Friday, July 6, 2012

Anatomy of Fight Choreography 1: Sherlock Holmes' Wing Chun Kung Fu

Martial arts scenes in action films have been one of the biggest promoters of martial arts as well as one of it's biggest detriments as it promotes romanticized, hyper-realistic views of fighting.  But this is nothing new as stage combat has been a part of dramatic action since the beginning of theater.

For the layman it's a junk food fantasy seeing a single man dispatch numerous enemies and escaping with only fashionably placed brusies.    For the martial artist it can be a ego trip or it can be a cringing moment watching realistic techniques compromised for the sake of dramatic effect.  

So much goes into the choreography of a fight scene.  There is not a single frame that goes into fight choreography that is not planned.   There is no Stanislavsky "method acting" in stage combat.  People will get hurt and productions will get shut down.   

A good screen combat scene involves the following:

1) Good story.  First and foremost the purpose of a fight scene (or any scene) is to further the plot of the story.  Period. 

2)  Good STORY. 

3)  Character development.  The fighting method should reveal more about the character.  Particularly the character's background and especially his or her state of mind at the time of the fight. The actor's acting should go beyond just "grimacing", "grunting" and looking cool on camera.  He or she should be revealing more about the character's emotional journey.  

4)  Pacing.  The pacing should reflect the overall tone, atmosphere and speed of the film.  This is determined  by the director and the editor.  Not the martial arts choreographer.  It's his job to help the director tell the story he is envisioning.  

There are other elements of course too which add to theatrical combat such as:  Sound FX, music, lighting, cinematography and in some cases Visual FX.  But the aim of course is suspend the audiences belief and make all these elements appear seamless.  

A good case to point out is Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes and the sequel Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows.

Guy Ritchie in addition to being a filmmaker is also an accomplished martial artist in Shotokan Karate, Judo and Brazilian Ju-jitsu.    Ritchie presented the perfect balance of the nuances the techniques (which martial artists would appreciate) while not sacrificing the obvious fantasy and escapism of story.  

Though it wasn't said, it was obvious to any Wing Chun Kung Fu practitioner that Sherlock Holmes (the worldly, eccentric, calculating man that he is) was using Wing Chun in the film's combat scenes.  The key words here are "worldly and eccentric".   This is a good example of character exposition:  "What kind of Englishman in 1891 would study Chinese martial arts?  Why??  And what kind would he practice?"    

As 19th century Westerners laughed at what they called "Chinese Boxing" (and the Boxer Rebellion only right around the corner in 1898)  Sherlock Holmes is likely they kind of person who would want to learn more about it --- especially because others are laughing at something they don't understand and know very little about.

 Of all the Chinese martial arts, Wing Chun is one of the most logical, straightforward but deceptively direct of all the Kung Fu systems.    How could Sherlock Holmes resist not adding this combat art form to his repertoire?   How could he resist the challenge of being a foreigner and infiltrating  closed or secret societies so he could learn it?

Robert Downey, Jr.  is a practitioner of Traditional Wing Chun as is his instructor and fight choreographer Sifu Eric Oram.    

Would it be believable for Sherlock Holmes to stand in a perfect Wing Chun ready "combat stance" in the film?  No.  Would it be believable for Holmes to use certain elements and principles of Wing Chun in his own modified but effective way for his means?  Yes.  And this is good character development and ultimately makes a good theatrical combat sequence which HELPS develop and give perspective to the story. 

Guy Ritchie understood this well as there are slight differences in the blueprint choreography given to him by Sifu Eric Oram and the other fight/ stunt choreographers.  Below are two clips from "Stunt Schooled: Sherlock Holmes"  featuring the choreography planned  intercut with what was finally shot and edited for film.  

Monday, June 18, 2012

Brief Overview History of the Shaolin Temple

The Shaolin Temple, famous in modern and popular culture as the Buddhist temple which has served as the mecca of all modern Asian martial arts.

But how many of us actually considered the seemingly apparent contradiction between the practice of warfare and the aims of Buddhism to enlighten man through non-violence and the letting go of worldly things?

Chan (or Zen) Buddhism has been one of the three great philosophies that has influenced China for centuries.  The other two philosophies being Taoism and Confucianism.  The Hinayana sect of Buddhism typically advocates enlightenment by not engaging in worldly affairs.  However Chan Buddhism advocates remaining within the daily affairs of life to obtain enlightenment.  This is also advocated by the Mahayana sect of Buddhism.   Experience is the key to our development. 

Legends credits an Indian monk, Bodhidarma (sometimes called Da Mo )with being a key figure of the development of Shaolin Kung Fu with his teachings in early 6th Century China.  Recently some researchers expressed serious doubts that a Bodhidarma ever existed.  According to some scholars, rather, Bodhidarma refers a group of masters who contributed to the spread of Chan Buddhism throughout China.

The Shaolin Temple was created around late 5th Century China by the Emperor Xioaming for the first abbot of the Shaolin Temple, an Indian Buddhist monk names Ba Tuo.   While there is no record of Ba Tuo being trained in the martial arts, current historical records show that he had two disciples who possessed formidable martial arts skills.  These disciples were Seng Chou and Hui Guang.    

Perhaps here, we have the true inception of martial arts within the Shaolin Temple.

The Shaolin Temple aligned with Chan Buddhism,  was somewhat liberal in its practices by allowing the partaking in worldly affairs (with the exception of stealing, killing and sexual activity).   Buddhist monks who drank wine or ate meat and would be turned away at some Buddhist temples would find acceptance within the Shaolin Temple which was more liberal minded.  Perhaps it was this environment that also contributed to the practice and study of martial arts within the temple.  

The first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Li Shi Min (once known as the Prince of Qin)  is accredited for the helping of the expansion of the Shaolin Temple in gratitude for their aid as the lent the use of their "fighting monks" to help turn the tide of a civil war with a rogue general, Wang Shi Cong. 

The extent to which the "fighting monks" of the Shaolin contributed to the capture of Wang Shi Cong is disputed but what is known that the temple did experience significant size and member expansion under Emperor Li Shi Min.

Below are a couple of clips of an interesting documentary on the birth of the Shaolin Temple.