5 Tips for Making Kick-A$$ Film Fights

by Jonathan Moxness


Wether you’re shooting videos for Youtube or big-budget Hollywood films, these 5 simple techniques will help transform your next onscreen fight into the stuff of legend!

(Please note that this advice is to help enhance your combat skills, not create them. Ensure your performers are sufficiently trained, and always practise proper safety when choreographing and performing any sort of staged combat!)

Define Your Fighters1
Before starting choreography, you must identify the type of fighter each character is. You can do this by answering two questions: how much does my character want to fight, and how skilled of a fighter are they? Look at Jack Sparrow and Will Turner’s first bout in Pirates of the Caribbean; both are skilled fighters, with Turner possessing greater desire, and Sparrow possessing a slight edge skill-wise due to experience.
An easy way of identifying these traits in your character is by placing them somewhere within the following grid:


Doing this will dictate how each character will act within the fight, making choreography easier and more realistic. Keep in mind, these choices aren’t set in stone, they’re malleable and can (and often should) change during the course of the fight.

Tell a Story
Every punch, bullet, or swing of a sword within your fight should tell a story. At any given time the audience should be able to see who is attacking and who is defending; who is stronger and who is weaker; who is in danger and who is not. If you focus your fighting moves around telling a story, it will be easier to engage not only the actors in the choreography, but the audience as well.

Raise the Stakes
Smash props, destroy scenery, and hit your characters! Each of these things show the audience the clear danger of what is occurring onscreen. In our own Action Playground video, Ultimate Nerf Sword fight, we employ this technique using sound design and VFX to make Nerf swords appear as deadly weapons. Next time you’re watching a fight in a film, find what they do to raise the stakes. It might be someone getting hit, it might be a fist going through a wall, or it might be a bullet ricocheting off the rock the hero is hiding behind. Whatever it is, it should spark the thought, “Holy $#it! This is for real.”

Fight around Furniture2
Another technique for creating more interesting fights is to choreograph your fight around furniture, pillars, stairs, or whatever other obstacles you have in your rehearsal environment. Some of these obstacles might remain in your final film, but the point is rather to create interesting choreography. Once you’ve choreographed around these objects, remove your characters from the obstacles and play out the same choreography.
You will need to tweak the choreo a bit in order for the fight to work in this new environment, but try to maintain the essence of what you choreographed earlier around the furniture. This forces creativity and creates more interesting action than if you had just choreographed in a blank space. Try this technique and you’ll soon realize how easy it is to create a more imaginative and exciting fight!

Ease Off the Camera
When shooting your fight, only move the camera as much as is needed…nothing more. If you want to get in tight with the framing, make sure you have a good reason, like, “The audience won’t see the character getting stabbed in the wide,” or “A tighter shot here will really sell the impact of the punch.”

What you should NOT do is a technique that has, unfortunately, become more popular in recent years, and that is to bring the camera so close to the action that you can’t see what’s going on! Often this technique is used to cover bad fighters/choreography, or with the poor justification that “It will make the audience feel as if they’re part of the action!” Unfortunately this leads to awful fight sequences that don’t tell a story, and a dissatisfied audience that can’t comprehend the relationship between the combatants!
Instead, let the camera breathe a bit. Follow the action, and let it play out in your frame. Ask yourself, “Does this angle and framing help tell the story occuring right now?”
The following fight from Troy is a clear example of how, with good choreography, trained combatants, and astute camera choices, you can tell a great fight story!

Using each of these techniques will help to create memorable fight sequences that your audience will want to watch again and again!
Happy and safe fighting!

1-Thanks to Australian Fight Director and Jedi Kyle Rowling for this technique!
2 – Thanks to American Fight Director and swashbuckler Casey Kaleba for this technique!

Got any other techniques you use for creating memorable fights? Post ’em below!

Jonathan Moxness

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