Choreographing Realistic Fight Scenes

Recently, I was asked how to choreograph realistic fight scenes for demo teams. While I usually don’t get this technical on a specific type of choreography, preferring to focus on the concepts of story instead, I can’t deny that fight scenes are a staple of the genre. It is Martial Arts, after all. I don’t believe that they are required for every demo, (in fact, it’s a lot more challenging to create one without them), but they are a large part of most. So I’m going to answer that reader request and break down my five key ingredients for a successful fight scene.

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, I’d like to note that I will not be discussing which individual techniques to use. Fight scenes are organic, or at least, they should feel that way. So the choreography will vary depending on your particular demo. If I gave you a blow-by-blow transcript, then I’d be stripping all the creativity out of it, and what’s the fun in that? Instead, we’re going to look at the principles that take a fight scene from cheesy, B-rated Martial Arts film to something gripping that has a shred of believability.

You might be surprised to learn that creating that effect has very little to do with you, the choreographer. A fight scene is only one part choreography, and two parts the people performing it. So let’s get to it.

Trust

If I had to boil it down to one element, it’d be this. Trust is the thing that will most often make or break a fight scene. I’m not referring to the trust you put in your team to bring your vision to life. No, I’m talking about the trust between the partners in the fight. Unfortunately, that kind of trust pretty much relies solely on chemistry.

We’ve all heard dating sites talk about chemistry, that magical connection between two people that makes them move and breathe in sync. Well, it exists even outside the romantic realm. And you’ll have to learn how to watch for it. You will probably have to try a few combinations of partners before you see it spark, so don’t be afraid to shuffle your team around like cards in a deck.

A lot of choreographers try to partner people based on size, automatically shoving people of similar heights or builds together. But those kinds of partnerships rarely contain the chemistry required to really pull off a fight scene. Instead, you want to look for the following when you partner people:

  • Comfortability: What do the new partners do when you announce they’ve been paired? Do they bounce up to each other laughing and smiling, or do they stand stiffly side by side without looking at each other? Does one person look scared while the other looks irritated? These are instant indicators of how comfortable they are with each other. The more comfortable people are, the more easily they’ll naturally trust each other. So avoid any combinations where you know personalities will clash, or where there is an emotional distance between them.
  • Similar Styles: Even within an overall style of martial arts, there are differences between the way people do things. Pay attention to that and try to pair people who move similarly. They’ll have the same rhythm and flow to their techniques. They’ll think similarly. Just like you don’t put oil and water together and expect them to mix seamlessly, you can’t put different stylistic approaches together and expect a smooth outcome without a ton of work.
  • Technical Ability: Obviously, you don’t want a fight scene that’s extremely unfair, so generally avoid pairing an advanced student with a white belt. Ideally, you want people that can perform to the same caliber technique-wise. Not only will they be more comfortable working with someone on the same level, it’ll also allow you to maximize the choreography’s awesomeness.
  • Strength: Yes, I do mean brute muscle. The best fight scenes contain an acrobatic element, so this is an important thing to assess. Not everyone is strong enough to lift another, and on the flip side, not everyone is comfortable being lifted. A lack of confidence in this area can shatter the trust in a partnership quicker than dropping glass on cement. So if you’re planning on throwing in some crazy moves, make sure you have partners that can handle it physically and are emotionally ready.

All of those things can help you figure out which teammates are likely to have the most natural, built-in trust. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and there are situations where you won’t be able to rely on that natural chemistry to build trust in a partnership. To some extent, you can get around that simply through practice. Over time, teammates will become more comfortable with one another, will learn the way the other moves and thinks and will learn to trust. But it takes time. Lots of time. So if you have to bow to story constraints or other requirements that prevent you from partnering those with natural trust together, be prepared to invest a lot into practice.

Distance

This is probably the scariest ingredient for the people performing, and is heavily reliant on the trust we just worked so hard to establish in the previous section.

Which do you think is better for a demo, a fight scene where all the techniques end miles away from their intended target, so the “victim’s” reactions look ridiculous, or one where the techniques end mere centimeters from their partner’s body? (Hint: Option 2 is the correct answer. 😉 ) You chose Option 2, right? Good! You’re absolutely correct. That’s what distance does; it takes an otherwise cheeseball fight and gives it a realistic edge.

Anyone who has been in a fight scene knows how hard it is to get to that level, to stop your techniques just short of clocking your partner in the head. So again, trust is absolutely crucial. As is practice. Lots of practice. Until your team gets the feel for the choreography, let them work up to the realism, shrinking the distance as the comfort level grows. Otherwise, I suggest having a lot of gauze and ice handy. You’re about to have a lot of black eyes and bloody noses.

Reactions

Similar to distance, reactions will enhance that essence of realism. But unlike distance, it doesn’t require so much faith in your partner as it does the ability to act.

Let’s face it, most martial artists will never win an Oscar. But that doesn’t mean we have to play into the stereotype with overly dramatic, delayed reactions that happen well after the attacking technique ended. A good reaction is simple, logical. All you have to do is portray what would have happened if you’d actually been hit. If you get hit from the front, you’re not going to fall forward, are you? But you see that a lot.

Understanding the logistics of the fight is critical to creating the appropriate reactions. The worst combination in a fight scene is to have a bad actor and poor distance. Unless you’re intentionally trying to look idiotic, don’t do it. Put the effort in to get it right. Please.

Timing/Duration

Everything in a fight revolves around timing, especially reactions and distance. You want everything to flow as naturally as it would if the fight were real. So if the timing is even a little off… hello injury central, or bad martial arts film. This one is pretty easy, since there’s really only one way to ensure the timing is right– practice. Are you noticing a theme yet? 😉

The second half of this section is duration. By this, I mean how long the fight actually lasts. We’re not video game characters with a billion power-ups and infinite health. We’re people. And people are, admittedly, rather weak in the stamina department. Most real fights are short bursts of rage that quickly end with someone in a bloody mess. Choreographed fights should reflect that. Keep it short, as in, within the normal range of human possibilities, and vary the heat of the battle accordingly. People get tired. Let that show. People get desperate when they start to lose. Let that show too. Adding these real life aspects will help beef up your fight scene and move it a little closer toward realistic.

Musicality

Everyone who’s been following me already knows how important I view music when it comes to demos. And fight scenes are no exception. They are, however, a slightly different creature than other forms of choreography. Unlike the main part of the demo, you won’t choreograph every technique to the music. Instead, you’ll look for musical elements that you can use to highlight certain moments in your fight. For example, the most spectacular move is on the largest beat, the moment where the main character starts to lose matches the desperation in the music, or the final blow happens on the last musical crescendo. I spoke about this before in Musicality, under Musical Emphasis. Same idea.

And that’s all there is to it. Ok, maybe not all. You do still need inspired choreography and the people to pull it off. But these are the principles I’ve found most helpful in creating believable and entertaining fight scenes. Give them a try and see if they’re as successful for you as they’ve been for me. Like most things in demo team, it’s the stuff behind the scenes that really makes the difference between an average demo and a spectacular declaration of professionalism. You only get what you give, as they say.

9 thoughts on “Choreographing Realistic Fight Scenes

    • Thank you so much Kym! I’m glad you enjoyed it. And you never know, you might someday be able to use this knowledge when writing a fight scene. I use a lot of the same thought process when I’m choreographing fictional fights in my head. Especially the parts about reactions, distance and duration/timing. Obviously, in a novel, if people are fighting there’s not much trust involved since the motivations are different. But the rest still applies, I think. So it may yet come in handy. 😉

    • Thanks Kristin. I’m glad you liked it. 🙂

      I see you’re a fellow martial artist, and I’m guessing you train in a Korean based style too? (Judging on the fact you listed Bassai as one of the forms you know. We have that one in Tang Soo Do as well.) If you have anything to add that I missed in regards to fight scenes, feel free to speak up. Like I said, I prefer the story side of things usually. I’m a forms girl, like you. 😉 Sparring, even fake sparring, really isn’t my thing.

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