Avatar: The Final Airbender is among the most beloved animated reveals of the 21st century. However as time passes, and the Nickelodeon sequence turns into extra ubiquitous, few might understand how a lot work went into its improvement — notably in its therapy of the martial arts. The kinds featured within the sequence have been coordinated by Sifu Kisu, a practitioner of preventing kinds and the present’s martial arts guide.
“I began martial arts once I was seven or eight years outdated with my loopy uncles,” Kisu tells Polygon. “They’d gone off to the army and realized Judo, in order that they got here again and have been throwing one another across the residence.” At across the similar time, Bruce Lee secured a job as Kato on The Inexperienced Hornet. Kisu was riveted. He wanted to do that.
From coaching with household mates to practising Taekwondo on the marine station in Kāneʻohe Bay in Hawaii, Kisu spent years mastering the martial arts. In his early 20s, nonetheless, he encountered his present instructor, Kenneth Hui, and fell in love with Northern Shaolin. “I’ve been his scholar ever since, though 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 undertaking, he was accomplished with the leisure enterprise after working as a stunt participant on reveals like Energy Rangers and BeetleBorgs. In response to Kisu, being a stunt participant in Hollywood isn’t simple. “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 occasions afterward. It wasn’t till Konietzko lastly confirmed him a few of the drawings he had that Kisu determined this was a undertaking value engaged on. “It was a few of the most wonderful art work I had ever seen in my life,” he says. “So [the fighting in] Avatar type of began in my yard.”
Kisu and the staff 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 one of the best writers are good sufficient to not attempt to write motion,” he says with amusing.
Bending rapidly 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 could possibly be visualized: the breath, stance, preparatory motion, executionary motion, manifestation of the aspect, and subsequent decline to drag 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 components to martial arts concerned a deep understanding of the physique. Kisu notes that his instructor — who he has been with for over 40 years — maintains an enormous curriculum, and consequently, he was in a position to pair kinds he had experience in with components that closely resonated with them. Kisu says Tai Chi and water have been an ideal match.
As soon as issues began to return collectively, the staff 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 carrying out. “I feel 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 staff three or 4 occasions per episode as a way to be as imaginative as potential. The primary dialogue would all the time give attention to intent; the second workshopped actions that made sense to the scripts; and the third was when the filming befell. Typically there was a fourth, simply to actually put the icing on the cake.
“We took loads of time for the martial arts,” Kisu says. “Should you’ve seen the Hong Kong films, the battle scenes are actually concerned, however should you take a look at an American or European manufacturing, it pales as compared.” He notes that, particularly in America, making use of such a time to martial arts alone is remarkable, and is how the staff ended up pushing the boundaries of what was potential.
By way of the martial arts chosen, Kisu opted to make use of kinds he had essentially the most respect for. “Tai Chi had a sure utility to it and could possibly be used to keep at bay an attacker,” he explains. “Hung Ga, I all the time had nice respect and a bit little bit of concern for individuals who have been actually good at that model […] Bagua, I had been practising for about 10 years, and thought that will go very well with airbending. I’m not a Bagua professional, so a few of the issues that ended up within the present weren’t canon.”
His favourite, although, and one of many kinds that made a huge effect on Avatar, is Northern Shaolin. “The model has a lot utility, and it trains the practitioner to defend or assault in any route with little or no wind-up,” Kisu says. “It’s just about all I’m practising 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 lots of of years,” he continues. “The spear for example was a specialty of the good Grandmaster and I used to be fortunate sufficient to be taught that method. I feel I used to be within the first era of non-Asians to be taught it. It was very secretive, and nonetheless is to a degree. My instructor’s principal effort for educating conventional Chinese language martial arts is to maintain the tradition alive.”
The sequence drew on greater than the martial arts as they ostensibly seem. Every of the person kinds is linked to mythology, based on 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 make certain the calligraphy was spot on.”
Because the staff began to speak about how these tales might affect Avatar, the place issues that aren’t endemic to the actual world might simply be realized, they started to give attention to opposites like yin and yang, mild and darkish, back and front — the “duality of existence,” in Kisu’s phrases.
“We began to discover the facets of what’s yin and what’s yang,” he explains. “You possibly can have fireplace that’s yang, which might be a giant blast that will blow a gap in a constructing, or you may have fireplace that’s yin that’s nearly like a black gap, that does a reverse burn. It’s so not there that it takes every thing with it.” That is the place phenomena akin to blood-bending ultimately entered the fold. “We actually thought concerning the physics of this world, and because the 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 have been even rejected out of warning for “imitative behaviour.” The very last thing anybody needed 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 youngsters’s present that typically verged on darkish, however by no means fairly went the entire means — 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, by accident burns his finest pal,” Kisu says. “There was loads of that within the present: honor, responsibility, loyalty, friendship, love. I don’t assume you had seen a lot of that, a minimum of not in an American manufacturing.” The martial artist notes that the sequence was closely influenced by anime out of Korea, particularly the animated movie Fantastic Days. The staff even introduced on a storyboard artist from the movie, Seung-Hyun Oh, to direct three episodes and storyboard for the ultimate season.
The tip of Avatar: The Final Airbender and the entire run of Legend of Korra that adopted it, have been completely different to what got here earlier than. The sequence turned much less about innocence, sweetness, and the non secular aspect 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 presupposed to be a whole sequence,” Kisu says. “They really needed to do a sequence of mini-shows based mostly 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 type 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 preventing in Korra additionally developed previous what Kisu established within the first sequence. “Whereas they have 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 feel it’s cool, I did stuff like that once I was younger, but it surely doesn’t have a lot substance as a martial artwork […] I feel that actually got here throughout as a evident side in Korra.”
Nonetheless, Kisu retains massively fond reminiscences of the time he spent on the staff who made Avatar a cultural phenomenon.
“Being taken critically in that setting was a giant kick within the head to start with,” he says. “The extent of respect it began out with have 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 thrice 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 can break your again. I’ve acquired 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 actual 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 era. Now the Northern Shaolin neighborhood 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 completely satisfied that it made an impression, that the youngsters who have been followers of this 15 years in the past are grown individuals now. They’re out on the earth they usually’re dictating the occasions, and I’d prefer to assume that our work made a greater era of individuals.”