Sifu Kisu, the Martial Arts Consultant for the show, who was also featured in the recently released Avatar edition of "Nick Mag Presents". We'll publish the interview in pieces over the next several weeks. Enjoy!
Acastus: How did you get involved with the show?
Sifu Kisu: To answer this I have to go way back to my original decision to study martial arts. My dedication to it's true essence eventually lead me to meet Bryan Konietzko, one of Avatar's two creators.
I began to study martial arts at the age of 7 years old. First in Karate as a child, then in Tae Kwon Do during my teens and when I was in military service. I later met my current teacher and have been studying with Master Hui Ho Kwong of the Northern Shaolim (sic) since the late '70's learning in the tradition of the Chinese old school teachings. If you do not know what this means I'd suggest you watch one of those old "Run Run Shaw" movies about some cat suffering through traditional training. "Bitter Work" they call it. "Eat Bitter to Taste Sweet....," as the saying goes.
So, fast forward to year 2002 where I was teaching a public Northern Shaolim martial arts class in Los Angeles. I was not looking for a job in entertainment - as a matter of fact I was avoiding it. There are many people teaching martial arts in Los Angeles, and Bryan could have chosen any school, but it seems he was attracted to my sincerity of practice and straight forward presentation.
Anyway, after Bryan had been in my class for some time, he mentioned to me that he was an animator. My reply was in the realm of "that's nice". I was teaching in my backyard to only a few students after closing my second storefront school in ten years of teaching. I tend to avoid most new students and leave them to my assistants until they have internalized the basics. Los Angeles is home of the waiter / actor, so when some chatty student starts in with a "Hollywood moment" my loss of interest quickly follows. Most people have a lot to say about wanting to learn the martial arts, but are very short on actually practicing it. I am big on the practice of gung fu and short on just standing around talking about it. Bryan was the type of student who practiced. He caught my eye and I began to teach him some of the closed door techniques (in traditional martial arts we have public students and close students or CLOSED DOOR).
Later again he mentioned to me he was involved in a TV production of some sort and asked if I would possibly be interested in working on a show he was developing. I had worked in Hollywood for years as an actor, stuntman, and production flunkie and left it behind never to look back.
Sorry I wax nostalgic.
I liked Bryan because of his dedication and told him I'd be interested to see storyboards of the action sequences. I was blown away when I finally saw them. The characters were Aang and Zuko engaged in a fight for the pencil test. The framing of the action is what caught my attention. I am a big fan of martial arts movies and I have worked as a second unit action director on many films, so I know what I'd like to see in a gung fu film and I said to myself "this kid gets it!"
I said yes.
I became involved right before Bryan and Mike made the pitch for the show to Nick about 2 years before the show premiered. They were just finishing work on Invader Zim and they were working out the presentation for the show Bible.
Acastus: What is your role?
Sifu Kisu: I am the Martial Arts Consultant / Action Coordinator so I am involved in any aspect related to martial arts and martial arts culture. I create movements for the various bending styles and other unique movements on the show. Bryan explains the concepts related to a particular piece of business and I come up with a tailored movement.
Now before I go too far claiming credit, let me make it clear that Avatar is no one person's work, but the result of hundreds of people working together as a team. My part is very, very small. In our martial arts consultation sessions there is collaboration between the writers, directors, co-creators, storyboard artists and the martial video photographers Lisa Wahlander, Lilly Wang, and Greg Rankin. All of these creative people make things work. We feed off of each other's ideas, moving to greater heights each session. Then the real magic takes place when we send the board to Korea to be animated! Those guys are of another order. They take the video references from my assistants and me and go ten steps better.
Also I NEVER READ THE SCRIPTS, only the action break downs. I am Avatar's biggest fan. I don't want to ruin the surprise of what is coming next. It is funny sometimes when I see the show and see some of our gung fu I get such a surreal feeling of deja vu. Ha-ha!
I have been involved in writer's sessions and I give great credit to the writers for their clever weaving of the various concepts of traditional martial arts and martial teachings I have explained to them into the show. Bryan is a super intelligent person and has internalized all of the teachings I have shared with him. Sometimes when I watch the show I hear many of my lessons echoed back to me verbatim. I feel rather complete that someone actually gets what I am saying as many people come and go in martial arts experiencing, but not retaining.
Acastus: The show credits indicate a few other staff members are involved with the martial arts aspect of Avatar. How do you interact with Lisa Wahlander, the Martial Arts Coordinator / Videographer?
Sifu Kisu: Lisa is the Martial Videographer. She photographed all of our martial consultation sessions, organized thousands of still images into various compilations and was just a really go-getter team member and an amazing person. She is my friend.
Acastus: How do you interact with Sifu Rodriguez?
Sifu Kisu: Master Manny Rodriguez is my friend and martial brother. Here's a picture of Master Rodriguez, Master Lewis, and Shihan Mark Appleton lovingly referred to as Valmar Carstadanky: Picture of Master Rodriguez and friends.
Manny got involved when Bryan asked me to come up with some unique movements for a rare earthbending style based on the movement of the badger moles, ha-ha! It's funny sometimes when they ask me about a certain bending move, I feel like I just returned from the Avatar world and I always know the answer. Anyway, I immediately thought of Manny when he said unique. His style is the Chu Ga Preying Mantis. He calls it "zombie style" because of the strange postures and steppings. We hired Manny for a series of video sessions to create a reference Bible and video for the storyboard artists.
They are still confused.... I am a martial specialist and that style confuses me! It is based on a series of very unique developmental essences that cannot be faked. You either know it or you don't. Master Rodriguez is a rare treasure. He is battling leukemia and was sick at each session but came and did it none the less. If he had not told me he was sick I would not have known. He is a true Martial Arts Master and a friend.
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