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Old May 26th, 2004, 10:14 PM   #1
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Sword Fighting for the Screen (LOTR)

Okay so I am intested in how sword fighting for the screen works. I will refer to LOTR because I feel it is an example everyone can relate to. Here's two obvious things we all know so far:

1. Obviously, sword fighting routines are highly choreographed. Actors and stunt people rehearse over and over again, and safety is always the number one issue.

2. Much of the time camera angles are used to hide the fact that the sword never comes into contact with the opponent.

Here are some questions I have:

1. Are the swords sharp? Or have they dulled the swords? I'm not sure that makes a ton of difference because even if they are dull, a hard blow could still cut. Also, the end is still pointy....

2. Is there actually some contact? For example, in the behind the scenes in ROTK Peter Jackson tells Eowyn to "go ahead and wack the guys" because it he thinks it is not looking convincing.

3. In the big battle scenes, are all the extras actually fighting too? Have they all been trained?

4. In usual circumstances, are the swords replaced digitally?

5. When swords make contact, is there a certain way they are supposed to come into contact with one another. As in, blade hits blade or flat part hits flat part? Or does it matter?

6. Does anyone have any experience with sword fighting for the screen? What have you found to work? What doesnt? Is it better to REALLY break filming up into swing by swing? Or is it better to film longer sequences and then edit them down?

I, as well as many audiences around the world, find sword fighting to be incredibly cool. I think audiences are feeling that sword fighting is "cooler" than gun fighting or some other kind of combat right now. I thinks thats why there is such a prevalance of "time period" movies right now. Anyways, Let's Talk SwordPlay!!
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Old May 26th, 2004, 11:50 PM   #2
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Jonathan, if you haven't already, get the extended versions of LOTR - there is a TON of really good swordplay info in the 2 DVD appendices. They go through the whole deal from the sword smith who actually makes the real weapons, to the designers and history buffs who create/design the swords, to the hollywood sword master who trains everyone.

From what I remember of the docs, the initial training and blocking was done with wooden swords, but later on, they used real weapons which were sharp. The on screen fighting was done two ways. For close ups/,medium shots, it was a combination of real "hollywood" sword fighting (really hitting each other with stylized hollywood moves) and fake shots where the stuntmen faked getting hit, slightly off camera.

For the really large battle scenes, most of the extras were CG from the program called MASSIVE, but most of the close up sword fighting was "real". Arrows though, were all CG.

FYI: If you're ever in New York City, you can see actual sword fighting every Tuesday night in Union Square. There's a group that shows up between 7:30-9:00 to practice sword fighting. They show up with real armor and real weapons and start going at it. They cordon off an area in front of the McDonald's. I forget the group's name it's the Society for Anachronistic Living or something like that. I'll try and get some video of them and post it just for fun.
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Old May 27th, 2004, 12:02 AM   #3
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Thanks for the reply. I have the extended versions and needless to say I have watched them many times!! They rock! I am working on a project right now that involves some sword play, and I must say it is hard! I am just worried about my actors safety, so I am striving to know how it is done in case I cant get an actual fight choreographer.

What I am really interested in is the "real" sword fighting, not the CG stuff. Obviously I cant afford MASSIVE, and its only two characters dueling anyways.

What are the stylized hollywood moves? I know some of them, I am just trying to know as many as possible.
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Old May 27th, 2004, 12:27 AM   #4
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The guy you want to research is Bob Anderson - he's the legendardy sword master who has done a ton of movies from way back.

Basically, what it comes down to is - real sword fighting is pretty ugly and over pretty quickly. Bash, bash, bash, somebody gets gored and it's over in a few seconds.

If you want some cool sword fighting like the great scene in "The Princess Bride" or anything pertaining to the 3 Musketeers, then you want movie sword fighting.

One of the best movies I ever saw for sword fighting was Swordsman 2 with Jet Li. It's over the top movie sword fighting but I haven't really found anything to beat it yet. Crouching tiger had some good scenes though.


I'm in the pre-production stage for a sword fight in an amateur movie - but I've decided it's way too dangerous to do anything with "real" weapons. My current plan is to buy some realistic looking weapons from a local Halloween store, and weight them down with lead or sand.

Then I'm going to do a combination of "safe" moves in real time, combined with "unsafe" moves in slow motion - speeding them up later.

As for the stylized sword fighting moves, I'm just renting all kinds of DVDs off Netflix for the research.

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Old May 27th, 2004, 03:00 AM   #5
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>From what I remember of the docs, the initial training and >blocking was done with wooden swords, but later on, they used >real weapons which were sharp. The on screen fighting was done

Hollywood sword props vary from plastic to wood to steel. Real swords are heavy and can maime if you handle them even slightly incorrectly due to their weight. I seriously doubt that any on-screen fighting was done with combat-sharp swords.

>FYI: If you're ever in New York City, you can see actual sword >fighting every Tuesday night in Union Square. There's a group >that shows up between 7:30-9:00 to practice sword fighting. >They show up with real armor and real weapons and start going >at it. They cordon off an area in front of the McDonald's.

They are probably SCA, Society of Creative Anachronisms. I've watched a number of these groups practice all over the country, and have known a few of these people that participate in my weapons martial arts classes. While the armor may be good, the weapons used for the sparring/choregraphed fighting aren't real. No one is going to go to an SCA practice and risk cutting even a tendon.

Anyway, if you do manage to post some footage, it would be great to see it.
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Old May 27th, 2004, 08:42 AM   #6
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Where can you get "hollywood" swords? I would like to stay away from real swords as well. Although were they real in LOTR? If they werent, why did they have the sword maker? He was def. making real sword out of steel. Maybe for the non-action close-ups?
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Old May 27th, 2004, 08:57 AM   #7
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For over twenty years, I made my living producing and performing period combat. On and off horseback, from medieval to futuristic. On stage and on screen.

The SCA is a group of people dedicated to the study of period life. They are NOT stage combatants or fight choreographers.

There are a number of Stage combat groups who can help you. Look for the local rep from the Society of American Fight Directors in your area. That's a great place to start.

Stage combat takes time, patience and training. (With or without swords.) For huge battle scenes, weapons are usually rubber or plastic. For closeups, they are ALMOST always metal. Though I have a sword made from alluminum that is incredibly light and fast, but SOUNDS terrible. Great for film work, where you can foley in the "clang" later.

Parrying (blocking) with the flat of the blade is a bad idea. This will cause problems too numerous to go into here.

Stage technique is different from film technique. "Killing" blows on stage must be masked from an audience, while killing blows on screen are blocked specifically for the camera. Trick shots and swords can be used to "penetrate" the actor. (Go see the first kill in "TROY"... a great shot)

Usually, as a choreographer, I demand upfront rehearsal time to work with the principals until they have the fight down pat. Then when it's time to shoot, we work in much the same way as any other scene when it comes to coverage. Master wide, tight reverses, etc. And edit the fight in the cutting room. If I don't have a lot of time with actors on a set, then it's "One short piece" at a time, and edit it together.

My favorite fight choreographer -

William Hobbs, hands down.

See his work in "The Three and Four Musketeers" (Richard LEster Version, '74, '75) Robin and Marion, Conte of Monte Cristo and the all time best "THE DUELLISTS"

Swords are readily available all over the internet. (Unfortuanately). What makes a sword "combat worthy" is the hardness of the blade, and the thickness of the tang. Many wall hanger/decorations will snap at the handle the first time you use them, sending the blade flying off into the audience/camera.

Stage combat is a serious business that many directors take too lightly, and only at the last minute. Don't make that mistake.

"Hoc non tentare ad domus."
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Old May 27th, 2004, 09:20 AM   #8
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Start looking into Renaisance Festivals. The people there fight with round edged swords, usually aluminum. These swords are available complete, or in parts, and pretty cheap. You can even find instructional videos to learn about stage fighting.

On the other end, Marto has designed swords for the Highlander and several other movies.
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Old May 27th, 2004, 09:23 AM   #9
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Richard,

You surely are a wealth of knowledge! One of my worst fears is a sword snapping and flying off into....whoever.

See this video: http://www.ebaumsworld.com/katanaslip.html

I would like to buy some fake swords where I can add the clang in later. Is there a specific site you know of? There are a ridiculous number of swords available, but they are all "real". Plus most of them are cheap (bad combination). I will check the Society, but unfortunately, I am in the mountains of NC, so I highly doubt there is anyone nearby (although there are a lot of celebs that live around here). I am also a college student, so money is an issue.

Keith,
There is actually a HUGE reniassance festival in my area called the Highland Games. I plan to check it out, but unfortunately I need to get my actors started training now. That will give them well over a month to rehearse a two min fight (I want to do this right). I will use wood sticks for the time being until I can get the "weapons".
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Old May 27th, 2004, 11:21 AM   #10
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Jonathan, major productions can have several different versions of swords for the actors. The 'sharp'-looking ones are just for pose shots. These are called "hero" versions. They are not used for the stunts because they can kill. They can go through several different stunt versions that are lighter metal and are dull. Because of this, they can become so damaged that they have to be replaced. With every contact, a sword can become knicked, bent or wrenched out of its handle and hence dangerous to use again, and of course, not good looking. Frequently shots are sped up. In the LOTR I think it was Viggo Mortensen who insisted on using a sword of the right weight because he wanted it to look as realistic as possible when he swung it. When he looked tired on the screen he really was very tired. In "Conan the Barbarian" they had to give Arnold Schwarzenneger a sword that was even heaver than usual because when he tossed around his blade it looked like a toy.

As for digital shots, I saw a lot of this in Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi" in which there is liberal use of impaling, digital blood, thrown knives, fingers, arms being chopped off. All this is done in 3D and composited in. It's noticeable but not that bad. A better job was done in "The Last Samurai" (though Zatoichi is by far the better film) as far as post effects go.

When Dylan Couper and I made our Lady X episode with samurai swords (katana) we bought some really cheap swords. We debated a bit about this but decided we could be careful (we had a professional stunt coordinator choreograph and direct these bits). There were two days of rehearsal for these stunts. We had seven swords that all looked similar so we could give them to either hero or villain. By the end of a day of bashing they were all in very bad shape. They wouldn't have lasted another day of shooting. Anyway, we could have done a better job in the composition of the stunts but no one was hurt.
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Old May 27th, 2004, 11:23 AM   #11
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Jonathan,

What period of combat are you creating? Are you looking for broadswords, rapiers, sabres, cutlasses, smallswords, katannas...?

What does the combat call for?

Really, these are the things you need to discuss with your fight choreographer. As the directory, you present the concept and requirements to him, and he comes back to you with a rough draft. You put in more input, and he refines it.

If you are planning to choreograph this yourself, you need to get some training. Acquiring another set of skills is a serious, time consumming proposition. As Keith says, there are videos and books available... but better than that is training with an experienced professional. (But thats true of just about anything, isn't it?)
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Old May 27th, 2004, 11:27 AM   #12
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Richard, William Hobbs is total class. "Rob Roy" is still one of the best duels ever put on film. Not only was it exciting but it was interesting intellectually and looked realistic.

Yeun Wo Ping:
For swordsmanship, I still admire the intricacy of the fight between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zi Yi in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Despite people calling it that film about 'flying', that final battle between the two women was all weapons: swords and hardly any other martial art. I can watch the direction of that scene over and over again.
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Old May 27th, 2004, 12:19 PM   #13
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William Hobbs has done some of the best "end game" fights of all time. The rapier and dagger fight between D'Artagnan and Rochefort in "THe Four Musketeers" (where Rochefort winds up impaled on a bible) - "Robin and Marion" the aged heroes Robin and the Sherrif (Sean Connery and Robert Shaw) slugging it out to the bitter end, and as you mentioned Rob Roy - with the fight between a small sword and broadsword (please don't call it a cleighmore)... an absolutely brilliant study in the contrasting styles and weapons. Again, I think all the duels in "The Duellists" are remarkable for their variety in weapons and styles.

I believe there is an excellent interview and behind the scenes segment with Hobbs and the actors of the latest "Count of Monte' Cristo".

And yes, swords take a lot of beating from even "stage" combat. That's why the weapons I use are expensive, forged and hardened weapons. They hold up better. They are not "sharpened" but that doesn't make them less dangerous. They can and do recieve nicks and burrs along the edges, that can make for wicked serrations for the careless. These burrs must be filed off and the edges kept smooth.

I have seen a "dull" broadsword go right through the back of a shoulder, and come out the arm. This is dangerous, and serious business. Especially when horses are added to the mix.

In short, for safety's sake - Treat very gun as loaded, all swords as sharp, every dog will bite, and any horse will kick.

Richard
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Old May 27th, 2004, 01:02 PM   #14
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I enjoyed all those films you named, Richard. I liked the range of duels in The Duellists. The sabre and sabre duel was one of the most interesting because you rarely see that. I loved how the viewer enters the scene at the end of the duel when both Keitel and Carradine are totally exhausted.

Have you read "By the Sword", Richard?
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Old May 27th, 2004, 01:18 PM   #15
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"By the Sword".... can't say that I have. Unless you are reffering to the old TV series?

One of the scripts I optioned is set in the 17th century. Lots of different types of fights in it. Another one is set in the near future, when trial by combat is once again a "legal form of arbitration"... I am working on shooting a short for that.

Right now, I am two thirds of the way through shooting a documentary on modern joust companies. (I used to own one.) I should finish up shooting it by the end of the year, and have it cut together by spring if all goes as planned.

I must say, filmmaking is much easier on the old bones than jousting used to be...
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