Picking a Fight: The Basics of Fight Choreography

[This blog is a day late. You can blame Sam first, and then Nicholas. They’re both lazy bums…]

[Um, yeah, this is Ben’s ghost. Nicholas just killed Ben with his thumb while Sam filmed the violence with artistic brilliance. Before continuing, they would like to say something: “We have real jobs!!!” That said, Sam’s second entry has been pushed back, so fight choreographer extraordinaire Nicholas Suddarth has stepped in. Enjoy. The doctors have now rescucitated Ben, so I have to return to my prison of flesh and blood.]

In this blog I will highlight my process in Fight Choreography.  But before I do that, I would like to categorize 3 types of fight choreography. These are not official, just how I break them down.

Realism. Glorified Realism. And Fantasy.

Realism

Realism is one of my favorites but probably the hardest to do for film.  The goal with this type is to make the fight as real as possible.  Not just from the viewer’s perspective but from all perspectives.  Sound, make up, effects, etc, all play a part in making a fight look and feel real.  However, I am talking from a choreography perspective.  So in this we would make the fight itself real combat. We use techniques and principles that would actually work in combat.  Not flashy, Wu Shu-style acrobatics and wire work.  I am talking real martial arts that would win a fight.  A good example of what I am talking about would be most of Bruce Lee’s films.  Bruce wanted to keep the combat real, using techniques that would actually work.  I have read accounts from a lot of the stunt guys in his films and they have all said, “YES, he could knock us out with one of his kicks.” This realism is not the most popular style just because it does not always work the best for film, though Lee did find a way to make it work.

Way of the Dragon

Glorified Realism

Glorified Realism is the most commonly used in Hollywood today.  This is the style we will be using with The NUAT Experiment.  With this style you get really cool fight scenes that include great fighting ability, but used in a manner that would be very improbable to work in real life.  It is just enough detached from reality that you find yourself thinking the character is some kind of super fighter.   I would probably put Jackie Chan into this category.  Yes, Jackie does bring realism to his films with his hardcore stunt work, but again, I am talking fight choreography only.  Most of his fight scenes have tons of techniques that look amazing but need take after take to capture the right one.   This is a style that everyone loves and is probably the best for most fight scenes in films.

The Legend of Drunken Master

Fantasy

Fantasy is self-explanatory.  The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and most other things you could classify under “Wire Fu.”  This style is very beautiful and amazing to watch if done right.  Do not attempt this unless you are working with the best of the best.  Otherwise you will screw it up and make it look horrible.  A lot of Jet Li movies use this fantasy style including Hero and the Once Upon a Time in China series.   This is where you take martial arts and say, “What would never work in reality? Let’s do that!”

Hero

Well now that I have described for you those 3 main categories, I will take you through my process of choreography.

1. Talk to the Director and Producer.  Find out what they want.  It is their baby, so we want to keep the choreography within the realm of the project.

2. Get a list of main characters and what kind of fighting style they should have.  I personally like to know backstory on the characters themselves.  Did he have military training? Was he a blue belt in aikido when he was 12 years old? Was he picked on as a kid?  To me these things matter in how a character would fight.

3. Get with the Actors and get them to start basic training.  Sometimes you get actors with prior Martial Arts experience, but that is not always the case.  So you must get their bodies trained and ready to move as if they are masters at it.

4.  Go through the script and pick out all the fight scenes.

5. Day Dream. Just get the creative juices flowing.  I day dream all the live long day about fight scenes. Honestly it gets a bit distracting sometimes.  I am at the mall, my wife is talking to me, then all of a sudden a band of Ninja’s come flipping down from the top story ready to take me out, and I have to defeat them all before they hurt innocent people.  All of this happening within a few seconds inside my skull.  Then I apologize and ask my wife to repeat what she was saying because I totally spaced out.  She smirks and says, “Was it the ninjas again?”

6. Pick specific segments of fight from my brain storming.  Start actually playing with them, thinking of camera angles and if the movement itself looks dynamic enough.

7.  Write it down! I do not want to lose what I have been working on.  So, whether just a written description or a drawn story board, I get it down on paper.

8.  Film some of the scenes with my own camera just to see how it works on a screen.

9. Hopefully by this time I can actually get into the spaces/sets in which we will be filming the scenes.  At this point all I have worked on will probably change due to space, walls, props, etc.

10. Work with the Actors and get them to start learning the choreography. This happens in 2 phases.  Normally the first is not in the actual film set.  So you have to set up an offsite location to have some common likeness of the set.  This is the beginning of the choreography.  Second phase is rehearsing all of the fight choreography in the film set getting ready to start filming.

These are the majority of the steps I take from start to the final choreography.  I have probably missed some stuff, but it gives you a good idea as to the amount of work that goes into the choreography before the Actors ever start learning it and the amount of change that happens due to Set, Actors, stunts, props, the movement itself not looking dynamic enough, etc. Hopefully the end fight between Beggar and The Evil Wizard will be amazing.  That is what I always shoot for.

And of course, SAFETY FIRST.

...um...yeah...

–NS

This week’s lesson:
Good fight choreography is more than

just an exhibition of combat skill. It’s Art.

Next week: …something cool…I’m going to stop pointing at the fence…

Please: Leave us comments! Let us know what you think about the blog and the project, and tell us what you want to see or hear more about! Like we said in our first blog post, this blog is “about you almost as much as it is about us.” ;)

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3 Responses to Picking a Fight: The Basics of Fight Choreography

  1. Kelli says:

    Do you ever try to work stuff out with a sparring partner, or do you pretty much work alone until you’re ready to show it to somebody?

    • Oh yeah, really steps 6,7, and 8 need to be done with a team. That is the hard part of working on a smaller project. The amount of people are limited. However you make it work. I think in a perfect world you would have a team of people that equals the same amount as in the current fight scene you are working on, create the whole thing and film it with a home camera. This gives the Dir/Prod something to see. At that point they could give feedback. I like this but not that, lets get a close up here, oh that would be great with a bone breaking sound, we need to change this angle here…so on and so forth. What I strive to do is have a finished product for the Actor to learn. –NS

  2. Sasi says:

    Good classification!! Good start on basics for a aspiring director like me.

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