Avatar: The Final Airbender is likely one of the most beloved animated exhibits of the twenty first century. However as time passes, and the Nickelodeon collection turns into extra ubiquitous, few could understand how a lot work went into its improvement — significantly in its therapy of the martial arts. The types featured within the collection had been coordinated by Sifu Kisu, a practitioner of combating types and the present’s martial arts guide.
“I began martial arts after I was seven or eight years outdated with my loopy uncles,” Kisu tells Polygon. “They’d gone off to the army and realized Judo, so that they got here again and had been throwing one another across the condominium.” At across the identical time, Bruce Lee secured a job as Kato on The Inexperienced Hornet. Kisu was riveted. He wanted to do that.
From coaching with household pals to working towards Taekwondo on the marine station in Kāneʻohe Bay in Hawaii, Kisu spent years mastering the martial arts. In his early 20s, nevertheless, he encountered his present trainer, Kenneth Hui, and fell in love with Northern Shaolin. “I’ve been his pupil ever since, despite the fact that I [now] have two generations of my very own college students,” Kisu explains.
So how did this result in Avatar? “[One day], I used to be educating within the yard of my home in LA, and one of many creators, Bryan Konietzko, was one in all my college students.” Regardless of Konietzko’s makes an attempt to get Kisu on board with the mission, he was carried out with the leisure enterprise after working as a stunt participant on exhibits like Energy Rangers and BeetleBorgs. Based on Kisu, being a stunt participant in Hollywood isn’t straightforward. “It’s very political,” he explains. “It’s very catty, it’s very backstabbing.”
Kisu initially turned Konietzko down. Then he turned him down a number of instances afterward. It wasn’t till Konietzko lastly confirmed him among the drawings he had that Kisu determined this was a mission price engaged on. “It was among the most wonderful paintings I had ever seen in my life,” he says. “So [the fighting in] Avatar type of began in my yard.”
Kisu and the group started to work collectively in a particularly collaborative course of. Creatives on the present would ahead him scripts, and he would innovate on the workers’s motion scenes. “However the perfect writers are good sufficient to not attempt to write motion,” he says with amusing.
Bending shortly turned greater than a type of fight. For each “Zuko shoots a fireball” in a script, there have been smaller moments, like Aang transferring water from a desk to a glass. Kisu would advise on how that may very well be visualized: the breath, stance, preparatory motion, executionary motion, manifestation of the component, and subsequent decline to tug the entire cycle again right into a pure place.
“Initially, bending was gonna be lumped into this one large class of martial arts manifestation that created rocks flying or fireplace popping out of arms,” Kisu says. Connecting these parts to martial arts concerned a deep understanding of the physique. Kisu notes that his trainer — who he has been with for over 40 years — maintains an enormous curriculum, and consequently, he was capable of pair types he had experience in with parts that closely resonated with them. Kisu says Tai Chi and water had been an ideal match.
As soon as issues began to come back collectively, the group designed a pencil check, a low-grade rendering of the animation. In Kisu’s eyes, the (unaired, however just lately launched) pilot they designed was “weak sauce” in comparison with what the present ended up undertaking. “I believe we ended up pushing the boundaries between 2D and 3D,” he says. “I had by no means been concerned in something prefer it.”
Kisu would meet the animation group three or 4 instances per episode with a view to be as imaginative as attainable. The primary dialogue would all the time deal with intent; the second workshopped actions that made sense to the scripts; and the third was when the filming passed off. Typically there was a fourth, simply to essentially put the icing on the cake.
“We took lots of time for the martial arts,” Kisu says. “When you’ve seen the Hong Kong films, the battle scenes are actually concerned, however for those who take a look at an American or European manufacturing, it pales as compared.” He notes that, particularly in America, making use of the sort of time to martial arts alone is unprecedented, and is how the group ended up pushing the boundaries of what was attainable.
When it comes to the martial arts chosen, Kisu opted to make use of types he had probably the most respect for. “Tai Chi had a sure utility to it and may very well be used to push back an attacker,” he explains. “Hung Ga, I all the time had nice respect and a bit little bit of concern for individuals who had been actually good at that type […] Bagua, I had been working towards for about 10 years, and thought that will go very well with airbending. I’m not a Bagua professional, so among the issues that ended up within the present weren’t canon.”
His favourite, although, and one of many types that made a huge effect on Avatar, is Northern Shaolin. “The type has a lot utility, and it trains the practitioner to defend or assault in any path with little or no wind-up,” Kisu says. “It’s just about all I’m working towards now. Northern Shaolin is gorgeous — it’s aerobatic, it’s acrobatic, it’s bodily demanding, the excessive lengthy kicks, the low stances. There’s arrow assaults and feather-like retreats.”
“There are weapon units that return a whole lot of years,” he continues. “The spear as an illustration was a specialty of the nice Grandmaster and I used to be fortunate sufficient to study that approach. I believe I used to be within the first technology of non-Asians to study it. It was very secretive, and nonetheless is to some extent. My trainer’s principal effort for educating conventional Chinese language martial arts is to maintain the tradition alive.”
The collection drew on greater than the martial arts as they ostensibly seem. Every of the person types is linked to mythology, in line with Kisu, such because the Water Margin tales and the Three Kingdoms. “There have been cultural consultants [too],” Kisu says. “There was one man who did nothing however be certain the calligraphy was spot on.”
Because the group began to speak about how these tales might affect Avatar, the place issues that aren’t endemic to the true world might simply be realized, they started to deal with opposites like yin and yang, mild and darkish, back and front — the “duality of existence,” in Kisu’s phrases.
“We began to discover the features of what’s yin and what’s yang,” he explains. “You may have fireplace that’s yang, which might be a giant blast that will blow a gap in a constructing, or you could possibly have fireplace that’s yin that’s virtually like a black gap, that does a reverse burn. It’s so not there that it takes the whole lot with it.” That is the place phenomena akin to blood-bending finally entered the fold. “We actually thought concerning the physics of this world, and for the reason that physique is usually water, we talked about all these darkish issues in bending.”
Kisu says the boundary-pushing powers put some individuals on edge, and some pitches had been even rejected out of warning for “imitative behaviour.” The very last thing anybody wished was for child to check out firebending by grabbing their dad and mom’ lighter fluid and burning down the home. However by making certain that the emphasis was all the time on the accountability that comes with energy, they created a kids’s present that typically verged on darkish, however by no means fairly went the entire method — particularly when you think about the heat that drastically outweighed it.
“I assumed it was actually cool that Aang, in his fervor of being a firebender, unintentionally burns his finest pal,” Kisu says. “There was lots of that within the present: honor, obligation, loyalty, friendship, love. I don’t assume you had seen a lot of that, no less than not in an American manufacturing.” The martial artist notes that the collection was closely influenced by anime out of Korea, particularly the animated movie Fantastic Days. The group even introduced on a storyboard artist from the movie, Seung-Hyun Oh, to direct three episodes and storyboard for the ultimate season.
The top of Avatar: The Final Airbender and the entire run of Legend of Korra that adopted it, had been totally different to what got here earlier than. The collection turned much less about innocence, sweetness, and the non secular facet of bending, and extra about the way it might relate to up to date phenomena outdoors of itself. The unique idea for the sequel season leaned into that much more.
“Korra was not speculated to be a complete collection,” Kisu says. “They really wished to do a collection of mini-shows primarily based on the lives of various Avatars. Korra was solely going to be 12 episodes lengthy and he or she was going to lose her powers. That was the ethical of the story — every one in all them was going to be some kind of morality story concerning the lives of various Avatars, their triumphs and failures, and Korra was going to be a failure due to her lack of spirituality. She had nice bodily prowess however she lacked a connection to the Spirit World.”
The combating in Korra additionally developed previous what Kisu established within the first collection. “Whereas they had been making an attempt to determine what to do subsequent, Bryan, Mike, and Joaquim [dos Santos, director] had gotten enamored with the UFC,” Kisu says. “I believe it’s cool, I did stuff like that after I was younger, but it surely doesn’t have a lot substance as a martial artwork […] I believe that basically got here throughout as a obvious facet in Korra.”
Nonetheless, Kisu retains massively fond reminiscences of the time he spent on the group who made Avatar a cultural phenomenon.
“Being taken critically in that atmosphere was a giant kick within the head at first,” he says. “The extent of respect it began out with had been some actually wonderful emotions. I [still] have a field stuffed with VHS tapes and DVDs — we taped each reference session, and we did that 3 times over 61 episodes […] I even choke up a bit speaking about it, as a result of I watched Bryan and Mike and another animators doing 14 or 18 hour days, simply sitting there drawing, and that may break your again. I’ve bought nice respect for these guys.”
As Kisu jogs my memory, each episode of Avatar was the concerted effort of a number of hundred individuals — animators, writers, post-production crew, colorists, background artists, and the consultants who did what he did. “There’s by no means been something prefer it and there’ll by no means be something prefer it once more,” he says.
However the legacy is present in the true world. The actually large payoff of the job, for Kisu, has been seeing individuals flock to martial arts. Earlier than Avatar, the coach by no means noticed youngsters in Tai Chi courses — that was for the older technology. Now the Northern Shaolin group is rising.
“I don’t take myself that critically and I’m not operating round tooting my very own horn going at how nice I’m as a result of I did one thing like this, I’m simply actually glad that it made an impression, that the children who had been followers of this 15 years in the past are grown individuals now. They’re out on this planet and so they’re dictating the instances, and I’d prefer to assume that our work made a greater technology of individuals.”