“Hey, I heard you do martial arts. Would you be interested in doing some fight choreography?”
This phrase began my involvement as a fight choreographer in Haphead. Director Tate Young and I met during post-production on the feature Ghosts With Shit Jobs, and now we were having some pints and discussing a new web-series that he was involved in, written by Ghosts writer Jim Munroe. Now, I’m a composer by trade (and that is why Tate originally called me), but here was an opportunity to also develop and choreograph a fight sequence. As a longtime fan of martial arts and fighting in the movies with a 3rd degree in Shotokan Karate, I couldn’t pass it up.
Rabbit punches – Overgrowth, and early design considerations
As Tate and I began to discuss the parameters of the fight, it became clear that this was going to have some unique twists. The concept of the series is that in a not-too-distant future, people called “Hapheads” learn deadly fighting skills by playing video games. We used footage from the game Overgrowth, which features bi-pedal jackrabbits kicking the crap out of each other. Fun! Tate and crew wanted the fight to reflect the game, so my first order of business was to answer the question: “what style do oversized ninja bunnies fight in?”
With their wrapped hands in “high guard” position and use of kicks and knees, the answer was a kick-boxing and Muay Thai mix. For our heroine to realistically beat her foe, she needed to utilize a practical, direct and brutal style that focused on a good defence and getting the job done.
Characterization and style
It’s amazing how much you can tell about a person by how they punch you in the face. This fight would be between Maxine, the protagonist of Haphead, and her evil factory supervisor (who I would portray). For Maxine, I wanted to create a sense of her street-smarts and determination. She stays protected and doesn’t take big chances. She picks the moves with the best percentage, and looks for weaknesses in her stronger opponent. For the supervisor, I imagined a very self-controlled, disciplined and rigid attitude. He would be imposing and powerful, but if you found the chinks in his armour, you could topple this giant. Knowing this, I decided the fight would be tight, dirty, and brutal – not your showy Kung-Fu style (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) but more like something out of the Bourne Identity.
Elements of the fight
I reminded myself that a movie fight was not like real combat. Much of my Karate training is focused on trying not to telegraph movements, but a filmed fight needs the actors to really show the moves. One, so the audience can see, and two, for the safety of your colleagues – they have to be able to see and react to what’s coming. I’m used to taking a shot now and then, but this was not something I could ask of my partner. Safety and proper stage combat technique was the first priority and part of the design. Strikes would not only be pulled, but fall far short of their target (by up to a foot), and rely instead on camera angles, the actor’s reactions, and sound effects for realism. The ‘victim’ (or receiver of the technique) would always be in control, especially for anything involving a choke or a throw.
We were designing a fight for a no-budget trailer with limited rehearsal time, so I built my concept knowing the fight would need to be achievable (easily memorized, within the actors abilities).
Budget limitations place no boundaries on imagination, and so special attention was paid to bringing out the details that would make the fight look unique, such as stance, hand position, and more realistic, less flashy combinations.
From Zero to Badass in 90 minutes – The Rehearsal
With the fight sequence planned out, Elysia, our lead, Anthony, the producer, Tate and I met at a dance studio to rehearse the choreography and work out potential shots and camera movement. Elysia, who had no real martial arts experience, threw herself into the work and was a quick study. I gave her a crash course in martial movement, and then we started running the sequence. She had an impressive muscle memory and a great work ethic, and after an intense 90 minute session, she looked like she knew what she was doing.
Bring the Pain – The Shoot
We shot indoors on a frigid February evening after an already long shoot day. The actual choreography took just over a minute to run through, but of course to get all the angles and takes, we shot for around 3 hours. It was exhausting work, and as we got tired, keeping the energy up was a challenge, as was making sure we stayed safe. At one point, I missed distance on one counter-attack and popped Elysia on the nose, but she took it like soldier and later returned the favor by accidentally kneeing me in face.
We pushed both pace and distance and there were some bumps and bruises, but I think it helped make the fight look more convincing.
The most dangerous stunt I performed myself – which was a fall after being kicked. I’m used to doing proper break-falls, but I had the extra challenges of falling convincingly, with characterization, onto a poured concrete floor without any armour or padding. Padding up the actors is something I will definitely add to my future choreography, which will present an interesting challenge for wardrobe!
The Full Choreography
What you see in the trailer are highlights carefully chosen for impact. Here, you can watch the full choreography in sequence, and get a sense of the flow I was trying to convey. I wanted the fight to have its own internal story arc, which is not apparent in the trailer.
This edit demonstrates how the lack of sound design affects the believability of the scene. I take my hat off to Fanny Riguidel who did a wonderful job creating the sonic elements of the final fight: all of the clothing movement, the air swooshes, incredible body impacts, and joint and bone damage.
Make-up was another feature that really sold the fight, and Trina Brink did a great (and cringe-worthy) job creating our wounds. Showing damage over time presents a challenge in relation to continuity – you have to keep careful track of your shots and sequences. If you get blood on a shirt, for example, you must be sure you have coverage on the non-bloody shirt scenes, or have a fresh shirt on hand. Even a simple thing like my fall was a challenge – the factory floor was dusty, and it was quite a process to make sure I looked clean for the next take.
The final fight sequence:
Fight scenes take a lot of time and planning to pull off, but they are rewarding when they come off. For me, it was incredibly fun and I felt like a 7 year old kid through this process, but it was also a crash course with lots of valuable lessons learned. What we achieved was due to having a great crew, and I tip my hat to Elysia for putting her trust in me and working her butt off, and everyone that made this come to life with make-up, sound, cinematography, editing, and sound design. I guess the music ain’t bad either. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing the journey with Haphead, both as a choreographer and composer.