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Transitioning from Martial Arts to Martial Arts Movies

With the proliferation of video, cameras and outlets, especially the free distribution of the Internet, I am struck with how many amazing athletes there are doing martial arts. Double and triple kicks and spins and flips and other amazing feats of expertise, and yet when I watch some of these same athletes making the attempt at DIY fight scenes or even lower budget films, I’m also struck with how bad they can look.

Though hardly a known expert, I am nonetheless developing a reputation as a director that can create believable violence on screen.

There are at least five major components to making any particular move or technique look good.

1. Choosing cinematic techniques. Not every move will translate well to the screen. Some are too subtle to film well. Perhaps that should be defined as choosing the technique that creates the desired reaction in the audience. A kick, even when flying through the air or spinning and taking out three guys is not necessarily more dramatic than pinching or biting, or stomping on a foot, or choking someone out.

2. Make sure it is filmed well. Again, it’s not always what you might think. It comes down to pacing and rhythm and story. Perhaps not quite seeing the move creates a bigger impression than shoving it in your face. Generally speaking, a movie is not about educating the audience on how to do the technique. It’s a movie – not a training video. This will be a big part of the director’s job to determine what creates the desired result in the audience. It has to fit the story and has to be shot well, with the angles, the lens choice, the light and shutter speeds all part of the equation.

3. Body mechanics. From my own experience, I find that those who work out on heavy striking equipment, or better yet, with full contact martial arts of some sort, (and yes that means boxing, grappling, and the many forms of kickboxing) have a greater understanding of how to deliver a believable strike no matter what the technique. The audience needs to not only see the technique, but to the see intention behind it and the follow through that makes them think it happened.

4. A reaction. In Hollywood, it is pretty rare that the other guy actually gets hit. It’s how well they ‘sell’ the technique that makes us think something actually happened. The body mechanics involved on the receiving end can take as much skill and timing as the delivery. Snapping your head at the proper angle with enough speed to appear believable, or throwing your body backwards with no apparent means other than the blow you are trying to sell can be extremely difficult, and easily as important as the punch or kick that was supposed to make it happen.

Usually we’ll think of this as being the guy (or girl) on the receiving end… but not always. If you watch some of the bigger budget shows, many time it’s the effect on the environment the move has. Two guys fighting in a clean empty garage is not going to have the same effect as two guys fighting in the dirt and dust, or breaking furniture and crashing through plate glass windows. (please remember Hollywood would not actually use real glass windows!)

Reactions could also come from cutaways to other people or extras or characters in the story, or even from the person delivering the technique themselves.

5. And probably not last, is the editing. This includes both the visuals and the audio. Believable sound effects, music, ambiance, grunts and groans and heavy breathing – all part of the formula.

If you’ll approach fighting on camera with the same respect that you gave your original training, realizing it can be a separate and complimentary skill that also takes great athleticism, commitment, and really hard work, your ability to add that believable component to your screen fights will be the benefit to both you and your audience.

A last word for now. No one should actually be getting injured, no matter what, it’s just a movie.

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