I recently read a Facebook post wherein the Question Of The Day was: what is the difference between a choreographed fight for a visual narrative (ie short film, feature, etc) vs. for a Martial Arts demonstration or a self-defense video you might see at a tournament or in an instructional video?
Most of the responses were excellent comments on the purpose (entertain vs. educate), with a lot of focus in storytelling vs not storytelling. Let’s also ask this question in relationship to what the participants (actors, martial artists) are doing and what the audience is intended to receive. In reverse order if the question:
In an instructional video, the presenter is demonstrating the perfect responses to an attack in order to transfer the skill to new people. There’s usually an element of “come to my school” if the video is being sold to the public. If not, it’s a mnemonic for existing students. It’s a sequence of events and not a story the observer is meant to get personally invested in.
In a choreographed martial arts demo, the participants may be doing some acting in so far as playing wounds, but they’re often continuing to fight so that they can show off their school’s style thereby gaining interest in the school. They could be continuing to fight in order to fill some manner of time requirement. They may also be showing off some of their most impressive moves, a virtuoso performance, if you will. Often the purpose is to thrill the audience and dazzle them with the ingenuity of the combinations and the performers’ mastery of skills.
In a fight scene, the characters have an emotional reason to keep fighting. They are personally invested in the outcome and have a reaction to the events of the fight. In the best fight scenes, in my opinion, this personal investment will cause the characters to “make mistakes” and have to recover from them. Likewise, each character will try to spot and take advantage of their opponent’s mistakes. The audience is drawn into the conflict because they have as deep an emotional investment in the outcome as the characters do, if we’re doing our job correctly.
As you prepare your test fights, please make the leap into a fight scene. So many stop at demo and some at instructional video! Simply knowing the moves and showing them to other people is not enough. You, the actor, need to know what your characters want, why are they there, why do they stay and keep fighting. Every moment, every attack, avoidance and defense. What is their desired outcome? How important is it that they achieve that outcome? Did they get what they want and how do they feel about that? Basic Stanislavsky scene work. Apply it to your text and to every single action.
Once you get a handle on the sequence of events, the job doesn’t end there. Move from martial arts demonstration to Fight Scene. Discover the reasons. Care deeply. Live the story.