Shooting fight scenes is one of the things that most film makers dream about. Unfortunately, they are rarely given the opportunity to try it out. If this is something you want to try, make sure you practice a few times before you do it on a real set with real actors. If you want to watch this blog, click on the video below. Otherwise, you can read all about it in this post.
When you’re shooting fight scenes for films, you will encounter one of two things. You’ll either shoot with actors who’ve never fought before (except for a couple moves they rehearsed before you started shooting), or you’ll work with true martial artists.
A popular method on lower budget films is to throw an actual martial artist into the mix. This can work quite well, but you have to be careful that your jujitsu king doesn't outshine your star (unless that's your intent.) Or, that Mr. Blackbelt understands how to throw a realistic looking punch on film.
As a general rule, there are two approaches to shooting fight scenes. The first is you are filming expert fighters. If that is the case you’ll want to showcase their skills. The way to do that is keep the camera back so you can really see what they are doing. Many Asian martial arts films are like this. Admit it, it's pretty cool to see what those guys can do.
This approach is more of a cinematic exercise than anything else. You'll probably spend more time trying to design something cool for them to fight in front of. You know, something original like a burning building... at night... in the rain.
The rest of you will be working with actors who couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper sack. (Unless that paper sack is wet because they are fighting in front of a burning building... at night... in the rain.)
So, your job, should you choose to accept it is to make them look awesome. How do you do this, you ask? Here is the number 1 and most important step:
1) Assess the actors’ physical abilities.
Don’t start designing a scene before you’ve had a chance to meet with your actor, and assess his or her skills. It will be a colossal waste of time because you don’t know what they can do.
And don't make the mistake that many directors make, by assuming that if the actor is in shape, he or she will be good at throwing or faking a punch. DO NOT MAKE THIS MISTAKE. In my experience, some of the worst actors for fight scenes have been the ones who look the most cut.
Even if they are in Olympic shape, check with them to make sure they don't have any physical issues. You don't want to choreograph a fight, and then find that the actor can’t do it because of shoulder issues, a bad back, or a hernia. You also need to check them out to see if they have any control over their own body.
What I mean is you need to find out if an actor can throw a punch consistently in the same place. You don’t want him clobbering anyone, and if he is all over the place DON’T GIVE HIM A WEAPON TO SWING AROUND. If the guy can’t even control his fists, he’ll never be able to control something attached to the end of his arm.
The best way to figure things out is to have a stunt coordinator work out these kinks. An experienced coordinator will recognize an actor’s strengths and weaknesses, and help the actor correct any issues. He will design moves that work naturally for them. If he learns of a previous hernia injury for example, he'll make sure to build things that don't involve a lot of gut punches or wrenching jujitsu moves. He will build the scene with them and rehearse until it’s ready.
(For more on these techniques, check out the stunt tutorials at the end of this post.)
Now, I know what you are thinking. “But Jason, I don’t even have time to rehearse the dialogue! How can I find time/money to have them rehearse the fight!?'”
2) Choreograph the fight scene at the beginning, shoot it at the end.
I cannot tell you how useful this has been to me. Get together for an afternoon before filming to work out what the fight will be. As you move through the shoot, the actors can run through the punches during breaks, lunches, whenever. Near the end of the shoot, film the fight.
Actors have a lot of down time on set, so they’ll be able to get in lots of practice. Actors want to look like Chuck Norris on screen, so they will dedicate a lot of their free time to getting the moves down.
3) Shoot the fight scene like a conversation.
Think about the way you shoot a typical conversation between two people. How will you do it? Are you going to just keep it on an extremely wide shot the entire time? If you do, It will look like the 1960's Batman show below.
Most conversations use the traditional wide shot, OTS, OTS. Do the exact same thing with a fight. Start wide, and work your way in. And if your actors aren’t great fighters, avoid wide shots. Shoot the scene in close ups, because it gives you lots of opportunities to cut around mistakes and the dreaded AIR GAP in swung punches.
This will also help you when it comes to cutting up the action to make the punches seem more visceral. You can cut out a frame or two to get a great head snap or make the punch look quicker.
You can also take the opportunity here to think up awesome angles to film from.
4) Build your fight with beats and pauses – just like a conversation.
If you got into a real fight, you wouldn’t just be swinging punches all the time. That’s a big mistake a lot of first time filmmakers make. They load the fight up with punch after punch after punch, and it’s just annoying.
Just like with conversations, build in moments of struggle and breath. These moments can actually up the tension as the characters are grasping for a knife or trying to choke each other out.
This will also help draw your fight out if you want to get a lot of screen time out of it. And the best part? It’s super easy for the actor to do, and even easier to film.
Don't misunderstand me on this point. I don't mean to have the actors stand up, brush off, and then square off like they are in a boxing ring. I have tried this in the past and it always comes off a little cheesy. I know you could probably find a scene that will prove me wrong, but as a general rule, people don't just stand around and look at each other in a serious fight. I think one of the best examples of what I am talking about is the fight scene in Safe House. It is super intense and has some great moments of pauses during a struggle.
What's great about this scene is how the scene doesn't look clean. It feels very realistic, even in the pauses. Also notice how they stretch it out a little bit by focusing on Denzel Washington's face. This is another great thing to remember while filming. Get some reaction shots of the other people in the room.
5) Break up your fights into locations – just like a conversation.
This clip from Safe House also uses this technique. Some of my favorite fights are ones that travel, and the same is true with conversations. If you are shooting a scene with two actors, especially if they aren’t that strong, you can make things more interesting by spreading the conversation over several locations.
Start with a few lines in the kitchen, and then cut to them walking down the street. You see it all the time. It’s very effective.
The same is true with fight scenes. Have the guys duking it out in the kitchen, and then crash through into the garage, struggle for the knife, and then BAM out onto the porch.
There are tons of benefits to this. If your actors are rusty with their choreography, it will make it easier to tackle. They don’t have to remember it all at once (just like a conversation). It will also give you more time to film, and it will give your actors a break. Trust me, fighting on camera is hard, even if you’re in shape. If you change up the room, they can take a breath and work out the next few punches while the DP lights the scene.
Another big benefit is your makeup artist can duck in and update the bruises on the face. If your characters crashed through a shelf and into the living room, you can add a cut on the forehead or whatever.
In the end, your scene will flow right along just like the best told stories.
One final tip: This is something I have run into that has made things a little easier for me in the edit suite. When the actors are punching and kicking and choking each other, try to monitor how often they yell and "Ugh" and "Oof!" It really gets annoying if every punch someone is yelling or whatever. I have had to do some very tricky audio edits to fix this when it happens.
If these techniques were helpful to you, and you use them, please send me your work! I would love to see the amazing fights you come up with!
Please watch the following tutorials for more insights into shooting stunts.