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When doing stage combat, safety is a large part of it. All strikes do not hit or are exaggerated, and many of the more intense moves are controlled by the victim.

What would be a good approach to adapting Karate moves to stage combat?

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Per a recurring theme on meta, stage combat and the like a trending off-topic. Question may need closing. Perhaps better suited to Theatre? –  stslavik Feb 22 '12 at 19:30
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I would argue that this is should be on here because members would know martial arts moves and how to adapt them. I kind of wish we could share a question across two sites. –  Paul Feb 22 '12 at 19:42
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I'm not sure that we actually would, because while we know the martial arts principles, I find that what people think martial arts looks like… isn't what it actually looks like. Meanwhile, there are entire courses in stage combat that aren't reliant on a martial arts background. It's been touched on, but I'd suggest opening a meta topic specifically on the topicality of this question. –  David H. Clements Feb 22 '12 at 21:18
    
@DavidH.Clements et al: Topic broached explicitly on meta. –  stslavik Feb 23 '12 at 0:16
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@Paul: I would appreciate it if you posted your view in the meta discussion. This is something that needs to be discussed while we're in beta, and it's good to have both opinions stated to be voted on. –  stslavik Feb 24 '12 at 0:30

4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Stage combat is multidisciplinary. You have to know both enough of the martial art or fighting style you are trying to emulate, and you have to understand the restrictions of the stage, and the audience view point. You use these things to hide your cheats, and your non-contact fighting.

The details of the different aspects vary based on whether the staged fighting is live or filmed. For example, you can use different camera angles and lighting to substitute a body double who is more skilled than the main actor. Additionally, with filmed fight scenes, you can break the fight into much smaller pieces which are easier to reassemble into a contiguous fight scene later.

  • Choreography: plan footwork and movements so that the audience sees something happening--but you can still hide the lack of impact from the strikes.
  • Landing Strikes: practice and teach how to fall properly. This is important both to sell the fight, and to protect the actors. How should it look when the person who receives the strick? How would that person physically move if the strike landed for real? A kick to the groin wouldn't have the victim flip over backwards. They would fall forward and drop to their knees.
  • Details: part of selling a fight is using proper hip movement, and tight muscles on impact. The important thing is to make it look like impact happened, but not actually cause the impact to happen.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice: live engagements are the most difficult because the fight has to be perfect from start to finish. Filmed fights are easiest because you only have to get one segment of a fight at a time. No matter what, the fight participants need to know the fight scene forwards and backwards, to the point they don't even have to think about the next move.
  • Be prepared for someone to get hurt. no matter how diligent you try to be, accidents happen. Check out the clips at the end of a Jackie Chan movie for examples of well rehearsed and choreographed fight scenes gone wrong. Also keep an eye on fatigue levels. When people get tired, they get sloppy, and other people get hurt. Have first aid on hand, and a speed dial to the emergency room.

All of this has to be done in a way that is consistent with the rest of the setting. If we are dealing with modern warfare, basing the techniques on a stage variant of Krav Maga would be a good choice. If we are dealing with something set in historic Japan, you'll want to base it on styles from that area and period of time (at least reasonably look that way).

A fight choreographer needs to have the whole sequence outlined from start to finish and know the following details:

  • How long the fight will last
  • What story critical techniques need to be incorporated
  • Who gets hit, and how those targets respond
  • Where people land and move to, how to get debris from the fight out of the way
  • Build up, and wind down of the fight
  • What pauses need to be in the fight

The fight choreographer will be working with the director to get the details worked out, and where you focus on a character for any reason.

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Here's the main problem:

Efficient, deadly moves are not pretty. They're mostly invisible.

Pretty, showy, artistic, theatrical moves are not efficient, or deadly. And they're very visible.

Now, from there, take an efficient, deadly, invisible move and make it pretty, show, artistic and theatrical. There's your recipe.

I'll throw you a bone: The punch does not come from the hip, it comes from WAY FAR BACK!

Now, once all this has been said, you can't "adapt Karate to stage combat". What you can do is adapt stage combat to look like karate. And that's going to depend on the guy doing the choreography. Big stances, hand movements... Lots of aikido-like throws and rolls, maybe. Who knows.

This question really belongs in some kind of Theatre Q&A, not a martial-arts Q&A, unless you need amazing detail. And you most likely don't.

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Important disclaimer: Reading this answer, or any answer to this question is no substitute for getting actual training on stage combat from someone who knows what they're doing. Staged combat can be dangerous when performed incorrectly.

The elements of getting stage combat looking good are reasonably simple, although actually doing it well is another matter.

For any strike there are three elements: the build up, the impact and the follow-through.

Build up

Unskilled fighters will tend to show a much greater build up, as they telegraph their strikes, but in practice this phase will cover everything from when someone starts moving to the point of impact.

Impact

There are two things that really sell the impact - sound, and timing.

The classic technique to get sound is called the "nap", and it is where the attacker (usually) slaps their own body with their non-hitting hand. This also helps the defender time their reaction right. If the form of the martial art prevents this (i.e. karate's double punch) then the defender can do the nap instead. Other options include offstage sound effects, foot stomps (a la professional wrestling) and a shout to mask the lack of impact noise.

The other important thing about the hit is don't actually hit them. With an audience on only one side you can aim a punch to pass between the audience and the victim (especially head punches) and - as long as the defender gets their timing right - it will look realistic. Kicks are much harder, and typically will need to be pulled a little short. Roundhouse kicks will work better here than front kicks. If the defender is willing, you can make a small amount of contact with kicks, but you mustn't actually kick them - just give them a little push on the chest / shoulder with the sole of your foot (not the instep).

Weapons should be swung in such a way that a missed block will miss altogether. This can be achieved by aiming swings past the body by an inch or two, or by keeping just out of hitting range. If the margins are smallish the audience won't notice.

Follow through

This includes any literal follow-through on the hit, but also includes the victims reaction. For karate this is probably very little follow through on the hit, but a big follow reaction from the victim.

Putting it all together

You'll notice that none of the key points above actually refer to any form - just principles. You can apply these principles to fencers, pirates, soldiers, untrained brawlers and martial artists simply by adopting the relevant postures, attack / defence styles, apply the right philosophy to the choreography, and (most importantly, actually) footwork.

Sources: I've been trained in staged combat and am a professional wrestler.

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Here are a few suggestion to take into consideration...

  • In doing stage combat you will want to stick with large exagerated movements. For video you can utilize smaller movements through close ups.
  • Make moves fluid and natural. When one attack is delivered, what is the next weapon available and what target is available for that weapon. Use combination striking with two being the minimum and probably around five being the maximum.
  • Think of moves in geometric terms. An attack can either be delivered as a straight line or as a circle. A good defense to a straight line attack is a circle and a good defense to a circular attack is a straight line offensive (though a circular defense will work as well). All things being equal, a straight line will be faster than a cirlce.
  • Use multiple "unskilled" attackers to increase tension and excitement and allow the skilled defender(s) to pull off many actions. Stick to two or three at once unlsess your main character is a super hero or destined to loose.
  • The prolonged use of two skilled fighters in one on one combat will by necesity look choreographed to the skilled eye, posibly even to the laman.
  • There are a lot of good Kenpo techniques and Bunkai from other syles on YouTube that can easily be adapted to stage combat. There are stick spar drills in FMA such as Sombrada that can be adapted for weapon fighting.
  • When working with weapons - sticks, knives, swords, etc. - make sure the actors are aiming for a target on their opponent. Meaning, they are not just clanking two sticks together. The attacker is attacking an actual target on the other person, and the defender has to block/counter the attack to keep from getting "hurt." This goes for empty hand techniques as well but it doesn't seem to be as noticable. In practice this comes across as pushing or pressing the opponent, causing them to want to get off the line of attack or give ground.
  • The human body can (to some degree) take a little pounding to the torso and thighs during a fight, but not to the head or groin, and certainly not a weapon strike delivered to an unprotected arm. For this reason keep fights relatively short and simple unless one of the characters is supposed to be "pulling" thier punches.
  • The skilled fighter will try to avoid any conflict but if forced, will strike when the opportunity presents itself.
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