So, one frame of Beyond the Wilds inspired me to glance at a number of other screens with regard to their composition. As a matter of warning, my expertise in such examination is based from flipping through a couple “Photography for Dummies” like guides, a film history class, and a couple art history courses (not to mention some high school art classes). Yes, I am an expert.
First up is the frame that struck me first and got me spiraling down this white rabbit hole of frozen animation. This is the scene where Korra, Jinora, and Opal, set off to find out the source of the burst of spirit energy from the spirit wilds.
Threes! Or rather, the creators divided the frame into three different slots for each of the aforementioned characters, but very neatly, placing each one in a different distance from the animated camera. In the back and center, in the background, is Jinora (mostly out of focused for the scene), to the left and in the mid-ground is Opal (slightly fuzzy) and in the foreground is Korra. The three form a triangle within the frame and each has a distinct part of the background highlighting their position. Korra has a giant spirit vine/root that points to her, drawing your attention to her; Jinora has a shadow column which contrasts with the sunlit parts of the building next to it, and Opal has a background that’s mostly dark and a different hue from the warm building of Jinora, the nearest other character.
The focal point in the frame is Jinora and you even have two vines that form a “V” that end right into her head. Focal point pops up again and again in how the creators chose to emphasize it.
The next photo caught my attention because the scene began with a giant root in the foreground blocking a significant portion of Korra, who stands in the center of the frame.
While the root obstructs our main character, its lines also draw your attention toward Korra. Additionally, Korra’s place in the frame is firmly established by the background tree trunk that centers and strengthens one’s focus on Korra. But what about that big ol’ root? It’s there for what happens next in the scene, when Korra reaches out to attempt to see a vision.
Boom! The camera remains static and Korra’s hand enters the foreground. All the lines remain the same in terms of directing one’s gaze, but additionally, Korra’s outstretched hand doesn’t break the center space of the frame that’s basically defined by that tree behind her. Your focus stays right where it’s been the entire time. Nifty!
Let’s jump ahead to the meeting of “world leaders” that our heroes will very soon crash.
Like most establishing shots in Korra, it’s beautiful to simply gaze at within itself. The use of perspective in the lines within the image and Tenzin as the focal point just draws the viewer in repeated, no matter where one’s eye starts to look, the lines just suck you in to Tenzin. You also have the eye lines of Azumi, Raiko, and Wu, which also direct to Tenzin, plus the center part of the wall descending down toward him. The frame is also balanced by the symmetry of the guards, benches, walls and columns, etc.
Another neat aspect of this shot is the placement of Raiko and Azumi. One wants to go to war, the other wants to avoid any further “foolish wars,” and naturally, they’re seated at opposite ends of the table to each other.
Let’s take a quick glance at each of the individual frames of the leaders in attendance.
Tenzin! The man already has an arrow pointed to his face, so you’re drawn to his eyes and expression. There’s other lines at play, also directing your gaze toward Tenzin’s face, the wood work behind him, as well the angles of the Republic City crest/badge. He’s also centered by the dark grey paneling. The gold circle sits behind his head almost like a saintly halo. No, this does not mean #TenzinDeathWatch is back on! But it does offer a perspective on his philosophy and stance with regard to air bender action.
Wu! Wu is centered by the light lit yellow stone behind him and also, the spirit vine that crawls from the top of the frame down behind him. For the most part, Wu stays within the width of the vine behind him for his time in the frame. You also have the line of the carpet from the door over his shoulder directing your gaze toward our Earth King, the lines directing down toward him from both the arch of the column to his left and the overhang from the door to his right. Observation: of the four leaders at the table, Wu is the only one who’s face is entirely in shadow, i.e., the one in the dark. Sounds about right. He also has a problem remaining straight up right, thus unstable, just like his ideas.
Lin! There isn’t a lot going on with Lin, but she’s perfectly centered in the space between the center wall paneling and the opposite wall. If you notice, the gold of the window above her head also runs a center line which connects with gold behind her back. One thing you will notice in almost every frame with a single character close up, and to a degree, true for non-close ups, is that their eyes/faces are almost always about three-quarters up from the bottom or a quarter from the top.
Firelord Azumi! Everything in the frames for her first shots in the scene are designed to focus on her in the center. There are multiple lines that guide your eye to her (a contrasting red to the green and tan) and she’s centered by the column. For points on further over thinking, one could say that we’re being asked to view her and her position as strong as a column. She’s firm in her position of defensive war only.
Raiko! This is actually Raiko standing and rather than be centered with a strong pillar, he’s centered under an arch between columns. A bunch of lines focus your attention on him, mainly the arch itself (where his head kind of sits where the keystone would be), and the vines, one of which comes directly from the top down to his head. This is kind of ironic, as he will soon have spirit vines on his mind.
One more shot of the council, this time standing and from the perspective of Bolin and Varrick. Tenzin remains the focal point (with lines all drawing your gaze toward him), but here we have Azumi standing tall, firm in her position, while Raiko, with his shakier position of offensive war is leaning forward, aggressively, and definitely not as solid in stance. All the leaders who are true leaders are standing, but Wu, essentially a spectator to the real discussion, merely sits.
This is just a shot of the entrance to the spirit wilds with Beifong standing in front of the red torii gate (kind of redundant, sorry). All the lines in this image draw your gaze to the torii, be it the buildings, the rail tracks, the lights, and then the tori is also perfectly centered with the blue sky gap between the buildings, pulling your gaze downward and in the center. As a note on the torii, they are used in Japan, generally as the gate to a sacred Shinto temple or place. Thus, they indicate when one is entering a sacred and spiritual place, which is exactly what this one is being used to indicate the passage into the Spirit Wilds. One would presume it’s a sign of the greater respect the citizens of Republic City have for the spirits and their wilds, versus the place they were years ago with friction developing between both sides.
Now for a series on Opal and Bolin, as the compositions are neat and also suggest the emotions/positions of between the couple.
Here we find Bolin pleading to Opal on the steps outside the city hall. You have lines drawing your attention to both Bolin and then Opal, from the rails on the steps to lines in paneling behind Opal (even the direction of the Satomobile headlights point toward Bolin). Opal is firmly planted with and between the columns, which could indicate her strong feelings (anger) with Bolin, but also, you can see she’s standing pretty straight with a solid stance. Her body posture is not one that’s giving an inch. Bolin, by contrast, is below her, a submissive position, stepping toward her indicating his desire to be with her. He’s being Bolin, so his posture is actually straight up as he’s confident his position and completely unassuming of Opal’s level of anger with him. Bolin is also centered by the wall of green spirit vine behind him. Also note that while he’s trying to look into her eyes, Opal’s gaze is not directed at his face, but downward. She doesn’t even want to make that connection of looking into his face.
Here we have Opal reading a book on the steps of an air bender island building. She’s our focal point so the lines all draw our gaze directly to her and she’s perfectly centered with regard to the width of the steps, the door and columns of the porch. There’s one off thing, she and the entrance are actually off center in the frame itself. In this show, when the focus of the image isn’t centered in the frame, expect something to enter it and that’s exactly what happens next.
Pabu! Pabu comes running into the frame from the bottom left corner and his body is perfectly aligned with the air bender he’s running toward. If Opal had been perfectly centered in the frame, then Pabu would have had to enter the frame from a much different angle, not nearly as lengthwise and not nearly as eye catching. This episode loves to use the foreground and this is just another case of that happening.
Jumping ahead, this is a scene from when Mako and Korra re-enter the Spirit Wild in hope of finding Jinora and seek sanctuary inside a building. They have just entered with violent vines coming in after them. Korra is our focal point and the cool thing is the light that floods in from the open doorway with the beam narrowing down perfectly onto Korra in the center of the room. Numerous other lines also direct your gaze to the crouching Korra.
Asami and Varrick. They’ve been asked to appear before President Raiko and to team up for the defense of the city. The lines are interesting in this one with both balancing the frame to either side. The lines of the wall paneling behind them both connect the two, but also divide them, which really sums up their working relationship. They’re both also grounded by brown/wood objects behind them and connected again by the horizontal lines in the floor.
Here we are outside the White Lotus prison holding Zaheer. This is a pretty unnerving moment for Korra, so notice how the frame is actually skewed? There’s no level horizontal lines and the perspective lines all draw our attention to the source of Korra’s anxiety, the giant doors through which she will find Zaheer. The only vertical lines, which I failed to add, are really the postures of both Korra and Mako, firm in their conviction to enter the prison.
Now we’re exiting the prison and the skewed perspective is no where near as exaggerated as it was when Korra arrived. It’s not normal, but it’s better, just like Korra claims she’s better for having met with Zaheer. The doors are wide open, as the anxiety or fear that rested behind them for Korra is gone or at least, exposed and visible, like Korra’s acceptance of what happened to her. She’s not over it, but she’s capable of dealing with it now. Also, unlike last time, the focal point is Korra, not the doors, and in fact, one door serves to draw your interest back to her. The color is also warmer in this scene versus the darker, gloomier arrival above.
This is a shot of Korra and Mako in the antechamber outside Zaheer’s cell. This is a neat shot, if only for the symmetry, with Mako, Korra and the White Lotus guard almost perfectly centered with the lines of the wall construction above the door helping to focus one’s gaze. Additionally, the two guards both gaze inward, directing your view to the focal point and then Korra is particularly identified in the center, the only one centered by the elevator behind her. More over thinking might relate that this makes sense, as the elevator is the means of transporting to Zaheer, and it’s Korra, above everyone else present, who has the most wrapped up in this journey, so to speak.
Zaheer! It’s just fun writing everyone’s name with an exclamation mark, because it makes it more exciting and dramatic! Fine, fine, I will stop doing that, but what we do have here is the introductory shot of Zaheer, meditating and levitating. This is a cool shot because the upward looking perspective helps Zaheer’s cross-legged position help form a a large triangle centered in the middle of the frame, using the lines behind him and to his sides. You also have a flow from the top of the frame, where his head almost touches the very top down to the chains, which help center our Red Lotus member. Because the perspective’s vanishing point is out of frame but somewhere above the top of it, your eyes are drawn by the lines moving toward it and Zaheer’s general form to his face/head, which, in turn, almost entirely obscures the crystal light behind them. The faint light that is still visible could be interpreted as a visual representation that the subject is enlightened or almost saintly (granted this requires a new definition of saint). The fact that he’s floating and only held down by chains, definitely conveys Zaheer’s freedom from the material world and the fact that he spends much of his time in the spirit one is not so much of a surprise.
Korra and Zaheer are now both meditating. Again, you have Zaheer’s levitation, which suggests his freedom from the material world, and in the frame, you have three lines that direct you to Zaheer, the horizontal line of the ledge running left and right and then a line from the column in the background. As soon as you focus on him, the position of his head, tilted forward creates a pseudo-sight line (his eyes are closed, a’ight?) that direct your attention downward to Korra, who remains seated on the ground – i.e., she hasn’t let lose her earthly tether (who’s head has to explode for that to occur?). You do have a couple horizontal lines that direct your attention to her and the triangle formed by the pseudo-sight line, the floor, the chains in Zaheer, is a neat division of the frame if you sliced it diagonally from the upper right corner down to the lower left. Both characters kind of possess the same amount of space on either side of the frame, though our darker character, Zaheer, is in more shadow than our hero, Korra.
Korra is now in the Spirit World, huzzah! She’s in the center of the frame with a landscape literally warping around her, as the horizon line curving down from either side of the frame to her waist. In a way, it’s foreshadowing her power in the spirit world which we shortly learn is nearly limitless (where’d we hear that before?). The lines of the leaves also direct your gaze to our heroine.
Big Giant Glowing Orb! Okay, okay, I promised to stop. But how do you keep the focus on your star when there’s a giant glowing orb? You have the orb direct your gaze back to her, that’s how, and this is done with her head just touching the curve of the orb, so as your eye follows the orb’s outline downward, you end with Korra. There are also some subtle lines in the background which focus your attention toward her. The orb, itself, is not centered in the whole frame, but the use of vines in the foreground recast the orb as the center of a new space, with the distance between the sides of the orb and the edge of the frame on the right and the vine in the foreground on the left being relatively the same.
Our main romantics of the last book take up the last photo and the last scene of the episode. This frame is neatly composed with Bolin being the focal point with multiple lines, including a giant air bison, all diverting your gaze to him. There are other elements worth glancing at, be it Opal’s body posture again, erect and unfailing. She’s still very much set in her frame of mind, but now she is looking directly into Bolin’s eyes/face. Bolin’s posture is drastically different, now that he’s picked up (been told directly) how angry Opal is with him and how desperate his situation is in the relationship. His posture is one bent over and submissive, he’s willing to do anything to get Opal back. Lastly, in a world filled with a new population of flying bison who must all generally stay the same color, the nose has taken on a primary responsibility as a distinguishing factor. Pepper had freckles on her/his nose and poor Juicy, someone decided to give him a running nose.
The reasons why Legend of Korra is an incredible show are many, be it the writing, the characters, the animation and the music. The fact that there are so many ways to admire it says a lot about its creators and their passion for their project and the abilities of all those who they brought in to develop it. Hopefully, it will gain a greater recognition in the future. Next up (eventually), Operation Beifong!
All photos used were sourced from cap-that.com, an awesome repository of high quality screen captures from the Legend of Korra.