The Art of War: Fight Choreography

July 19, 2007

Towards the end of
Kill Bill Volume 1
, Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the Kung Fu movie genre, Uma Thurman single-handedly battles 88 men to their deaths. With her back coiled, samurai sword flailing, and long legs slicing, she hurls her body through the air in a whirlwind dance that destroys her enemies one by one. This highly choreographed sequence combines the age-old drama of combat with the staggering capacity of new technology.

The man responsible for this exhilarating spectacle, Yuen Wo-Ping, has been choreographing riveting fights for over 30 years, but it’s only recently that he and his fellow fight choreographers have gotten the attention they deserve. Last October at the 10th annual American Choreography Awards in Los Angeles, Yuen Wo-Ping earned an award for Outstanding Achievement in Fight Choreography for
Kill Bill Volume 2

The award for fight choreography was introduced just two years ago after the release of
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
, which Wo-Ping also choreographed. Teresa Campbell, an executive producer of the American Choreography Awards, said the ACA decided to add the fight choreography category because, “We felt this is a field that should be honored next to dance. It is its own physical art form.” A committee of experts in stunt, dance, combat, and martial arts work judges the nominations. This year Woo-Ping and his team shared the award with George Marshall Ruge, who choreographed the swashbuckling sequences in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Fight choreography is hardly a new art form. Since before Romeo slew Tybalt, fight scenes have provided pivotal moments in a drama, defined a character, and offered a cathartic release. When words are not enough, actors use their bodies to express anger and frustration in an explosion of movement. In a field that is becoming at once more technical and creative, today’s fight choreographers use sources as diverse as Kabuki, Elizabethan sword play, and Chinese opera to create their deadly effects.

Although a staged fight looks spontaneous, the actual moves must be precise. Few people understand this better than Rick Sordelet, a fight director of Broadway shows who also teaches at the Yale School of Drama. Last fall while on the set of the TV show “Guiding Light,” where he also is a stunt coordinator, he prepared actress Crystal Hunt for an upcoming face slap in a ritzy country club garden. Sordelet guided Hunt’s hand with his while she rehearsed slapping her co-star across the face. Keeping her hand relaxed, she opened her arm, bent at the elbow like a door and then closed it quickly. After several tries, she struck the actor’s cheek, but because her timing and technique were right, the slap only looked and sounded painful.

It is essential for the audience to believe that the actor is capable of the movement he creates. “No matter what it is—a slap to the face that leads to a grab for the hair—it all has to connect naturally,” Sordelet says. “If an actor looks like a wimp, it’s not going to be believable for him to slam down the other character, but a bonk to the eyes or a glass of wine to the face might work instead.”

One of the key elements in choreographing fights is safety. In the fight scenes that Sordelet created for the musical
Beauty and the Beast
on Broadway, the character of Lefou falls 51 times. If you’re doing six performances a week—well, that could seriously add up. The actor who plays Lefou wears specially designed padding around his shoulders, lower back, and the heel of his hand, so that he’s safely stumbling throughout the performance night after night, week after week.

Safety wasn’t always a concern in the early days of Hollywood. Crawling under stagecoaches and using real explosives on the set was common practice, and in
The Charge of the Light Brigade
(1936), a horse was accidentally killed on screen. Today, fight choreographers like Doug Coleman of Master and Commander and George Marshall Ruge of Pirates of the Caribbean work with cameras, special effects, digital technology, and locations to create scenes that are both safe and visually mind-blowing.

“Every movement is independently staged,” Coleman said. “Each punch and fall is carefully constructed, and I utilize every prop available to me.” For the ship and sword battles in
Master and Commander
, the actors trained for six months and the crew numbered 500 for scenes filmed mostly on boats out at sea. “It’s not just people that have to be choreographed, but also the cameras,” says Coleman. “In film you’re basing the movement on camera positions, so you have to make sure each hit is choreographed to a particular camera angle.”

Ruge, who was also responsible for the fight scenes in
The Lord of the Rings
trilogy, says he begins his process with the script as a template. “I visualize the sequence in my mind and begin with a ‘beat sheet.’ I start the choreography process based on visual concepts and rhythms that evolve to specific action beats. As I build this action, I use videotape as well, and then think about innovative ways of shooting the action.” Working with the actors, Ruge first shows them the physical action using stunt doubles, breaking it down into phrases. Then they rehearse until it becomes second nature.

Whether they study gymnastics, martial arts or dance, Ruge says actors must have an awareness of their own bodies to make his sequences convincing. “You can always tell when an actor has had movement training,” he said. “He understands instinctively how to respond with his body.”

Working with professional dancers guarantees a certain physical awareness but also presents a different set of challenges for fight choreographers. In San Francisco Ballet’s production of
Romeo and Juliet
, the sword battles between Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo require both physical prowess and compelling acting. So do the fight scenes in Kenneth MacMillan’s famous production of the ballet. Marty Pistone, who choreographed the fights for SFB’s 1994 version, which the company has revived several times, worked closely with artistic director Helgi Tomasson to integrate his scenes into the ballet. “Helgi gave me the bars and measures in the Prokofiev score where the music swells for the fights. Incorporating steps like glissades and pas de chats, I created a series of sword pas de deux, where the dancers move weapons instead of their feet.” Customizing each weapon and each phrase, Pistone developed back-stories so each dancer understood their character’s motivation in the fights.

The success of Yuen Wo-Ping, whose father was a martial arts master, has opened the way for films like
, a Chinese epic that takes fight choreography to a new level of artistry using wires and special effects. In a defining scene, the camera cuts back and forth between a brutal sword fight and a calligrapher’s impassioned brush strokes. As the momentum builds, the sweeping arm movements that create the red-inked letters merge into the slicing blades until the line between port de bras and combat is lost. The choreographer Tony Ching Siu-Tung, who also choreographed fights for this year’s House of Flying Daggers, made a film that is balletic in its technical beauty and provides a glimpse of where fight choreography is heading.

And now even modern dancers are getting in on the fight trend. Kriota Willberg, a downtown New York choreographer who has studied stage combat and used it in her work, says, “Violence is provocative; it’s the new nudity. There is no more immediate relationship than the one you’re in with someone who wants to hurt you.”

That immediacy was not lost on Jerome Robbins, who choreographed his own fight scenes in
West Side Story
, both for the Broadway musical in 1957 and for the movie in 1961. With mere switchblades, the leaders of the Jets and the Sharks, locked in mutual hatred, demolished each other.

Whether it’s a single punch to the face, a rumble that goes wrong, or a flying samurai sword-battle, each movement in a fight scene creates an emotional response. At its best, fight choreography becomes its own living art.

Julie Bloom is a journalist in New York City.