They call him "Dr. Fight." No, there's no degree program or anything to follow to earn that title, but if you're responsible for choreographing kinetic, energetic fight in animated productions like Justice League Unlimited and our subject today, The Legend of Korra, then it's a name that kind of sticks. Joaquim Dos Santos has served as a director, art director, and co-executive producer on both Avatar: The Last Airbender and its new followup series, and in a recent interview he talked to MTV Geek about bridging the action between Avatar and Korra, realizing the new world, and blending MMA and bending powers.
In spite of the success of the original, he says the response from fans of Korra has been pretty overwhelming for himself and the crew. I asked him if there was any trepidation from anyone about heading back into the Avatar universe given how well received The Last Airbender remains, but for Dos Santos this wasn't really much of a concern, even as he acknowledges that the original series presented "very big shoes to fill": "I was just happy more [episodes were] being ordered up by Nick and Mike and Brian [Avatar creators Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko] were heading it up... The cool thing about Korra compared to Avatar: The Last Airbender is that it's created by predominantly the same group of people so it has this feeling that harkens back to the original series." For Dos Santos, this has allowed Korra to have that strange alchemy that gave The Last Airbender its successful mix of humor, action, and drama.
At the same time, Dos Santos acknowledges that Korra presents a new direction for the Avatar universe. Obviously, there's the gap in time between the two series that seen the cast of the original replaced with new characters, but more broadly still, the technology and shape of the formerly warring kingdoms has changed tangibly. Bending isn't exclusively a tool of war any longer and it's now used by professional athletes. Dos Santos says that this has allowed the show's writers and artists to explore the benefits and problems of new technology as well as the new social complexities that come out of the end of constant war. "t think the original series was pure adventure," he explains when I ask him about the differences between the two shows, "and with The Legend of Korra, you can kind of feel encroaching in on these characters' lives and them sort of getting caught up in the comings and goings of the world."
Dos Santos says that the new world of the show has affected the action as well, influencing the styles of martial arts used by the characters, which are no longer kingdom-specific styles, but more blended fighting techniques. This is particularly evident in Korra's Probending circuit, where teams of benders bring together various fighting styles in configurations that might not have been seen Aang or any of the characters in Avatar pulling off. To this end, the martial arts in the series will be more recognizable as their real-world counterparts but also stripped down, Dos Santos explaining that "[The fighters] have sort of hybridized all of their styles. So you'll see a little bit of Western boxing, you'll see some Muay Thai, you'll see more straightforward, streamlined attacks that don't necessarily focus on the flourishes and the bigger movements." He allows that the action will still keep elements like elaborate flips to keep the action more cinematic. As an artist, Dos Santos says there's a particular thrill in the challenge of visualizing a short jab or quick attack, while making it look exciting for the viewers.
If you've watched the fluid, stylish action from The Last Airbender and Korra, would probably won't be too surprised to learn that both series have employed real martial artists for visual reference when choreographing the series' fights. Dos Santos says they look to the pros' movements from the storyboarding process all the way up to the final animation. Fight instructor Sifu Kisu has returned to lend his support to getting the fights looking right in Korra, along with MMA fighters Jeremy Humphries and Mac Danzig, who Dos Santos credits with "providing a lot of the moves you'll see in the Probending arena." Meanwhile, Steve Harada and Jake Huang bring along the stylized flips and acrobatics of "tricking" to Korra, which involves dynamic character moves away from the camera. Dos Santos says that he finds Harada and Huang's work in particular "amazing," and that "it's like hanging out with Spider-Man." Of the duo, he says "they do the craziest moves and blow it off like it's nothing... They'll do a 360 twist in mid-air right in front of you and then just drink a coffee like it's nothing."
"I'm a huge mixed martial arts fan—I have been for years," Dos Santos tells me when I ask what fighting style is his preferred one to get onscreen as an animator. "To me, there's something beautiful in the simplicity of a punch, the body language that goes on when a person throws a punch or a kick." He says that for him, one of the most exciting parts of Korra's production was getting real mixed martial artists in to perform for the show's video reference, and that MMA as a field of fighting is really close to his heart as both a fan and artist. He joked that the athletes were probably fed up with him by the end of the reference shoots as he would try to capture their motion from seven or eight different angles.
Finally, Dos Santos drew a line between his Korra/Avatar work and the earlier superhero titles he's worked on in the past: while his DCU Animated work dealt with scenes involving "heavier" perhaps darker scenes, he appreciates the more effervescent touch that goes into his latest gig. "One thing that I find refreshing about working on Avatar is when the drama kicks up a notch, it's always cut with a really good sense of humor. And just when you think the series is going to take itself just a little too seriously, there's a good amount of humor." Dos Santos says that for the people creating Korra, they attempt to tie this to every aspect of the show's storytelling, providing that mix of humor and drama as part of the fights, and of course the plots. And for him, this is how the show is able to reach all audiences the way it does.
The Legend of Korra airs Saturdays at 11:00 AM on Nickelodeon.