Subtext is the heart of any powerful film, and so it is in a fight scene as well. Without meaning or purpose, without the undefined… it’s just a bunch of kicks, punches, and combinations creating a sloppy and uninteresting disaster. So many directors or actors rely on camera shake, tight shots, and fast edits to hide the lack of skill or proper choreography. When the formula is correct, the edits and camera techniques will enhance the beauty, not hide the mistakes.
While I come from a martial arts background, it’s been my experience most martial artists make for terrible stunt actors. They’re too restricted by traditional rigid movements, and have no idea how to really fight, not only in the real world, but especially in film. There is an art to “playing to the camera and selling the fight”. So many martial artists in fact, know nothing about fighting, their only exposure to it is through pretend sparring and traditional forms. A fight in real life is nothing like a fight in cinema.
A good example would be (in my opinion) “Luke Skywalker Vs. Darth Vader in the Return of the Jedi” was infinitely better in every way, than the crap we suffered through with “Darth Maul vs. Qui Gon Jinn and Obi Wan”. Since when in the hell did Jedi become acrobats and dancers??? Mark Hammel studied authentic sword fighting for his role. His character fought from rage, hatred, anger, and the mindset of a brother protecting his sister, even if he had to kill his father to keep her safe. With the Darth Maul fights, it was nothing but fancy acrobatics and countless saber spins and twirls… there wasn’t one ounce of emotional content in those fights. All the fancy moves couldn’t hold a candle to the raw emotion of the original fights. … … “Hello, my name is Nathan, and I’m a Star Wars Geek”.
When I create a fight, I look at the actor and the character they are playing. I look at the scene, the storyline, their world, and the style of the film. What emotion is running through the characters in the scene? What is their driving motivation? Are they used to the fight? Is it out of anger, fear or desperation? Saddistic behavior vs. self-defense? Beyond the emotional aspect of the fight, there are the physical qualities of the actor/character. Is this a reality based fight or a magical/science fiction world where the unbelievable is acceptable?
If the fight doesn’t comply with the illusion the film is selling, the audience won’t accept it and the scene will hold no value. For me, subtext in the fight is equally as important in the subtext of the films storyline.
Visual FX, when applied properly can certainly enhance the fight scene, but if used poorly, they’ll kill it. There are times when a practical effect (squib, dust, wires, air-ram, pyrotechnics, etc.) is needed vs a visual fx created in post, and vice versa. Certainly the angle of cameras, types of camera movement used, cinematic lighting, and most of all sound fx and music play a major role in the emotional quality of fight scene. Personally, I’m a fan of practical fx whenever possible. CG is great, but I’m into organics rather than processed goods.
Yeah I know, I sound like a real jerk right now, but this is filmmaking, not hands across america. We’re here as filmmakers to tell a story, to suspend belief, and to entertain. So let’s make a movie worth watching, and create scenes that enhance and drive the story, not steal from it. I am not your friend, I’m here to sell the scene. I have no respect for delicate, arrogant, and selfish egos too stubborn to accept they can’t sell a fight scene or the character they portray. Some people want to be famous, others want to tell a story… guess which ones make for better actors and filmmakers.
If there is no emotional content, if there is no depth to the story, or it lacks the undefined, there will be very little (if any) value to the story.