(Disclaimer! I am not an expert on Eastern architecture or painting but I will do my best to give correct information.)
Another highlight of this amazing animated show were the hand painted backgrounds and scenery. In my review I stated,
. . . the background art is breathtaking. Such care was put into designing locations and bringing a truly evocative atmosphere to each episode. Ever since I became particularly attentive to the little details in animation, background art has become a major factor in how I rate specific movies and shows. They are what the average viewer intuitively notices but does not outright remember. Much of Avatar’s popularity and mythology centers on how well rendered these locations are. The best wrought settings create worlds beyond imagination.
So how does one create such evocative locations? The creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko did a lot of world traveling. Their travels included South Korea, Beijing, China, and even Iceland. But it takes more than a few trips to get a firm grasp on locations and architecture. Much of their knowledge came through research and study.
There were a large variety of background designers throughout the show. (I doubt I found all of them, so any I did not mention please know I admire the work you do!) These designers include Tom Dankiewitz, Dave Filoni, Elsa Garagarza, (She did a large amount of the designs) Ricardo Delgado, Mike Van Cleaves, Jevon Bue, Enzo Baldi and Hong Seung Hyun. Their work entailed bringing to life natural locations, cities and immaculate architecture throughout the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation and Air Monasteries.
I noticed how each nation had its own distinct cultural style. The Fire Nation looked Ancient Egyptian and Traditional Japanese in its architecture. This was especially evident in its tiered towers and royal chambers. The Water Tribe was based off the Inuit tribes and thus looked less caricatured than the others with practical fur decorations and buildings made from ice. There were some more pristine designs for the Northern tribe but nothing too detailed. The Earth kingdom had the most distinct variations because it was so massive, so most of its cities and buildings were based on the Chinese. (Ba Sing Se was based off Beijing). As for the Nomad temples, they were based off South Asian monasteries like the Bhutan.
As a side note, I wanted to mention Bryan Koneitzco’s role in creating the artistic feel for the show. I did not mention this in my review, but the original idea came from Bryan who later developed it with Mike. Not only was he a director, producer and writer (not for all of them of course) but he was also the series’ Art Director. Most of the character concept sketches were his and he was heavily involved with the show’s overall look and tone. From what I have seen, he is an amazing artist and an incredibly talented designer. He was wasted on Family Guy and King of the Hill.
Lastly, Bryan Evans did most of these paintings. Will Weston did a lot of work in Season 1, but for the majority of the show Evans brought these magical settings to life. The interesting thing about his style his ability to create such beautiful scenes that do not distract from the main action. There needs to be a balance between moving animation and backgrounds. One film which struggled with this was Sleeping Beauty (1959). It is one of the most visually beautiful films I have ever seen, but because so much work went into Eyvind Earl’s backgrounds animators struggled with designing characters and finishing animation.
For those who are still reading, I hope these images are insightful and convince you, if you have not seen it, to watch this show. If you are a fan of animation, this show is a must see. I say again, just because something was made for children does not make it childish. Avatar is more mature than most adult shows I have seen and has a strong artistic, spiritual and historical grounding in its story and rendering.
By the way, many of these images came from http://avatarscenery.tumblr.com. Feel free to check it out if you are interested.