What it takes to be a reference actor for animation

When the creators of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” decided that they wanted to have accurate martial arts in their show, they needed to find a martial arts choreographer and stunt performer. They would film the stunt actor performing martial arts movements, which the animators could then use as reference footage. The person that they ended up picking was Sifu Kisu, an all-in-one master martial artist and fight choreographer. Kisu worked alongside the directors to create the intricate martial arts movements for each character. Director Giancarlo Volpe said that having a stunt performer working on the show ended up saving time overall because it reduced the time spent drawing character movements.

The stunt performances were often filmed at very precise camera angles to make it easier for storyboard artists and animators to draw the actors accurately. Having reference footage was especially helpful for the animation team in Korea that handled the final steps of the animation process and had to draw every frame of movement.

While having reference footage is ideal, sometimes it was impossible to capture accurate live-action reference footage — mostly because the characters possess magical powers. In these situations, reference footage was still used, but the action had to be split up into several chunks and then edited together.

This technique worked so well in “Avatar” that Kisu also worked on Nickelodeon’s sequel to the show, “The Legend of Korra.”

Thank you to Sifu Kisu and Giancarlo Volpe for speaking with us. Check out more of their work here:
Sifu Kisu – instagram.com/lokhopkuen
Giancarlo Volpe – twitter.com/Giancarlo_Volpe

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