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Choreographing a Lightsaber Fight

So you want to know how to use a lightsaber…. As everyone should know, lightsaber fights in Star Wars are choreographed. Just incase you don't know what that means, choreographed means they are planned out step by step. Both the attacker and defender know exactly what's going to be coming next. It sounds pretty simple to just make up a whole bunch of steps in a fight sequence. And it is. The hard part is having enough variation to keep a fight interesting for more than five seconds. Most people just picking up a lightsaber can come up with at least a handful of attacks. But repeating these attacks gets boring quick. So to help you with your lightsaber choreographing, I've put together "Jon's Lightsaber Choreographing Tutorial!" Catchy title huh?

As for my experience in fighting, I have been a member of the S.C.A. for 3 years at the time this was written. The past 2 ½ of those years I have been a fighter going out once a week and getting dressed up in medieval armour I go fight. The fights I do there are not choreographed however. These fights we are well armoured and actually try to hit one another with blows that had we been using real swords, would kill or injure the person severely enough that they would no longer be able to fight. The average time for a 1 on 1 fight like this is about 15 seconds. They're fun to watch but they end very quickly. Sometimes on the first blow. This would not make a good action movie. So the way I look at choreographed fights is that they are the same as a real fight but no one dies for a long time because they are able to block or evade everything. Also in choreographed fights, there is a good amount of blows that are thrown that would never actually hit the opponent but are blocked anyway. Since every move is planned out the speed on these fights can very fast.

Before I say anything else I'm going to say a few things about safety. First off, swinging anything around has the potential to be extremely dangerous! Even with lots of experience mistakes can and will happen! Note the exclamation marks I'm using! The most common mistake that will happen will be someone getting their fingers smacked. While I use ½ in PVC pipe for my blades, let me tell you, it stings like hell! Be safe and use your common sense when doing this! In the movies, aluminum rods were used as the blades. Don’t' try this. Ray Park and Nick Gillaird are professional stunt coordinators. I am not and neither are you, most likely. They also have George Lucas' money incase someone does get hurt and needs to go to the hospital. I doubt you do. Also I don’t think your friends or you want to go to the hospital. I did once because of an injury that came from working on choreographing a fight. And it wasn't even someone else that hit me. I had been practicing a very dramatic flourish and hit myself in the head, just above my left eye. At that time I was using 1 inch PVC blades which have no give like the ½ inch ones. I slit my head open and had to get six stitches. It was not fun. So don’t use aluminum rods. Use something like ½ inch PVC or ¾ inch dowel rods. The PVC has a lot of give to it and dowel rods will break before you do. This is not to say that you can't get nasty bruises but it will help prevent you from having to go to the hospital. Also, PVC and wooden rods can shatter if struck to hard. If you're hitting this hard, ease off! But just incase one does splinter we don't want pieces going into your eyes so I wrap my sabers with first the clear packaging tape that has the strings running down it, and then again with duct tape. Both will help hold the pieces together should breakage occur. If you're going to be videotaping the fight and later rotoscoping it to make blades, I would then suggest either painting your blades a very bright colour or adding a layer of chrome tape. Both will help you see the blade against the background.

That said lets start getting into how to choreograph your fight. The first thing you should know is how to stand. The correct way to stand for a neutral position is with one foot back, bent at the knee, and the leading foot slightly bent. Your feet should be spread far enough that if you were to turn your foot so that your toes stayed where they were, your heels would be just about below your shoulders. This provides a very stable stance. Some people would tell you that whichever hand is your dominant hand should be the foot that you lead with. That is to say that if you're right handed your right foot is forward. I am right handed but I almost always have my left foot forward. This comes from my SCA training where I want the shield that's on my left arm forward. However it works just as well for a good stance with a lightsaber. Your head should be turned so that you're not looking forward but almost so that you are looking over the shoulder above your leading foot. Your dominant hand should be towards the top of the hilt. Since I lead with my left foot, I rest my left wrist on my thigh. If you lead with your right foot you can't get away with doing this. The blade of your lightsaber should be out at an angle that you're looking just past the tip and to your opponent's head. From this stance you can easily block any attack and make any attack easily.

Now for the different attacks, and how to block them. First, imagine a circle. The standard attacks will come every 45 degrees. We'll start off with 0 degrees. The idea of this attack is such that if your opponent did not block and you were in range you would chop them in half from head to groin. From the normal stance there are two ways to make this attack. The first would be to lift your saber and then bring it down towards the top of their head. The second would be to let it drop and make a big circle with the end of it coming down on their head. The second is visually more exciting and feels more natural for me but some people seem to have trouble performing this attack. To block this, there are two good ways for a choreographed fight. The first is to place your blade nearly horizontal and push upwards. Your arms should be fully extended with joints locked to prevent your opponents blade from possibly pushing through your defenses and hitting you. Also block this attack high. Don't have your arms out more than up. Try to block the attack about a foot away from the top of your handle. This keeps his blade a good distance from your fingers but still keeps the torque force low. Also, have the tip slightly higher than the hilt is. If it's level or below, this will create a greater torque and make it easier for your opponent to push through your defenses. This slight angle will make his blade slide down yours slightly thus transferring the force better. This is a good defense against this kind of attack in stage combat because it leaves your face open for the camera and is visually appealing because of the way the blades are crossed. In a real fight you would not want to do this because your opponent could step and rotate the bottom of his hilt under your block and into your jaw. If you wanted to you could use that as a move in your fight but be careful with it. The second way to block this attack is simply to swat it out of the way. This presents more opportunities for a counter attack or a combo because you now have both blades in motion.

The next type of attack is at the 45 degree point that follows the line that would end at 225 degrees. From your normal stance raise your blade slightly and slice horizontally from 45 degrees to 225 degrees. This attack can then be brought around to move into any other attack without much difficulty. To block this, bring your saber up and try to meet your opponents blade so that they are completely perpindicular. This keeps your opponent's saber from pushing yours back into you.

The third attack is from 90 degrees to 270 degrees. This is just a hack that would cut your opponent in half at the waist. You can perform this attack at different heights and the block is still the same as long as it stays above the waist. To block it, the defender holds his saber straight up and down. Then he turns at the waist to bring his blade against the opponents. This should be done with just enough force to stop his blade as they meet.

The next attack come from 135 degrees and can end almost anywhere on the other side of the opponent you choose. However it is easiest to have it rise and come above their waist somewhere. To block this, rotate your blade counter-clockwise so that your blade meets your opponent's coming the opposite direction! If you try to follow their blade and go from 0-135 going clockwise chances are they'll beat you there and you'll have nothing to block with. Also if you do catch up you are very likely to hit their blade and pull it into your leg. Meeting it coming the other way is the best way and even though you cover more distance it works better.

The next attack I'll discuss is coming up from 180 to 0 degrees. This is a slice from your opponent's groin to their head. It is blocked by swatting it aside much like the first attack.

The final attack is the thrust. To do this, select a point on your opponent's body and stab it. Sounds simple but tip control is very difficult and you should be very careful when doing this. To make it even more dangerous, an improper block can make your thrust go almost anywhere. To counter it, hold the saber straight up and twist your hips to push the blade away from your body. By twisting your hips this also turns you more profile making a chance that you'll get hit that much less likely. You should not block by trying to swing and hit it. Doing this is very difficult because the angle that your blade will meet your opponent's is very small and it could skip off your opponent's blade without changing the direction of their attack very much. This would still allow it to strike you and since your opponent's blade could slip of yours as well, you can't be sure where it will land.

If you look at what I have laid out so far, I have now completed half of a circle. For attacks on the other side everything is the same, only mirrored.

Now for some finer points. One very important part of a fight is range. During a fight your opponent is either in range or out of range. But remember, when the enemy is in range, so are you. When not actually attacking or defending I usually stay out of range. This means that if I swung with my arms fully extended, I could not hit my opponent. Being far enough out of range that you would not even be able to hit your opponent's weapon is a neutral place. This is a great time for some circling and nasty looks plus maybe a little taunting of some sort. The next point in the range game is what I call "at range." This is the point where if you stretched a little bit and leaned over you might be able to catch a piece of your opponent. However mostly what is done at this range is attacks that even though they wouldn't hit your opponent are still blocked just for the sake of looking cool on camera. This range is where most fighting occurs in stage combat. Any closer and you are now "in range" this means that you can easily hit your opponent. This is another good place to be while doing stage combat. It allows you to get all of your attacks in and have them look realistic, but shouldn't have to much problem with getting tangled up or accidentally hitting someone. When you're within arm's reach of your opponent, you are now at "close range." Stage fighting should very rarely be done here because of the possibility that in moving your blade to make your next attack it is very easy to hit someone (either yourself or your opponent) or get caught on their blade which could delay the next attack and does not look good on camera. At close range it is hard to make most attacks because of the limited space to do it in. A good use for close range is when you have stepped in to make an attack and lock blades with your opponent you come face to face and glare at each other. From there you can either push back or slide past one another making up some attack where the defender would have to block either behind their back or spin around quickly as they move out of range again.

Now to discuss combos. A combo is simply a series of attack that flow well. They key to keeping this visually appealing is momentum. If each time you and your opponent have your blades come in contact you stop, and pause to make your next move, this looks very choppy. Instead stand at range. When the person who is attacking hits the defender's blade, have them only make contact with the top foot of their blade or higher. Since this is closer to the tip your blade would slip off as you swung, keeping your momentum going and easily allowing you to turn it into a new attack or move it into a block. When choreographing a fight, one method I use is to fight completely alone. I start by choosing an attack and then seeing where I feel comfortable making the next one. This works well but keep in mind that what feels comfortable will be to let your body fall into a pattern. You should not let this happen because variety is visually appealing. If you're doing the same three attacks more than twice, then try to slow down and make an attack from a new direction. After coming up with a long combo that works well for me I will grab my friend and start both os us in the defensive stance. I will then perform my combo in super slow motion telling them to block it however they can. This often works well because in a lightsaber fight there is usually only one place you can block. If I ever get to a point where I hit them or the blades slide off in a funny way we stop and start over and then try to think of how we can make sure the blades are what's getting hit instead of the person.

Next I'll talk about what can really happen when two blades come in contact. There are three possibilities. The first is that they both stop. This would happen if the momentum of one blade would cancel that of the other. This effectively halts the battle until someone starts moving again. This should be intentional when blades stick like this and something else should take the attention of the viewers instead of the fight. Maybe a comment or a stare with enough voltage to kill small rodents. But at this point the fight has stopped for a second or two. To get it started again you are going to have to exert physical energy on both parts. In the other two energy is conserved as much as possible to make the fight that much faster. The second option is to have the blades bounce off one another. You will see this done quite often when both people are attacking and blocking low and just switching sides. They use the momentum of the other person's blade to come back around and start their next attack. The third option is that one blade could skip off. This would be what I was talking about earlier in the combos part. One person places their blade for a block and successfully changes the direction of the attack but does not change the energy. Some of the momentum can be stolen however and this will start the defender's blade moving to make the next block or start an attack.

Next up is the nitty gritty. I have given you nine standard attacks. However there's going to have to be a lot more to a fight than just nine attacks. So you're going to have to make the lead in to the first attack interesting in some way. This is accomplished with a flourish. A flourish is simply a fancy move that has no real value as an attack. An attack can be added at the end of the flourish easily though and it makes the lead into the attack that much more interesting. Examples of flourishes are Darth Maul's spinning his lightsaber around as he came in for the first attack against Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon in episode I. Also his making all the sparks as Obi-Wan hung in the pit. There was no real purpose as an attack but looks good. In real fights flourishes can sometimes be used to disguise real attacks however or make it harder for your opponent to keep track of your weapon.

Another important thing you must do is move! A good fight doesn't just stay in one place. The attacker will often push the defender forcing him to fall back (not to the ground mind you) as he attacks. A great example of movement is again in Episode I as Darth Maul slowly retreats as Obi and Qui-Gon force him back. The then takes the fight to a place of his choosing. In RotJ, Vader chases Luke around and at one point to get away, Luke does the backwards flip onto the catwalk. My point is keep moving!

Next up is footwork. Most people can have a fight without tripping over their feet but using good footwork will help you change the angle of your attacks, and the range. From your defensive position, you can be out of range and by bringing your back foot up, you can be at range or even in range. If you put your left foot about one foot in front of your opponent's left foot and have your right foot back, you can take a large step around them and come in with an attack almost on their back. They will have to turn quickly to make a good block. When moving directly forwards or backwards you should not walk as you normally do however. You lead foot should take a step forwards and as it lands you should bring your rear foot up that same amount. It's almost like walking sideways except that you never bring your feet closer together than their starting position. This helps keep your balance and keeps you in a good position to be able to attack or defend easily.

Now I've said pretty much everything I can think of I'm just going to put in a last few things that really didn't fit into any other paragraph into here. First off, spinning. It's visually fun to watch, but It's not a great fighting move. It exposes your back for a fraction of a second. This is not to say that you never should. Even in real fights I've used some spin techniques. One great example that I'm going to end a choreographed fight with some time is one that I successfully "killed" someone with at an SCA practice. My opponent tried to stab me but I stepped in and to the side of his blade, spun around to move in closer and hit him in the side since his arms were out for the stab. Worked well, looked beautiful. That's all I can think of right now, so if I think of anything else, I'll post it later. If you have any questions, feel free to Email me.

Good luck!

Also! If you're wanting to learn more about choreographing lightsaber fights, try this site. This site is a bit more well organized than mine, complete with pictures and some great videos. It even has an example of a scripted fight and then a video of what the fight looks like when done. The fight is a bit slow as my fights when done at full speed are a lot like the ones done in Episode I. This is not to imply that you'll be able to match that speed. Keep in mind that I've been fighting for 2 1/2 years and I have a lot of experience at placing my blows exactly where I want them. The last choreograped fight I did took almost 8 hours of work and lasted only a minuite. Most of this time was just repeating the moves over and over until my friend could match my speed.