Fight Choreographer

The second type of choreography is fight, or combat, choreography. Any time two characters are fighting hand to hand or with handheld weapons such as swords or knives, then the fight has to be choreographed. Otherwise, if the actors try to set up the fight themselves, there's a good chance one or both of them will get hurt. Ask Cynthia McArthur; her job is to make sure that doesn't happen.

Just as a dance choreographer designs movements, Cynthia designs fights. She has to know what works and what doesn't. "Realistic fights don't shoot well," she says. "Historically accurate fights weren't pretty and never lasted more than a few seconds—

boring." Her main concern, from the very beginning, is the safety of the actors, especially when they're using her favorite form of combat, fencing. Even swords that have blunted tips and dulled edges can still, as your mother was fond of saying, poke your eye out. With that in mind, Cynthia always starts out by blocking the fight on paper. This gives her a rough idea of where the action is going to take place and where on the set the actors will be. The paper fight will then be shown to the director, and adjustments will be made. Once the paper fight is given a tentative final approval, physical blocking will start.

At this point in the process, several other elements come into play. Depending on how the director is going to shoot the fight, Cynthia will adapt her choreography. If the fight is between two principal actors, and both of their faces will be seen, then Cynthia has to teach both of them the complete routine. This includes showing each of them the correct moves and the order in which they'll come in the fight. All of this is done in extremely slow motion, over and over again, until the actors can perform the moves almost without thinking about them. Only then does the tempo pick up, a little bit at a time, until they are up to performance speed.

If both principals aren't shown all the time or the fight is between the star and a minor player, then Cynthia often doubles for the actor fighting the star. Cynthia, or her husband Jeff, who is also a fight choreographer, sometimes even gets the chance to be in the film as the nameless fencer fighting the hero. In such cases, the fights can become a little more complex because at least one of the fighters is a professional. However, Cynthia is quick to point out that the most successful fights are incredibly simple: "If it's done right, the fight will look complex but still be simple enough to give the performer time to act."

Cynthia didn't come to this green. This is a person who has a full suit of armor in her living room. She has a thorough knowledge of competition fencing and hangs out with people who know metal and build swords. She can tell you, according to time period, if you should cut and parry or hack and slash. She also has a fair grasp on several of the hand-to-hand martial arts, so she can choreograph those as well.

As for getting into the field, Cynthia says fighting is the only way to go. Learn as many styles as you can and practice, practice, practice. Videotape yourself to learn what looks good; even volunteer to work with local theater groups. Stage combat is a little easier than film fighting because you don't have as many angles to deal with. Cynthia says the stage is the best place to learn and a great place to build your resume. Finally, watch as many swashbuckler films as you can get your hands on. Nobody does it like Errol Flynn, but more recent hits such as The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon show exactly where technology can take the art of the fight.

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