The Illusion of Combat: Lightsaber Choreography 101

One of the first things I tell people when I taught a class for New York Jedi, other than ‘This is probably the weirdest shit you’ll do this week’ is ‘we are stage combat. We are not here to actually fight each other. We’re here to tell a story through the illusion of combat.’ It’s one of the first things people have to calibrate themselves to do. Either new people will pull their punches way back, barely aiming at all near a person, or someone will swing hard like they are legitimately trying to hurt their partner in the scene.

Somewhere, in the middle, is the correct way of doing things.

Next month, I will have been in the lightsaber community for eight years. In that time, I have worked with martial artists, writers, actors, professional stuntmen and professional swordsmen. Each have their own way of doing things, and each have their own style, but there are several common factors that I think make for a good fight, and several more that make for a good lightsaber fight. This blog will cover my thoughts on the matter, and I will state that this is my opinion. I don’t think it’s gospel truth, but it’s what I’ve seen works. If you have a differing opinion, please tell me. Better, please show me.

But before we get to the Lightsaber aspect of all of this, lets unpack what we mean by Fight Choreography. In short, Fight Choreography, or stage combat, or what have you, is the using violence to progress a story. It is used on stage, in movies and television, it is even in novels. It can be as complex and epic as two armies clashing in a field at a Renn Faire, it can be as simple and intimate as someone smacking a friend or lover on the ground. What is going on during those scenes. Where those people fall, how they strike, their posture, they all serve a purpose: To move the scene to the next point, to tell you something about their character that mere dialogue can’t. Fight choreography is still treated as a dialogue, but with the person’s body. It’s a dance of violence.

Choreography also ensures another key feature: ensure the safety of the actors involved as much as possible. Accidents do happen, but it’s clear that you aren’t actually fighting the person across from you. They are your partner, not opponent. The trick of every good fight is to make the audience think they are your opponent. How they go about doing it, style or substance, grace or brutality, It’s all smoke and mirrors, and we are stage illusionists.

My favorite example to give is the movie Rocky. Watch the match between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in Rocky II. Most of the hits they give each are clean and brutal as you can see the sweat flying off of them with every hit. Now watch an actual boxing match, for this purpose I chose the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight. Look how, at the beginning, they’re not really engaging each other. They’re playing footsies (a fighting game term), testing each other and seeing who will move first. When they get hit, it isn’t as clean or as dynamic as the Rocky fight. When they get hit, it’s usually in half measures and the body crumples instead of explodes out.

The Rocky fight is meant to sell the power and finesse the two characters have. To sell the strength of Creed and Balboa’s ability to take an ungodly beating (his key trait throughout the movies). The fight looks and feels dynamic and you find yourself hooked and almost feeling the blows because it was staged to make you feel it. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it enforces the spirit of the match. That I think is one of its greatest contributions to both fight choreography and boxing as a whole.

It also highlights that, sometimes, you are substituting realism for style. Again, this is stage dressing, its not meant to be actual fighting. You can slide the realism to style as much back and forth between the two. This is also useful in setting the tone for the scene, like in Fight Club. Watch the scene between Edward Norton and Jared Leto. Watch the scene as it starts to turn down the volume on everything except Norton’s narration. Watch the reactions of the crowd, first in brutal fervor and then in stunned silence. This was not how this was supposed to be for them. They were used to violence, they enjoyed violence and sought solace and community from it, but this vicious dispatching of a fighter was not what anyone had in mind.

And now watch another scene in Fight Club, with Edward Norton fighting…himself, in his boss’s office. The entire scene is staged to be a refuge in audacity, an absurd act that pays off, finally, in the last second of the clip. If you didn’t know better, would you be able to assume they were the same movie?Both of them exude a brutality and disregard for life and limb, but the tone of each is tweaked as the scene demands.

Which brings me to lightsabers. See? There was going to be a point here. If you search for the greatest sword battles in movie history, chances are good that you’re going to find at least one Star Wars entry. Chances are probably better that it’s going to be the Luke vs Vader fight from Empire Strikes Back. There is a very good reason for this.

So let’s start with the set up. This fight happens at the very end of the movie. Vader has been obsessed with hunting Skywalker down the entire film, killing anyone who deters him whether that be ally or foe. Luke has been training for the majority of the film, and from the scene in the cave, we know that if he is to progress further and mark the return of the Jedi, he will have to confront Vader…but there is something ominous about that meeting.  Luke flies to Bespin to confront Vader, who has kidnapped and tortured his friends in a bid to lure him out. They (mostly) succeed in escaping, but this clash has been leading up for the entire film.

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Choreographed by Peter Diamond and Vader performed by legendary fencer and sword choreography Bob Anderson, The fight itself is relatively simple. It’s all broad attacks and movements. Uncomplicated attacks. These two are using heavy strikes on one another. Vader has the advantage here through decades of experience, fighting Luke single handedly at points. This is Luke’s first ever fight. He’s fighting purely off of instinct, he is the more mobile and is reliant on using tricks and the environment to his advantage.

Vader and Luke have different goals here. Luke is looking to combat Vader, potentially to kill him. He reveals to Vader he knows he killed his father. There is a sense of revenge here, although it is very low key throughout the fight. He’s cocky, sarcastically telling Vader that he is full of surprises. Vader on the other hand has a different goal, he’s there to trap Luke, to turn him in to a Jedicicle to present to the Emperor.

But that’s not what happens. At the end of the fight, Luke is stranded in the middle of a pit. His hand cut off and his saber somewhere on the bottom of the core of Bespin. Vader has Luke dead to rights. This is where we see Luke’s anger, the anger of a young man who had been robbed of his family. Vader changes tracks. He doesn’t want to kill Luke, or bring him to the Emperor. He wants Luke to join him, to take over the Empire. And then we get the moment of truth. Vader is Luke’s Father.

From the buildup to the fight, the back and forth of the fight itself, and the entire thing pays off at the end with that reveal. The entire movie pays off at the end of that fight, possibly the entire series so far. It changes everything that went on before it, and informs everything that goes on after it. This is one of the best fights in history, and this is largely the reason why.

When the prequels came about, Lightsaber combat changed drastically. The notion was that we were now seeing lightsaber use with people in their prime. All of the fighters were see are old men or an inexperienced young man who learned from the old men. The new choreography, designed by Nick Gillard, focused more on high energy and a more choreographed. He wanted it to be visually active, kinetic, and acrobatic. He blended in a mix of moves and techniques from sources ranging from kendo to tennis.

I know this may be an unpopular opinion for a portion of the fanbase, but I am not a fan of the Prequel movies. I can go in to more detail at a later time, but the bottom line is that we are told a lot of things, and shown relatively little. So much of the information we have is a given, because we know where it all ends. The movie is on rails you can clearly see, which ruins the ride. As this was the first to kick start the drive towards prequel films, it suffers as not having many lessons to learn from. Rogue One does a better job of it, I think. I’ll go in to that at another time.

But I think this is best understood when watching the fights in each movie. Ask yourselves “why are these people fighting?”. In the Phantom Menace, you have Maul versus Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. It’s an amazing fight, and changed the way we view lightsabers. But what the hell is this all about? If you remove the rest of the movie from the fight, and just focuss on the scene, can you tell what the hell is going on? The fight literally starts with them running in to Maul. We can infer that Maul is a bad guy based on the black cloak, the devilish designs of his tattoos and horns, and by the crimson lightsaber. He has no history with these two minus a run in in the desert that, to them, felt random as shit.

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So here you have it. Two parties fighting for what seems like no real reason other than ‘Because the Plot Demands It’. These two mean nothing to Maul, and the Jedi are only guessing that he’s a Sith. They then begin this long fight (five minutes) through a castle’s hangar bay, and then in to an incongruously designed generator room where the effects heavy energy beams detract from the key effect in the entire scene: the lightsabers themselves.

My major problem in the fight is when Qui-Gon dies. We see Obi-Wan lose his shit, screaming out at the death of his master. In Return of the Jedi, Vader hits the sore spot on Luke by threatening his sister. Luke, after three movies of being the good guy, goes completely ballistic and starts hammering away at Vader until the Sith Lord caves. When Obi-Wan rengages with Maul, they go back to this very stylized choreography that doesn’t show you whatever anger there is. Did Obi-Wan let it go that quickly? Why show us the scream then?

Fighting in stories is never just about the fight itself. It’s meant to reveal something, about the attacker, about the defender, about the world and the way things are. We know nothing of the attacker in these moments, nor the defender. We are TOLD he’s pissed because he SAYS he’s pissed by screaming “NO” at the top of his lungs, but we don’t get to SEE that.

There is such a thing as over-choreographing a fight. By this I mean that the sequence is so step by step and rote memory that you risk inherently losing the people doing it. If the characters do not seem to be engaged in the fight, why should the audience? The Obi-Ani fight on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith is an overly choreographed fight where we lose a lot of sense of the characters. Going through the fight, we barely get any close ups of them except in breaks between the fights. It also loses something because the environment (again) is actively competing against the visuals of the lightsabers, here by having an entire world of lava erupting around them, with intercuts to another heavy effects laden battle between Yoda and Sidious. After a while, your eyes unfocus and you have to say “We get it, you’re epic. GET ON WITH IT”

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As someone who has worked on the Mustafar fight before, and can do the Obi-Wan section of it fairly accurately, I think they could have scrubbed a lot of things around the fight and boiled it down to what it needed. This was the fight we had all come to see, the pay off we knew was happening since it was implied Obi-Wan was the one who put Vader in the suit decades before. You could have told a much more compelling story by focusing on the two of them instead of the fight itself. You could have had “YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE” during the fight. Make it an airing of grievances, let them AT IT. But instead it becomes a five minute long effect fest that, after an entire movie of lightsaber battles, you become desensitized to.

As a member of a community who tries to emulate the fights for the entertainment of others (and also ourselves, but mostly others) we need to figure out what works and what doesn’t. It can be difficult because putting together you need to be flexible. Your space to put on the fight may be limited, you may only have a few minutes for each fight. Here are a few tips (in no particular order) I recommend when making your fights.

I. Remember Your Audience

When putting together a fight, it is very easy to forget that someone else has to watch this.  We always need to orient ourselves to the audience’s benefit. This means that most of the action, facial ticks, needs to be visible to them clearly. This is difficult when you’re on a stage and they can only see you in profile.

This means doing moves that, logically, would work better one way but sometimes needing to keep the audience focused. Maintain engagement. This is paramount. Without the audience, you might as well not do it on stage.

II. Your Moves Should Make Sense

Keeping in mind that you are doing this for an audience, I can’t stress how much your fight needs to make sense to them. Assume that your audience is either a) following you from the beginning or b)just tuning in in the middle of the fight. Your fight should have an internal consistency, a logic to it. The moves should make sense from one until the next, even if its not outright spelled out.

In short, your audience should always assumed to be intelligent to know when you’re pulling something out of your ass for no other reason than to be cool. You can do cool stunts, you can pull something out of the hat to wow them, but only when…

III. There must be a pay off to the fight.

A storied fight is a lot like sex, there is build up and then a climax…hopefully satisfying to the audience. You need to establish these characters and their tension between the two of them, set it up for the fight. In most duels, which is what most of the lightsaber fights on stage and screen are, there isn’t a lot of bum rushing the opponent. There is a testing, probing of defenses and techniques. This makes sense for both the characters and the audience. It gives people a sense of suspense, and anticipation. Then the fight happens, building up until there is an end. Doesn’t have to be definitive, but the fight needs to reach a conclusion. This is where you can start pulling out your big moves, the moves you’ve designed to wow the crowd.

IV. Not every action needs to be a hit

I’ll be honest, after years of watching fights being put together, you begin to have a love/hate relationship with the clacking sounds of lightsabers. A lot of fights are just a flurry of hits, clack clack clack clack clack. This is well and good, flurry attacks are legitimate tactics. But when that is the entirety of the fight, and the fight before that, and after that, after a while you’re going to lose the interest of the audience (and smarks like me who are watching the tricks).

Give yourself time to build tension, to establish character, to establish the stakes of this fight. Use what time you have to create the dramatic in a dramatic fight. Show us anger, or arrogance. Swagger or swerve. Show us exhaustion and hurt on your face. You’re in a fight, after all. Many people will argue that the audience is there for the lightsaber. And that’s right to a point, but it’s the people wielding them that keep them there.

V.Sell that you are in a fight

I felt this needed to be emphasized, as it’s something we some times tend to forget while putting together a fight. This is violence, emotion. You can’t tell us what you’re feeling so you need to show us. Remember that your character is in this fight and so is the audience. The more you make them believe that you’re in a fight, the more they will ride it with you.

Case in point, during the NYJ’s run of MacBeth, towards the end Young Siward challenges MacBeth to a duel. In any other story, Siward is the plucky young hero about to take on the evil lord. But this is MacBeth, and Siward is not from his mother’s womb untimely rip’d. The fight descends very quickly in to a vicious destruction of Siward. MacBeth, during  a clash, drives Siwards saber down in to the young man’s face. The actor, Al, practiced the bone-curdling scream for weeks, each time upping the agony in his tone. Up until that point, you could almost believe Siward had a chance. But the moment you see that, hear that, and feel that, you know this is a tragic fight.

This then comes back in the last fight between MacDuff and MacBeth. MacBeth is as brutal with this opponent as Siward, grazing the general’s cheek with his saber, consistently taking the leg out from under him, probably dislocating his knee in the process (I tried to act like his knee had all been destroyed in the fight). Battered, broken, MacDuff has to kneel there, listening to MacBeth’s murderous rant. And then MacDuff gets back up, revealing he is the one prophesied to defeat MacBeth. He gets up, and the devastation and shock on MacBeth is shown throughout. The two engage in a final, exhausting struggle devoid of finesse or bravado. They want to see an end to it all. In the end, the winner walks away, face a bloody mess and limping towards the final scene.

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VI.The target is not the saber

One of the biggest mistakes I see for beginners is the propensity to focus on attacking the blade. A lot of this has to do with safety. They don’t want to hurt their partner so they stick to the inanimate object. A lot of it also is the notion that no one is that the lightsaber is the focus. Again, the lightsaber is what brings people in, but the people wielding them are what keep them there. It’s okay to target your partner’s body, but you need to work with them to keep it safe. When they block, it’ll look like they are blocking a legit attack while you’re actually aiming several inches from their left shoulder.

Striking a saber is legit, and when doing flurry attacks it’s going to happen that there are going to be a lot of strikes happening in the negative space between. But when all of the action is happening in that negative space, people lose interest.

Going back over this post, I realize I can probably spend a month trying to unpack everything I know or would like to see from future fights. One of the things I will attempt to do this year on the <em>Snark Side</em> is review fights and go over my notes and ideas from the past. Again, I’m not claiming to have all the answers, because if I did I’d never get out of bed. These will be fights from the movies, TV, and the various creations from the fans.

Any questions or comments, please leave em below. Also, consider hitting the “Follow” button. It’s free and saves me from having to post everywhere. Later.

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One thought on “The Illusion of Combat: Lightsaber Choreography 101

  1. Well thought out and logical unpacking of the essentials of “stage combat” Love how you explain the “storytelling” aspect of a fight/duel. This makes a fantastic sequel/expansion to one of your initial posts, covering the different aspects of lightsaber combat (Stage, Fitness, Neo-Martial Art, play)

    Like

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