Choreographing historical fencing for film

A director who was filming a documentary about a historical battle on a ship recently approached me. So, this is an attempt to share experiences so that we can learn and develop our methods. I know that there are quite a few people within the HEMA community working with film at the moment. The reason is of course that HEMA is becoming more well known, and also that we have something to offer since we train actual fighting from history, have an abundance of highly skilled people.

Intense fighting as Swedish pikemen fend off Danish mercenaries and soldiers
Fotograf Rebecka Carlsson, Deep Sea Productions AB
Between takes. The corpses come alive.
Fotograf Rebecka Carlsson, Deep Sea Productions AB

The set

The director wanted to use the mass scenes as a major shot that would work as a frame for the viewer, from where we could get smaller scenes that we could take a closer look at. In the end we only shot one of the big scenes due to time restrictions. It was filmed from the mast and from an elevated side angle, and with close ups from a camera that moved among the fighters. The scene was set up in a way so that experienced fencers who had actual choreographed sequences were put closest to the camera (see illustration). In this scene there were 3 pairs, plus two extra people. Basically the three defenders would do well, until overwhelmed by the two extra attackers. People doing more static fighting surrounded these fencers, to make the battle come alive. One pair was struggling over a dagger, some were wrestling, and others thrust pikes (group 1) against a group of people armed with swords (group 2). The people with the swords would mainly fend off the staff weapons. These extras were not really meant to achieve much in terms of bringing the story forward. But the fencers in the foreground were to break through the lines, so that the scene didn’t become static. We also had people run in front of the camera to create the illusion there were more people coming from behind the camera. I found this set up to work rather well. There were people moving in front of the camera, in the middle of the frame and in the background, making it look really frantic and violent.

Pikemen defending the ship Mars
Fotograf Rebecka Carlsson, Deep Sea Productions AB

A learning experience

For the most part everything ran smoothly, but we did learn a few things that we could improve. The director had warned me that people get excited when the camera is rolling. And that is true. We had some minor incidents, where people got hit over the hands. And I tripped over Johan in a wrestling scene and dropped my sword on his face, so he cut his eyebrow. This happened in a situation where we had to improvise and as a general rule you have to make sure all improvisations has clear limitations since accidents happen when people don’t behave exactly as planned. For example, set a boundary for how far you can move and in which direction your sword is allowed to move (e.g. only in front of you and upwards). Also set a time limit to improvisations. This gives you room to improvise, but you also stay safe. It is also better to only use people used to fencing, because most of them don’t really care about minor bruises and know how to avoid them. For someone not used to HEMA such a violent chaos can be really scary. Which is the point, but you don’t want people who are scared (or have big egos for that matter, so it’s better that you know them well). In retrospect it was stupid of me to take part in the fighting, I should have stayed out of that and focused on overlooking everything and making sure that people who got over excited were taken off the set or corrected. Another safety aspect is to plan the fight with all the people involved. We rehearsed the scene, but didn’t include the photographer who would move around among 45 people fighting. It’s important that everyone knows where the crew is at all times, to avoid potentially dangerous situations.

The Admiral addresses the soldiers
Fotograf Rebecka Carlsson, Deep Sea Productions AB

Another positive aspect of using people who you know and who know each other well is the time you save and how easy it becomes to give instructions. We ended up shooting one scene where we only used people from GHFS, most of which were our premium fencers. We could rehearse that scene in ten minutes with simple instructions, and it looked fantastic on the first take. For skilled fencers it is really easy to improvise safely and make it look awesome, especially if you know each other. Basically you can tell them to improvise very complex things with limited instructions: A should attack and B defend, A closes the distance, they go to grappling and end up on the floor, B grabs a dagger and stabs A multiple times. Experienced fencers could improvise that in 20 different ways and make it look exciting every time. Because that is another lesson, if you plan things out with too much choreography it will look stiff. You could maybe do it well if you get a lot of time practicing, but it’s easier and better to just use people who know what they are doing. And having Axel Pettersson and Simon Torell, stab and kick other GHFS members as they fly down the stairs below deck makes it really easy to create a great fight scene. After all, that’s what they do several times a week anyway.

Setup of the stage

The end result

I haven’t seen the end result yet, but the director told me he and the producer are super excited about the footage. My hope is of course that more filmmakers will discover HEMA and the benefits of using the competencies of historical fencers.

Group 1 – Swedish pikemen (defenders)
Group 2 – Danish & German attackers with swords and guns
Group 3 – Attackers and defenders in close combat
Group 4 – GHFS fencers. Black = defenders All groups were basically static doing simple motions. Group 4 worked in an area cleared for them to do their choreographed sequences. After the defenders had killed the three attackers, the next two fighters attacked (they had previously been busy killing two extras).

Footage from the fighting

Someone onboard the ship filmed the big battle with a mobile camera. The angle is from a different corner than the film camera, so there is mainly static fighting in the foreground.

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