fight sceneAlmost every film today has some sort of obligatory fight scene between the good guy and the bad guy. I would like to share some tips on how to stage and shoot a simple fight scene between two actors.

SCENE: Good guy enters a dark room and looks around. Bad guy steps out from the shadows behind Good guy and points a gun at him. Good guy stops and raises his hands – he does not turn around. Bad guy walks up to Good guy and shoves the gun in his back. They talk. Good guy turns around quickly and knocks the gun from Bad guy’s hand. They fight it out and after a few punches, Good guy wins and walks out the door.

1) Prep – make sure you have a meeting with the Stunt Co-ordinator about the fight scene. You should give him as many details about the fight as you can so he can go away and work out some moves for you.

2) Shoot the beginning of the scene first -following the block/light/rehearse/shoot scenario, you block and shoot everything up to the fight first.

3) Blocking the fight – on the set, the two actors, two stunt doubles and the Stunt Co-ordinator block out the fight sequence with everyone watching. You then discuss the first shot with the DOP and rehearse that specific shot with the actors and/or doubles. Once this has been done, the DOP will light the shot while the Stunt Co-ordinator takes the actors and stunt doubles off set and practises the fight.

4) Off Set Rehearsal – the Stunt Co-ordinator practices the fight scene with the actors and the doubles. You should watch this rehearsal process for specific camera angles and make comments
regarding action and movement.

5) On Set Rehearsal – The Stunt Co-ordinator shows the crew the fight sequence with the stunt doubles and the actors. He then sets up the first part of the fight and you rehearse that with the camera.

6) Shooting – you shoot the first part of the fight and continue through the process until the fight is done. You then shoot the ending of the sequence where Goodguy walks out the door.

SHOOTING TIPS – Here are a few tips on shooting a stylistic fight sequence using the least amount of set-ups. (I will use the 35mm aspect ratio for reference):

Tip One: shoot two takes of every set-up and just change the lens size and speed of both cameras for each take. This means you can shoot each set-up twice (assuming no technical problems) and give your editor 4 different angles to choose from – without moving the cameras! This technique is a good way of shooting a well covered action scene with only a few takes and without spending a lot of time.

a) use 2 cameras for each shot

b) For Take 1, Camera A can have a 25mm lens (wide) at 24fps. Camera B can have a 75mm lens (tighter) at 40fps

c) for Take 2, reverse lens size and speeds on each camera. (You don’t have to move the cameras.) So, Camera A is 75mm at 40fps while Camera B is 25mm at 24fps

Tip Two: try and shoot from at least three different positions for your fight using 2 cameras. That could be as simple as two over-shoulders and a 2 shot. By using the techniques in Tip One, you will have at least 12 different angles, lens sizes and camera speeds to choose from!

Tip Three: punches look the best from over-shoulder shots (OS). Make sure you always shoot “overs ” with your 2 cameras.

Tip Four: If you have two cameras, you should also have two monitors to watch. For Take 1, you should watch one monitor and have someone else (DOP, AD, Stunt Co-ord) watch the other monitor. After you cut, you discuss each shot. If the shot worked, you switch monitors. This gives you a good look at both shots since action is, by its nature, very fast and you may miss something if you try and look at both monitors at the same time.

Tip Five: slow motion creates an action sequence that has the qualities of a ballet (re: John Woo). As long as you have the exposure to shoot slow motion, shoot slo-mo on the set with your cameras. You can also shoot normal speed on the set and slow down the shots in the editing room but there is a different quality of the picture when you do this. (it has a certain “ghosty” look to it.) I usually have the camera with the longest lens (closer) shoot slo-mo.

Tip Six: Once the camera rolls, everyone’s adrenaline pumps up and a actor may be afraid of hitting the other actor or of hurting themselves. One way to solve this is to use the Actor/Double stunt system when shooting a fight. Say you have an OS shot of Goodguy as he punches Badguy. What you do is shoot the two actors first then switch Goodguy (he has his back to the camera) with his stunt double:

a) first: shoot Goodguy-Actor OS as he fights Badguy-Actor Then switch Goodguy-Actor with Goodguy-Stunt:

b) second: shoot Goodguy-Stunt OS as he fights Badguy-Actor

When your turn around for the reverses, you repeat the process:

a) first: shoot Badguy-Actor OS as he fights Goodguy-Actor Switch Badguy-Actor with Badguy-Stunt:

b) second: shoot Badguy-Stunt OS as he fights Goodguy-Actor

You can see how this process works by looking at the end fight scene in “Bird on a Wire” between Mel Gibson and David Carradine when they were swinging on the ropes in the zoo. We had each actor fight each other then we did the switch with the doubles. This worked very well here because the actors were also attached to ropes so they had a lot on their minds.

Copyright (c) 2000-2010  Peter D. Marshall / All Rights Reserved

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About Peter D. Marshall

Peter D. Marshall is a filmmaker from Vancouver and has worked in the Film and Television Industry for over 38 years – as a Film Director, Television Producer, First Assistant Director and TV Series Creative Consultant.

Peter has directed over 30 episodes of Television Drama such as “John Woo’s Once a Thief”, “Wiseguy”, “21 Jumpstreet”, “Neon Rider”, “The Black Stallion”, “Scene of the Crime”, “Big Wolf on Campus” and “Largo

Winch.” As a First Assistant Director, Peter has worked on over 12 Features (including “Dawn of the Dead”, “The Butterfly Effect”, “Happy Gilmore”, “The Fly II”); 16 Television Movies; 8 Television Series; and over 20 Commercials.

He has written, directed or produced over 50 hours of documentary and educational programs and his documentaries and dramas have won, or been nominated for, 14 International film awards. Peter has worked for directors such as John Woo, Phillip Noyce, Ed Zwick, John Badham, Roger Vadim, Dennis Dugan, Anne Wheeler and Zack Snyder.

He has also worked with actors such as Peter O’Toole, Kevin Spacey, Morgan Freeman, John Travolta, Kathy Bates, Michelle Pfiefer, Marcia Gaye Harden, Madeleine Stowe, Mel Gibson, Ashton Kutcher, Goldie Hawn, Judy Davis, Halle Berry and Adam Sandler.

Peter is a directing instructor at the Vancouver Film School and has also taught for the Directors Guild of Canada, Victoria Motion Picture School and Capilano College. He has also developed several filmmaking workshops and seminars that he has presented over the past 15 years – from Canada to Singapore to Dubai.

You can read more about Peter D. Marshall here.

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