Sunday, January 16, 2011

Melee combat.

Melee combat is, naturally, one of the most common forms of combat found in media. It has a style, grace, and personal connection not found with guns or tanks or planes, whether it's done with swords, spears, axes, or bare-handed. Melee combat allows for a lot more personal investment than ranged combat, because both attack and defense are in the hands of the combatant. If the writers and choreographers can pull it off, it also allows for a lot of personalized styles and techniques, which ranged combat generally doesn't allow for. So, all in all, there are a lot of reasons to like melee combat. So how do we make it as believable as possible?

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 refers to the effect of stamina strain on each combatant - not in terms of damage done by the other individual, but simply from the process of swinging a weapon or fist. It also refers to the depiction of the weight of a weapon, insomuch as that weight affects the user and how they are capable of using it. The depiction of weight tends to fluctuate wildly - differently balanced weapons will allow for different levels of strain on the user - but in general it's advisable to make the weapon seem like it actually has some weight.

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.

Impact refers to the weight and momentum of the weapon in regards to an object being struck. That is, while "effort" reflects the weapon's weight and strain on the user, "impact" centers around the weapon's weight and strain on the target - specifically another weapon, a shield, or armor. This is reinforced primarily through the use of sound and the momentum of a swing. This 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.

Damage refers to the physical damage caused by an attack to its target. This can be, perhaps, the most difficult concept to convey due to the necessities of safety. An 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.

Selected Scenes
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.


  1. That Die Another Day scene looks like they were trying to emulate old Star Trek. They were hamming it the fuck up to such an insane extent I don't even. Straining for the sake of straining isn't to be admired.

    That Zatoichi scene is pretty damn silly, too. Seriously? Who the hell locks swords? I've never had someone try that and not TAKEN THEIR SWORD FROM THEM. Staying in that position is a waste of energy and time you could be spending winning the damn fight, and anyone who's so much as sparred casually should know that. And don't even get me starting on blocking vs. parrying and not using the EDGE of your sword for either...

    A key component of believability that you seem to have largely disregarded is the actual skill on display. If I'm supposed to be watching seasoned warriors fight and they're making mistakes that GUARANTEE their death, ever-extending themselves with every blow etc. it blows my immersion right the fuck out of the water. Likewise if a nervous rookie acts with absolutely no regard for his own life. If anything they should make the mistake of being too defensive; retreating where they should attack and giving the protagonist control of the fight, rather than holding a sword high above their head and screaming triumphantly as the hero's blade spills their guts on the floor like so much spaghetti.

  2. Well, like I said, I'm not an expert fencer - it was less about the actual intricacies of the fight and more about the emotion/strain behind them. Of course, it would make sense that a seasoned eye picks up on these kinds of things, and that establishes another kind of believability. This is why I made no bones about "not knowing the subject" - because as a non-expert I can only judge the parts that I can connect to.

    This is why when I talk about, for example, gun combat, I try to focus on elements like "impact" and "sensation" rather than stuff like "the actual ranges involved", because that's the part where people start to question the validity of the dynamic as being "less exciting" and "too spergy". Of course, some things were visible even to me (I noted the over-extending in the KoH scene) but for the most part I tried to stick to aspects that were more visceral than technical.

  3. Wow. That was an excellent read, incredibly well thought out, loaded with examples and links. Thanks a lot for that!

  4. I think realistic technique is just as much of an issue with ranged combat as melee.

    I've never fired a gun in my life, but if I watched a WWII movie where a supposedly seasoned veteran is firing a pistol wildly over his head I would not be able to accept it unless it were a movie explicitly about bringing 'hood justice to the Nazis. Likewise when a supposedly highly trained S.W.A.T team trails fully automatic gunfire just behind the protagonists, I shake my head in sadness.

    The techniques (or lack thereof) in use by the characters should reflect their background or at least have some justification in-universe.

  5. That's a fair point, and I don't disagree, but I still think of those fights as being high-quality due to their other attributes. While it would be BETTER if they were well-researched, it's lower on my list of priorities as long as they're balanced.

    Yes, it would be better if the audience was accurately informed, but the reason I pointed out the issue in Kingdom of Heaven was that it was obviously unbalancing. Balian wouldn't have won that fight if the knights hadn't gone out of their way to swing wide. In contrast, the James Bond fight (while hammy) has the two on fairly even ground. It's not a "PvE" situation because they're both equal, even though they're both fencing incorrectly.

    The reason I pointed out the duel in Zatoichi, and not the entire fight, was that the duel seemed like a fair contest of strength. Yes, blade locks are silly, and even a casual viewer can sort of tell that SOMETHING is wrong if they think about it (what was he planning to do if he won?) but they were both part of it. In contrast, the crowd-fighting scene, while still possessing good sound and visual effects, seems a lot more contrived. The samurai knocks an enemy's sword into the ground and he just sort of stays there, like, welp, he's got me. Better try to get my sword out instead of doing ANYTHING ELSE.

  6. As a physical guide I think you've isolated the key elements for making a fight look real (although as Outlander points out the techniques used in those films are not very realistic). I think you miss the moral element though.

    Since at least the 1970's we've been aware that the majority of violence in most melees is conducted in short flashes, by a small number of 'champions'.

    Most people hold back or only join in en masse. Have a look at this Greek riot footage:

    Obviously rioters are not Roman Legions but there appear to be enough similarities and this helps explain why melee battles often took so long and raged over such large areas.

    Similarly we're quite used in films and games to see horses crashing into people or other cavalry. But horses do absolutely everything they can to avoid this- not least because the basic laws of physics show that charging a horse into a man or horse usually ends badly for both, as in this video:

    (Quick note: perhaps the one aspect you missed in the mental, that is, the process of seeing men thinking about their fights. Films usually get this right but games often degenerate into waves of unthinking enemies blindly attacking you. There is rarely a sense of thought behind their actions. For an example, have a look at the fight between Athos and the gray-haired guard in this video (from 7.40 on):

    The other thing that fight gets across well is the concept of 'friction', that is, the role of accidents and confusion on battle.)

  7. Yes, that's definitely true. Battles seldom show the confusion of a melee - even in a "tangled-up battle", it's really more like a series of duels (i.e. how Japanese samurai did it). Yes, there's a lot going on, but generally each person is dealing with someone specific, rather than a confused mob.

    As for the horse thing, I think the important aspect is that generally the horse itself isn't doing the damage. When there's a charge, it's usually with lances (as real heavy cavalry would have used). The Lord of the Rings movies are probably the most prominent example of what you're talking about, though - horses just sort of ride over people with no resistance. There's plenty of games that do it too, but in Total War, at least, horses can get easily tangled up in melee and cavalry are best used for charges and harassing attacks.

    Finally, you're dead-on with the mental thing. That's why I liked the Zatoichi example - not just for the swordplay, but for the brief lead-in. Both samurai have been established as being at least somewhat strong (the blue samurai had a moment where he beat up some thugs with his scabbard), so they size each other up as they approach very casually and pointedly, and then they clash swords.

    In games this is a bit harder to do. Assassin's Creed tried for the whole "people don't just attack you immediately" thing but (a) it made things really easy to counter and (b) it generally meant that people were attacking you one at a time in a situation where that makes no sense. It's a hard concept to get across depending on the genre.

  8. The thing about the horses is that you simply cannot charge a horse into a packed group of men*. Total War still allows you to charge massed ranks of cavalry, regardless of lances, into a block of infantry with no ill results. It often degenerates into a slow, tangled melee but you can still do it despite its physical impossibility.

    It's not a game breaker -Total War being more cinematic than anything else- but to anyone who has ever studied cavalry combat it's extremely noticeable.

    (An interesting exercise is to play Empire: Total War with a copy of Christopher Duffy's 'The Military Experience in the Age of Reason'. You quickly realise that the whole model of combat used in Total War owes more to Hollywood than anything else.)

    Assassins Creed is an interesting example. I remember playing it and being disappointed that they'd got so close to recreating the classic swashbuckling fights of Errol Flynn but plonked it in the Middle Ages and made the one-at-a-time thing really obvious.

    *To be pedantic you can; one Brit winning his VC that way in Persia- but his horse died from the impact.

  9. Mount & Blade is probably one of the only games that would depict horses in the way you're talking about. On the other hand, again, you've got the Lord of the Rings movies, where horses just charge into - not only packed ranks of infantry, but PIKE WALLS - and just sort of run right through them.