Fighting on film

a.k.a. a more cut-to-the-chase edit of Roy Horan’s How to Fight Your Way Into Kung Fu Movies (a 1983 article)…

Exposure and composure

Film is exposed while running through the camera gate in a continuous row of separate and unique frames. Each frame is a different picture in itself. Only when you put them together and run them through a projector do you get the illusion of movement. The average person talking or moving about a room could be shown quite naturally while being photographed by a camera with a film speed of 25 frames per second. This is, incidentally, the speed at which most video and television programs are projected. Watching television, you get a feeling of realism but you don’t get a “larger than life” impression. This is due both to the film speed and the size of the screen.

Film shot for theatrical release, on the other hand, is usually shot and shown 24 frames per second (f.p.s.). To make normal acting and speech look good on the screen, one must speak clearly, move distinctly, and slow down one’s actions just enough to allow everything to register. At the same time, you must not appear either mechanical or methodical in anything you do or say. Each action must be both natural and observable. You make yourself “observable” by correctly angling your body toward the camera lens. You become “Natural” on screen by making every movement appear continuous without thinking about continuity.

Now what about fighting on film. If you must slow down to act properly, then you probably have to slow down to fight properly, right? The answer is yes and no. Let’s suppose you are really as fast as lightning and can execute a complete punch, out one and back, in 1/10 of a second. If you were being filmed at 24 f.p.s., your punch would take up 2.4 frames altogether (1/10 of 24). Since this means you would take 1.2 frames to punch out and 1.2 frames to retract, you would already be into the second frame when you made contact, and you’d be back in a normal position by the third frame. In this blur of motion, we would never see you hit your opponent. Upon close examination of the three frames, all we would see is a slight displacement of your elbow and forearm, the rest being out of focus.

Now suppose you get smart and decide to halt that blinding fist briefly upon contact. Not an easy thing to do, remember, for a highly trained killer. With the film still running at 24 f.p.s., your 1/10 of a second punch — including a fraction of a second to hold the punch at the point of contact — takes 3.4 frames: 1.2 frames to punch out, one frame to hold and 1.2 frames to retract. Now you’ve already used up the greater part of four frames, or 1/6 of a second. Not bad; but the fact is most fighters will use up ten frames of about 2/5 of a second to execute the entire motion clearly. So what’s the solution to this mind-boggling problem?

Simple — just start slowing the film down! With the film running along at the new rate of 20 f.p.s. you can now apply your super 1/10-second punch, plus register a hit, while using only one frame to retract – a total of three frames. When this is played on a projector at the normal 24 f.p.s. speed, your three-frame hit takes only 1/8 of a second. Now you’re not only a superstar, you punch in the movies like a superstar! In truth, you could have used seven frames to complete your punch, which will still appear as a super 3/10 of a second punch to the audience. For the best results, hold your strike for 1/10 of a second (two frames at 20 f.p.s.) so that the audience doesn’t have to work hard to see the hit.

Getting the Right Angle

Since film has only length and width, the way an actor’s body is angled toward the camera determines how fast or powerful his strikes or kicks appear. The more you turn toward the camera, so you are punching or kicking directly into the lens, the faster the movement appears, although the shape and motion of your leg or arm becomes increasingly indistinct. If you punch or kick with your side to the camera, parallel to the lens, your technique appears more powerful — provided you don’t just deliver a punch while the rest of your body stays inert.

So extend your shoulder a little with the punch while twisting markedly at the waist, drop a little at the knees while jerking your head away from the opponent to let some hair fly, and let loose a snarl that could wake the dead. Now what you’ve created is a length-by-width powerful image; and just think, you did it all in about 1/3 of a second! Mighty fierce for a beginner. Should you manage to find angles effective for all your leg, body, arm, and head movements so that each appears in a spectacular way, your audience will think you’re better off being in the movies than being left to roam the streets.

When Hits are Misses and Misses are Hits

Distancing, timing, and footwork play a major role. The only difference between this and actual fighting is that your distance from the camera should be kept almost constant (or you go out of focus), your timing must make it appear that the fight was not a set-up, while your footwork must show that you really are in control and know what you’re doing. Crowding your opponent will only upset his distancing, timing, and footwork. In other words, it takes two to tango. Either blocks or strikes that come closer than a foot from an opponent’s face cause optical confusion. That is, your opponent won’t be able to focus his eyes quickly enough to counter effectively. Constant visual chaos very rapidly leads to chaos in choreography. So, keep your distance and try to keep yourself and your opponent in proper alignment with the lens according to the director’s instructions.

What about hitting? This is a very tricky area in which minor miscalculation can lead to misery. For punches, keep at least one-half to two inches away from the opponent’s body or face unless the direction of your strike parallels the camera lens; in which case, you may either strike his clothing for body shots or pass your fist beyond his head (and in front of the lens) for face shots. For kicks, keep your foot at full extension about six to twelve inches away from your opponent unless he’s padded for body shots. If the lens is set at a very low angle (viewing up at your shoulder) and you have to hit someone in the head, always aim your strike lower than the target. If the lens is at a high angle (viewing down at your shoulder), aim your strike higher than the target. If you actually hit your target on the dime, from the angle of the lens you’ve either overshot or undershot. Blocks require light contact only. If there’s any semblance of clacking bones, you’ll soon find both your opponent and yourself getting gun-shy rather quickly.

Secrets of the Lens

Next comes the chamber of horrors – what the director is doing behind the lens that he’s not letting you in on. If he’s a good director, he should have been explaining the types of shots which he’s been taking all along. Some directors don’t do this for the simple reason that many actors readily come to their own conclusions about how they should be photographed. Arguments take time, and time is money. For your own sake, you should begin to recognize the various types of lenses whether they be wide, telephoto, or zoom. With such instruments, a director could be focusing on anything from the iris of your left eye to your entire body including that lofty mountain behind you.

Let’s suppose, for instance, that he’s focusing with a long zoom lens on your iris. Should you happen to blink, it would appear to the cameraman, and the audience, that the sky is falling in; Should you be trying to execute a fast kick or punch during this shot, you’d probably drop out of the screen altogether or, at least, blur that lovely gloss on your iris, thereby preventing the director from getting his shot. Now let’s switch the scene around. Suppose the director is shooting you while you’re performing a form, and he wants to include that large temple in the background. If you do a Wing Chun form such as Sil Lum Tau, you might as well be darning a pair of socks, for that’s about what it would look like from that great distance.

A far-reaching kick is depicted in a long shot and a Southern Chinese hand exchange should be depicted in a medium shot, whereas footwork techniques should be depicted in close-up shots. Most forms of Wing Chun are less likely film prospects since their techniques are either more confined, subtle, or limited in scope and often depend upon the actual exertion of internal power, rather than biomechanics, to achieve success. The type of shot that the director chooses determines the type of action required. For a long shot, either the individual or a group of individuals must extend and exaggerate each of their body movements. A medium shot, whether it be of your head and torso or hip and legs, demands normal movement (it doesn’t mean you can’t move fast or powerfully); and a close-up requires minimal motion to stay within the limits of the screen.

Staying in the Picture

To make your action observable, each motion or portion of a motion must take place within the confines of the particular lens in use. Let’s say you were asked to throw a left straight punch followed by a right uppercut to an opponent’s jaw, then finish off with a swift roundhouse to the temple. The lens is held tight on the body area from the waist to the top of your head and the camera lens is to your immediate right. Unless you know what you’re doing, the film may show you throw a left punch that either doesn’t connect with your opponent’s chin or seems to come out of nowhere; your right uppercut lifts your opponent’s head out of the screen and then continues right up through the cinema roof; finally, your (or perhaps someone else’s) right foot appears from the theater door and hashes on the screen for a brief instant as your opponent flies away into nothingness leaving only the woods behind the both of you as your last testament.

What went wrong with what should have been a good shot? First of all, you should have started the left punch by drawing your left shoulder back prior to execution and then followed across the opponents chin and in front of the camera, to register the strike. Second, the right uppercut should have come at just a slight angle into the side of the opponent’s chin and stopped right there, consequently supplying some theatrics with a slight pause. Finally, your roundhouse should have appeared in a cocked position on the screen, before you extended the leg, to permit the audience to see the entire motion and thus more fully appreciate your skills. The ability to control the amount of extension, plus the angle of entry then retreat of each limb so that it can be observed clearly by both the filming crew, is a vital art in martial art film-making.

Don’t Take it Like a Man

In a center-ring fight you learn how to take a punch like a man because big boys don’t show pain, and God forbid you should cry. Stoicism may work in the ring before a group of spectators, but in a film it serves only to bore the audience by making your opponent look weak; and if he’s weak, you can’t be all that powerful yourself. Toughening up will only defeat your superstar status. Most martial artists are cast as bad men mainly because they seem to be able to withstand tremendous injury (the other reason being that they often look the part). But even bad men must learn to allow a finishing blow its true glory. It has to be believable. You must learn to roll your head with the punches, buckle at the waist with multiple blows to the stomach or groin, and lift off the ground only to come crashing down on good old Mother Earth after a devastating blow — all without killing yourself in the process. The key is in both learning how to relax your entire body when hit and in flowing with the illusory force.

Acting range

For finishing touches, you need to develop different facial expressions to complement your movements. Look at your mug in the mirror and try to design some expressions which seem to work uniquely for you. Also, gimmicks that serve as special indications of either your mood or next move will prove to be a great asset in creating your image.

Breaking into Show Biz

To help yourself along, start by doing forms in front of the mirror until you feel that each move is distinct and attractive. Don’t use too much physical power. It’s not necessary. Next, graduate to choreographing different sequences with a partner and perform them for a third party or set up a video camera. This way you’ll have the chance to see yourself in action and can correct your mistakes. The more dramatic the movements, the closer you’ll get to stardom. Remember to halt each technique at its point of contact for just a split second. This sounds easy, but try to do a with jumping spinning kicks and the like. If you want to get really fancy, study ballet and acrobatics as well.