I received an email from someone with some great questions about who contributes to the final look of a fight, and how that happens. So this is a look at the process of developing the fight from script to screen.
It begins with the script. Any well written scene advances the story – something new is revealed or there is a reversal of fortune – and fights are often an exciting means to this end. So the best starting point to choreographing a fight is to know is why the fight happens – what part of the story does it tell? This can be something simple like: “show off how powerful this character is, by getting them to easily kill 12 people as they get from A to B.” Or the fight might have to express something more complicated like “Darth Vader fights Luke Skywalker, making him angrier and angrier to seduce him to the dark side, and Luke has to realize this and resist.” The first story requires the fight choreographer to give the protagonist cool, flashy moves that appear effortless. The second story is more emotionally driven, and there are quite a few story beats the choreographer must make sure to hit: getting Luke to attack, then several sequences that build in intensity, escalating, the hate must be ‘flowing through’ Luke and he almost fully commits to the emotion, then he must realize what’s happening and pull himself back.
Once you know the large plot points – the Why – you can deal with the specific moves – the How. The script may or may not have answers for you there.
Sometimes quite a bit of the fight is scripted: “I see you have studied your Agrippa…. I am not left handed!… you’re amazing!” Sometimes the script will say specific things like “She slams his head into the wall” which is pretty straight forward to choreograph. But usually, especially if it’s a large fight, the script will only say something like “They Fight” – or if they want to be more specific “They Fight -it’s intense, they are evenly matched, it’s very sexy” or something. Then the Fight Coordinator must interpret that based on their knowledge of the characters (which I talk about more in my Fight Directing Blog here).
Once they have all the clues from the script, the fight coordinator must then talk to the director. The director will know the location of the fight, and explain their vision: whether they want to emphasize a skill or emotion, what the power dynamic is between the characters, if they want it to be very messy, if they imagine the characters getting into a clinch for a certain set of lines, if they have an idea for a camera move, where the fight needs to travel – if it has a specific beginning or ending position, etc. Some directors have a very clear vision, some leave it more up to the fight coordinator to decide.
In film and television there will probably also be a Stunt meeting, which will include all the relevant departments. On Lost Girl, because there are often supernatural powers involved in fights, these meetings include the Visual Effects department. They must be involved to make sure the fight is shot in such a way that they can animate whatever they need to in post (i.e. Glowing eyes, body morphs, swords getting stabbed into people, etc.). There will also be the Director, Props (who build the weapons), Wardrobe, Writers, and Producers – so that everyone is on the same page.
With all this information the fight coordinator can then go choreograph the fight. If it’s a big, important fight and time permits, they will shoot a PreViz. The PreViz is shot to be a live story-board. It involves all the camera angles, stunts, edits, padding, etc. so that the shoot can proceed as smoothly as possible when the time comes. An example of an amazing PreViz is River’s bar fight in Serenity (watch it here). Often the PreViz needs to be approved by the Network, so it can go through quite a few versions. Usually the PreViz is shot with the stunt doubles.
As with all best laid plans – even with all this prep work – things inevitably change ‘on the day.’ The actors know their characters extremely well, so if a certain move doesn’t ring true for their character, the fight coordinator will often change it. Depending on location, and budget and time constraints, sometimes fights get cut short, simplified, and so forth, keeping the fight coordinator on their toes! Lastly – once the fight is shot, the director and the editor will choose the best shots and cut the fight together. If you know anything about editing, you know that it has massive power to shape the story the audience will eventually see. The editor must choose the takes that tell the right story, and that fits the show into it’s time constraints. At this point sound will be added – and that will be the finishing touch – completing the final layer of the fight.
In terms of choosing individual fight moves – I was asked about the Bo vs. Lachlan fight in episode 213. The fight shows two different styles: Bo is untrained and fuel by emotion, and Lachlan has more upright, stylized sword technique. We also chose for the fight to get more physical – with Bo throwing a punch – which I think suited the story and the character. If I were to choreograph a historical duel, it would be rare for the combatants to throw punches. But the Ep 213 fight is not a traditional duel, and Bo is not one for following rules, so it made sense to flavour the sword choreography with her scrappy instincts. Personally, since I am also an actor, I tend to choreograph very instinctually, and the punch just felt right. When choreographing, it’s always a balance to stay true to the character, but also throw in some fun and flashy moves.
As you can see taking a fight from script to screen is quite a collaboration! From the writer’s imagination, the director’s vision, wardrobe, prop and visual effects tricks, the actor’s instincts, the editor’s eye and the very real issues of time, space and money concerns, everyone leaves their mark on the fight. I believe that combining the skills of all these departments is one of the things that makes this industry so exciting. That said, I like my department the best! So that’s where you’ll find me: building and performing story-driven fights!
Hope that answered some questions! If it just created MORE questions – let me know! Tweet me @CaseyHudecki!