Q&A: Stunt Performers and Choreography

Since fights are choreographed on TV and they’re trying to make it look authentic, can it still actually look unrealistic to an expert simply because actual moves are thought up on the spot and not through planning? Any examples? Other than like being a split second out of sync where the actor starts a counter move before the move comes or looking in the direction before the move comes? But unrealistic because there’s no time to think but the cherographer has so much time to think and plan.

Okay, so, here is the most important thing to understand about any choreographed combat you see in a television, movie, or even a play: choreography is a cooperative performance between two (or more) individuals. What you are watching is not a fight, it’s a performance designed to look convincing. If you want to see what combat looks like when people aren’t working together then go watch sparring videos on YouTube or MMA bouts.

Now, if your question is: can an expert tell when an actor in the fight scene doesn’t know what they’re doing?


The role of the stuntman is to make the actor/their partner look incredible, to ensure they are the star of the scene, to cover for them when they blow their mark, to perform the dangerous stunts for them, and the professional stunt actors are very good at doing their job. They are so good that the average audience goer cannot tell when the stunt actor switches with the actor in the scene, or even when the same stunt actor is switching out for two different actors/actresses with completely different fighting styles on the same show if the show has a small budget.

However, you can’t take someone who has never done martial arts before and make them an expert in three months. Most actors with no history of martial training or training a completely separate martial art have a ton of tells, from shallow stances, poor foot position, hands too far apart, elbows akimbo, to physical tension (too tense, too loosey-goosey), lack of tightness in their punches/arms/legs/shoulders/chest, all upper body, no hip movement, lack of general body coordination, zero kinetic force or convincing presentation of, and when their stuntman/woman is switched in between the different shots. Most of the time, you’re not watching the actor do their own stunt fighting and there’s usually definitive differences between the two just by body type. Lastly, the tempo of stunt combat in the scene is much slower. The speed of a fight scene with an inexperienced actor doing most of their stunts is slower and less technically impressive than the average two man open combat form at a martial arts tournament.

Have you ever watched professional stunt actors show off all their skills in finely tuned choreographed glory? (I present you with Mortal Kombat Legacy: Kitana versus Melina, starting at 1:17.) You have if you’ve ever watched professional wrestling, or a Jackie Chan movie, or Jet Li, the cast of Into the Badlands, or The Expendables.

These fight scenes happen at a much higher tempo, with more complex action, more risky techniques which require much more physical control to be performed safely without risk of harming your partner. For example, the Kitana and Melina fight showcases a jump back kick, a jump wheel kick, and several coordinated flips/other acrobatics. These are not tricks you can safely ask an untrained actor to perform on screen, and their contracts usually won’t let them even if they can. These techniques require a lot of trust between working partners because there’s a much greater risk of injury than your standard roundhouse stage punch.

Again, if you don’t notice the difference, it’s because the stuntmen/women are doing their jobs. The onus is on them too make the scenes look good. They’re the ones who have the physical control to do the risky stunts, to do the falls, to make the hits look like hits without actually ever being hit. When you see your favorite character hit someone and they go spinning to crash land in the corner and it looks awesome? That’s the stunt actor.

Appreciate them.

Most fight scenes in television are not designed to be authentic, their first goal is to be entertaining.  The vast majority of fight scenes in movies and television have no relationship with the realities of, say, a sparring match. They’re performances meant to engage and enhance the viewer’s experience. In fact, general audiences decry films who have hewed closer to the real world in their combat choreography as boring. Realism is an obsession audiences develop when their suspension of disbelief is disrupted, or from a desire to know if what they see on screen could exist in real life.  Most people tend to think that the violence they see on screen is like violence in real life, and that makes sense because they are inundated with onscreen choreographed violence and have nothing to compare their experiences to.

However, believable and realistic are separate discussions. Most fight scenes in movies represent a human durability that is, quite frankly, superhuman. Even the best of them are not realistic, and that’s fine. Believable is what most movie fight scenes strive to be or else they disrupt your suspension of disbelief. There are fanboys who will swear up and down that the violence in The Dark Knight is realistic. The fight scenes in the movie don’t resemble reality at any passing glance, but the movie succeeded in convincing them that the violence within the fantasy was real or could be. That is the hallmark of a fight scene done well.

You believe the scene.

The scene enhanced your viewing experience.

You enjoyed it.

This is all the average movie is after.

When I write fight scenes, the above is all I care about. Did the scene serve its purpose within my narrative? Did it enhance the reader’s experience? Was it convincing within the setting rules I established? Did they enjoy it? I lean into stylized choreography in my fight scenes, and I use what I know to enhance what I create. When we tear back the curtain, what we find should enhance of our enjoyment rather than disappoint.

The takeaway here should be newfound appreciation for all the people who work so hard and risk so much to produce the entertainment media you enjoy.

So, remember Lauren Mary Kim, Amy Johnston, and all the other fabulous stuntwomen and stuntmen out there who’re making your fight sequences, stunts, and superhero movies convincing. Check out their work, maybe follow their Instagrams, their Twitters, watch their movies (like Lady Bloodfight and Accident Man), and subscribe to them on YouTube.

Do it.


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