Sunday, January 16, 2011
There are three attributes of melee combat that will be discussed today. Now, I'm going to confess here that I'm not exactly an expert on this particular subject, so I'll be avoiding the more specific details of form and style. If any of you are knowledgeable about specific aspects of unarmed or armed melee combat, I encourage you to post in the comments with any notes or corrections. With that said, the three major aspects of melee combat that are represented in movies are Effort, Impact, and Damage. There is a lot of overlap between these, and they all refer to the same basic concept of "weight", but in general the difference is thus: "Effort" refers to strain on the wielder, "Impact" refers to strain on objects, and "Damage" refers to strain on the enemy.
Effort also includes the role of momentum as a sub-aspect of weight. When you swing a sword, axe, mace, or other weapon, you're often relying on the weapon's momentum to keep it moving. This can also allow you to be taken off-balance or tripped up. It can also be used to indicate that the combatants are tired or weakened, as they rely on the natural momentum of the swing because they don't have enough energy to control the weapon. A swordfight that conveys that weight and fatigue can make the audience connect with the participants just through the visible evidence of their pain and tiredness.
One example of momentum in swordfighting is this fight from the 2003 Zatoichi film. This fight, though less than ten seconds long, is probably one of my favorite cinematic duels. There's such a sense of strain on both combatants' parts, though you can only see the face (and exertion) of the blue samurai. It ends when one fighter is thrown off balance and an opening is exploited. It's short, brutal, efficient, and weighty. Of course, the crowd fight has some problems of its own, but we'll ignore that for now.
simple scene from Kingdom of Heaven, for example, uses "impact" effectively when conveying a warhammer descending point-first into a mail coif.
A shield-based example can be found in the intro for Final Fantasy XI, where metal shields stop both a thrown javelin and a club attack, both at visible effort to the shield-bearer. Another shield-based example comes from Eowyn's fight against the Witch King in Return of the King, where her shield is shattered by the Witch King's heavy flail (though the actual effects of that shattering are a bit hokey). A third comes from The Thirteenth Warrior, where damage to the shields reflects the weight and power behind the swing.
What these examples have in common is that they make the objects feel weighty in conjunction with other objects. In reality, these prop weapons would have less weight, to stop people from getting hurt accidentally. In the case of CGI, there is no "real" weight, so the entire conveyance of weight has to be done through animation and effects. There are some contexts where we can see the effects of weapons on armor or materials, but in general movies and live-action combat can't really show that. However, it's easier to show shield or armor damage than "people damage". A proper-sounding hit to a shield or armor can convey the danger of a situation more cleanly than actual damage can.
One thing that is difficult to convey is shock and trauma carried through armor, as can be seen in this clip. From the outside, the armor looks fine in that clip, but that's because the armor being damaged wasn't the objective. Instead, the nature of the attack carried the force of the blow through the armor and damaged the body behind it. Conveying the solidity of armor can be a problem, because it's hard to understand, from watching movies, whether it's totally useless or entirely impenetrable (like with Tony Stark's totally bulletproof armor in the beginning of the movie Iron Man). Of course, there's plenty of information about it you could look up, or watch on Youtube, but the results seem to vary enough that even going out of your way to do that can be confusing.
otherwise-good fight scene can be undermined by the presence of obviously fake damage or blood. On the other hand, conveying the damage and impact of a strike can make an average or simple fight scene seem much more real. The concept is simple: if people are getting harmed in-universe, then they should appear to be getting harmed, and not simply tossed around or "slashed at". Like "impact", the idea of damage involves the momentum and power of a weapon being established, but the material in question is the flesh and bone of the human body, not metal or wood.
The actual details of damage to the body are in the realm of medical professionals, but you can still establish some simple concepts. In our lives, we may not have extensive experience with being hit by swords, axes, arrows, or fists (though that last one is probably the most likely), but most people do know what it feels like to be cut, or what it feels like to be hit by something blunt - at the very least, whacking one's head on something gives you an idea. Magnifying these simple, mundane feelings can connect an attack to our sense of touch. This is probably why the groin attack is so eye-watering for men: because we know that ache so well that we can connect to it, whereas sword damage seems more cartoonish or implausible.
A related task is the actor actually conveying the injury done to their character. Although this certainly isn't a melee example necessarily (since he ends up being shot, rather than stabbed), the way Boromir's death was handled in The Fellowship of the Ring conveys the impact of the arrows, the damage they've done to him, and the strain of continuing to swing his sword despite his injuries. The way he reacts to each strike, as well as his increasing fatigue and reduced capabilities, conveys the nature of his injuries. Like impact, damage is also conveyed by the nature of sound. In that clip, for example, the heavy thump of the arrows indicates their power. Later in that scene, the Uruk-Hai leader headbutts Aragorn with a comparatively wimpy sound, when it would seem more appropriate to have a bone-crunching bludgeon.
In addition to the scenes analyzed above, here are some other fights from movies and games examined in terms of their effort, impact, and damage.
Rob Roy. One of the classic swordfighting scenes in cinema, Rob Roy's climactic battle manages to convey both effort and a contrasted lack thereof. Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) is tired and weakened, while Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth) toys with him. Of course, there is exertion on both sides, but the fact that Rob shows it much more than Cunningham establishes the difference between their characters. Rob's breathing is heavy and labored, and his swings - while graceful - reflect desperation. The light cuts that Cunningham delivers show that, in essence, he is toying with Rob. It shows damage without needing to go into cartoonish effects. Finally, the impact of the weapons is superb, with the iconic clash of swords conveying the flashier parts of old Errol Flynn routines while still having a more realistic system.
Die Another Day. This fight scene is so good that I question how it could have come from the same movie that gave us a giant North Korean ice palace. It succeeds in all three fields. Firstly, the exertion of both combatants is obvious, as their body language and facial expressions indicate the strain and effort of their battle. The impact of sword-on-sword is good, but this is augmented by the environmental involvement (especially bashing through a glass case and knocking over a suit of armor). The energy and damage behind every strike is easily felt, and is reflected in their status at the end - exhausted and bloodied.
Kingdom of Heaven. This short fight is simultaneously realistic and unrealistic. It's realistic because the armor of the knights is played fairly straight - Balian takes them on by attacking joints and weak spots in whatever way he can, or by relying on blunt trauma. In addition, when one of them briefly gets the upper hand and hits Balian with his mailed fist, and then gets headbutted by a guy wearing a helmet, it looks like it hurts. On the other hand, the knights all open with large, wide swings designed to allow Balian to get close-in with an improvised weapon (this happens twice). However, this can at least be partially justified by the knights being overconfident or impetuous.
Warhammer: Mark of Chaos. One of the key things about this fight is the central role that armor plays. Armor, as worn by both the Empire and Chaos soldiers, is not easily penetrated. Instead, either the joints are attacked, or a bludgeoning weapon is used. Even the armor itself is occasionally used as a weapon, when a plate-covered knee or elbow is driven into an enemy. The excellent use of sound conveys the nature of the fight and the objects involved. The one point I don't like about this fight is the reaction when the priest is hit in the back of the head. On the one hand, it would be acceptable if he wore a helmet, as it's a good simulation of the headache and disorientation that would result from such an injury. On the other hand, he's not actually wearing a helmet, so that really should have just crushed his skull.
Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. A bit more cartoonish than "Mark of Chaos", but still fairly solid. The duels in the first half showcase the impact of steel on steel, as well as (at one point) the effect of a gauntlet-clad fist on a bare face. The weapons seem heavy and powerful, and the fights feel more "epic" because of it even though they're fairly simple in theatrical terms. The second half (the intro to the game itself) is a bit harder to judge. Orcs go down cartoonishly from a single bullet, while a Chaos marauder takes a great deal of punishment without dropping. The latter case is justified by the supernatural nature of the character, but in that sense the former just seems sillier because of it.
Final Fantasy 12. There's good use of metal-on-metal in this scene, although the usefulness of armor actually leads to the question of why that armor is fully covering for the Imperial Soldiers and...less so for the Dalmascan soldiers. However, for every attack deflected by armor, there's another attack that passes right through it. Of note is the arrow that kills Prince Rasler. His armor is strange as it is, but then its inability to deflect a single arrow despite its thickness is stranger still. This is a universe with healing magic, too, so clearly the arrow wasn't even slowed down by the armor and managed to kill him instantly. This is a situation where an attempt at realism was actually detrimental, because the rest of the universe wasn't realistic enough to support it. An alternate hypothesis (it's difficult to tell from the scene) is that the arrow actually hit the little "hole" in the armor's neck area that makes no real sense; if that's the case, then it kind of highlights why you shouldn't leave weaknesses in your armor's coverage.
So, to sum up:
1) Conveying melee combat is a question of conveying the sense involved. Those senses can be conveyed through the power, strength, and speed of the combatants and weapons involved.
2) Making objects feel "real" is a key aspect of connecting fantastic or implausible battles to the kind of "real experiences" that a normal person might encounter in their daily lives.
3) The use of sound and cinematic trickery can overcome the necessities of safety when it comes to creating the illusion of "real combat" by doing what cannot be safely done in real life.