Jul 27, 2010

Planning a Fight Scene

I was going through my blog traffic and noticed someone came by via a Google Search "planning a fight scene", and I figured it'd be something interesting to write about.
I'm not going to call myself a pro or experienced, so far I've only done like 4 fight scenes, but I do have a rough idea of how it should could be done. The following is not a full guide, it's just something to build upon. Now that that's out of the way, here's how I plan my fight scenes! Shockingly, there's a lot to consider!

Oh and if you're not patient enough to read all this, or want clarification, standby for the next fight scene. We'll have a behind the scenes look at that video where I will explain all this again.
Read more to see the way we go!


1. Location and Paths
Before I start planning how the fight will be, I chose where it's going to be. In this case I mean where the scene will take place. I like areas with lots of obstacles that can be used to the characters' advantage. For example, walls that can be used to hide, objects that can be used as weapons, or even hills and terrain that can be used to reduce the other person's ability to parry/counter.
Most of the time, when it's a very intense, heavily choreographed one-on-one battle, I would use a big empty space. The space, however, should have one of two things going for it. 1> Absolutely NOTHING in the background or 2 > Lots of stuff in the background. Never / rarely in between. It's a good look.
If the fight is to move, I consider the path the people are going to take, and once again, how their surroundings as they move can be used to hinder their opponent.

2. Who's Good, Who's Bad
Decide who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. Decide who is being chased and who is doing the chasing. This helps you interpret who will be using dirty tricks and who will be more into the running away than getting into the actual fight. Obviously the bad guy will use very dominant attacks and will be using more aimed attacks and will actually be doing most of the attacking.
Alternatively, if it's a "you have forsaken my family and must die", I usually determine that the bad guy is the one doing the defending, and at some point will get fed up and start attacking the good guy whose family he had forsaken.

3. Smart battle, brutality or mixture?
Smart battles means will it be that the characters are studying their opponents as they continue and adjusting their attacking style as they go along (something like a Naruto fight). Brutality would be a typical Mortal Kombat / Bleach fight where the first one to tire or to make a mistake loses the fight. Mixture would be somewhere in between. It's good to keep this in mind now before I end up deciding somewhere in the middle of the fight that it should be a smart fight.

4. Actors' Limitations
There's nothing more disappointing than planning a fight where Character 1 does a split and Character 2 jumps right over his head, only to get to the shooting and it seems that neither actor can do a split or jump very high. It works the same when you want a roundhouse kick that a certain actor can't do.

I make a point to know my actors limitations, and a few weeks prior to shooting I tell them to practice throwing kicks and punches and attempt certain moves so that they can be more comfortable when it comes to shooting, and if anything they can tell me "Dude, there's no way I can bend my leg that way!" Which is good to know now before the actual choreography starts.


5. Rough choreography
I start the rough choreography. Who's going to attack first, how many attacks before the opponent fights back and how they will move around relative to one another. Before the attacks get specific, I want to have a rough idea of what's going to happen next and how long certain scenes will be. It's best to do this until the end.
You can do:
point A fight a bit, then move to point B together where Character 1 slows down Character 2 with an attack, fight at point B, Character 1 hits Character 2 down and continues running to point C, Character 1 turns the corner and waits to kick Character 2 as he comes around then continues running...

Above, I've considered the environment and also decided that it's a mixture but more like brutal battle. Character 1 is running from 2 and is obviously the good guy trying to escape. Also, I know what my actors can and can't do, and can also see who is faster than the other so that I can easily assign who is who. If you see it fit, you can draw up a storyboard and explain it well to the actors.

6. The Fight
Now I can comfortably start the fight. I usually start off by demonstrating the actors' stances and we examine the weaknesses in these stances. For example, a certain stance can be strong with kicks but would have their backs wide open to punches and kicks, or it could be quick for punches but not very good at blocking low kicks, or a sword stance that is good for quick vertical strikes but not very good at mobility.
Throughout the fight, actually, I consider openings, rather than making it a dance. I found this out when I watched, unexpectedly, Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, the scene when the Chosen One is deliberating on how to remove the triangular things from Betty's chest without leaving himself open. That's what most martial arts are about: openings! That's exactly what I work with.
To do this effectively, all fights are done in somewhat slow-motion (not too slow, because when you go to real speed some actors may find it difficult to keep up), and after each attack, we pause the fight, the actors remain exactly where they are and we examine the openings each character has left and who between them has a quicker way to take advantage of this opening. So if Character 1 threw a hook punch with his right and character 2 blocked with his left, it would leave Character 2's stomach (to the left) quite open. Which would be the next blow and if possible we can try get Character 2 to block it.
This method is especially good for sword fights.
Though you should note that this method will take quite a long time, but in the end it's gonna be awesome. We repeat each scene about 3 times to make sure the actors got it, then the entire thing once at the end of each section of the fight. Quick tiring!

7. FASTER Fight and Camera Angles
We run through the ENTIRE fight in quick, realtime motion. Hopefully the characters will remember them well or they'll take damage. At this point, the non-actors will run around, determining the best angles and where each scene can end / cut.

8. SHOOT
Now we are satisfied, the changes we want should have been made at this point and we go ahead and shoot. We do each scene at least twice and from different angles, because at the end of the day not many people want to be called and told "This section is bad, we'll have to do it again tomorrow. Keep the same clothes on!"

Things to note when Choreographing the Fight
1. When attacking, attack with some force and AIM for a BODY PART!

One thing I noticed that people usually do especially when it comes to sword fights is that they aim for the other person's sword or parrying arm. That's not what happens in a fight. In a real fight you want to hit someone's head or body. The fear of an actor getting hurt usually causes fake scenes and unrealistic attacks. When my scenes start I usually have the first attacker aim for the person's head. And when we're practicing, I tell Character 2 to keep his sword down and Character 1 to aim for a sweep toward his head as if he were going to hit it off for real (obviously stopping short). If you try this, you'll notice that the positions they held before were much further because they were actually aiming for each other's swords. With these new positions, I now tell Character 2 that this is how he should be and Character 1 should now attempt to parry it.

2. Blocking / Parrying should be at the very last second.
 Moves like hopping a sweep or ducking a horizontal attack are usually very easy to spot as staged. When it comes to quick and successive attacks, you can have your actors do it normally, but slowed attacks, or attacks from a tiny pause, should be blocked at the very last second. The actor should come in to block when the attack is about halfway in. The good thing about this is that it gives a very realistic impact (with swords, especially) because the blocking character is moving faster to catch up to the attack.

3. Use momentum.

Fighting styles use momentum to make attacks more powerful. If someone launched an attack and the opponent dodged it, the momentum can be used to spin around and make the same attack and also bring it in faster and more powerful. Or even the movement of bringing your arm back from from a punch can be used to spin around and give the opponent an elbow to the face with the same hand. This also looks very very smooth on camera and makes fights seem very realistic and "dance" ish, if that's the correct word to use...

4. Absorb attacks.

 I highly suggest that you let the actor take hits to the body, but of course not all the force. A horizontal roundhouse kick can be taken on the side and the person taking it can move slightly to the side almost immediately to absorb the rest of the energy of the attack.

5. Shaky cameras are no longer cool.

Neither is suddenly changing angles after every attack! Well, I don't mean keeping one angle and using a tripod, but the fact of changing angle after every punch is very disorientating!

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