Friday, 1 July 2016

The Anatomy of a Fight Scene

Fight scenes are often maligned as dumb bits of action with little intellectual or thematic worth. I mean, there's a reason why action movies aren't often considered films that say something or have little artistic merit.

To be fair to that critique, most action movies, while enjoyable on a visceral level, don't have much to say about the human experience but then the same could be said of most genres. More often than not, their goal isn't to make a profound comment on the meaning of life but rather to entertain, which is valid aspiration in its own right.

However, the value of action movies not really what I want to focus on. Instead, I want to examine what makes some fight scenes work and others not. There's an art in choreographing the perfect fight scene and what needs to go into giving that fight scene weight. For example, a fight scene might look great but feel hollow or another might look simple yet be completely engaging.


Let's start with Star Wars, a very good place to start. Okay, I'm going to real here for a second, speaking purely in terms of action and the choreography, this scene is simply boring. There's nothing visually interesting and the lightsaber "battle" is just a bunch of old guys tapping glow-sticks at each other while talking.

However, this scene is often praised over the complicated flippy twirling battles in the dreaded Prequels where Jedi are bouncing here and there and everywhere with back-flips and Force aided acrobatics. That doesn't make sense, right? Surely, the more visually stimulating an action scene, the better? Not if those visuals don't have any meaning to them.

In the clip above, while it is is rather restrained visually, there is so much narrative and thematic weight to the fight that it feels more far more epic than it actually is. Through the dialogue you get the backstory of Obi-Wan and Darth Vader which frames their fight as a confrontation between former friends who were once in a master-student relationship. The fight has meaning, which is why,

Hmm, Obi-Wan didn't do a back flip in this one?

People remember that fight fondly because it had consequence. It also had a purpose within the narrative since it ended with the death of Obi-Wan, an act which was needed for Luke's character development and the fulfillment of his hero's journey.

As Tumblr blogger meddlingwithdragons puts it,
“A fight is conversation. With stabbing. But still, it’s communication. You’re supposed to learn things about people in the fight. And not just oooo shiny swords moving.”
This comes through in the fight with Obi-Wan and Darth Vader. You see the dynamic at play between them, not only through their dialogue but through their fighting styles and the type of fight they're having.

They're older men and their movements are slowed by age but Obi-Wan favours parries and controlled stabs to Darth Vader's more forceful thrusts and slashes. This mirrors their different personalities and perspectives - it actually says something about their character ans what this fight means to both men and the story as a whole.

And then we get this,

What is this even?

The Yoda versus Count Dooku fight in Attack of the Clones is one of those things which seems like a good idea at the time and is kinda fun while you're doing it but immediately regret afterwards when you think about it for more than two seconds.

Now, I don't want to harsh on the Prequels since that is a dead horse which has been well and truly beaten to a pasty mulch but let's just examine that scene for a moment in contract to the Obi-Wan versus Darth Vader one just discussed.

The scene opens after Dooku has easily defeated young Obi-Wan and Anakin. Yoda walks in all boss-like and Dooku starts throwing things at him with the Force, including some CGI lightning which hasn't aged that well, which Yoda deflects. Dooku then declares they must settle this by their skills with a lightsaber and so they fight.

And by fight, I mean, Yoda jumps around flipping this way and that while Dooku twirls his lightsaber around, both occasionally hitting the other but missing just as much (see above gif). There's absolutely no wait to this fight. Yoda is a CGI Muppet and it shows that Dooku is fighting something that isn't really there.

Just in case you missed it.

Also, Yoda tells Dooku that he has fought well and drops the bombshell that he was once his Padawan - near the end of the fight, undercutting any impact that revelation might have had during the fight itself since it's after the fact. And the Dooku bounces out of there.

It's obvious that they were trying to recall the whole student gone dark versus wise master thing but it just falls flat. I might have blocked large parts of Attack of the Clones from my memory but I don't think Yoda or Dooku have ever mentioned each other before this.

In A New Hope, one of the first things Obi-Wan does is give Luke some backstory (later retconned in Return of the Jedi) about how his father was betrayed by a former pupil of his who was seduced by the dark side of the Force, Darth Vader. So when they face off later in the movie, you understand the history between the characters.

"I didn't even mention that time your father and I fought on a lava moon and I chopped off his limbs, leaving him to die."

But the Yoda/Dooku fight doesn't even work with the choreography for the scene. Yoda's spastic twirling and hyperactive jumping don't really lend the fight the gravitas which would match the type of emotional beat they're trying to go for. Furthermore, the editing continually cuts away to hide the imperfections in the fight or changes to a close up when their lightsabers engage so you don't notice the Christopher Lee's stunt double or the average CGI.

This is supposed to be a fight between a master confronting an old student who has betrayed his teachings. However, all I see is an old guy in a cape randomly swinging a red laser sword at a jumping frog-thing with a green laser sword. The only thing that makes this feel epic is the music, which hits the intense tone just right. Too bad the fight itself feels empty.

Staying with Star Wars, because why wouldn't we stay with Star Wars, I want to contrast that fight to Rey and Kylo Ren's lightsaber battle at the end of The Force Awakens. There's no way I can contain my enthusiasm for how much I love this scene but I'll do my best.


Firstly, the cinematography and lighting is just brilliant. Each shot is frame perfectly and gives you the full sense of the fight with no tricky editing to disguise or hide mishits. It's nearly all shot in long shot or medium shot, with close ups only used for a purpose (which we'll get to).

And each swing of the lightsaber had substance to it. In the Prequels, a big problem was that lightsabers were swung as they had no physical weight, like a glowing plastic sword. When lightsabers clashed in those movies, there was no oomph behind that clash, it might as well have been two pillows smacking into each other.

But in this fight a lightsaber seems physically heavy and when they clash there is a real collision there. Rey and Kylo Ren don't jump around each other light as a feather, they swing their lightsabers with some exertion. This isn't an easy thing and it feels like they are wielding supremely dangerous weapons. Each blow seems heavy and packs a punch.

And then there are the close ups. remember I said we'll get to them? Most of the fight is shot in medium or long shot, framing the fight in camera with no tricky editing. The only real time we get a close up is of Rey's face where Kylo Ren has her pinned and says she needs a teacher to learn about the Force. She then closes her eyes and opens herself up to the Force (something she had been actively rejecting), turning the tide of the battle.

This is not the face of a woman who was losing this fight a few seconds before. 

We also see Kylo Ren's face in close up as he watches this transformation with some puzzlement, not realising he had inadvertently given Rey the means to defeat him. My point is that these close ups had a point and served to show what each character was going through emotionally.


Not to mention that the setting of the dark snowy forest is inspired and just lets the heavy blue and bright red of their lightsabers really stand out. The fact that the planet is coming apart forming gigantic caverns is something else, I know this isn't the most original visual metaphor for the destructive forces at play in their fight but the way it actually ends the battle with one of them on each side of a gigantic cavern creates a striking visual which is quite effective.

This fight is not only epic, it feels mythic, like something from an old legend. The duality of dark and light, the wonderful choreography, the forest setting on a planet falling apart, the dynamic at play between Rey and Kylo Ren. It's just beautifully done.

Speaking of things, which are beautifully done, let's leave a galaxy far, far away to talk about Daredevil.


In this scene, instead of being an invincible badass, we see Daredevil getting tired as the fight wears on. He has to catch his breath after dispatching bad guys, pausing before going to the next one, his punches getting looser, arms heavier. By the end of the fight, he can barely walk into the room where the child was being held captive but forces himself to. It feels real in a way so few fight scenes are. And it is expertly crafted.

Daredevil was actually why I wanted to write about fight scenes in the first place. The fight scenes in Daredevil are impeccable, just everything you could want in a fight scene. So much so that I looked up who was the stunt coordinator for the show which isn't something I think I've ever done before.

His name is Philip Silvera, by the way, and he also did the stunts for Deadpool, which were great for the complete opposite reason to Daredevil, over the top and hilarious opposed to brutal and realistic. Eschewing the wire martial arts which has been in vogue since The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the choreography on Daredevil emphasises fatigue and vulnerability with hits that have real oomph behind them.

And they are designed to serve the story. In Silvera's own words,
"I hate repeating the same story or telling the same story. The stairwell fight that everybody's talking about, it's the one shot fight on crack. I like to think it's its own, it's its own piece right now. Not trying to do what we did last season 'cause that was unique to that story and I think this one is unique to this story."
Because a good fight scene helps tell the story. Here's that stairwell scene he's referring to:


I'm sorry but that is possibly the most impressive fight scene I've seen in years, definitely among the best ever on television. That's a five minute fight in a single take tracking along as it moves down a stairwell. I can't imagine the amount of planning and practice it took into bringing that fight to the screen since everything needed to be thought out and executed perfectly. They didn't have cuts to hide behind.

It also tells a different story than the hallway fight from the previous season. That Daredevil was still inexperienced and learning, only half-healed after an ambush. The hallway scene was supposed to emphasise his determination and grit, not refusing to stop even though his body ached.

The stairwell scene showcases an older and more confident Daredevil. He has full command of the environment around him. He even uses what could have been a handicap (his one hand has a chain wrapped around it while his other hand has an empty gun duck-taped to it) as an asset.

The fight is still difficult and tiring (he's exhausted by the time he gets down the stairs) but shows how far he has come as a fighter while still highlighting that his determination to keep fighting despite the odds hasn't wavered.

There's a reason "daredevil fight choreography is the third auto-complete search term if you Google "action choreography".
Fight scenes shouldn't just be guys punching each other or swinging swords with no point aside from looking cool. They should tell a story and reveal something about the characters.

A fight is a conversation, so it should say something. It's speaking with punches and swords.


References:

A few thoughts on GoT’s fight scenes - turtle-paced

Daredevil: Exclusive Behind-the-Scenes Fight Footage

Philip Silvera IMDb page

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