Korra Background Painters, Fred Stewart & Emily Tetri, Interviewed By Me!
I thought it would be fun to flip the script and interview some other folks for a change. As the art director for all things color/lighting on Korra, working with Fred and Emily is a pure joy for me. They do all of the background painting keys, the lighting direction in the image boards, and make notes and revisions to every single background painting used in the show. No matter what I throw at these two, they eagerly accept the challenge and always impress me with their work, positive attitudes, youthful energy, and in Emily’s case, speed! (She’s the fastest artist I’ve ever worked with, hands down.)
I had some big art direction goals for Korra, and the biggest of them was to inject a healthy dose of “handmade” style into the background paintings. My plan was to find an artist who already had a great personal style and just make that the style of the show. That seemed the best way to imbue an artist’s hand into the art direction. Luckily, Nickelodeon’s recruiter pointed me to Fred Stewart’s portfolio and I knew that with some minor tweaking, his style was just what I was looking for ("Softer clouds, Fred! SOFTER!"). We hired him right as he graduated from college. We found Emily shortly thereafter, and she adapted quickly to Fred’s style, and of course has contributed her own wonderful stylistic sense and skill to what has become the collective Korra background painting style.
Fred and Emily are pictured above with Kyung Hwa Lim, the background painting chief at Studio Mir in Seoul. Chief Kyung has done a wonderful job embracing their style and leading her team to make the thousands of paintings in Book 1 look incredible. I’m really proud of what we’ve all achieved together this season, and I’m really lucky to have them all on the team! The interview is below.
BRYAN: Before Korra came along, how familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender were you? Would you say you were a fan?
EMILY: I was a big Avatar fan. I caught a marathon on Nickelodeon when I was home from college one year and got hooked. Avatar was the first time I ever bought a series on iTunes, because I didn’t have a TV at school there was no way I could wait for DVDs to see the third season. I always wished that I’d been out of school and gotten to work on it, so getting to work on Korra was so exciting for me.
FRED: I hadn’t seen any of Avatar: The Last Airbender until I got the background paint test for Korra. I rented the season one box set to see what it was all about, got hooked, and ended up watching all three seasons in something like four days while I was working on Illustration BFA finals. I am definitely a fan now.
BRYAN: Fred, you were hired onto Korra right out of college, and Emily, you had only been out a short while. Now that you’ve been on the show for about two years, has the job lived up to your previous conceptions of what “working in the animation industry” would be like? What about it has surprised you, if anything, either positive or negative?
EMILY: It seemed like there were always these warnings about “working in the industry” - that it’s some sort of soulless grind or something. But I always wanted to work in animation so much anyways. And it’s been great. Of course it’s a lot of work, but painting all day for my job? It’s hard to beat that. I think what surprised me most was actually just how friendly animation folks are. After two years of mostly being a hermit because I was freelancing from home, coming to work in a studio full of friendly artistic people was so nice. The other surprising thing was how sore I was the first week or two! I thought I’d been drawing a lot, but turns out “a lot” was not “all day” and my shoulders and right arm let me know.
FRED: I think I was actually expecting to have less freedom, less fun, and the work to have less variety. I guess I was expecting a bit more of the industry. I tried to have what I thought was a realistic assessment of what the beginning of my career might be. I was pretty excited about that already so when I started I was pleasantly surprised. I feel super lucky to be able to come into work paint pictures of fantastic places, and try to tell a story with color and light and weather and atmosphere.
BRYAN: You are both incredibly talented artists and skilled painters, and you are both so eager to learn, improve, and add to your art experiences and skill sets. How much time do you spend working on your own artwork, and taking classes and workshops?
EMILY: I can’t seem to stop taking classes, I love seeing how other people work and there are so many people who are amazing at what they do, how can I resist the chance to learn from them? As far as working on my own stuff goes, I enjoy making things and drawing and painting, so it’s pretty natural to be doing that in my free time as well.
FRED: I always drew and painted because it was something that I liked to do. That might be a really thing obvious for any artist but it is also true! So I’m glad for a job where that is what you do and I’m glad that there are people that are willing to help you learn what they know about it. I’m pretty glad that this thing that I happen to like doing has so much history and lore and depth that there is probably no reason to stop learning more about it. So I try to spend a lot of time doing classes and personal work.
BRYAN: What concept/visual development artists provide the most inspiration to you?
EMILY: Oh man. There are so many artists. Here are some I regularly look at, but this list could just keep going and going. There are too many people out there who do things that are too cool. Nathan Fowkes, Bill Cone and Dice Tsutsumi have some awesome color. I think Shaun Tan’s books are amazing. I love Chris Turnham’s colors and designs. Jon Klassen’s work is so neat. I love comics with great color, like Tony Cliff’s Delilah Dirk. John Nevarez, Paul Felix, Robh Ruppel, Man Arenas… there are so many inspiring artists. This question took forever because I got sucked into looking at all this art. It’s impossible to stop sometimes.
FRED: I’m only going to mention a couple because there are so many amazing artist around that if I try to think of a big list I’ll be thinking of people I should have put on it for days. None of these guys are obscure or controversial so I may not get any prestige points for saying that they influence and inspire me but they are amazing artists: Craig Mullins, Alberto Mielgo, and Neil Campbell Ross.
BRYAN: Your combined painting styles have helped to greatly shape the visual identity of the Korra series. What has that experience been like, and how has it evolved your own artwork? Do you find that your working habits are different now than when you started?
EMILY: I’ve learned so much on this job. I learned from working with Fred. I learned because I had to actually finish paintings. I learned to use reference effectively. I think you can’t paint all day every day and not improve.
BRYAN: You both had the opportunity to travel to South Korea to work closely with the background painting team at Studio Mir, training them in your style. I had a very similar experience when I was around your ages working on Invader Zim, and it really had a lasting effect on me and greatly shaped how I approached making Avatar. How was that experience for you two?
EMILY: That was a great experience. It’s weird when you’re working and you know that there are these other people working on the same thing halfway around the world, but you never have any contact with them except to see the work that comes in from them. So going over there and meeting the team in person was great. They’re all so talented, but the style of the show is pretty different, and so we were training them to paint in this specific style. And it was cool because there’s this language barrier, but then they were excited to learn how we’re painting and it’s always fun to show people something you enjoy, so all of us are going back and forth gesturing and painting and they’re using what English they know (and man, I wished I knew any Korean) and we had translators. But the cool thing about it was getting to connect with people who you can barely talk to because you’re all interested in painting and working on the same thing. Also, the food was incredible.
FRED: It was so great to be able to work with the paint team in Korea. They were really receptive, super hard working, talented, and all around fun people to be around even with the language barrier. Meeting all the people there, seeing where they work, and working with them in person to get the best possible show made it clear that we are definitely one team working on the show not a team and a outsource studio. I think that’s pretty great and I don’t know if that is that way too many other projects think of it.
BRYAN: Any parting advice you’d like to share with aspiring artists?
EMILY: I think a lot of people get discouraged when their art isn’t coming out the way they want it to, but in my experience, things usually get the hardest right before you level up. I think that the main thing is to just keep going - step back, reevaluate, etc, but keep going. That’s my plan till I get old. I don’t think I’m wise enough to give any other advice, come back when I’m wrinklier.
Thanks, Emily & Fred! Check out their personal work (and please don’t hound them with inane questions) on their blogs:
Emily – monsterlings.blogspot.com