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Toon Zone Interviews Joaquim Dos Santos on Directing "Avatar"

Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender built its reputation at least partially through its dazzling displays of animated martial-arts. However, fans of the show may have noticed that the action sequences started getting larger, more intricate, and more creative somewhere around the middle of Book 2. The exceptionally sharp-eyed may have also noticed that Joaquim Dos Santos’ name started appearing in the credits at around the same time. Given Dos Santos’ work directing episodes of Cartoon Network’s Justice League Unlimited, we don’t think these two events are unrelated.

In an incredibly short span of time, Dos Santos has built up a sizable reputation as one of the top action animation directors working today (his skill has even led us to nickname him “Dr. Fight” here at the Toon Zone News Bullpen). We were able to speak with Dos Santos via e-mail about his time on Avatar and his brand of action-adventure animation shortly before the “Sozin’s Comet” season finale aired on Nickelodeon.

Note: There are spoilers for Book 3 of Avatar throughout this interview.

TOON ZONE NEWS: Just to make sure, you’re not the Joaquim Santos who does insane motor racing, right?

JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: If that were me you would probably be see the crowd running in fear as I stuck my head out the window and projectile vomited all over them.

TZN: How did you join the staff of Avatar?

Cover art to video game 'Avatar: The Burning Earth' by Joaquim Dos SantosDOS SANTOS: I had been over at Warner Brothers directing on Justice League Unlimited, and I had heard rumblings that there was a pilot floating around about a little monk kid who did martial arts and used the elements to fight. Everyone in the industry who saw the thing was raving about how good it looked and how cool the characters moved. Some time went by and I was so busy at work that I just sort of forgot about it.

Then one day (months later) I come into work and everyone is talking about this show Avatar that premiered on Nickelodeon the day before. From what I could gather the animation and style was some really “next level” stuff — a real hybrid of anime visuals with Western story sensibilities. But again I was so busy and I did not have a TiVo at the time, so I just sort of let it pass me by. Finally, some time later (about a month I’m guessing), my wife (who was then my girlfriend) calls me up and says “I’m watching this show about a little monk kid with an arrow on his head. He and his friends are on this adventure with a giant bison and a little cute monkey thing…” I knew that the show had to be special if my wife, who does not work in animation, was calling me up to tell me about it.

That night I came home and watched the show for the first time (we had bought a TiVo by then). I remember it was the “Jet” episode and, needless to say, my mind was completely blown. I wondered who the heck are these guys Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko? I thought I pretty much knew all the guys that worked in action-adventure animation and these guys come out of nowhere and raised the bar way high!

By that time one of my co-workers (and the guy who happened to get me into the animation industry), Michael Chang had left WB to start working on the show. I called him up along with another buddy of mine who was working on Danny Phantom at the time and asked if they could give me the hookup with the powers that be over on Avatar. They happened to be looking for a storyboard artist at that time and they gave me a test.

I can remember my ego telling me at the time “You shouldn’t have to test for this show, you’re a big shot director.” My wife was working as a producer on a TV show that was filming in Vegas for a week. So I flew out to visit her and brought the test with me. While she was working during the day, I just locked myself in the hotel room, ordered a whole lot of room service and stayed hunched over my little light box for hours on end. I finished the test that weekend and turned it in on Monday. I heard from them the next week and they said the job was mine if I wanted it.

This acupuncture technique really sucksTZN: Avatar is a show where an episodes may need to rely on the script, the storyboards, and the fight choreography by Sifu Kisu to tell the story. Can you talk about how those things come together?

DOS SANTOS: The whole process is very organic. The writers will be very specific about choreography if it is important to the story, like in the finale when Aang hits his scar on the rock triggering the flashback and his transformation into the Avatar State. Moments like that are “beats” that you have to hit within a sequence to move the story forward, so the writers will call those out in the script specifically. Or sometimes Mike or Bryan will have a very specific idea of what they want to see in a sequence after the script has been finalized and those ideas will usually come up in the “start-up” meeting we have before we go into pre-production on a new episode. Those ideas will then get refined in our choreography meetings with Sifu Kisu.

But I’d say the brunt of the choreography is realized when we pitch our rough storyboard concepts. Once those are approved and most of the staging and shots are figured out, we have a second meeting with Sifu Kisu, where he will look over the action in the rough story boards and spell out the beats on film giving each movement the proper form. The board artists then take what has been filmed and use it as a point of reference when they create the final “clean” storyboard. The animators overseas also use this film as a point of reference to create the most authentic animated kung-fu on TV!

TZN: “Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos” is usually a good indication that the episode of the show is going to have some pretty incredible action sequences. Is this something that you’re drawn to naturally, or is that something you feel you have to work at?

DOS SANTOS: Thanks! I do love action! Growing up as a kid I watched a lot of action/adventure and martial arts films, so I think it’s something I gravitate toward naturally, but it never really comes easy. Keeping it new and fresh and exciting is something that always seems to challenge me, especially on a show like Avatar. It’s a simple equation: More Action (in the show) = Less Sleep (for the artist), so it can be sort of a double edged sword that way. Luckily, I don’t need that much sleep.

TZN: In a lot of your action scenes, we often get information about a character through the way they fight. Is that something you try to do deliberately?

DOS SANTOS: Wow! Thanks for noticing! I personally feel that you can gain a lot of information about a person or a character by studying the way they fight. Kind of like body language I guess. I find that “story within the story” aspect of a fight sequence very interesting. Even though it may not always come across to the viewer I think the effort put forth by the artist to get inside the combatants head usually makes the scene that much stronger.

Good form on Chit Sang's Ippon Seoi NageTZN: Do you do a lot of research into fighting styles and fight choreography to stage your scenes, either as a storyboard artist or as a director?

DOS SANTOS: I am already a huge fan of combat sports — mixed martial arts specifically — and I’ve been training Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu for some time now, so I think that sort of helps with understanding how the body mechanics of a punch or a throw work. That kind of gives me a little bit of a leg up in the choreography of a sequence. I’m not preoccupied with the “how do I draw this or that.” It’s more worrying about the cinematography of the sequence, and for that I study a lot of film. I’ve got a huge DVD collection so if a scene I’m working on does not feel right I’ll pull out some film I feel is relatable to the scene I am working on at the time and study why those scenes work. That not only pertains to action sequences, but to all sequences with in a story.

TZN: What’s the difference between doing a giant sized, epic-scale battles and doing the one-on-one duels on Avatar?

DOS SANTOS: Both have their challenges, but I’d say the biggest difference is having to try and keep track of where everyone is from scene to scene in those big epic battle sequences. That can sometimes drive a director to the breaking point. Keeping a sense of scale can also be a bit tough especially when you do not always have the time to give a scene the length of time is deserves. In other words, fitting “Epic” into 22 minutes can be a challenge.

TZN: You directed one of the most memorable episodes of Book 3, “The Puppetmaster,” which introduced the idea of bloodbending. Where did you guys get the idea of bloodbending from?

DOS SANTOS: I think the bloodbending was something that Mike and Bryan came up with along with the writing staff, but to be honest I’m not quite sure. The mechanics of how it actually worked is something we worked out in one of many Sifu Kisu sessions. It creeped me out though.

Creepy, creepy Hama, the PuppetmasterTZN: Looking back on that episode, what would you do differently knowing what you know now?

DOS SANTOS: That is an evil question to ask. I am my own worst critic, as I think most artists are. To be honest with you, the list is way long on that one. Don’t get me wrong, I think it was a solid episode and super creepy to boot, but there are a bunch of little technical things that I would want to change that probably only I would notice. Overall, I wish we had given more time to the conclusion with Katara learning and mastering the bloodbending, since it seemed to wrap up a bit fast. It sort of seemed like the last 10 minutes were in fast forward.

TZN: You directed episodes 3 and 4 of the massive four-part season finale of Book 3. What was the hardest thing about assembling such a big production? Did you need to interact with the other two directors a lot to coordinate things?

DOS SANTOS: There was a ton of coordination that had to be done for the 4-part finale, and luckily for us a lot of it was done in the writing! Once each director is focused on his or her episode, they tend to go into their own little universe for about a month or so. I did not see a lot of anything except my episodes while I was working on them. Every now and again, I would hop into (finale directors) Giancarlo Volpe or Ethan Spaulding’s storyboard pitches to see what they had going on, but TV schedules are so tight that you really don’t have the time for big meetings on this. We all really relied on Mike and Bryan to catch things that would slip through the cracks, since they were overseeing the big picture.

Cover art to Nicktoons Magazine, by Joaquim Dos SantosTZN: Is there anybody’s work in animation or some other medium that you study or admire and aspire to?

DOS SANTOS: Oh man, there are way too many to name to be honest. I can say that I have been fortunate enough to have worked with a lot of the people I grew up admiring. And so many of the talented people I meet in the industry make me aspire to be a better artist every day.

TZN: What’s the one thing that you wish you could do better as a board artist or a director?

DOS SANTOS: Honestly, everything. I think I still have so much room to grow in all aspects of directing and storyboarding.

TZN: What are you working on now that Avatar has wrapped up for the time being?

DOS SANTOS: I have moved on from Avatar, although I still keep in contact with Mike and Bryan. I am now working as a Supervising Director/Art Director on G.I. Joe: Resolute, a micro series that will be released sometime in 2009 (read Toon Zone News’ coverage of it here — ed). Watch out for it — it is going to rock your socks off!

Toon Zone News would like to thank Joaquim Dos Santos for taking the time to answer our questions, and Maria Poulos at Nickleodeon for arranging the interview. Dos Santos will be a participant on the Avatar panel at this year’s San Diego Comic Con International, and fans should also visit Joaquim Dos Santos’ DeviantArt account to check out his artwork (including full-sized versions of some of the art above) and keep up to date on his latest news.

Image from “The Puppetmaster” borrowed from our friends at AvatarSpirit.net.

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  1. […] shorts, G.I. Joe Resolute,  Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, has earned a reputation for storyboarding and choreographing high-quality action […]

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