5 Reasons Why Studying Animation will Improve your Storytelling Chops

If this is a storytelling blog, why do I focus so much on animation?

First of all, because I love animation. I’ve always had an affinity for the art form and I studied it in school. But more importantly, animation is particularly well-suited to story analysis. Allow me to elaborate:

  1. Animation is collaborative. Although there are exceptions, it takes a lot of people to make an animated work, especially if we’re looking at higher budget productions such as those that come out of studios. That means a lot of peoples’ eyes are on every piece of the puzzle, making it a highly intentional art form.
  2. Animation is expensive. The economics of animation force producers to know what they’re doing before production begins. The script and storyboard must be locked before the animators do their work, or else the producer is throwing money down the drain. (Many pieces do go into animation when the script isn’t locked, but that is never ideal).
  3. Story comes first. Because animation is expensive, it’s necessary to work out the story before you begin. Unlike live action, in which film is cheap and it’s possible to reshape a story in the cutting room, animators usually don’t have that luxury. That economic reality puts pressure on getting the story right up front. And because it’s collaborative, there are usually several writers, story/concept artists, and storyboarders all working with the director to shape the story before a single frame is animated.
  4. Everything is intentional. A character is wearing a particular outfit? Someone designed it that way. A piece of seaweed floats in a particular pattern? Someone animated it that way. The lighting gives a particular mood? Someone rendered it that way. In this art form, every frame is created by a human hand and guided by human thought (even if a computer is used). There are no accidents in animation, and that makes it ripe for artistic analysis.
  5. The production is iterative. First comes a concept. A story treatment flushes out that concept and gives it an arc. Next, the script comes, adding details through plot and dialogue. The script gets more nuanced as it’s revised. The storyboards give visual direction to the script. The character and background designs (or modeling/texturing) add richness and grounding to the characters and world. The animators give life and detail through performance. The lighters/renderers/inkers finalize the mood through lighting and color effects. It’s a granular, pain-staking process which gives the director the opportunity to create a full, rich piece in which every detail is considered.

These factors make animation conducive to story analysis.

Not all animated projects succeed. Some of them are rushed, so that the story hasn’t been developed well. Sometimes the director is unable to pull together all the variant pieces into a unified story arc or mood. Sometimes there just aren’t enough resources in the story, design, or animation departments to make it shine. But when all the pieces come together, a strong script wil beget a beautiful movie that we can study and blog about for years to come!


Song of the Sea

Welcome! In this video, I provide a visual analysis of the story and design of Song of the Sea, the new animated feature from the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon.

The visual language of this film is beautifully resonant with its story. Watch the video to see how the film’s design and composition complements its storytelling.

Song of the Sea is nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar this year. It is directed by Tomm Moore.

The Legend of Korra: Depth and Texture

One of the reasons so many of us loved The Legend of Korra was because everything about the show–the world, the characters, the art, the plots–felt rich. The people and places of Korra were so well-developed it’s almost as if they were real. It’s not an easy feat to create a show with so much dimension. Today I’m going to break down some of the techniques the creators used to reach this level of depth and texture.

Texture in Character

Texture can appear anywhere: in characters, sets, costumes, dialogue, animation, and so on. Let’s look at two of my favorite characters, the brothers Mako and Bolin, to see how they were given texture.

Mako and Bolin

Mako and Bolin

We can all recognize when a character feels flat or one-dimensional. But how do you go about giving characters dimension? I wasn’t in the Legend of Korra writers’ room (except in my dreams), but I imagine that the show’s creators answered character questionnaires–like these from Gotham Writers Workshop–about all their main characters. That’s a great first step to developing your characters (and if you don’t do it formally on paper, at least do it in conversation with your writing partners).

But characters really come to life when you give them space to surprise you. You must let them break the mold of their character questionnaire.

Consistency vs. Variation

They key is to give your characters grounding in some consistent character traits while allowing them to be human. For example, Mako is quiet, serious, and brooding while Bolin is goofy and spontaneous. However, they are not ONLY those things. If Mako and Bolin went around being nothing but serious and goofy all the time, they’d be second-rate sidekicks. What gives them dimension is BOTH their consistency AND their variation from their central traits.

For example, Mako has a short temper. He often has bouts of fiery anger that go against his usual calm self. He can also be extremely tender around women, letting his emotional sides show. But at the end of the day, Mako always comes back to his centered, thoughtful self.


Bolin, on the other hand, loves to laugh and never shies away from expressing himself. He’s a great foil to his brother. But Bolin isn’t only comic relief. He shows his tender and thoughtful sides when he talks to his girlfriend Opal, or when he decides to turn against Kuvira. We saw Bolin mature over the course of the series, going from a brash and self-centered player to a more serious man of politics.


Mako and Bolin’s central character traits help them feel grounded. But if they were too consistent, they wouldn’t feel human. It’s a delicate balance to strike, and it’s the key to creating textured characters.


Mako and Bolin get even more interesting when you consider their relationships to one another and to their family. We learn early on that these two boys were orphaned. For the first two seasons of Korra, it appears that Mako and Bolin have no family. But then, in season 3, the brothers go to Ba Sing Se, where they meet their enormous extended family. A great reversal!


The writers weren’t content to say Mako and Bolin are orphans, let’s leave it at that. They recognized that every orphan has his own story. They dug deeper by asking:

  • How did Mako and Bolin’s parents die?
  • How did their parents get together in the first place?
  • What brought them, an earth bender and a fire bender, to Republic City?
  • Where are the families that they left behind?
  • Is it possible their families are still alive? Can Mako and Bolin meet them?

Yes! Mako and Bolin can meet their long-lost family. This was a stroke of brilliance because it gave the boys a history. It connected them to the realities of society and geography in their world.

An old letter and photograph from Mako and Bolin's father

An old letter and photograph from Mako and Bolin’s father

Nothing exists in a vacuum. It’s not enough to pigeonhole your characters. Dig deeper. How did they get that way? What forces in the world brought them to where they are today?

The Beifongs


As a closing exercise, let’s take a look at a different family. In season 1, we met Lin Beifong, who was an interesting character in her own right. Again, I wasn’t in the writer’s room, but I imagine the writers asked themselves these questions:

  • How did Lin become the person who she is?
  • What family dynamics in her childhood made her so hard and unforgiving?

The answer they came up with: Lin had a half-sister, Su, who was a bit of a floozy. Lin and Su were polar opposites who fought for the attention and respect of their mother. In a major family incident, Su was arrested and Lin was left to clean up the mess. But the writers didn’t stop there. They asked:

  • Where is Su now?
  • Are Lin’s feelings resolved?
  • If these sisters were to meet today, what would their relationship be like?

As soon as they started digging deeper, they realized they had a story there. By asking the right questions, the creators revealed depth in their fictional world.

The creators built out Su’s life and came up with this family tree.


The Beifong Family Tree

It was a risky move to introduce so many new characters in season 3, especially since they were only distantly related to one of the adult side characters (Lin). And it must have been a daunting task to breathe life into all of them.

But the writers pulled it off, and brilliantly. They spent the time developing each of the Beifongs into fully-fleshed out people. Su, Baatar Jr., and Opal all turned out to be complex characters with their own nuances. They all show texture through consistency and variation. Baatar Sr., Huan, Wei, and Wing were side characters, so it’s okay that those characters were more one-dimensional.

By weaving this large family into the fabric of Korra’s world, the show creators made a rich, vibrant, and textured tapestry.

For my closing argument, I give you this image of Huan, the artist, studying his sculpture.


A brilliant image because you can see all of the different characters expressed through their faces. Korra’s compassion. Su’s warmth. Bolin’s cluelessness. Lin’s hardness.

This is why we love The Legend of Korra. Because the writers, designers, and animators never got lazy. They used every line of dialogue and every frame of animation to reveal the humanity of their characters and their world.

Thank you for taking this journey with me!

The Legend of Korra: Plotting for High Stakes

Today we’re continuing to look at The Legend of Korra. Previous posts in this series have explored what makes the character and setting so strong. Today we’ll delve into the show’s plot. Specifically, we’ll look at the villains that created high stakes situations for Korra and her allies.

High Stakes

If nothing’s at stake for your characters, your audience won’t care. In his legendary screenwriting book Story, Robert McKee explains that

The measure of the value of a character’s desire is in direct proportion to the risk he’s willing to to take to achieve it; the greater the value, the greater the risk.

In other words, your character will only be willing to risk a lot if he/she wants something very badly.

There are many different ways to create high-stakes situations. The stakes could be personal (e.g. the character wants to get the girl or redeem himself). The stakes could be national (e.g. the character wants to defend her people or win the war). The stakes could be global (e.g. the character wants to save the world).

In the action/adventure genre, the central character plays the role of a hero. Just like many other heroes, Korra’s goal is global: to save the world. But it’s not that simple. Not every hero is the same. Some heroes want glory. Some heroes want revenge. Some heroes want to impress a love interest. What is Korra’s ultimate goal? Korra bears a great weight of responsibility. She is the avatar, a unique person in her world who is tasked with maintaining peace and balance. So, Korra is fulfilling a duty out of a sense of honor.

It’s incredibly difficult to write world-threatening stakes season after season without the show becoming repetitive. In The Last Airbender, Aang fought one enemy over the course of three seasons. In Korra, however, a new enemy is introduced every season.

The Equalists rally

The Equalists rally

In season 1, Amon threatens to wipe away bending from the face of the planet. This was a terrific high-stakes scenario for the show’s opening season. The creators knew that most of the audience would be familiar with The Last Airbender, so they didn’t want to repeat another war scenario. Instead, they created a subversive revolutionary group that put the heart of the Avatar world in jeopardy. They knew that their audience, and the characters, would care deeply about these stakes. But, importantly, it has quite a different flavor from Aang’s journey. Korra’s not exactly stopping an evil empire from conquering the world. It’s a new angle.

The Spirit Portal

The Spirit Portal

In season 2, the creators again took a brand new angle. This time, not just the physical world was at stake, but also its connection to the spirit world. The risk was very high on many accounts: If Korra didn’t stop Unalaq, a dark avatar would be born, her own connection to her past lives would be severed, and Unalaq would bring chaos upon Republic City.

Korra loses her connection to her past lives

Korra loses her connection to her past lives

Season 3 introduced us to a new type of enemy, a band of super-bending criminals. The season was intriguing because the writers kept us guessing what Zaheer’s motives were. As it turned out, they were seeking to depose all the world’s leaders. This took the primary villain type we saw in The Last Airbender (the fire lord who wanted to expand his empire) and turned that setup on its head. Instead of an all-powerful megalomaniac, Zaheer was an anarchist who wanted destroy those who were in power.

But what really made Season 3 stand out was that Zaheer was targeting Korra specifically. In season 3, shit got real because the stakes became personal.

Korra is captured

Korra is captured

I’ve already talked at length about why this high-stakes situation made for good character development, so I won’t get into it again.

What I’m pointing out here is that the show’s creators were able to find an interesting, unique, and new high-stakes situation for every season of the show. In order to do this, they had to ask questions like:

  • What does the audience care about?
  • What does Korra care about most deeply?
  • How can we expand our world by introducing a villain from a new angle?

That’s how they found a fresh plot, and a new story to tell, every season.

In Book 4, the creators went back to their typical arch-villain archetype. Kuvira, like Fire Lord Ozai, was bent on conquering land for her empire. I admit, this did feel a little rehashed, but it wasn’t too bad. In the end, I believe the creators got away with it because we had seen so many different villain types over the previous 3 seasons, and especially because Zaheer was such a different type of villain and he was instrumental in taking down Kuvira. Korra’s journey against Kuvira took a very different shape from Aang’s journey against Ozai, which also helped make their plots feel distinct.

My next post will be the final one in the Legend of Korra blog series. I’ll be discussing texture and depth.

The Legend of Korra: Worldbuilding, continued

Part 2: The Earth Nation

Now that we’ve established some worldbuilding basics, let’s get deeper into the various cultures in Korra’s world. We’ll focus on the 3 major cities of the Earth Nation: Republic City, Ba Sing Se, and Zaofu. We’ll compare and contrast their architecture, fashions, manners, and culture, then discuss what that those signifiers tell us about their respective city’s history, economy, norms, and morals.

A Pluralistic Society

Republic City Central Square

One of the things that makes Korra’s world so rich is its pluralism. There are no monoliths of culture and politics (except perhaps the institution of the avatar itself). It’s a world with hundreds of different ideologies, technologies, and styles. We see this best in Republic City. Just count the different styles of clothing in this crowd shot.


This is a city that brings together people of many different backgrounds, just like many real-life cities.

Pluralism is one of the things the creators of Korra got totally right, and it’s one of the things that made the show so exciting. Think back to The Last Airbender. In that series, we saw very well-defined nations, including small towns and cities with their individuated styles. That was a pluralistic world as a whole, but there was very little mixing. As time advanced, the world of Avatar modernized and people started coming together in the United Republic. By the time Korra came around, Republic City was a thriving metropolis representing all four nations.

The fact that we saw the world modernize and change made it so much more believable. Real-world societies are dynamic, constantly shifting. The creators accomplished a great feat by considering how they wanted their cities and cultures to evolve over time. In this case, they enlisted the forces of modernity to create a pluralistic society.

But it’s not enough to throw a bunch of mismatched people together and call your city pluralistic. That’s not how it works. Real cities, even pluralistic ones, coalesce around a unifying culture. Consider that New York, Rio De Janeiro, and Tokyo all have their unique city cultures, even though they’re composed of innumerable subcultures.


The people of Republic City, like people in many real places, come together around sports. And their sport of choice is pro bending, a 3-on-3 combat duel involving a fire, earth, and water bender on each side.

When building a world, you want to ask questions like:
What sports do they watch?
What food do they eat?
What type of art do they enjoy?
What rituals do they have?

Pro Bending is the perfect fictional sport for Republic City. It’s fast-paced and aggressive, which suits the modernizing city’s appetite, it brings together the 3 different nations/bending types, and it alludes to some of the dark and seedy elements of the city. A sport modeled around bending is ingenious, and I’m so happy the creators introduced it to this world.

Architecture and Fashion


Architecture is something that unifies a city’s people. No matter where you go, citizens are always chatting about the buildings in their skyline because it defines their collective style. It’s part of their identity. As you can see above, Republic City is made mostly of large, rectangular stone buildings, with some steel skyscrapers in the background. The tall buildings are of a Western-style construction with some serious Asian flair, which is consistent with the style and time period (early 20th century-like). The state of the city’s infrastructure (it’s clean, functional, and aesthetically pleasing) implies a bustling, growing city. It’s a well-organized, planned city, which implies a stable and effective government. We can imagine there’s an active economy and that Republic city is a proud and victorious capital.

Buildings in Ba Sing Se's Outer Ring

The slums in Ba Sing Se’s Outer Ring

Compare that to these old, decrepit buildings in the Earth Kingdom’s capital, Ba Sing Se. These are slums, of course. The houses are in poor condition and the streets are narrow. Homes are crammed next to one another haphazardly. You immediately see a difference from Republic City.

Take a look at the various strata of Ba Sing Se:

Outer Ring of Ba Sing Se

Outer Ring of Ba Sing Se

Middle Ring of Ba Sing Se

Middle Ring of Ba Sing Se

Inner Ring of Ba Sing Se

Inner Ring of Ba Sing Se

This is a segregated city. The poor, middle class, and nobles live in three sectioned strata, which already says a lot about the society. The Queen’s palace is at the center of the city, both literally and figuratively. When we see it, we imagine all the resources poured into building and maintaining that golden structure, and what that means for the outer parts of the city.

Still, there’s a common style among all three levels, inspired by what looks like Qing Chinese architecture and fashion. Even the Outer Ring has some public infrastructure (a rail line, markets) and on the whole it appears that the city functions in balance. Aside from occasional barbarian raids in the Outer Ring, Ba Sing Se is rather stable until Zaheer attacks and kills the Earth Queen. That event immediately throws the city into chaos, of course, because the whole foundation of the city was built around her.

The Earth Queen

The Earth Queen

Then there’s Zaofu:


Metal Spires in Zaofu

Metal Spires in Zaofu

Zaofu is an ultramodern all-metal city. The buildings are unique and ethereal-looking, unlike anything we’re used to seeing in our actual world, which makes the city feel ethereal. It’s a sort of Shangri-La, governed by an enlightened family (The Beifongs) in a cultured, egalitarian manner. The citizenry appears to be completely upper middle class, comfortable, independent and enlightened.

The city is actually a set of pods with retractable metal shells, which makes it easily defensible. By necessity, the buildings are built around central spires, with the tallest buildings in the center so that the dome-shaped shell can close properly. It’s a shiny, rich, exciting city that clearly has a lot of resources. Perhaps because it’s a city of metalbenders, there is plenty of talent and access to resources to keep the city thriving well above its neighbors in the Earth Kingdom.

People of Zaofu

People of Zaofu

Everyone in Zaofu dresses similarly: flowing green robes with metal collars and other adornments. The similarity of dress indicates that the citizens are all part of a single tribe: The Metal Clan. Theirs is a specific culture with a history that dates back to Toph Beifong, the first metalbender. A heroic statue of Toph stands tall in Zaofu’s center. Her story is woven into the city’s mythology and identity.

The long, green robes are interesting. Green is the color worn across the Earth Nation, so clearly the Metal Clan is loyal to its larger national identity. The robes tell us that these are not working class people. Their loose-fitting clothes and jewelry are luxurious. The robes allow them to move around to perform their metalbending, but they are not practical clothing. Contrast their flowing robes to what Lin Beifong, an active police officer, wears–tight-fitting metal armor.

The necklaces, collars, and bracelets serve two functions. First of all, they are practical–they allow the metalbenders to hurl projectiles or cuff their enemies. But they are also ornamental–the jewelry shows off wealth and an appreciation for aesthetics.

A Dance recital in Zaofu

A Dance recital in Zaofu

In Zaofu, people are dancers, craftsmen, and artists. They are wealthy and joyous, striving to live comfortable and meaningful lives.

All the distinctions between these cities become very important in Book 4, when Kuvira attempts to unify her Earth Empire.

Kuvira captures barbarians in the Earth Empire

Kuvira captures barbarians in the Earth Empire

Kuvira, a Zaofu native, takes the Metal Clan style in an aggressive direction. The sharp angles of her shoulders, belt, and boots convey a military authority. She has kept the green color palette because she is an Earth Nationalist.

As Kuvira goes on her conquering spree, she encounters resistance across the Earth Kingdom, first from the king of Ba Sing Se, and then from the Metal Clan of Zaofu. The different cities react very differently to Kuvira’s invasion because they have unique histories and cultures. See, everything about the behavior and mindset of these cities has been thought out in context of their place in the world. In that way setting can never be separated from plot.


I mentioned earlier that food is an excellent way to get into the particular culture of a place, so as a final example, we’ll illustrate the different eating styles in these cities.

Republic City has a plethora of restaurants, markets, and homes where people gather to eat. There’s not one specific way in which its citizens eat, because the city is a mix of cultures.

Tenzin's family sits down for dinner

Tenzin’s family sits down for dinner

We already saw this picture when we were talking about the Air Nation, but I remind you of it since it’s a good example of a typical family eating in Republic City.

Mako and Bolin eat with their family in Ba Sing Se

Mako and Bolin eat with their family in Ba Sing Se

These Ba Sing Se citizens sit down to eat very modestly. As poor residents of the Outer Ring, they have just a few simple food items.

A wider shot of Mako and Bolin's family dinner

A wider shot of Mako and Bolin’s family dinner

That’s a lot of people and not much food to go around!

But on the other hand, this sitting down to eat is clearly an important ritual for this large family. The table is in a privileged location in the center of their home, and the entire family gathers to meet their honored guests Mako and Bolin over a meal. They eat family-style. That is to say, the food is plated for everyone to share in the center of the table, and each person takes what they wish for themselves. You get the feeling that this is a precious, intimate moment for everybody, even if there’s not an excess of food.

Eating in Zaofu

Eating in Zaofu

On the other hand, eating in Zaofu is a luxurious experience. The meal has been prepared by a chef who describes the various delicacies. Each person’s meal is plated immaculately, with an expert presentation in ornate metalware.

Importantly, this is still a family experience. The table is shaped so that everyone can see each other and converse, and the environment is relaxed and social. Su takes her spot at the head of the table, but she’s not authoritative or stuffy. It’s a joyous gathering of a wealthy family. Never mind Lin’s scowl. She’s just angry for personal reasons.

I guess everyone’s got their issues.

Thanks for hanging out with me! Next time, we’ll get deeper into the plot structure of Legend of Korra.

The Legend of Korra: Worldbuilding

Part 1: The New Air Nation

Let’s start with this awesome shot from the first episode of Book 4:

Kai and Opal spot a clan of barbarian raiders below their flying bison

Kai and Opal spot some barbarian raiders below

And off they go!

They leap and . . . off they go!

I know you all loved the moment that Kai and Opal spread their wings. I sure felt my heart rate pick up, and I whispered the words “I love this show so much.” It was an exceptionally surprising and thrilling moment to see the airbenders take flight in their brand new uniforms.

There’s no doubt that the Avatar world has some of the best wardrobe we’ve ever seen in animation (if not all of television…Game of Thrones excepted). But what’s the big deal? Why are so many avatar fans are obsessed with the show’s wardrobe? (Google “Avatar wardrobes”) It’s not just because it’s stylish (but also that). It’s because the show’s wardrobe is integrated into the world. It’s an excellent example of worldbuilding.

Kai and Opal’s costumes weren’t just some fancy new thing that an illustrator came up with out of nowhere. They were part of a long tradition of Air Nomad robes, updated for the new Air Nation and its peacekeeping mission. Look at how the color palette and patterns of the old robes were preserved. It’s still a crimson body and saffron collar, but it’s fitted for a new function: allowing airbenders to glide as they chase down bad guys.

Tenzin's robes

Tenzin’s robes

Traditional Air Nation Robes

Traditional Air Nation Robes

This isn’t just about costumes. It’s about making the audience feel like they’re witnessing a full, rich, and dynamic world.

The Iceberg Effect


Look at how tiny the tip of the iceberg is when compared to the big hulking chunk underwater. The audience will only ever see the parts of the world that peek above the surface. But there’s a whole lot more underneath. Consider some visible and invisible aspects of culture:

Above the Surface: What the audience sees
Fashion, Architecture, Etiquette, Food, Arts, Rituals, Political Structures*
Below the Surface: What the audience infers
Values, Morals, Religious Ideas, History, Cosmology, Philosophy, Economy*

Above or below, these are all part of the culture! Just like the tip of the iceberg cannot exist without the body of ice underneath, styles and manners cannot be divorced from the historical and social forces that brought them to existence.

Fashion is a great example. To understand why people dressed the way they did in Victorian times, you have to look beyond bodices and tailcoats. Victorian fashions were a symptom of cultural values concerning gender, sexuality, class, race, industry, geography, transportation, etc. It’s all a single unit. You can’t think about the surface aspects of culture without considering the foundations underneath. Even the T-shirts, hoodies, and jeans we wear today are reflective of our modern attitudes towards gender and sexuality, democracy, meritocracy, irony, apathy, etc.

The way an audience experiences the world is going to be from the outside in. They’ll see the tip of the iceberg first, and then they’ll infer what’s underneath. As cultural details reveal themselves, the audience will gradually come to an understanding of what makes this society tick.

The writer or director has the awesome responsibility of deciding which parts of the world to show when. If the world is revealed too fast, the audience will be bored. Too slow and the audience will be lost. Too inconsistent, and you’ve violated the audience’s trust. Revealing the details of a world is a monumental task, which is why so many creators get it wrong, and why an audience is thrilled when we get it right.

Now, when the creators build the world, they build it from the bottom up. First they create the body of the iceberg, and then they decide what floats to the top, above the surface. The way the viewers experience the world is the opposite of how the creators write it.

That is to say, creators must have a solid understanding of the historical, political, religious, and social forces in their world before they attempt to adorn it with details. Before I wrote my epic sci-fi novel, I wrote a full history detailing how and why the world got to where it was. I took into account trade, war, geography, mythology, race, and language. Ignoring those foundations would have led me to create an empty, superficial world.

Let’s get back to the Air Nation

Now that we have a solid understanding of worldbuilding mechanics, here are some pretty pictures!

The Northern Air Temple

The Northern Air Temple

To illustrate my point about icebergs, look at the architecture and geography of the Northern Air Temple. The Air Nomads built this temple in line with their practical needs and moral values. The Temple is situated atop a mountain, where it is protected. It has several towers, walls, and spires which make it readily accessible only to flying creatures like airbenders. This defensive structure tells us that the Air Nomads were not military or aggressive, but kept to themselves. Its clean and simple form reflects their ascetic values. The way it blends into the mountain shows us that the Air Nomads sought harmony with their surroundings.

The temple fits in with the character of the Air Nation. It’s not just a pretty building (although it is that too).

Spirits Near the Air Temple

Spirits Near the Air Temple

Spirits gather near the Air Temple. Again, the creators didn’t draw these spirits here just because they wanted some cute critters and gorgeous composition. Having spirits near the temple is motivated by story. It shows us that spirits are attracted to this place, and not just any type of spirit, but a plurality of small, gentle, and flying creatures. The Air Nation is vegetarian and pacifist, and it’s recovering from a genocide. The detail of these spirits here reminds us of the peace and courage of the Air Nation. You certainly wouldn’t see spirits like these in an unstable, segregated city like Ba Sing Se.

Tenzin's family sits down for dinner

Tenzin’s family sits down for dinner

Rituals around food are some of the best ways to expose the nuances of a culture, because everybody needs to eat and everybody does it differently. Look at how Tenzin gathers with his family. They sit around a square table at a low height, recite their Air Nomad grace, and then eat a modest vegetarian meal. In this case, we’re getting insight not just into the culture of the Air Nation, but into Tenzin’s particular family culture.

Next time

In a large and pluralistic world like Korra’s, there are many different cultures. This adds a layer of complexity to the worldbuliding, as you have to consider how the different cities and nations interact, trade, go to war, communicate, etc. It’s like building several worlds and then making sure that they connect logically.

Next post will be super fun, as we’ll be looking at a ton of worldbuilding examples from the three major cities in the Earth Kingdom: Republic City, Ba Sing Se, and ZaoFu.

*note: Politics and Economy are both visible and invisible in unique ways, so I did not explore them here. They are important to worldbuilding, but we'll save them for different discussion.