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The Legend of Korra Creators on Their Spiritual Nicktoon and the Series’ Grand Plans

After their successful series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which ran from 2005 to 2008 and earned Nickelodeon Emmys, Annies, a Peabody, and consistently high ratings, creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko had options. But storytelling freedom lured them back to the world of Avatar. In 2012, the duo debuted Book One (that's what we call “seasons” in the Avatar world) of Legend of Korra. The series twisted the mythology, following a female Avatar, an individual with the power to bend all elements, struggling with the drama of being 17 while defending a fantastical variation of New York circa 1920. With action, romance, and a few tearjerking moments, Book One amounted to some of the most dramatic television of the year. Hayao Miyazaki may be retiring, but DiMartino and Konietzko aren't letting compelling, 2-D animation slip away just yet.

This Friday sees the debut of the second wave of Korra episodes, dubbed “Book Two: Spirits.” We talked to the collaborators on evolving their fantasy series, Miyazaki's influences on this season's themes and art, and the connective tissue that holds their sprawling universe together.

From discussions around the first season, it sounded like Korra grew from a miniseries into a regular series. Could you take advantage of that in Book Two? Knowing there would be more, are you aiming to craft a giant arc similar to The Last Airbender?Konietzko: It is a similar format to other TV shows, like 24: new season, new challenge, and new bad guy. Nickelodeon came to us at the end of 2009 with a twelve episode “mini-season” already green-lit for a new series. They let us do pretty much whatever we wanted with it, as long as it was in the Avatar universe and featured bending. Their one request was that each of the Books have its own contained arc, which was fine with Mike and me. I think it was important to the network because initially they didn’t know how many of these mini-seasons they would want to pick up! They wanted to test the waters. But they grew confident as we progressed and we were eventually lucky enough to get them to pick it up through Book Four before we even premiered Book One.

As for Mike and me, after spending six years telling one long story for Aang, we welcomed the new format. But Korra and her friends don’t reset at the end of each arc. Their character arcs continue through the entire series, and the events and developments build on each other from book to book. It all feels organic to us, and completely in keeping with the continuous story line structure we established with Avatar, basically just with more bad guys. And we like coming up with bad guys. So no, Book One is not a prelude to the rest of the series. It has just as much weight as the subsequent books, which are of similar lengths: Book Two is fourteen episodes; Books Three is thirteen episodes; Book Four is thirteen episodes; and the series is 52 episodes total.

How does the ending of Book One thematically evolve into Book Two?
DiMartino: The main link thematically between the Books is Korra’s continued spiritual growth. At the end of Book One, we see her connect with her past lives and go into the Avatar State for the first time. Book Two develops those ideas further — Korra learns more about the Avatar State, as well as a particular past life (the first Avatar). Book Two feels like a whole new adventure for Korra, but very much a continuation of her story.

Why are the new voice actors you've cast right for the new roles?
DiMartino: Richard Riehle (Bumi) is hilarious, just like his character; John Michael Higgins brings a crazy energy to Varrick; and Aubrey Plaza captures Eska’s malaise perfectly, to name a few of the new actors. We hear lots of voice auditions for new characters, and there’s always a point where we hear a voice and say, “That’s the one!”

Book One evolved the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender into an industrial age. Book Two sends Korra out of that location to interact with a fantastical “spirit” world. How delicate did you have to be in order to make that segue? Does it feel like a return to the rustic environments of Airbender?
DiMartino: Book One took place mainly in Republic City, which is the most technologically advanced city in the Avatar universe at this point. But there is so much more of the world still out there, and much of it looks similar to the locations in Avatar: The Last Airbender. In Book Two, we spend more time in the Southern Water Tribe, which has progressed a lot since the original series, but very much feels like a traditional tribal environment. One of the ideas we’re exploring in this series is the conflict between tradition and modernity, between the spiritual and technological. How do you find balance between two seemingly disparate ways of life?

Book One found ways to explore sociopolitical concepts with a clash between benders and non-benders. Does the friction between the spiritual and technological open the door for a discussion on religion? There's a hint of Princess Mononoke there.
DiMartino: I’m sure people will draw a lot of comparisons between Book Two and Princess Mononoke, and there are definitely nods to that movie, which Bryan and I both love. Book Two is more an exploration of spirituality, not religion. It’s about learning to reconnect with nature and the more ethereal aspects of the universe. It feels very mythological.

I imagine the introduction of spirits changes the rules a bit. Bryan, I have heard you are the “Comic Book Guy” of Korra, so was there a concern with breaking the rules of this fantasy world? The action could be crazier with otherworldly elements involved. 
Konietzko: Ha, if by “Comic Book Guy,” you mean the guy who pedantically defines the rules of the world, then yes, I am usually wearing that hat. We definitely discussed the basic nature and limitations of the spirits early on and kept it in check throughout Book Two. But Joaquim [Dos Santos, director] can handle any challenge we throw at him. Case in point, he storyboarded the insane fight between Korra and the spirit in the premiere episode, so I’d say he handled the spirits just fine.

Book Two introduces us to Wan, the first incarnation of the Avatar. Judging from the trailers, the animation style shifts for the flashbacks. It's illustrative. How did you settle on that look?
DiMartino: We wanted a distinctly different style for Wan’s story to help place it deep in the past from Korra’s time. We drew inspiration from ancient and traditional East Asian ink wash paintings and woodblock printing for the environments, color palettes, and stylizations of the elements. Although in many ways it is a simpler style than Korra’s normal one, it was a huge challenge to define a whole visual language just for two episodes. The storyboard artists in particular were scratching their heads for a while, trying to figure out what we were going for. In the end, everyone did incredible work. I think fans of animation will be blown away by the wizardry that Studio Mir accomplished on those two episodes. I know we are blown away by it.

In interviews, you've mentioned that what you have seen, heard, and experienced working in various parts of the world has informed your shows. Is there a specific discovery you've made that found its way into Book Two? 
DiMartino: There wasn’t a specific life event that made it into the show, but rather my own ongoing search to find that balance between living in a modern world with all its potential trappings and a more spiritually enriched existence. The Avatar world in general has been a rich place to explore those ideas.