You can’t hit what you can’t see.
And in most modern day fighting movies, you can’t see anything.
The art of the fight is lost in modern day cinema, especially among today’s blockbuster films.
Instead, a new art has emerged: The art of the cover up.
In an interview, Jackie Chan was quoted, “When you see the camera move, that’s when you know the actor can’t fight.”
Modern day fight scenes are infamous for turning into messy, disorganized attempts to hide the fact that those actors have no business doing a fight scene.
Let’s break down some ineffective fights and show what techniques are used that really hinder today’s fighting scenes by trying to hide bad fighting.
(Warning: Gore and Explicit Language)
1. Cutting on Every Hit
When you watch most American action movies, fight scenes are exactly like this. They cut their shots on every single hit. It makes the fight jarring, in-cohesive, and at times utterly confusing from a cinematic standpoint. Starting at 2:30, our character, Jensen, hits a man with a fire hydrant, but it cuts on the hit. Without the obviously post production sound effect, it wouldn’t even feel like a “hit”, just Jensen swinging a fire hydrant and then this dude just flails backwards. The next two hits from 2:30-2:36 are exactly the same, cutting on each punch, relying on post production sound effects to link these cuts together. However, this creates a very bone crunching effect when the film actually doesn’t cut, when Jensen slams the man’s head into the vice at 2:40. This is the best hit in the entire fight, because we can actually see it. But its followed by the worst sequence of the fight from 2:41-2:54, which is 19 cuts in a mere 13 seconds! It takes the audience an average of 3 frames to register a new cut, and having that many cuts in such a short time just creates this blob of film that’s ugly and disgusting.
2. Unclear Camera
This fight, albeit epic, is severely unclear in many parts of its fight because of the unclear camera work that is done to hide its actors. For example, take a look back at 2:07-2:15. The beginning of this sequence is literally so close to the actors that I can’t see them punch each other. Its just a zoom in on one of the fighters and gives us the assumption that they’re throwing blows. Another part of the unclear camerawork is the “shaky cam” effect that is used during the segment 2:19-2:21 and again in 2:35-2:38. This effect is supposed to be used to create a sense of conflict, but ends just muddling the shot in obscurity. You already have the music and the actual fighters fighting, there’s no need to add more “conflict”, but that’s part of these blockbuster films: just trying to make every single frame an explosion of saturation that really just fails to convey a sense of direction.
Take a look more so at the beginning of this fight, from 0:00-0:15, and specifically at 0:06-0:15. What the hell is going on? I don’t know because everything is just thrown in complete darkness in the scene. And don’t complain about the low-res of the video, its just like that in the real movie. This is another technique to hide bad fighting: just make your background dark, and color correct everything blue, and have your actors all wear the same color. Easy recipe to a confusing fight scene, and that’s exactly what happens here.
So now that I’ve shown you how not do a fight scene, the questions begs itself:
How you do you go mano y mano correctly?
Simple: just watch Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan.
These two men have taken part in some of the best fights I’ve ever seen, and because they can fight and work with actors that can fight as well, they have nothing to hide, which creates a very different product from the above examples.
Here are their techniques to create great fighting scenes, of course accompanied by video examples.
1. No Cuts!
Both have such incredibly amazing and effective fight scenes because of the fact that they hold their cuts much longer. There is a rhythm to a fight, and by holding their cuts, they allow the audience to feel it. Instead of using post production sounds to “link” different cuts, the sounds play into the almost musical style of their fights, allowing the audience to feel the ebb and flow of combat; one fighter gaining ground, another retreating, but then back again and again, until one wins and one is defeated, and so goes the fight. Take a look at Video 1 at 1:15-1:18, this is the exact opposite of cutting, I get the entire sequence, in clear picture, and I can feel the fight happening because I can see it. I can clearly see each move and counter. Its a real fight.
Holding cuts also allows action and reaction to be in the same shot. The punch and the person getting punched and their reaction are in the same frame, creating a much more powerful hit than just if they cut at the instant of the hit. Just watch ALL of Video 2, then entire thing is Jackie getting hurt in the same frame. The two fighters exchange punches and kicks with electrifying speed.
2. Clear Camerawork!
Both of these men’s fights are trademarked by their simple camera style. Both usually, more so with Jackie, have the camera on a wide angle, showing the full fight in its glory rather than just cutting on hits. Donnie’s fights have a little more cuts and little more dramatic editing, but his principle is the same: show the actual fight.
Both of these fights predominantly feature shots in the wide angle, and allow us to really see the flow of the fight. Once again, action and reaction are in the same shot, giving us the real impact of hits. Rhythm is better established and the clearness of the camerawork is easy and simple to follow. There are hardly moving camera angles or shaky cams, because the conflict is already there for us to see, no need to be excessive.
Antithetical to the previous American examples, both men expertly use clarity in their shots to help the audience follow the action. Unlike American films, there is no bland background that blends the actors, and the actors aren’t all wearing the same color to camouflage themselves.
In Video 1, just for bias purposes, this is my favorite fight scene of all time, there is darkness in the scene, but it is in areas not of importance in the frame, in the backs of the room. There is bright and specific lighting for the scene, giving extra clarity, making the darkness not an obscure background, but a thematic draw, just like how the Lakers stadium dims the seating areas and only lights the court to put emphasis on it. Donnie dons a black martial arts robe, while the Japanese black belts wear white, but are the bad guys, a clear reversal of color roles and of “good and bad.”
In Video 2, the clarity should be obvious. The background is unique, strewn with white paper and packaging. Jackie is wearing white, his opponent, black, as we see this time we follow the roles of white and black and good and bad, respectively. There is no darkness in the scene, but instead lit extensively so that we don’t miss a single second of the action.
Let’s stop wasting people’s money NOT showing them the fight. Let’s start showing the action, the conflict, the REASON we have fight scenes in the first place. But if we want that we’ll have to fight for it by removing those overly-complicated,and over cut scenes, replacing them with the simplicity of wide angle shots and clear colors, and steady cameras. Fight for better fight scenes.