Stage Fighting vs. Screen Fighting

The majority of my fifteen years of fighting has been spent performing and fight directing for stage. However in the last six years or so I have been fortunate to have had many opportunities to apply my skills on screen.

The fight technique is actually very similar between stage and screen. Both require a very strong understanding of angle, good performance intensity, and good physical skill (timing, reflexes, etc.,). Depending on the budget of the production (Stage or Screen) actors will get varying amounts of rehearsal time – this time is always precious. In theatre actors often have at least a few weeks to learn choreography and several preview performances before opening night. In television and film, actors rarely get more than one or two rehearsals before the sequence needs to be shot at full speed. In either case there is never enough rehearsal, so having trained a skill-set and built a physical vocabulary beforehand is a huge asset. The main differences lie in the process. Let”s look at the differences in terms of Eyes vs. Frame, Fight Performance, Schedule and Performance Structure.

The first and most obvious difference is the audience: In Theatre the audience is (usually) fixed, in Television/Film, the audience moves with the camera. On stage this means the Fight Director must pay careful attention to drawing the eye to the right part of the story, while in film the camera has absolute control over what the audience sees.

On stage the Fight Director must consider where the audience is and make the fight look it”s best from there. There are various kinds of stages – Proscenium Arch, Thrust, the Round – and this will affect how the fight is staged. The Fight Director must choose the right angle for each strike that hides the fact that there is no contact (in the case of a non-contact hit) and hide the “knap” (on stage the sound of the “hit” must be made live by the actors, on screen these sound effects are added in post by foley artists). In a Proscenium Arch this is easy: the audience is only on one side. Once we get into the Round these strikes become more difficult, as the fight must sell from multiple angles at once. In this case Fight Directors have to use more contact strikes and misdirection/ third-person masking, and whatever other stage techniques they have up their sleeve to sell the impact.

On stage the story is received with the eyes and every moment is gone once it”s happened, and story points can get missed. In the case of a large battle scene on stage, it is possible for every audience member to get a different piece of the story, as each patron is seeing the fight from a slightly different angle. If there is a specific part of a battle that needs to be seen by everyone, the Fight Director (as well as the rest of the creative team, like the lighting designer) must be crafty about drawing the eye to that part of the story. Alternatively, fights on screen need to be impaction for repeated viewings – audiences can rewind, replay, scan in slow motion – for this reason nothing is left to chance.

On Screen the only eye that matters is the camera lens, and it has complete control of what you see. During the shoot, this means you can end up doing some very strange things that make no sense in reality, i.e. aiming a punch above the head, but works because it sells to the camera as contact. Conversely, what the camera lens doesn”t see won”t be part of the story, which allows us to hide all kinds of mats to fall on and padding to punch – there for the brief moment they”re required, magically gone for the next shot! For film and television the camera angle is chosen based on what makes the action look the most dynamic, most hard hitting, or that tells the right story. Like every scene, fight scenes are edited to showcase different pieces of the story: villain close up, hero close up, wide shot of crazy fight moves, close up on fist hitting stomach, medium shot of characters locked in a corps a corps, etc.  In theatre, since the audience doesn”t move, the actors must continuously position themselves to create the right angles. On screen we can bring the audience right into the middle of the action, up close, while on stage it is always a one-take wide shot.

Fight Performance.

On both Stage and Screen it”s great to have the actor do most of the action. In Theatre – the actor has to play their own action, though of course there have been exceptions to this.

For example: Jacques Cappelle, a fantastically talented Belgian Fight Master, doubled Cyrano de Bergerac in an outdoor venue – between scenes they decided to actually stage Cyrano”s fight with a hundred men. Cyrano is a demanding part, and there are never enough fight rehearsals, so Jacques performed the fight as Cyrano and then swapped back out for the real Cyrano every show. This was both a practical and effective way to show off Cyrano”s fight skills while saving the actor”s energy for the rest of the play.

But it is more the exception than the rule. Generally stage actors must have the physical ability to do their own fights. And they must do them for the entire run of the show, every night, sometimes twice, often for months. This means the action must be safely repeatable – there can”t be huge risky moves, especially for lead actors, because an injury could jeopardize the entire run of the show.

On screen there is much more wiggle room for the actor. Most actors would like to do their own stunts and fights, but often this is not practical; furthermore, since film and television have higher financial stakes, even if the actor is capable of doing the stunt, the production often won”t let them risk it. The actor is required to do enough action for their close ups to sell the story of the fight, but any over the shoulder or wide shots can be performed by a stunt double. Stunt doubles are used if the action is too dangerous for the actor or if the actor simply does not have the skill required. This should not be a source of shame for any actor.

As an actor I believe that I am not the only one creating the character. “The Character” is what the audience sees, and sometimes to tell the right story of the character we need many people”s skills: make up, costume, lighting, body doubling, stunt doubling. If I am playing a character that knows how to jump off a horse, flip and land on their feet, but I don’t know how to do that, we get someone to dress up as the character and show that part of them. In that moment they are the character as much as I am. Also, while I”m shooting another scene that requires the character”s face (mine) the stunt double can be rehearsing and perfecting that flip with the help of all sorts of other people – riggers, wire pullers, coaches, CGI, etc.

Even in the case that the stunt is not too dangerous, action sequences are tiring and there is inevitable wear and tear. The main actors have very long days and they are responsible for representing the emotional journey of the character (emotional scenes are also exhausting!). It doesn”t help the story to spend their energy hanging from a harness for hours when the next shot is an emotional monologue (for example). It is for this reason that the stunt doubles are there to share the load and take on risks the actor can”t afford to take.

Schedule and Performance Structure

On stage the actors tell the story all the way through over a few hours. Any big mistakes can be perceived by the audience and must be fixed in real time in order to continue the story. On screen, actors can cut and repeat a sequence until they get it right, making the final product the “Best Of”. Both stage and screen acting requires a lot of stamina.

An actor playing Macbeth on stage needs to carry the entire show, monologue after monologue and still have enough energy to do an entire fight scene at the end. And they need to do that every day, sometimes twice, possibly for months. If that actor is part of a Rep Company (like the Stratford Theatre Festival) they may be in rehearsals all day for another show, and then perform Macbeth at night. Since theatre has no editing, the actor must perform the entire fight from beginning to end, at full speed. This is why any production generally has a minimum of two weeks rehearsal.

The same Macbeth on screen however must sustain one moment for the better part of a day or several days, repeating it for every camera angle, be it an emotional scene or a fight. While the Stage Actor does the fight once in a show, the Screen actor will probably shoot the fight over and over. But the fight need not be done from beginning to end, a fight scene on screen is almost always shot in segments. This means the performers don”t have to worry about learning the whole fight at speed – they can speed it up and shoot it piece by piece. Then, often, the stunt doubles will do the full fight wide shot. But once it”s shot – it”s over.

To give you a personal example, one of the sword fights I shot for Lost Girl (Ep. 213, Bo vs. Lachlan) was shot over two days. One day on set at the studio, and another day (over fourteen hours long) on location. In the episode this fight ended up being about a minute long or less of pure fight time. On stage, however, the longest fight I ever performed non-stop was about four minutes. That is a very long fight on stage – by the end I could barely hold my sword. Television shoots at a very fast pace, so I ended up having two rehearsals for the Lost Girl fight, which is good! (When I doubled Bo in Season 1, I had one rehearsal with the other stunt double, and then we taught it to the actors a few hours before we shot it – which is more common.) For the stage fight, however, which had to be performed flawlessly from beginning to end, we had dozens of hours of rehearsals, and I was fighting with other highly trained fighters. By the time it hit the stage it was pure muscle memory, and went pretty much according to plan every night. If that fight were to be filmed, it would probably take several days to shoot, but would arguably not have to be as rehearsed.

Lastly, a quick note about weapons. Stage and Screen weapons are designed for different purposes. A stage weapon must be built to handle prolonged use – and a good one should last you many years. There are many things you can do to prolong the life of your stage weapons, (food for another blog), but they should be built to withstand much wear and tear. Generally stage swords are made of steel or high grade aluminum (I like aircraft aluminum). In film what matters is speed, not lifespan. Weapons are often cheaply made because they do not need to last longer than a day or so. Often little thought is put into what one weapon will do to another. This is not ideal – as I have had shards of hot metal hit me in the face as one well made weapon chewed into my cheaply made blade. But speed is key, and this means weapons should be light and quick. (Anthony DeLongis tells a story of shooting his sabre fight with Jet Li in Fearless – he brought what he considered very light aluminum blades, but they dismissed them immediately as too heavy, opting to use painted bamboo swords. Watch that fight – it”s crazy fast!). In film and television they also have multiple weapons: the hero weapon, which might still be sharp and is used for close ups, the practical weapon – often aluminum, and if they”re smart they will have a few of these, and then probably (hopefully) a rubber weapon for contact strikes, and as an extra layer of safety when fighting at full speed.

Wow, I had a lot to say about that – being succinct is certainly not one of my skills. If you have questions or  want me to elaborate on anything please tweet me! @TemperArts or @CaseyHudecki Otherwise I will attempt to summarize via Table:

Choreographer Fight Coordinator Fight Director
Perspective Camera Lens : Absolute control over what audience sees. Fixed Audience – Fight Director must draw the eye to the part of the story they want the audience to see. One take wide shot
Prep Time Never enough rehearsal – rarely more than a couple rehearsals Never enough rehearsal – usually 2-3 weeks
Final Product Shot in pieces over hours Performed beginning to end every night
Performance Performed as much as possible by the actor, the rest performed by stunt doubles Performed by the actor
Weapons Built for Speed – Hero Weapon (Real), Practical (often low grade aluminum or rubber) Built for Durability – usually steel or high grade aluminum


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