Making of Oriental Action | Choreography & Direction Notes
Forewords: Welcome to the breakdown of the Demo-reel where you can take a peek behind the curtains; the reasons and thought processes behind the 6 pieces. This is the part 5 of the 6 article series. If this is the first article you are reading, do check out the other genres by clicking on the links at the end of my article.
Fifth Genre: Oriental Action | Peps Goh Fight Design
Screen Time Duration: 3 mins 25 secs
Shoot Duration: 3 hours 30 mins
Shoot Date: 21st November 2019
Director of Photography (D.O.P): Shian Wen
Stunt Assistant Tiffany Yong
Cast: Peps Goh & Kasimir Poh Cieslak
Music Composer: John Paul Balthasar Kwan
Choreography Notes for Oriental Action Genre:
The main influence for this genre are works by Donnie Yen such as Kungfu Jungle (2014) and the lesser known Dragon (2011), both of which won an award in the best action choreography in the Hong Kong Film Awards.
This genre is the only one in this 6-part demo reel that isn’t something that we have had prior market demand for locally. I decided to do it purely out of personal interest to explore the idea of doing choreography that looks clearly oriental in nature, but keeping true to the core of fight scenes which is to maintain the sense of danger and violence.
Too often I think that the moment the idea of “kung-fu” is brought into choreography they end up with a feeling of either being unrealistic, or worse to feel as if even if a character actually got hit by the strikes it wouldn’t hurt.
And upon research and comparing a bunch of typical kungfu-type choreography and comparing them to the works of Donnie Yen, it became clear what Donnie Yen’s works did right to set them apart.
That the objective when designing these scenes, is to be very careful in choosing the type of oriental attacks that can look like they can actually hurt someone, let me explain. A common mistake to avoid is what I’d call “chasing hands”, which even back when I was in combative Chinese martial arts training, I was frequently told not to do.
What I mean by chasing hands is when it becomes apparent that the aim of the fighters is to hit each other’s arms instead of aiming to actually hit his face and body. While most audiences might not notice that this is happening, subconsciously they will feel a sense of detachment from the scenes.
A core principle of what makes a fight-scene work is that the audience has to be worried about a character getting hurt, and when you take it away with 2 characters clashing at each other’s hands in pretty stances, that’s what starts to happen.
And that became my main goal when I set down to design this scene, which is to find the vocabulary and balance between keeping the scene of danger while including as many aspects of oriental martial arts as possible.
There are 2 main groups of ideas I played with. The first bit were oriental type striking; what sets chinese martial arts apart I feel is equal parts unique striking hand forms and also the sheer variety of directions the attacks can come from. If you were to scour all the forms you’ll realize quickly that there are almost no directions of attack that doesn’t exist in contrast to the typical limited jab, cross, hook and uppercut that are typical in western striking arts.
The amount of different methods of exerting power is also vast in variety. Attacks that rely on whipping power, ones that relies on footwork stepping into the attack, and also “Fajing 发劲” unique to Chinese martial arts are some of the movements I assigned to Kasimir’s repertoire to represent a little of Baji Quan 八极拳(It roughly translates to the fist of 8 exertions).
The second idea was Qingna Shou 擒拿手 (roughly translates to hand trapping and seizing), which is the Chinese Martial Art’s version of grappling. Which is seen in the second part of the fight when they mount the platform. Although there are take-down and groundwork aspects of Qingna, what sets it apart visually from western grappling for me personally are the stand up joint locks, which was what I tried to explore in this segment.
Crane style blocking transiting into tiger hand form for grabbing works especially well to me, and apart from gripping onto limbs I also explored “ripping” as seen in the rib crunch, this is by no means a technique that exists solely in CMA, it is also part from harder-styles of western catch wrestling and judo(If I’m not wrong), but it mixes especially well into the general design of this sequence.
Lastly, this can be considered a part of Qingna technique probably under some schools, the striking of meridian / accupoints. Practically how these attacks work from the point of view of science or physiology, would be that these “meridian points” are either nerve clusters or the insertion points of tendons, which are parts of the body that really exists, that hurts a lot more when struck than other parts of the body. In the finale 4 strikes of this choreography, the targets I picked were;
(1) the inside of the forearm called the “Jingqu ”
(2) the center of the bicep muscle near the insertion point into the bottom of the deltoid called the “Tianfu”
(3) the insertion point where the anterior deltoid joins with the bone near the collarbone
(4) finally the big downward phoenix fist into the solar plexus, also called “tai yang xue 太阳穴”
which translates into the accupoint of the sun, which matches up with the English name oddly enough, sun and solar heh, I wonder which name came first, or did they both name it after the sun separately without referencing the other because the nerve cluster there radiates out in every direction like how cartoon suns are drawn. Interesting.
I then approached each accupoint strike with different hand forms to further flavor that moment, first with the back of the wrist reminiscent of a drunken fist strike, and second with a “spear-hand” (with the index finger protruding supported by the thumb to create a sharp point impact. And third with a half-fist of sorts that they call the panther paw where you bend only the first and second joints of the fingers while keeping the knuckle joint flexed, and striking with the second segment of one’s fingers.
While not every hand shape and form can be read visually due to how fast that part was, I prioritized the tempo first and foremost as the finisher rhythm is vital. It paid off however, as while the exact hand forms aren’t readable beat for beat, the constant changing of the shapes gave me the flavor that I wanted.
Direction Notes for Oriental Action Genre:
This one was shot in kind of a rush, as you may have noticed the run time compared to the amount of time it took to shoot it. Two reasons, first we designed the direction around the shot, reverse-shot predominantly. The idea was to not get too fancy with the cinematography, as the choreography style was oriental martial arts, with many small intricate details and pretty fancy/flamboyant as it is.
We want the movements to translate easily without the camera moving too crazily and taking the attention away from that. And what you can do with the shot, reverse-shot is that during editing, one can easily pick and choose the direction that best features the choreo detail that you want to be read on screen.
This method is one of the most basic ways in which you can approach shooting action with. Some of the ways you can play with this technique is to variate the height of the shot; if the focus are kicks, you can drop your framing all the way to the ground and shoot upwards, that makes high kicks look higher.
You can also consider dutch tilting the shots in amp up the sense of dynamism and dramatism, and I’ve found it easier to include more details when I dutch the shots half the time, purely because of how the geometry of action just happens to fit a diamond shape than a rectangle if that makes sense.
And that’s the first reason; when you shoot shot reverse shot, you can move on very quickly, while at the same time being sure that you have sufficient coverage of the entire choreography, and it’s really easy to chop up any choreography without having to be worried about the editing handles.
The second reason is because the thunderclouds of the year-end monsoon was threatening to pour down on us a little more than an hour into the shooting, and so we bee-lined the shooting process. It was intense.
Would I have designed the shots differently if we had more time? Yeah probably. It would have been nice to be able to take some time between each shot to approach the next setup with more finesse.
I would have still shot on the shot, reverse-shot for sure as it’s one of the best ways to keep the pacing of a fight sequence tight, but what I would have done differently would have been to take more time on the main body of the exchange to move the camera in such a way that I wouldn’t have needed to cut so much and still been able to read the choreo on screen.
While cutting is a really powerful tool, it needs to be used carefully. On one hand it can help expedite the speed of shooting, it can also help save the performances of actors who didn’t have enough time to train and prepare sufficiently by cutting around their mistakes. It can be used to speed up and tighten sequences and maintain tempo. But on the other hand, if overused if done poorly, it can really take an audience out of the immersion, and it can become quite jarring and distracting depending on the framing.
If you know you have to cut a lot for whatever reason, what you want to do is to keep the main focus of the action at one point of the screen, that way your audience’s eyes don’t have to chase all over the screen trying to find where they should be looking at, especially when you cut back and forth every couple seconds.
For example; the most basic would be to keep it dead smack in the center of your frame, be it a punch that meets a block, the spot where the hands meet should form a T or X right in the center of the frame, or a kick meeting a stomach, the spot when the foot contacts the tummy should be framed right dead in the center of the frame.
And of course as with all cinematic rules, once you understand the principles and limitations, you can choose to break those rules as and when to your needs bah, it just acts as a good guiding tool.
Full Video by Peps Goh Fight Design
The oriental action genre is part 5 of the 6 genres. Here’s the full video for your viewing.
Menu: 00:12 – Comedy | 01:00 – Sport | 04:05 – Heroine | 05:22 – Dramatic | 07:40 – Oriental | 11:02 – Crime
P.S. Click on the above link to check out each genre’s choreography and direction notes. If you have any thoughts about my choreography works, feel free to leave your comment here or email me!