Choreography 101: When to Cut

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler


When crafting a fight scene, one of the hardest things to figure out is when to show close-ups of the action.  On one end of the spectrum is the standard 70s fight scene, which never did such a thing.  On the other end is the modern fight scene, which features virtually nothing but shaky, second-long shots of hits occurring.  The problem with the latter is that audiences members are getting motion sickness and don’t know what is going on.  So, what we’re going to figure out is what is the happy medium.

When filming and editing a fight scene, the first thing to remember is what the story is about.  The story enhances the fight and usually guides both the filmmaker and viewer’s way through the fight.  For example, in Kiss of the Dragon, Jet Li is constantly being hit by the bigger brother, who is lurking around.  Throughout the fight, you never see him, until they cut away to Li getting kicked by him.  That way, it feels more of a surprise when this happens.  Another cut that I enjoyed was when the bigger brother punches Li in the face.  Li scoots back and his hand slides through glass, cutting his hand up.  This showed how much Li was going through in two simple ways.

Another thing to remind ourselves of when editing fight scenes is, how many angles do we want?  The more edits you have, the less realistic it is; this is something that Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao have all said.  When I started working on fight scenes, I would go crazy on cutting, with no understanding of how the editing made the best early fight scenes work.  Then, it hit me: why not show how talented the fighters are instead of hindering their talents?  The only reason people cut a lot is A.) to make it appear faster B.) because they didn’t know how to do the choreography or C.) because it has been a staple in cinema for fifteen years.

Now, I know there are several ways to edit fight scenes, but how do you edit people’s reactions into the fight?  Easy: you don’t, unless it is necessary.  When watching a fight scene, you don’t always want to react to the characters’ reactions; you want to react to what is happening to them.  For instance, in a horror film, do you get scared when the main character screams?  No?  How about when Michael Myers and his creepy mask show up out of nowhere?  The same goes for an explosive move.  When Jackie Chan’s head smashes into the glass in Police Story, I usually yell,“Stop killing yourself!”  I wouldn’t react as intensely if Chan’s reaction was to immediately rub his head and exclaim, “Oh!  That’s gonna leave a mark on Jackie!”  Chan wisely never shows his reaction because it would lessen the impact of what the viewer just saw.  That’s why I think a lot of the slap stick humor in Home Alone doesn’t work as well.  Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern react to every hit they take.  Showing reactions every once in a while is fine, but several in a row is numbing.

Next week we will go into more detail about when to cut, by talking about post-Bourne movies, Project A, and Black Mask.  If you have any questions about when to cut, just leave your comments below and I will answer them.


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