How to Stage and Shoot a Movie Fight Scene

Almost every film today has some sort of obligatory fight scene between the good guy and the bad guy. In this issue, I will share some tips on how to stage and shoot a simple fight scene between two actors.

SCENE: Goodguy enters a dark room and looks around. Badguy steps out from the shadows behind Goodguy and points a gun at him. Goodguy stops and raises his hands – he does not turn around. Badguy walks up to Goodguy and shoves the gun in his back. They talk. Goodguy turns around quickly and knocks the gun from Badguy’s hand. They fight it out and after a few punches, Goodguy wins and walks out the door.

1) Prep – make sure you have a meeting with the Stunt Co-ordinator about the fight scene. You should give him as many details about the fight as you can so he can go away and work out some moves for you.

2) Shoot the beginning of the scene first -following the block/light/rehearse/shoot scenario, you block and shoot everything up to the fight first.

3) Blocking the fight – on the set, the two actors, two stunt doubles and the Stunt Co-ordinator block out the fight sequence with everyone watching. You then discuss the first shot with the DOP and rehearse that specific shot with the actors and/or doubles. Once this has been done, the DOP will light the shot while the Stunt Co-ordinator takes the actors and stunt doubles off set and practises the fight.

4) Off Set Rehearsal – the Stunt Co-ordinator practices the fight scene with the actors and the doubles. You should watch this rehearsal process for specific camera angles and make comments
regarding action and movement.

5) On Set Rehearsal – The Stunt Co-ordinator shows the crew the fight sequence with the stunt doubles and the actors. He then sets up the first part of the fight and you rehearse that with the camera.

6) Shooting – you shoot the first part of the fight and continue through the process until the fight is done. You then shoot the ending of the sequence where Goodguy walks out the door.

SHOOTING TIPS – Here are a few tips on shooting a stylistic fight sequence using the least amount of set-ups. (I will use the 35mm aspect ratio for reference):

Tip One: shoot two takes of every set-up and just change the lens size and speed of both cameras for each take. This means you can shoot each set-up twice (assuming no technical problems) and give your editor 4 different angles to choose from – without moving the cameras! This technique is a good way of shooting a well covered action scene with only a few takes and without spending a lot of time.

a) use 2 cameras for each shot

b) For Take 1, Camera A can have a 25mm lens (wide) at 24fps. Camera B can have a 75mm lens (tighter) at 40fps

c) for Take 2, reverse lens size and speeds on each camera. (You don’t have to move the cameras.) So, Camera A is 75mm at 40fps while Camera B is 25mm at 24fps

Tip Two: try and shoot from at least three different positions for your fight using 2 cameras. That could be as simple as two over-shoulders and a 2 shot. By using the techniques in Tip One, you will have at least 12 different angles, lens sizes and camera speeds to choose from!

Tip Three: punches look the best from over-shoulder shots (OS). Make sure you always shoot “overs ” with your 2 cameras.

Tip Four: If you have two cameras, you should also have two monitors to watch. For Take 1, you should watch one monitor and have someone else (DOP, AD, Stunt Co-ord) watch the other monitor. After you cut, you discuss each shot. If the shot worked, you switch monitors. This gives you a good look at both shots since action is, by its nature, very fast and you may miss something if you try and look at both monitors at the same time.

Tip Five: slow motion creates an action sequence that has the qualities of a ballet (re: John Woo). As long as you have the exposure to shoot slow motion, shoot slo-mo on the set with your cameras. You can also shoot normal speed on the set and slow down the shots in the editing room but there is a different quality of the picture when you do this. (it has a certain “ghosty” look to it.) I usually have the camera with the longest lens (closer) shoot slo-mo.

Tip Six: Once the camera rolls, everyone’s adrenaline pumps up and a actor may be afraid of hitting the other actor or of hurting themselves. One way to solve this is to use the Actor/Double stunt system when shooting a fight. Say you have an OS shot of Goodguy as he punches Badguy. What you do is shoot the two actors first then switch Goodguy (he has his back to the camera) with his stunt double:

a) first: shoot Goodguy-Actor OS as he fights Badguy-Actor Then switch Goodguy-Actor with Goodguy-Stunt:

b) second: shoot Goodguy-Stunt OS as he fights Badguy-Actor

When your turn around for the reverses, you repeat the process:

a) first: shoot Badguy-Actor OS as he fights Goodguy-Actor Switch Badguy-Actor with Badguy-Stunt:

b) second: shoot Badguy-Stunt OS as he fights Goodguy-Actor

You can see how this process works by looking at the end fight scene in “Bird on a Wire” between Mel Gibson and David Carradine when they were swinging on the ropes in the zoo. We had each actor fight each other then we did the switch with the doubles. This worked very well here because the actors were also attached to ropes so they had a lot on their minds.

Copyright (c) 2000-2010  Peter D. Marshall / All Rights Reserved

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  1. Pingback: Film Directing and Film Making Tips for the Independent Filmmaker » Blog Archive » “Steampunk Neverland” – A Film Director’s Journey

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  3. I am a film Student in RSA in Cape Town and im directing a boxing Gaming promotional film.

    can you please help me out with some advice for filming boxers.

    email me on rowen.work@gmail.com

    I would appreciate it very much
    thanks fot the tips above so far

    Rowen smith

  4. I am a film student in Cape Town and im doing a boxing film.

    can you please help me out if you have ever done any films on boxing and boxing fight scenes

    I love the help above so far!
    will definitely use it

    rowen Smith

  5. I know this is an older article, but I happened to stumble across it…As an action/fight coordinator I was happy to see this article. Having worked many no budget to low budget films I was rather shocked at some of the up and coming actors stories about not even having a coordinator at all and of people getting hurt because the director of the shoot just said ok…just do a tussle and swing at each other a bit….!!!! not how it’s done folks), no one should ever get hurt for an action scene.

  6. I agree Edwin. It can get really scary out there when there are no safety rules in place. If that is the case, I just hope the 1st AD can tell the director when something is not safe.

  7. Recently, my video production company produced a fight scene. If I had this article before I created it, the project would have been greatly enhanced. One of my issues was that I was acting, directing, and doing stunt fighting. I ended up so bruised and sore during shooting that I had to take three days off between the first and second shoot day. It still came out ok for a first effort. To view it go to
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ddLgPAbONs

  8. I can say I have been doing live shows(Stage combat and action with and without stagecombat weapons) for over 23 years now and action and fight coordinating for three films so far, I have never gotten hurt, nor has any one working my action ever got hurt. (My goal is to do my best to keep it that way, It’s already a good chance of getting hurt doing action, no sense making it worse by doing something stupid.)

    Thank you again Peter for this great site. I get questions all the time and I have been pointing those individuals here as well.

  9. Peter Marshal, your directing tips has realy helped me, i have been reading ur articles since last year and i have directed some movie wel through this tips. I hav just read the above tips and its great but the problem i hav is that i often do a low budget jobs hence always using only one camera and i am just about to shoot a movie with alot of fight scenes. Please how can i do this?

  10. Hi Silas, Shooting action scenes with only one camera is very time consuming. If you only have one camera, make sure you schedule as much time for shooting as possible. Can you rent one more camera for at least one day to help you out? Good luck 🙂

  11. am a movie director from Ghana. i used to get problems working on action scenes but now im doing great after learning more from here. u cal like my page in facebook. afrikaba media solutions.

  12. hi am sucesfull aktor/Drector in loliwood south japanese and i find this very hepfull