their insistence on mixed cultural and ethnographic methods, this article seeks to reconstruct the production narratives around Avatar and Korra as a means of revealing the transnational and transcultural nature of the franchise’s content and production. By combining original interviews with paratextual materials (Gray 2010), I examine the way BG designs slide along a continuum between mimesis and fantasy, building on Maureen Furniss’s continuum of animation aesthetics (1998). The latter type of source includes studio-produced marketing and publicity materials and third-party publications. The former are semi-structured elite interviews conducted in 2018 in accordance with the ethical research policy of the University of East Anglia (Mason 2002; Mayer 2008; Galetta 2013).
I use the resulting accounts to determine how the productions of Avatar and Korra constructed a transcultural fantasy. In the context of globalization, artifacts, ideas, and personnel crossed or were brought across borders in the process of creating these BGs, a phenomenon that can be understood in terms of cultural flow or traffic (Appadurai 1990, Acland 2003) and transculturation (Rogers 2006). This mixing and melding occurs not only at colonial frontiers but also in what Mary Louise Pratt refers to as “contact zones” (1992, p.6). The fidelity of these designs to real-world inspirations – their authenticity – is often tied to their success in conveying a desired Asian identity which therefore impacts their potential transcultural nature.
This relationship between text and referent can also be understood in terms of mimesis as it relates to these shows being both animated and fantasies. As animated texts, the Avatar franchise falls toward the latter half of Maureen Furniss’ continuum between mimesis and abstraction (1998, p.6). After all, television animation requires a degree of streamlining for reproducibility. Nevertheless, Avatar and Korra sought to emulate the real world and how a camera would have recorded it in a manner reminiscent of Paul Wells’ concept of hyper-realism (1998, pp.25-26). Similarly, as a work of fantasy, this franchise exists as a balance between the dual impulses to imitate and to break from reality (Hume 1984, p.20), with that connection to reality grounding the more fantastical elements (Irwin 1977, p.189; Worley 2005, p.14). These parallel relationships with mimesis forge a link between animation and fantasy, as noted in Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant’s edited collection Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (2018). Furthermore, the mixture of referents must form a coherent and cohesive whole. These concerns – authenticity, streamlining, hyper-realism, and internal consistency – are observable in the BG designs for this franchise.
The remainder of the article is divided into two halves. The first is an analysis of the three stages of creating BGs for Avatar and Korra – the acquisition of real-world referents, their transformation into fantastical counterparts, and their rendering as paintings. Then, two case studies – the Fire Nation in Avatar and the Metal Clan in Korra – foreground the transcultural nature of BG design across the franchise.
The production processes: Turning real-world referents into fantastical signifiers
The first step in the world-building of the Avatar franchise was the acquisition of real-world cultural referents in anticipation of their transformation into their fantasy counterparts. The creators and BG designers have both spoken about finding inspiration in the real world. Avatar BG supervisor Elsa Garagarza has spoken about how the designs in the show were primarily modeled after Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Thai, and Indian cultural referents. However, non-Asian influences have been cited as well, and she also discussed the impact of Inuit aesthetics on Water Tribe architecture and of Icelandic topography on Fire Nation landscapes (Miller 2009). In our interview, Garagarza repeated much of the same list as well as adding Mesopotamian and Vietnamese cultural markers (F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 7 March). Avatar BG designer Tom Dankiewicz also described this step of the process: “I would get on [the] computer and look up images online from any and all Asian nations, not limited to just Chinese stuff. It could be from Bhutan or Tibet, as long as there was something to grab onto” (F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 19 February). By naming these real-world cultures, Garagarza and Dankiewicz are emphasizing the connection and fidelity between their BGs and the real world, marking their work as authentic. Furthermore, while there is a primary emphasis on Chinese referents, the Avatar world is not a direct re-presentation of a specific real-world culture. Instead of singular monoculture representative of Asia and instead of each fantasy culture being representative of particular real-world ones, the four nations of Avatar and Korra are the results of hybridization. Inspirations came from many sources, even though the primary goal remained to convey an Asian identity.
Although the Internet and an in-house reference library were major resources for visual referents (DiMartino, Konietzko and Dos Santos 2014, p.62; “Audio Commentary – Chapter 17: Lake Laogai” 2007; “Commentary on Beginnings: Part 2” 2014), co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko usually highlight their international travels in interviews. They have most frequently spoken and written about how their trip to Beijing influenced the architecture of the Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se (DiMartino and Konietzko 2010, p.86; “In Their Elements” 2006, p.7; “Audio Commentary – Chapter 14: City of Walls and Secrets” 2007), how Konietzko’s journey to Iceland inspired the landscape of the Fire Nation (DiMartino and Konietzko 2010, p.132; “Audio Commentary – Chapter 4: Sokka’s Master” 2008; “Audio Commentary – Chapter 5: The Beach” 2008), and how DiMartino’s trek to Buddhist sites in Bhutan impacted the designs of the air temples (DiMartino, Konietzko and Dos Santos 2015, p.154; “Audio Commentary – Chapter 12: The Western Air Temple” 2008). In our interview, Korra BG designer Angela Sung also stressed that travel was one of the most important types of research. Being somewhere was always different from seeing photography. For her, just the experience of hiking through national parks in California made her designs feel more like real places (F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 17 February). Consequently, even when not explicitly linked to an Asian culture, mimesis and fidelity to the real-world was emphasized. The architecture and landscapes remain grounded although they are fantastical and animated. They therefore signal the impulse toward mimesis both in terms of authenticity and hyper-realism.
These concerns about mimesis and fantasy continued as referents were transformed into black-and-white line drawings for the approval of the art director, Konietzko. Sung recalled him wanting the BG designers to consider how the architecture would have been built in-universe as well as how a camera lens would have captured it (F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 17 February). These directions recall Paul Wells’ aforementioned concept of hyper-realism. In interviews, BG designers Garagarza, Dankiewicz, and Sung have elaborated about the nature of their relationship with Konietzko (F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 7 March; F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 19 February; F.M. Agnoli, pers.comm., 17 February). Across all three testimonies, there is a shared acknowledgment of the art director’s singular vision but also of their creative freedom to refine the designs. In the reconstruction of these production narratives, it is important to emphasize the input and impact of these and other individuals in the world-building of Avatar and Korra, especially as those decisions result in the hybridization of cultural markers. After all, they are not creating re-presentations of the real world but instead something fantastical.
Figure 1 – Aang and Zuko arrive at the Sun Warrior ruins. Still from “The Firebending Masters” (Avatar S3E13). Blu-ray release of Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Complete Series (2018)
In some cases, the translation from reality to fantasy was relatively direct. Beijing became Ba Sing Se or Gullfoss became the Shu Jing waterfall. However, the transformation was not always so clean. Consider the creation of the Sun Warrior ruins for “The Firebending Masters” (Avatar S3E13) and how many people and influences can be involved in the creation of a single BG painting (Figure 1). Garagarza recalled how Konietzko’s original ideas changed as they came into contact with those of BG designers, episode directors, and others, transforming his originally Mesopotamian vision into something more Mesoamerican (Miller 2009). The process is highly collaborative, and the television production model necessitates delegation. Animation may be the “most auteurist of film practices” (Wells 2002, p.73), but that does not mean that it has the fewest authors. Transculturation occurs as a range of inspirations and referents flow across borders via the Internet, reference books, and vacation photos into the contact zone of Nickelodeon Animation Studios, where below-the-line personnel create something new and hybrid.
Finally, these line-drawings were adapted into color paintings. In addition to previous considerations, new external factors are introduced. As a BG painter on Korra, Frederic William Stewart emphasized the need to “streamline things in a way that is repeatable and consistent” (Oatley 2017). When creating the keys for each new environment, he was conscious of how his counterparts at the overseas studios in South Korea and Japan would interpret his work from different angles and distances. Too much atmospheric fog in an establishing shot would translate into washed-out colors in close-ups (Oatley 2017). He adjusted accordingly so that the BG paintings were not overly detailed or stylized. They needed to be reproducible by the artists overseas, who would create their interpretations of the keys by Stewart and other BG painters. One such artist – Jeong Sang Woong, BG director for JM Animation – has discussed the dissonance that can exist between his team and their Stateside counterparts. For the first season of Avatar, he recalled that the hardest part was rendering the coniferous trees because that type of foliage was so rare in South Korea (“Inside the Korean Studios” 2006). The final images in the show were therefore not only Jeong’s and others’ interpretations of key BG paintings but were also Korean versions of Western referents. One person’s lived experiences – be it Asian cultural markers or Western flora – becomes another person’s fantasy. This type of transcultural navigation echoes Ian Murphy and Saint John Walker’s account of western outsourcing to Bangalore VFX companies (2019).
This step continued using real-world referents. In our interview, Garagarza recalled composing “a small booklet of references” for BG painters (F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 6 April). On Korra, Konietzko recounted how he had BG painters Emily Tetri and Stewart used photos from a trip to Antarctica as reference for the variety of colors that could appear at the South Pole (“Commentary on Civil Wars: Part 2” 2014). Tetri reiterated the importance of research. She told me, “we built large libraries of reference material from real world places, from pictures online, in books, and from our own travels” (F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 27 March). She was clear that these references were for lighting and atmosphere conditions rather than for specific spaces. They were not meant to signify Asian-ness but instead convey a real-world specificity in the service of hyper-realism. In all three accounts, concerns over fidelity to the real world, of mimesis – both in terms of authenticity and of hyper-realism – were a factor in the transcultural melding and rendering of referents into BG paintings. In the balance between mimesis and fantasy, the process of BG painting favors the former.
Figure 2 – Jinora is inducted as a master at Air Temple Island. Still from “Venom of the Red Lotus” (Korra S3E13). Blu-ray release of The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change (2014).
Once again, like with the initial designs, these paintings are not direct re-presentations of the real world. Sometimes, the original colors would clash with established aesthetics of the franchise as seen when BG painter Lauren Zurcher transformed Buddhist temples into an Air Nomad temple in “Venom of the Red Lotus” (Korra S3E13, Figure 2). On the BG painting, Konietzko wrote:
Nearly every one of our reference photos of Buddhist temple interiors were predominantly red. So Lauren [Zurcher] had the challenge of converting the color scheme to one that would fit the Air Nomad aesthetic while still conveying the same feeling as those real-life temples. (DiMartino, Konietzko and Dos Santos 2015, p.169)
Even when fidelity gives way to fantasy and internal consistency, there remains a continued emphasis on conveying the “feeling” of a place, that its spirit is the source of the purported authenticity as opposed to any surface element. In the production of these BG paintings, the external factors of streamlining, authenticity, hyper-realism, and internal consistency all affect how referents are transformed into and rendered as their fantastical counterparts. The following examples examine this mixing and altering of cultural referents in the context of transculturation.
The Fire Nation in Avatar: Hybridization and multifaceted fantasy cultures
Although they serve as the primary antagonists in Avatar, the Fire Nation – meaning the geographic place – is rarely featured in the first two seasons, and its few appearances are usually restricted to flashbacks. The first episode set largely on Fire Nation land is “The Winter Solstice, Part 2: Avatar Roku” (Avatar S2E08), when the heroes visit the Fire Sage’s temple. In the preceding episode, the protagonist sees the location while on a spiritual journey (Figure 3). A hexagonal gray pagoda juts out of the volcanic topography. Each of its five levels is segmented by a black overhang with red trim and a golden underside. On alternating sides, the overhangs extend into three points, the ornamental tip of each curls up in the likeness of a red flame.
Figure 3 – Aang’s spiritual journey takes him to the Fire Sage’s temple. Still from “The Winter Solstice Part 1: The Spirit World” (Avatar S1E07). Blu-ray release of Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Complete Series (2018).
Tasked with designing the exterior of this building, Dankiewicz found inspiration in the Yellow Crane Tower located in Wuhan, China. The BG designer described this discovery as his “great triumph” and recalled Konietzko’s enthusiasm upon first seeing it (F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 19 February). Concerning this location, DiMartino and Konietzko wrote, “we thought that the curling, flame-like rooftop corners were a perfect motif for Fire Nation architecture” (2010, p.52). The aesthetic was both appropriately fiery and appropriately traditionally Chinese, extending those qualities to the fictional culture with which the design would be associated. That said, the Fire Nation does not function as a direct stand-in for China, as Chinese referents were dominant in the construction of the other fantasy cultures. However, in our interview, Dankiewicz pointed out that the “flames” that the co-creators had described as so perfect for the Fire Nation were actually either dolphins or fish (F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 19 February). The Yellow Crane Tower – or, at least, the current iteration of it – sits along the Yangtze River, hence the aquatic motif. Elements of a real-world referent were intentionally altered to suit the needs of the show. Similarly, when Will Weston painted the final BG, he used the Fire Nation’s established color scheme of red, gold, and gray whereas the Yellow Crane Tower is primarily orange, yellow, and white. Like the air temple from Korra, the specificity of the referent was obscured in favor of fantasy and internal consistency. Without the particulars from the original building, the preserved “feeling” was of its being traditionally Chinese. For the remainder of the first season of Avatar, Dankiewicz’s design and Weston’s rendering of the Fire Sage’s temple served as the predominant model for the Fire Nation aesthetic. In this instance, the fantasy world-building privileged consistency over mimesis.
Figure 4 – Zuko attends a war meeting in the Fire Lord’s throne room. Still from “The Storm” (Avatar S1E12). Blu-ray release of Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Complete Series (2018).
As the series progressed, the architecture of this fictional culture evolved, with Garagarza overseeing an expansion in the pool of referents. Her first assignment as a BG designer was the Fire Lord’s throne room seen in a flashback for the episode “The Storm” (Avatar S1E12, Figure 4). DiMartino and Konietzko wrote about giving Gargarza three instructions: “Egyptian, Chinese, scary” (2010, p.61). When I asked her about this design, she specifically named the Great Hypostyle Hall in Karnak, Egypt as an inspiration, presumably for the long rows of large and ornate columns (F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 7 March). Images of the Yellow Crane Tower and the Great Hypostyle Hall flowed into a contact zone in the United States where a BG designer melded them together in order to convey Chinese-ness, Egyptian-ness, and scariness. The resulting fantastical image was, therefore, the product of transculturation.
Ahead of the second season of Avatar, Garagarza was promoted to BG supervisor, a position she held for the remainder of the series. Henceforth, she started receiving primary credit from the co-creators for the BG designs. The third and final season, set almost entirely within the borders of the Fire Nation, gave her and her team an opportunity to further expand that culture’s aesthetics. For the struggling town in the episode “The Painted Lady” (Avatar S3E05), Garagarza cited the floating fishing villages in Halong Bay, Vietnam as influences (F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 7 March). For the affluent resorts on Ember Island seen in the episode “The Beach” (Avatar S3E05), Konietzko credited the BG supervisor for incorporating various Thai elements (“Audio Commentary – Chapter 5: The Beach” 2008). Finally, her team’s designs for the aforementioned Sun Warrior ruins envisioned the precursors of the Fire Nation as more reminiscent of the Mayans than of the Chinese (DiMartino and Konietzko 2010, p. 156). Across these three examples, the BG designers under Garagarza combined referents from a range of non-Western sources in the creation of an original and multifaceted fantasy culture. In doing so, those real-world cultures were reduced to signifiers of region, class, and time as opposed to of their own specific and nuanced cultural identities. Vietnam is flattened in order to be associated with poverty. Thailand becomes a signifier for wealth and tropical vacations. The Mayans convey a lost civilization. Overlaying all of these signifiers, Chinese cultural markers are used as a synecdoche for Asian-ness. At no point does the show directly re-present any of these cultures; their elements are always hybridized, de-contextualized, and fantasticized. While internal consistency is preserved – the aforementioned locations are unquestionably marked as part of the Fire Nation – the use of different sources allowed the BG designers to depict aesthetic variations based on diegetic factors.
As Avatar progressed into its later seasons, the aesthetics for the different fictional cultures grew more complex as the art department combined elements from additional sources in order to depict variations and subsets within those nations. This kind of transculturation also exists diegetically in the fantasy world, as the four distinct nations come into contact with one another. The first season features numerous Fire Nation colonies, depicted in BG paintings as a mixture of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom architecture. In Korra, these colonies become the United Republic of Nations, a cosmopolitan melting pot. Transculturation continues to be a central theme in the sequel series, where elements of these fantastical cultures evolve and develop variations, as seen in the second case study.
The Metal Clan in Korra: Western referents and Asian signifiers
An independent part of the Earth Kingdom, the Metal Clan was introduced and prominently featured in the third and fourth seasons of Korra. The setting made its first appearance in the episode “The Metal Clan” (Korra S3E05), when the protagonists visit the city of Zaofu. The episode boasts many emblematic examples of the Metal Clan aesthetic, including the Beifong Estate – designed by Sung and painted by Tetri (DiMartino, Konietzko and Dos Santos 2014, p.74). Against an imposing mountain range, a large metal building stretches out in elegant geometric patterns. Before it lies a vast green courtyard. In the foreground, rows of moss-covered columns line a river flowing into a waterfall, flanked by ornate metal tiers. The establishing shot for this location frames the space differently than the painting featured in the art book, suggesting that this particular image may have been one of the variations produced by Sung and Tetri’s overseas counterparts (Figure 5).
Figure 5 – Korra and Opal practice Airbending at the Beifong Estate. Still from “The Metal Clan” (Korra S3E05). Blu-ray release of The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change (2014).
When discussing this and other examples of Metal Clan architecture, Konietzko has repeatedly referenced the Art Deco movement as opposed to the Asian and nonwestern influences he would usually cite (“Commentary on The Metal Clan” 2014). In the art book, he wrote:
Zaofu was an inspiring location for me to art direct. I gathered Art Deco photo reference of architecture, interior design, furniture, sculpture, lighting fixtures, clothing, jewelry, etc. When it came time for the designers to start generating concepts for this episode, I went through the reference folder with each of them, pointing out the design elements I liked best, and how I wanted them to think about streamlining the complex aesthetic down to its essentials so it could be reproduced repeatedly for animation. (DiMartino, Konietzko and Dos Santos 2015, p.71)
With a streamlined version of Art Deco as a key part of his personal vision, Konietzko wanted to convey certain characteristics of the fantasy culture. Therefore, this choice of referent warrants further consideration. Art Deco is an art style or movement developed and popularized in western Europe and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s (Hillier 1968, p.13). It was defined initially by geometric patterns and zigzags and then later by streamlined curves (Duncan 1988, p.8; Windover 2012, p.2; Robins 2017, p.5). A modern style, Art Deco looked toward the future through an optimistic or utopian lens (Windover 2012, pp.263-64; Robins 2017, p.2). In the words of Michael Windover, it was what modernity “should look like” even when at odds with the economic reality of the time (2012, p.7 and p.30). In application, Art Deco came to represent the ideals of social mobility and individual pleasure, becoming associated with places of luxury and leisure (Duncan 1988, p.180; Alff 1991, pp.60-61; Windover 2012, p. 11 and p.20). The elegant and streamlined aesthetics signified wealth and sophistication in the machine age (Duncan 1988, p.8). In addition to visually differentiating the Metal Clan from the other nations, the imitation of Art Deco extends these qualities to the fantasy culture. This art style marks the setting as part of an age of mechanization and modernity. It also conveys that Zaofu is the “city of the future” – to quote Konietzko (“Commentary on The Metal Clan” 2014) – one where most of the citizens lead lives of middle-class luxury and leisure. Even reformed criminals can leave their past behind and become the best version of themselves.
Given how American architecture – especially New York skyscrapers – have become such a dominant representation of the style (Duncan 1988, p.180; Robins 2017, p.2), it is tempting to read Art Deco exclusively as a cultural signifier of American-ness. However, that would be a limiting conceptualization. Not only is Art Deco a product of transculturation, drawing on a range of international inspirations, it was also adopted and adapted for numerous local contexts (Hillier and Escritt 1997, p.188; Windover 2012, p. 60). In addition to specific European art movements, scholars have identified the appropriation of stylistic elements and motifs from non-Western and indigenous cultures. The most commonly cited ones are those of Ancient Egypt (Duncan 1988, p.8; Windover 2012, p.5), Native Americans (Hillier 1968, p. 40; Robins 2017, p. 4), and African tribes (Duncan 1988, p.6; Alff 1991, p.58; Robins 2017, p.4). Bevis Hillier and Bridget Elliot even position the development and popularization of Art Deco in the context of “Egyptomania” following the unearthing of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 (1968, p. 52; 2008, p.115). Konietzko has noted the history behind these aesthetics, commenting on the roundabout way that Egyptian designs had influenced the ones for this fantasy culture (“Commentary on Enemy at the Gates” 2015; “Commentary on Battle Zaofu” 2015). The manifestation of Art Deco as a signifier of modernization and urbanization varies across nations (2012, p. 36). What Art Deco architecture looks like and signifies is based on local contexts, as noted in accounts of the style in Bombay (Alff 1991), Mexico City (Sluis 2016), and Shanghai (Xhu and Dai 2011). In choosing to emulate Art Deco, Konietzko may have had certain stated intentions in mind. However, that does not mean that the resulting images do not carry additional meanings beyond his control. The aesthetics of the Metal Clan recall not only the modernism of New York but also of Bombay, Mexico City, and Shanghai. Art Deco is not only a signifier of hybridity, from American-ness to Indian-ness, Mexican-ness, and Shanghai-ness.
In my interview with her, Sung further complicated this reading. While she did confirm Art Deco as an inspiration after being prompted, she primarily recalled being instructed to use Asian referents for Zaofu. She specifically recounted Konietzko directing her to emulate “Chinese terraces” for the Beifong estate as well as to think through how the Metal Clan would have built them (F.M. Agnoli 2018, pers.comm., 17 February). This testimony demonstrates the importance of looking deeper than the official production narratives, revealing a continued line of Asian referents that was not publicized. It also foregrounds the question of why Konietzko and Nickelodeon have focused on Art Deco and not other referents. As previously discussed, Art Deco carries with it certain connotations that help differentiate this fictional culture. Zaofu is a modern utopia where the heroes can feel safe. The communication of those qualities is ultimately more important than highlighting the continued use of overtly Chinese or Asian referents. Those latter aspects are conveyed and explored elsewhere, in other production narratives concerning other corners of the world.
In order to build this fantasy world, BGs were produced by blending various sources in order to depict distinct and multifaceted cultures. The process flattened and de-contextualized real-world referents into signifiers not of their specific cultures but of attributes associated with that culture. For conveying identities beyond and in addition to being Asian, the BG designers and painters have used referents from a range of nations, cultures, and eras. Just as the art department on Avatar was able to explore different subsets of the Fire Nation by emulating elements of Egyptian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Mayan architecture, the crew of Korra built a utopian city by combining Art Deco with Chinese aesthetics. In doing so, their work becomes as transcultural as the 20th century art movement that had inspired them.
By examining the BGs of Avatar and Korra, this article has sought to understand how and by what means animation can communicate different identities in the context of transculturation. High fantasy world-building is a multi-step process involving various personnel and real-world referents. The resulting border crossing of artifacts, ideas, and people into the contact zone of Nickelodeon Animation Studio contributed to this franchise’s transcultural identity. In the acquisition, transformation, and rendering of these referents into BGs, the crewmembers of Avatar and Korra balanced a series of factors related to mimesis. Authenticity is evoked by the oft-cited research that emphasized the fidelity of the fantastical designs to their real-world inspirations, even when the resulting link is defined more by an amorphous “feeling” than by visual accuracy. As a necessity of television animation production, personnel must select which details to preserve and which to streamline away without sacrificing that specificity. This need was balanced by the stylistic drive toward hyper-realism, most notably via the simulation of cinematic techniques but also in crewmembers being instructed to think through the practicality of the architecture. BGs made with these considerations in mind helped ground their more fantastical elements. Finally, internal consistency allowed for the BG designers and painters to develop and explore different subsets of these fantasy cultures while maintaining stylistic cohesion. As can be seen in the development of the architecture for the Fire Nation in Avatar and of the Metal Clan in Korra, all four of these factors contribute to the transcultural nature of the Avatar franchise.
Francis M. Agnoli is a doctoral candidate at the University of East Anglia, where his research focuses on the ascription of race to animated bodies in contemporary U.S. television animation. He has previously earned his MA at the University of Iowa and his BA at Loyola University Chicago. His work has been published in the edited collection Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018).
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© Francis M. Agnoli
Edited by Francis M. Agnoli and Rayna Denison, University of East Anglia