Filmmaking & Fight Choreography tips – Unit 21

We recently finished Unit 21, a martial arts movie made in Hackney, with the support of the website: 

I learnt a lot from the experience and I’d like to share what I’ve learnt with the world in the hopes that it’ll help the helpers. So here’s some friendly advice if you’re trying to make anything similar.

Manage your time

Time management is a very important part of the film-making process, but it can be overlooked, especially if you’re on a no-budget shoot. I filled the role of director, camera operator & fight choreographer, which is already spinning a lot of plates. The job of keeping track of time usually falls to the Assistant Director. They’re usually the ones shouting orders and yelling on a set, they have to. Telling the director’s story is important but you have to make sure you have all the footage you need when the director says ‘thats a wrap.’


We were on a location that required us to be out of there by a certain time, no matter what. Even if we had five minutes to go. Even if we had fifty minutes to go. We had to be gone by that time. You will probably run into this situation a lot as a filmmaker. A location will only be available for a certain amount of time. I wish I could say it didn’t affect our shoot, but, the final stick fight we had on film had to be shortened significantly. My original vision for it was to have a long protracted fight that spanned the length of the hallway, with the fighters going backwards and forwards trading shots with their weapons. It would be in the style of Donnie Yen fighting Wu Jing in the martial arts film, Sha Po Lang.

The fight then would have resulted in both participants losing their weapons. A short fist fight would occur. Then my character, the stick wielding ninja, would be dragged to the ground in a triangle choke and lose consciousness. John, our main character, would drag his weary body up from the floor and hobble off.

But with the time constraints it became a very quick stick fight, two sequences of fighting, resulting in me being disarmed and then both sticks being brought down upon my head. When I saw there was only fifteen minutes left, I shot two over the shoulder shots for the first sequence, then two over the shoulder shots for the second sequence, and told Lewis Williams, the man who plays John, to just walk off after he beat me to the floor. He did, and that was enough for us to cut to the next scene.

Creativity can save you in a situation like that. But nothing beats being well prepared for a shoot, because a million different things can go wrong on a set that you hadn’t imagined even in your darkest dreams. Have someone whose sole job it is to make sure everything runs smoothly. I mean, don’t stress yourself out over it, it’s not the end of the world, you should be having fun. But someone to help grease those wheels can help wonders. Also planning out shots before hand, creating a shot list, making sure you cover the bare minimum angles you need to cover to get everything for the edit, will do wonders.

Play to your strengths

I’ve dabbled in martial arts over the years. I’ve done a bit of kickboxing, krav maga & escrima. And while I definitely wouldn’t call myself an accomplished martial artist, I know enough about body mechanics to throw a punch or a kick. None of the people on the crew had done martial arts, or anything like that. So it was very much new territory. If you know your main actor can’t do a jumping axe kick followed up with a double back-fist, don’t give him that move to do. Choreography aside, if you know your actor’s can’t cry with a camera on them, or won’t be able to deliver you a long villainous monologue, then don’t give that to them. None of us on set had any acting training so I tried to keep the dialogue as sparse as possible. Bare minimum.

Playing to your strengths also means using what locations you can get. I used to get so hung up about the fact that it took so much effort and money to film in decent locations, so much networking involved, red tape, and all of it. It got me down. But none of that mattered if you use whatever you have in front of you. It’s the no-budget way. I had a small office building that they said I could use to shoot in, I said sure why the hell not. Robert Rodriguez said, when making his debut, that all he had was a turtle, a small town, and a guitar case. What did he do? He made a movie around that.

Some of the best movies take place in one location, so much so that you could quite easily adapt them into stage-plays. Stuff like Clerks, Reservoir dogs, Night of the living Dead. Moving location to location is expensive, so try and limit that if you’re using the no-budget approach.

Try not to shoot fights in profile

This is not a rule so much as something I began to realise as we were shooting. A profile shot is when you’re side-on to your characters, like this:

We were shooting full body profile shots where our characters were hitting each other. Why I think this kind of shot doesn’t work is because when you’re side on to the characters, the distance between them suddenly becomes far more apparent. So it’s a lot more noticeable when you see a kick or a fist miss by miles. I think in general it’s not a good idea to shoot portions of a fight scene in profile, unless your principal actors are expert martial artists who are proper trying to go for each other.

bruce lee is the exception that proves every rule

Cut out frames to sell a hit

This is a trick I picked up from Freddie Wong. If you haven’t seen his videos they come highly recommended. He’s elevated lo-budget action filmmaking on Youtube to it’s absolute pinnacle.

The idea is that, in the edit, you go to the moment of impact of your hit and slice that individual frame out. You do that and suddenly stuff like, the fact that the punch isn’t landing, doesn’t matter. It gives the punch or the kick that extra oomph. I used this trick quite a few times and it gave a lot of dangerous vitality to the hits, more than what was there before.

You can also speed up and slow down portions of the fighting. I’m not a fan of this, and was quite proud that what you see on screen is the same speed our fighters in front of camera were fighting at. It seems almost disingenuous to me to speed a move up. But I realise that it does happen, the experts do it all the time, and it’s an invaluable tool for stressing the skill of your martial artists.

Comedy sells a fight

This is something Jackie Chan realised a long ago, that on-screen fighting and comedy are two things that very much go hand-in-hand.

I was watching a lot of people’s initial reactions to the test footage I shot and it struck me that the bulk of the reactions weren’t oohs or aahs. It was laughter. Being hit in the face can be quite funny. Play to this. I tried to intentionally put some comedy beats into the action, such as when Joel, who plays our bad guy and is in his own right a very talented artist, grabs John’s leg after the fight is finished; and get’s kicked in the face. People may not remember the seriousness of the moral of the story you were trying to convey. They may not remember that bad-ass crescent kick your main actor did to the bad guy in the final take. But I think they’re more likely to remember that action beat that made them laugh out loud.

And lastly:

Have fun with it

If you’re not having fun with fellow collaborators and peers, what’s the point of it? Unless you’re making an uber-serious story that’s a political allegory for the opressive regime of your native country, it’s not worth it. Life’s too short to take everything so seriously. We’re making movies here, we’re turning fake stuff into real stuff. It’s an inherently silly thing. Create a fun nurturing environment, don’t oppress your crew, don’t bow down to this singular creative vision that you believe no one but you gets. Having fun also means an openness to others, to allow creative elements to flow, something may happen on set that you don’t quite predict or want but it ends up working. Run with that.

Filmmaking is not an art. It’s an alchemy. You throw a lot of potent ingredients into the mix, and from that something new is created. There’s nothing quite like it, and I’m so happy I’ve spent the last four years of my life doing it, met some amazing people, learned far more than I could ever hope to share. It is a good life, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Until next time.

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This entry was posted in Action movie, Camera, choreography, Cinema, Cinematography, Director of photography, Editing, Fight choreography, Fight scene, Film, Filmmaking, Films, Framing, Hackney, Hong Kong films, Kung Fu movie, Martial Arts, Masterclass, Movie, Multimedia, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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