27 April, 2010

Five Common Blunders in Fight Choreography

I first started using the word 'mayhem' as my brand many years ago when I founded a fight choreography and prop weapon rental company called Stage Mayhem. This can make watching a movie with me either very enlightening or eye-rolling annoying, depending on your stomach for snark commentary.

Last night my wife and I were watching a Season 2 episode of The Tudors, and I could tell from the actors' clothes and positions not only that there was going to be a swordfight, but exactly what tactics the fighters would use and how it would end up. Unfortunately it started too fast for me to make the full prediction out loud to my wife and take full credit for my prescience. That's just as well, as she's the one rolling her eyes when I give the correct Final Jeopardy response before Trebek reads the clue. (Rutherford B. Hayes FTW!)

Message to historical fight directors: don't be so obvious! If no one else in your show wears a little cloak off one shoulder, I know you put it there so he can use it as an off-handed parry in a two-on-one attack. (I also know that you found the actor by trolling the lysts at an SCA event) If no one else in your show wears a white puffy shirt and no doublet, I know he's wearing it so the blood will show up better when he gets stabbed. I know this because I had to wear one every stinking night for Cyrano de Bergerac.

Here are a few common problems I have with the fights I see on TV, movies, and stage.

1. Use all the weapons!
By all means, focus on the swords if it's a swordfight. But don't forget the unarmed hand for grabs and punches, foot stomps, elbows. Most practical disarms from the Golden Age of Dueling used the unarmed hand to grapple, not a sweeping bind or prise-de-fer.

2. "Where'd he learn to fight?"
Well, not everyone can fight. And when a tax preparer and a waiter go at it, I don't want to see nice, crisp, well-choreographed punches and blocks. When two guys who don't quite know what they're doing try to hurt each other, it generally starts with shoving and ends with them rolling around on the ground. A great example of this done right was the street fight in Bridget Jones' Diary. Hugh Grant's character was not presented as a fighter, and he didn't fight like one.

3. Attacking the Parry
This one is tough to avoid because of fight safety practices. We teach actors to wait for the parry to get into position and then strike the closed line. Of course in a real fight you'd attack the nice squishy flesh on the other side. A well-designed fight includes some feints to open lines, just to show the characters really are trying to kill each other.

4. The Beauty of Imperfection
I love seeing characters make little mistakes in fights. (characters, NOT actors. That's how you lose an eye.) What if he got too close to the enemy and can't quite get his sword out of the scabbard for a while? Or his voluminous cloak gets snagged or goes over his head? Or he forgot to chamber the first round and his Webley-Vickers 30.80 just makes a fateful 'click'? Read an account of almost any real fight where one or both parties were surprised. Mistakes abound, and the guy who makes the first one isn't always the guy who makes the last.

5. "Why don't they all just attack him at once?"
A perennial favorite. Actually there are some very good reasons why the army of goons surrounding the hero shouldn't all attack at once. And the fight choreographer had better think of one, 'cause otherwise the goons really should just dogpile the sucka.

  • limited space: the fight takes place on the deck of a ship, an alley, inside a Starbucks, etc. Any set design that tends to funnel the goons so the hero can take them one at a time.
  • good tactics: the hero does what an actual trained fighter does in such a situation (assuming he can't run away, which is always my Plan "A") He attacks one or two of the goons to get outside their ring, and then makes them come to him. This will tend to line them up for a series of one-on-one battles.
  • quick actions: There isn't time for anything complicated! If the hero spends more than half a second on any foe, the rest should rightly swarm him. Bruce Lee was great at using quick disabling moves in 20-on-one fights rather than spend the time necessary to fully detatch someone's spine and rip it out of his body. One-beat actions (hero clobbers goon) are fastest. Beat-and-a-half (goon strikes, hero slips the punch and counterstrikes) are nearly as fast. Two-beat actions (goon attacks, hero blocks, hero counters) can be too slow, especially if they pile up. You don't want the audience to see any space where two guys could have attacked at once, or someone couldn't just dive on the sucka.


  1. Thanks, Richard!
    When I write fight scenes, they tend to end up like a much-less-elegant version of the scimitar scene from the first Indiana Jones movie. (i.e. the bad guy does something menacing, then the hero quickly outwits and kills him, just so I can avoid having to write the actual fight) Will keep this stuff in mind next time!

  2. Hm.. I think I might make "write the fight" a regular feature. Thanks!

  3. Mine just glare and wave their fists. If I let them fight, someone might get hurt.