HARRIET TUBMAN HAS GREAT STEAM-FU: Putting the Funk in your Fight Scenes!
I have choreographed and / or performed fight scenes for seven films – two “traditional” Hong Kong-style martial arts movies; one gritty urban fantasy; one thriller; one post-apocalyptic science fiction film; one alternate history movie and one comedy.
Filming a fight scene is totally different from shooting a scene of dialogue. It requires much more planning and the director must be able to tell a story through the fight itself.
I would like to share with you what I have learned about shooting and choreographing a fight scene because it is an interesting topic; because I hate it when I watch an otherwise great film fall apart because of its poorly shot fights; and because we go into pre-production for the Steamfunk movie, Rite of Passage, in a month and I want to make you, dear reader, aware of what we are doing and how it is done, because, ultimately, this is your film. We are making this for you.
Begin with the previous action
If your heroine, Harriet Tubman’s last action in the previous sequence you shot was a hook punch, even if you know you are not going to show that punch in a close-up, film it at the start of the next sequence anyway and then keep rolling and shoot that next sequence; this will make your fight appear much smoother and editing the scene will be easier.
Always return your strikes to their point of origin
If you watch martial arts movies with great fight scenes, such as Flashpoint, starring Donnie Yen, or the Bourne movies, then you’ll notice that every time they punch someone, their fist recoils back. By adding this subtle movement to your actors’ hits, it makes the impact of those strikes appear much more powerful and makes the character look as if he or she is really strong.
Always keep your eyes on your opponent
This is an important tip for your actors as well. After an actor is hit, he “sells” the strike as a powerful one by making sure his eyes always return back to his opponent. So, if Harriet Tubman punches P.T. Barnum in the jaw with that hook punch, the actor playing Barnum would sell the punch by snapping his head sideways, looking over his shoulder and then snap his gaze right back to the actor playing General Tubman.
This also allows your actors to communicate their readiness before the next blow is thrown, thus helping you to avoid accidents in case one of your actors is not ready or has forgotten the next move. Remember, when filming fight scenes, safety first!
Shoot the entire fight wide and then move in for close-ups, over shoulder and medium shots
Not following this suggestion can cause you to run into some editing problems as a result. Often, when we shoot the intense over shoulder, medium and close-up shots first, which require much more facial expression along with technique to sell the fight, we forget to shoot the wide shot. If you don’t have a wide angle of your fight, you run the risk of the fight appearing choppy or worse, appearing disorienting to the audience.
Move your camera with the movements
Moving with the punches makes the strike appear faster and by stopping the camera’s movement right as the punch connects, adds a jerky feel that can often make a punch appear more violent on screen. Shoot moving shots after your essential stationary shots.
Editing and Sound Design turn good fights into great fights
A great editor lets us forget that we are simply watching a fight scene and pulls us into the scene by making the action seamless.
This is the most essential part of the fight to be done.
Coming in a close second is the post production music and Foley (sound effects).
Don’t believe me? Watch any fight scene with the audio muted – that scene feels far less compelling. The hits become weaker and the fight now feels flat and totally fake.
The audio is edited and mixed with utmost acoustic continuity for fight scenes, because, while our eyes are okay with being cheated by the illusion created by camera angles, slow motion and the like, our ears are not. Since our ears are much more vital to our sense of balance, we notice the slightest break or hiccup in the audio with a 15 – 20 times higher temporal precision than we notice in the video.
So actually, fight scenes are not made sound real at all. But you are willing to let yourself drawn into them because of a flawless sound design.
Boot Camp or Bust
On every film in which I am the Fight Choreographer, I conduct a Fighters’ Boot Camp. This camp – which can run over several days or over many hours in one day, depending on time and budget – is required for any actor who has a fight scene in the film to attend and strongly suggested for the Director and Cinematographer to attend as well.
This Boot Camp teaches non-martial artists how to move, hit and react to hits so they appear to be martial arts experts on screen. For the martial artists in the film, we teach them how to make their techniques look good on screen – most “real” martial arts techniques do not look powerful or cool onscreen – and how to sell the hits and the reaction to hits.
On one set, I worked with a former professional boxing champion. He did not want to do “that fake stuff” and wanted the actor to really strike him on film. I expressed concern for his safety. He said the actor – a woman – couldn’t hurt him. We humored him and shot it the way he wanted, as the scene was supposed to be comedic anyway and I wanted to teach him a lesson. During one sequence, the actor he was fighting struck him in the jaw with one of her “non-fake” punches and rocked him badly, dropping him to his knees.
Lesson learned. We kept that scene in the film.
When a fight scene seems real to you, the actors and the film crew have done a great job and have successfully executed the clearest demonstration of the magic that is filmmaking.
I now leave you with a few fight scenes featuring Yours Truly and my favorite fight scene of all time, featuring actors Donnie Yen and Wu Jing. Enjoy!