How To Shoot A Fight Scene

Have you ever wondered how those fight scenes in movies are shot? These scenes are notoriously difficult to shoot and the reason is usually due to the tremendous amount of coordination required.

Just imagine having the actor or actresses properly lined up, executing each and every move correctly in split seconds. It's never easy and almost certainly requires an experienced director on hand.

If you're going into film making, you'll realize that shooting fight scenes is an important element of a director's toolkit. These scenes require good preparation and in this article, I'd like to introduce you to a couple of tips for shooting great fight scenes.

Shooting a fight scene can be challenging

1. Preparation

The first thing to do before you shoot a fight scene is to prepare. Do lots of preparation so that on the actual shoot, you make less mistakes and save time. One of the things I suggest you do is to always have a meeting with the stunt co-ordinator about the fight scene. Understand what he or she intends for each actor or actress to do.

The next thing is to brief your actors and actresses. Make sure they've met the stunt co-ordinator and practised their intended moves. The day of the shoot is NOT the time for them to start practising. They should be well prepared beforehand.

One last thing to do as preparation for a fight scene - know precisely where your camera(s) will be placed. Imagine the shots before the actual shooting so you can avoid making mistakes and tons of retakes.

2. Shooting The Fight Scene

Ok, next up - shooting the fight scene itself. For me, I think you should use two cameras for each fight scene shot to maintain visual continuity. Shoot the scene from one angle, then switch into the other camera's footage for the next bit of action.

One good idea is to add some recoil to punches or kicks, so that the fighting looks more realistic. The other thing to remember is that the fighter always keeps his or her eyes on the opponent. So shoot it as such in your scene.

It's also important to shoot the whole fight scene wide, then allow for close ups to show the stress and sweat on each figher. Use long lenses for this purpose and be creative in capturing facial expressions - but it pain, frustration or anger.

3. Camera Movements

The next thing you need to do when shooting a fight scene is to work your camera movements. One trick I learnt over the years is to move the camera with the punches. When you do this, the punches will appear faster to the audience.

You can also stop the camera movement as the punch connects. This adds a nice jerky feel to the action that makes the punch look more violent onscreen.

One of the special effects that directors like to use in fight scenes is a "Matrix" like effect. What happens is that the scene slows down as the fighter is about to connect with a punch, then suddenly speeds up when the fist connects. This cool effect has been used in many movies since the late 1990s (e.g. the Matrix Trilogy) and is still used till this day.

Personally, I do need more work in my ability to apply the "Matrix" effect to my fight scenes. It takes quite a bit of practice - but after sometime you get the hang of it.

4. Sources Of Inspiration

If you need inspiration on how to shoot fight scenes, some of the best ones to watch are old Jackie Chang gongfu movies. You can also check out the Matrix Trilogy, action movies like Broken Arrow, The Rock or Kill Bill. All of them have great, tense fight scenes which keep you on the edge of the seat all the way through.

Movies from Hong Kong directors are especially well recognized for their innovation in fighting scenes. Watch them and understand how the directors apply perspectives and camera movements to bring out the action.

One of my favorite fight scenes is a scene from the gonfu movie Ip Man, starring Donnie Yen. In the last scene of the movie, Donnie is fighting a Japanese karate champion. Being in World War II, he is also fighting for his fellow Chinese, who have been invaded and oppressed by the Japanese Imperial army. That last fight scene was one of the best and most emotionally charged ones I've seen over the years. You should definitely check it out to see what a good fight scene should look like.

Ip Man - one of my favorite gongfu movies

You know, often, it is also what leads up to the scene. Imagine the hero losing many fights, or having his family murdered by the enemy. Then, in the final scene, he or she thrashes the enemy boss in one big, climatic scene. Without entering the fight scene itself, you'd already be excited as the scene has been "set up" and you expect a good fight.

Wrapping Up ...

I hope the above has helped you understand a bit more about how to shoot a fight scene. Fight scenes are notoriously difficult to get right and take quite a bit of practice and re-takes.

What you can do is to be well prepared, ensure you know what camera movements to apply in a given situation and you'll be fine. Fight scenes should feel original and not rehearsed, so always aim to be as authentic as possible. Make those punches and kicks real. Make your audience wince in pain and emotionally support the hero when the action goes on. If you can achieve that, you've got a good fight scene on your hands.

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