Why a Martial Artist and a Fight Director are not the same thing
Martial Artists' incredible skill in real fights is a brilliant thing to watch. But it doesn't make you ready for the world of making fake ones.
First of all - we're not saying Martial Artists CAN'T be fight directors.
There's nothing about being a martial artist that stops you from being a fight director. What we're talking about is the people who think that being trained only in martial arts is sufficient to make action for stage and screen.
“You might not know the best way to cheat the move if you've only trained how to do the move.”
Reason one: Safety!
A lot of a fight/stunt coordinator's job is about keeping everyone safe. The actors have to be prepared and happy to do the work, and the choreography itself needs to be a string of safely executable moves.
Problem is, if your only training is martial arts, you've never had to come across all the angle cheats, contact hits, camera cheats and all the other aspects of turning violence into what is essentially a dance. If you've trained in a full-contact martial art where you're used to sparring, you may not know the best way to cheat the move, since you've only trained in how to DO the move. This will also make you very comfortable with taking and making hits - something your actors may not be anywhere near as comfortable with.
Reason two: Character
Some of our favourite fight scenes are martial arts based. Iconic fight-filled films like The Matrix, John Wick (yeah, we love Keanu, who doesn't?) and The Raid are filled with them. But not every fight is a martial arts fight. Sometimes you need to create a fight for someone who's never even thrown a punch. If you've learned through the fighting route, it might be tough to get yourself into the mind of someone who would sooner cower on the ground, or shakily hold a glass bottle with two hands. These responses are real and human, but creating them for stage or screen takes a lot more theatrical combat training than sheer physical skill.
Reason three: Variety
Martial Arts often makes a great backbone for a character's fighting style. If you watch behind-the-scenes fight work as often as we do (fight nerd status confirmed), you see how often characters like Bond, Bourne or Batman have a distinct martial art in their arsenal. But if that's the only thing you've trained in, it'll make you very limited choreographically.
Fight Directors are pulling from a huge variety of tools - which definitely overlap with martial arts, but also include material we've seen that works, knowledge of how things read on stage or camera, practice of choreographing with certain characters in mind. We want to keep reinventing the work we do, and can't afford to have it limited to one martial art.
So, do martial arts stop me being an FD?
Definitely not. But they don't make you an FD on their own. You need to know the safety, the tricks, the cheats, the character, the theatricality of the scene and a myriad of other factors. There are many courses that can teach these things, and the combination of that and martial arts is fantastic. But when you're looking to film your action movie, remember that a fight scene and a fight are not the same thing.