Bam! Pop! Pow! Great action scenes exhilarate us, and more often that not, feature Jean Claude Van Damme.
But there’s nothing worse than watching a high-octane action film that lacks substance. Sure, spectacle is great, but when it lacks purpose (cough cough, Transformers 4), it can leave us feeling empty wanting more.
In The Anatomy of a Fight Scene, Tri Nguyen breaks down how expertly timed fight choreography can show you how to shoot fight scenes that tell story.
Watch: How to Shoot Fight Scenes
"Great fight scenes should act as tiny short films with a beginning, middle, and an end. It's how you shoot action scenes." #indiefilm #filmmaking
Great fights pace themselves
Think about the last great movie fight you saw. You’re probably thinking about the amazing fight choreography, jaw dropping conclusion, that moment when you didn’t think Bruce Willis would make it.
You’re probably not thinking about the beginning.
Full throttle action is amazing, once you’ve earned it. Starting a fight scene with your grittiest action sequence, leaves nothing to be desired and gives you nowhere to reach.
Like any story, you have to build up the characters and establish stakes. The first step of how to write a fight scene is saving your biggest bad for the very, very end.
Wind up your fight choreography
Most people think fight choreography merely encompasses the hard hits, the counter strikes.
But fight choreography also encompasses wind up before the first blow. Characters must realize that a fight is about to happen. In this moment, they may evaluate their opponent, prepare mentally, or dust off their brass knuckles.
Whether you’re writing and/or directing a fight a scene, think of some simple actions that characters can do before they go full-on brawl mode. It can be as simple as gripping a table tightly. It’s just one of many simple fight choreography tips.
Pro tip: How to shoot fight scenes
In the moments before the real fighting breaks out, the characters’ conscious choices of movements and expressions convey their feelings about the fight–how seriously they are taking it, whether or not they’ll play by the rules.
Shifting your camera angle or framing your characters uniquely can communicate to your audience how your characters feel the fight. It can also frame your fight choreography in a new light.
Great film fights are a tug of war
As the fight really begins, adrenaline and innate defensive responses take over the characters’ psyches, removing the conscious component of the fight.
Effective fight choreography should feel like a game of tug of war. This is the portion of the fight where the outcome hangs in the balance of the battle–a give and take of power between two characters.
Play with your audience’s emotions and give each side a moment where we think they one side will win, and immediately flip it on its head.
Pro tip: How to write action scenes
A great way to change the balance of powers is writing a prop into a fight scene.
As the characters have essentially been sharing the power equally, the addition of a new variable, such as a weapon, shield, or magic wand, can cause the power to shift in a more significant manner.
A prop can also lead to unique fight choreography (i.e. awesome swords).
"Your fight scene should have relatively equal opponents. No one wants to see Superman fight an average Joe." #indiefilm #filmmakers
Leave battle scars
About two thirds through a movie fight, one of the two fighters generally takes the upper hand over the situation.
Even as it becomes more clear to the audience, and the characters, who is most likely to claim victory, the battle weakens both fighters. The reality of the situation is thrust upon them and both are seized with a wild desperation to end the battle in their own favor.
Because learning how to shoot fight scenes is the same as learning how to write better movie dialogue, you need to offer a change to your characters as it goes on.
Great fights leave characters emotionally and in most cases physically disfigured. After a fight scene, your character can’t go on existing as the same character.
Pro tip: How to write a fight scene
In order to transform your character, consider revealing a key piece of plot information in the middle of your fight. Perhaps your hero finds out that he and his opponent are related, perhaps he finds out that was he was fighting for was a lie.
Whatever information you chose to reveal, do it towards the end of your fight–it can motivate your characters to fight stronger, faster, or even accept defeat.
Take a look at Film Riot’s How to Shoot Fight Scenes as a key example.
"Film Riot's "How to Shoot a Fight Scene" breaks down the technical skill on how to make fight scenes look real." @ryan_connolly #indiefilm
Ride into the sunset (or Hell)
At the end of a good fight, one that really tells a story, the characters have changed and evolved. This can happen only if the fight rises and falls – with a beginning, middle, and end.
This does not simply refer to injuries or hurt pride, although those are certainly important components, but rather to the deeper fundamental changes in a character’s being.
Come up with a new fight scene or rewrite your existing one, adhering to the three-act structure and the tips you learned along the way. As a result, you should find the scene will be better for it and the audience will remain engaged and captivated.
Pro tip: How to shoot a fight scene
Play with the first and last images of your fight scene. Perhaps your movie fight starts at night and ends at dawn. Maybe the first shot is on your hero and the last is on your villain…
Directing a fight scene means telling the story through fight choreography, but also through careful placement of your camera and actors.
How do you shoot a better fight scene?
Keep your story moving throughout it.
Let us know in the comments what you thought about the tips on how to write a better fight scene! What are some of your favorite fight scenes?
Check out our article on creating the perfect antagonist to drum up action in your next fight scene.
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"Fight Choreography and Fists: How to Shoot Better Fight Scenes." #filmmakers #indiefilm #filmmaking