Monday, January 18, 2021

Sifu Kisu and Giancarlo Volpe Reveal How 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' and 'The Legend of Korra' Fight Scenes Were Choreographed

One of the most loved aspects of Nickelodeon's beloved animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra is their incredible battle scenes. However, it's not that well known that, to help make the animated fight scenes as realistic as possible, both shows employed stunt performers!

The martial artists were filmed at specific camera angles to make it easier for storyboard artists and animators to draw their movements accurately.

Having the reference footage was a net positive because it reduced the time that storyboard artists helped reduce the time that storyboard artists had to spend drawing action and increased the authenticity of the characters' movements.

Business Insider recently talked to Sifu Kisu, a martial arts master who served as the primary martial arts consultant as well as a choreographer and stunt performer on both shows, and Giancarlo Volpe, a director of several Avatar: The Last Airbender episodes, about what it takes to be a reference actor for animation. Check out the video on and read the transcript below!:


[air whooshing]

Narrator: These behind-the-scene clips are what's known as reference footage. Reference footage is used in animation all the time to make sure animated characters' movements, like walking and jumping, are realistic.

Probably the most difficult scenes to animate are fight scenes, like the extremely complex head-to-heads in Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.

Animator: Instead of just going on the ground on his butt, he actually drops down, and he's like,


on his finger. There's, like, air. You know, there's, like, wind. Narrator: To animate them meant finding someone who could perform and choreograph multiple martial arts styles.

Sifu Kisu: It was fun. I was the only person on the planet with my job for a hot minute.

Narrator: That's Sifu Kisu, a master of martial arts and the fight choreographer and reference actor for Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Narrator: Kisu has over 40 years of experience in martial arts and has studied tae kwon do, karate, jujitsu, Northern Shaolin-style kung fu, and more.

Kisu worked on all 61 episodes of Avatar and collaborated with a team of martial arts experts on Korra. In Avatar, having a choreographer and reference actor was especially important because the four kingdoms used different fighting styles with their own specific movements.

Kisu based each distinct bending style on a different martial art. The fluid movements of waterbending are based on tai chi, the spinning movements of airbending are taken from bagua, the powerful movements of firebending are based on Northern Shaolin-style kung fu, and the sturdy, low-center-of-gravity movements of earthbending are based on hung ga.

The first step in creating these animated fight sequences is storyboarding, when the artists receive a script and draw rough sketches of an entire episode. The descriptions of fight scenes in scripts typically only include the broad strokes of the fight, so the director of the episode will often create the temporary choreography during this initial phase.

Giancarlo Volpe: When we got to the actual fighting, you know, who kicks, who punches, who was the aggressor and all that, oftentimes I do something like this, where it's like, "Aang shoots air," and I'll just do this or something. Do a drawing that looks like that.

Narrator: After storyboarding comes choreography, where Kisu met with the animation team to refine the choreography of the fight scenes. There were usually about five to 10 fight scenes per episode that had to be choreographed. 

Kisu says that in this first meeting, he would just pitch a series of movements that he thought would represent a certain type of bending. For example, Kisu said that if a firebending technique called for swinging, flaming fists, he would suggest an appropriate movement, such as striking motions from double dagger form kung fu.

Other animated shows have tried to mix magic and martial arts, but Kisu noted that they don't often use martial arts movements when conjuring magic. You can see this when comparing Avatar: The Last Airbender to other shows featuring supernatural powers, like some scenes from Dragon Ball Z.

Kisu: It's like, if I'm holding a stone in my hand like this and it jumps out of my hand and hits the camera, you're going to question that, right? But if I wind up and I make the motion and the antic of throwing that, then that's going to read more to something you can understand, right? But we thought that that would be important, that it should come from somewhere to go to somewhere. And I think that was one of the big contributing factors to the success of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Narrator: After Kisu and the director agreed on the choreography, they filmed the action. Kisu sometimes performed the fight choreography for two or more fighting characters separately.

Animators would later take these shots and combine them into a single fight between characters. After filming, the artists took the footage and used it to add more detail, like specific poses, to their initial storyboards. The time it cost to do the reference filming was recouped by having an extremely accurate model for drawing. Ultimately, this led to a better final product, because the character poses were more accurate.

The storyboard team sent the polished storyboards back to Kisu for review.

Volpe: Then it'd be sort of a back and forth where, like, maybe we come up with a new shot that we never talked about during the first meeting.

Narrator: This process was repeated two to three times until everyone was satisfied with the result. Before sending the finished storyboards off to a team in Korea for the final animation, the director would film one final version of the fight with Kisu with all of the finalized camera angles.

Kisu: If it was going to be a wide angle, we had these bleachers that were in, like, a little makeshift basketball court at Nickelodeon, and guys would crawl up there with the camera and get a down shot. We'd change to a wide angle and make it look like it was really far away.

Like, the fight with Zuko and Azula on the boat dock, where she tried to scratch his face and they had a fire battle, that was done on the front steps at Nickelodeon in front of the SpongeBob statue.

Narrator: Storyboards aren't created for every frame. They're created for every third frame of animation, so the reference footage made it easier for the animators to create the in-between frames that were missing.

While having reference footage is ideal, sometimes it was impossible to capture accurate live-action reference footage, mostly because the characters possess magical powers. Some fights in the show called for a movement that no real human could replicate, like this scene from Korra.

In these situations, the martial artists would split up the action into several chunks, which would be stitched together in the final animation.

Kisu: In the beginning credits for Avatar: The Last Airbender, when Zuko would do the big whirlwind kick with the flame and he'd come down and hit the ground, at the time, I was recovering from an injury, and so I couldn't do that kick. We call it a one-legged whirlwind kick. And so I'm literally rolled over someone's back, like, someone bent over, and then I just rolled over that person's back. The opening credits for Korra, they show, the airbender does this crazy thing where he kicks this way and lays back that way. I ended up just holding Brian in my arms, which is really funny.

Narrator: It's this lifelike martial arts choreography and attention to detail that make the difference between static fight scenes, like this, and dynamic ones, like this.

Watch Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra on CBS All Access and Netflix!

Subscribe to the NEW official Avatar: The Last Airbender YouTube channel!:

From ScreenRant:

Avatar: The Last Airbender Video Shows How Fight Scenes Were Animated

Avatar: The Last Airbender has long been praised for its impressive bending styles and fight scenes, and a new video lays out the animating process.

A new video breaks down how Avatar: The Last Airbender created its excellent authentic fight scenes. Thanks to its arrival on Netflix last summer, Avatar has seen a huge resurgence in popularity. The series aired from 2005 to 2008 on Nickelodeon, and to this day it remains one of the most beloved animated shows of all time. Fans have long praised Avatar for its world-building, character development, and compelling storylines. Avatar follows Aang, the titular last airbender, as he plunges into a hundred-year war and aims to bring peace to four element-based nations.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing bits of Avatar is the bending. Certain people within the four nations have the ability to "bend," or manipulate and control one of the four main elements, while Aang can bend all four as the Avatar. Each bending style is distinctive, as they are all based on a real life martial art form. With that attention to detail, Avatar's fight scenes are often singled out as some of the most unique in animation. Of course, there had to be some extra work put in to ensure each action sequence was authentic, and a new video has explored why.

Shared by Entertainment Insider on Friday, the clip puts a spotlight on Avatar's Sifu Kisu, one of the martial artists who helped bring the show's fight scenes to life. Kisu and other martial artists would provide reference footage so the animators would understand how to best render the characters. Later, Giancarlo Volpe, who also worked on Avatar and was interviewed for the video, took to social media and listed off the best way to create authentic animated martial arts, which includes the extremely vital first step: "Hire martial artists, bonus points if they are extra imaginative." Check it out [above].

Volpe's fourth step, "Give artists extra time to draw the 100,000 required poses," indicates just how much work goes into rendering each movement and scene. Spending this much time on a fight scene can surely be draining, yet those working on Avatar were committed to making an authentic series for audiences. Seeing this only makes the 2010 live-action film The Last Airbender more painful; when it came to the bending for that project, it looked as though the real life martial art styles were largely ignored as the characters made nonsensical gestures.

Currently, Netflix is in the midst of creating another live-action Avatar, but it remains to be seen if it will win fans over like the original series did. Updates have been slow to come, but many have felt wary about the project since Avatar's original creators departed last summer. As seen above, a great deal of work went into each action sequence on Avatar, and Netflix's series should take that into account. Fans will be disappointed if the bending in that show is anything like The Last Airbender's, so hopefully it will pay closer attention to the animated show. The blueprint has already been laid out; they just need to follow it.


Originally published: Saturday, January 16, 2021.

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