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Comikaze Expo 2014: How to Stage a Sword Fight for Film Panel Coverage

The first rule of fight class is talk about fight class! Seriously, tell everybody. Bring your friends. Jan Bryant and Dan Speaker are always eager to get new people involved in learning the art of stage and screen combat. The two of them run the Academy of Theatrical Combat in Burbank, CA, where they teach everything from hand-to-hand combat to different ways to fall, to, of course, fighting with swords of all types—all for the stage and screen. And, on Friday afternoon, they brought some of those lessons to Comikaze Expo 2014.

The panel consisted of Dan and Jan, along with Academy members Kim Turney and Patty Jean Robinson, whom astute readers may recognize as Pike and Trident. It was moderated by Tara Cardinal, who has plenty of her own experience with swords and other forms of screen combat, having directed and starred in several of her own action movies, such as Scarlet Samurai and Legend of the Red Reaper. (Ms. Cardinal is a redhead.)

After a few words of introduction and some talk of their own history and experiences on set, the team began doing demonstrations. Beginning with broadswords, they went through some basic moves of onscreen sword fights, first slowly explaining the technique and the reasons behind it, then full speed, to show what it actually looks like (very impressive). They then moved on to katanas, followed by rapier/dagger (in which both parties have a rapier in one hand and a dagger in the other. This is very cool to watch.).

The interesting thing to note is that the fights all have basically the same choreography. In attacking, you cut to the same parts of the body in the same order; however, the different styles of swordplay, or even just the different ways that the blades are handled, make the fights look completely different. You’d never know that the moves were the same until someone pointed it out to you.

One of the things that they talked about repeatedly was the importance of character with regards to staging a fight. A lot of what goes into a fight depends on who the characters are and what their personalities are like. Another important consideration is costuming. What moves will the actor be able to perform with the costume they have to wear, and what costume pieces will inhibit the moves they’ll need to do? And then, there are the sounds. During each of the demonstrations, they would grunt and make other noises of effort as they clanged their swords together. This is far more important to selling the realism of a fight than you might think. To show the difference, Patty and Kim went through one fight in complete silence. It didn’t look or feel right at all.

Finally, after a round of audience questions, Dan gave a (very) brief tutorial in the four basic sword parries, in which the audience was invited to follow along, using our thumbs to represent the blade of the sword. It would have been nice to have a more thorough lesson, but time was against us, and, given the choice, the demonstrations were much more fun.

I’ve been lucky enough, over the past month, to study under Dan and Jan at the Academy of Theatrical Combat, learning things like cutlass fights and how to fall convincingly on camera. It’s been an amazing experience, and they’re both excellent teachers. For anyone who grew up watching Highlander or The Princess Bride, learning these skills is like the culmination of a lifelong dream. If you have any interest in swords or other forms of stage and screen combat, I highly recommend checking out their class. The Academy of Theatrical Combat holds an introductory class on the first Tuesday of every month, at their studio in Burbank. For more information, visit their website or “Like” them on Facebook.


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