Working with Actors
Working with actors is the ultimate test for any fight director. If you cannot communicate your ideas, teach the rudiments of the action and allow the actors to ACT and do it all pretty darn quickly, then you might as well go home.
Every fight is different and every actor has different abilities, skills, knowledge, manners and personalities. You must tailor fights to suit the unique abilities of the actors involved and which also serve the script and story. The characters intentions must be taken care of and work within the combat. The actor must be worked with to create, not just any fight, but the right fight. The actor will know their character best of all and will know what does and does not work within the context of the piece. (and if they don’t then the director will be nearby to offer guidance) Discussion with the actors prior to and during the construction of the fight is absolutely essential. I know some FD’s teach “set fights” such as their Hamlet fight or their Peter Pan fight, but I believe this is wrong. The fight must be constructed to suit the actors abilities, the time frame of rehearsals etc.
You need to estimate the required rehearsal time for each fight and ask for this time prior to the first performance or prior to camera rolling on the scene. In film/ television it is essential that the piece be performed naturally and this can only happen when the actors are happy with the moves. If the piece is properly rehearsed no time will be lost when ready to shoot the scene. You do not want to have everyone waiting while you rehearse the actors. This wastes time and money, and can cause unnecessary stress to the actors as they are put in front of a camera or an audience ill prepared – The obvious follow up being an accident of some kind.
I often find that when I ask for fight rehearsals the production company denies me again and again with the end result that what you come to shoot is under rehearsed and eats into shooting time. In this situation you and the actors can be under pressure to cut corners. Needless to say this can’t happen. Keep calm, ignore the pressure (but perhaps cut the fight to suit the new time scale) and only allow them to shoot when everything is safe. Sadly this means that very often the fights might not be of the best quality and that reflects on your reputation. Better a poor fight and a bruised ego than an injured actor.
I usually ask for at least 12 hours leading up to the first performance in 4 “slots”. Typically this will entail:
3rd rehearsal. Running the fight, cleaning up dialogue & dramatic structure and assisting the actors in anything they are uncomfortable with. Feeding in actual weapons, armor, costume etc, but very much this is time for the actors.
4th rehearsal. In dress/ tech rehearsal period, on stage, with all props etc. Assuring confidence in the actors abilities etc, solving problems associated with a change of space. Checking the pace of the fight and cleaning up anticipation etc. Lastly in fights for theatre fixing a fight rehearsal at the hour call prior to every performance. The stage manager should have been made aware at the start of rehearsals that this would be required… Try not to spring this one on them at the last minute.
Photograph by Richard Campbell.
If a show runs for a long time or is on a tour, then the FD may require to re-visit the production and re-rehearse the fights somewhere down the line. Actors absolutely hate this as it they get comfortable within their fights but that's exactly why it should be done. Expect trouble and moodiness and a stubborness to stick to what they now know. The problem is that its often the easy option fro teh fight and it will no longer have much drama to it. A lazy fight is also a dangerous fight so actors often need reminded of why some moves are there at all. eg. Parries will drift into counter attacks and not really serve their function any more. Some actors may also be a bit stir crazy with tour induced cabin fever so watch out for this… I jest, however this is a common problem and can lead to a casual disregard for safety because they’ve been alright so far!
Appropriate rehearsal should be arranged (preferably in the actual space or if not, then in a mock up space of similar dimensions) prior to the camera set up. Ideally for each fight of medium difficulty a three hour slot should be arranged. For more difficult fights a whole day or more may be required. Very small simple fights can be done as they come up, but event for the most basic, an hour should be scheduled. If your rehearsal has not been in the actual space then 10-30 minutes in the actual space should be provided on the day of shoot. This rehearsal in the actual space is ESSENTIAL.
Who runs the fight rehearsal? If the FD is present on a theatre show then he/ she will run the rehearsal. If the FD is not present then either the actors or the DSM will run the rehearsal. Theatre companies on tour often have the stage manager running the rehearsal.
In television or film, the FD runs the rehearsal in tandom with the 1st AD. Once the action is set and teh FD is happy the 1st AD runs the rehearsals, and the FD will stand back and only intercede if a problem arises.
Health and Safety
Risk assessment is a necessity for film and television and is dribbling its way into theatre. Insurance requirements and the wishes of the health and safety executive really have to be taken into consideration these days and it is necessary for FD’s to have some knowledge in this area. Risk assessment is far too large a subject to be covered in this Professional Practice update but here’s some information. The FD’s risk assessment is to do with the safety of individuals involved in any way in the fight action and backs up the companies employment liability cover. A separate assessment created by the company will general areas of risk within teh production. The risk assessment should be completed and distributed prior to cameras rolling on the day of the fight.
Post Production Effects
In film/ television, your thoughts may be required on sound effects or on weapon flashes etc. I have several times been asked to be present for post production sound and to re-enact moments of the fight for this purpose.
If you have anything you’d like to see added to this 101 then please get in touch. I write as part of many articles for a large website revamp so I can expand in areas if requested.