Fight scenes are the highlights of action films, and often stand out as memorable moments even within videos of other genres. Good fight scenes are focused and fast-paced, keeping the viewers on full alert beyond what less intense scenes can achieve. These scenes contain quality pacing paired with well-executed action, a skilled camera operator, and realistic effects.
Sometimes overlooked when developing fight scenes, pacing is incredibly important to action, just as it is to the rest of the video. It really counts when it comes down to measuring the intensity of a scene. The action within a fight scene needs to be spaced out accordingly, depending on what we are trying to achieve. For the most part, we will want to mesmerize the audience by keeping the movements quick, with little distraction in between. Depending on the story that is unfolding as the scene progresses, however, the pacing can be changed. A fight scene does many things for a video by adding action, but it should still only be included when necessary and when it moves the plot along.
While I have often mentioned storyboards as an optional addition to a well-crafted script, they are essential to a good fight scene. We want to have every cut of the video visualized beforehand, even if our plan involves a hundred small clips. Not only does this give everyone involved a clear picture of what we are trying to achieve, it also helps far more than a basic numbered shot list in the sense of keeping track of what we have filmed and what we have left.
No matter the selection of pacing, the action needs to be realistic in its speed and performance. That includes the execution of strikes and the reaction to them. For physical fight scenes with martial movements, the risk of the actors’ safety is in direct contrast with the sense of reality that the audience will get. In other words, to make a punch look like it really hit, it needs to really hit. Most filmmakers will have their performers act out fights that are just near the edge of reality, with pulled punches, lack of contact, or other such tactics to preserve safety. But it’s still that dance with danger that really gives a fight scene an organic sense. Not only will this require violent movements from the attacker, but realistic reactions from the defender. It’s only through perfect timing (and usually many tries) that a punch becomes good enough to put in the video. Of course, this also comes down to the camera operator and cinematography.
Camera Angles and Strikes
The skill of the action performers is inverse to the necessary skill of the cinematographer. That’s not to say, of course, that we should neglect the skill of one or the other. But poorer action performances can be countered by great cinematography. Well-planned cuts and shots can bring even fights with a minimal danger factor to life. Typically this means that there needs to be more shots in the scene, but even with more shots for safety keep in mind that too many cuts sours the final product. When there are so many cuts that it’s difficult to tell what is going on, the intensity of the fight scene is marred by the lack of understanding. We should aim for longer cuts and more realistic strikes, but most of us are not skilled or confident enough to risk bodily harm for the sake of realism.
Film and Film Again
More shots is always better when we are creating a fight scene. This doesn’t just mean more takes of a single shot, but even more angles of a single strike. This means going into the video with the expectation to use a single one of the ten different shots that we’re going to film. And that means planning each of those shots ahead of time, to make sure that each of them is as professional as it can be.
Bruises and Blood
Now we come to the lasting special effects—signs of the fight. These are as important as well-acted reactions, as they are another essential part of making the scene seem more realistic. First off, we need to know when to apply bruise and blood effects. Every single blow landed on somebody won’t cause a lasting mark, or even a mark that would show up automatically. As these marks also tend to last a while throughout the rest of the project, they should be used as part of the story in a way, a reminder of what took place in the fight scene.
Blood doesn’t naturally spill from a simple punch or kick. If the fight scene consists of enough damage to a person, however, we’ll need blood to enhance the feeling. I recommend using edible stage blood. It’s safer to apply to bloody lips or any other mouth-related injury than a cheaper toxic variety. The type I use also tends to wash out of anything. Another option is to use corn syrup and food coloring. I’ve only used this a few times, but it still has the slow-moving gooeyness of clotted blood. With both options, free-flowing blood can only be achieved by diluting the substance with water.
A perfect fight scene doesn’t come about in the first attempt, in both the sense of the first take or the first attempted fight scene of a director. They take a lot of work, both in planning stages and the execution. That’s why larger-budget movies have entire crews dedicated to fights, from stunt actors to combat trainers. Without access to these luxuries, we have to rely on our own mixture of skills in cuts and daring.