Ever wonder how moviemakers fabricate fantastic fights in which hundreds or even thousands of people wage war with weapons? Prepare to be educated!

Back in the 1970s, most female stars of Chinese cinema didn’t practice the martial arts. A few clever kung fu instructors — professionals who would later be credited as fight choreographers — came to a realization: Large group fights that demanded impeccable timing from all the participants looked better if the main actress had trained in traditional Chinese dance. That ensured that she knew how to spin with speed, balance and coordination. A technique based on that observation was used during the filming of the 45-minute mega-melee in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. The main difference was, with modern CGI technology and advanced motion-capture stages, such a cinematic clash was easier to pull off — and it didn’t require as much precision timing. In Chinese films, the dance-capable actress would learn a sequence of exaggerated moves that included spins, sword slashes, and throwing her hands and feet every which way. Often, she wouldn’t even worry about looking in the direction of her slash, kick or punch. Next, she’d spend a few minutes practicing the sequence without stuntmen. When it was time to shoot, she’d execute her moves the same way she’d just practiced, and it was up to the stuntmen to get close enough to her to sell the sword slashes and kicks by leaping backward at just the right time, often with a half flip effected just before they landed on their back. Thus, the pressure to sell the scene fell squarely on the stuntmen’s shoulders. In Hobbit 3, the climactic battle that involved the Orcs, Dwarves, Elves and Men — all of whom were fighting for control of the treasure that had been protected by Smaug the dragon — resulted from the talents of a single group of 12 stuntmen. They simultaneously performed choreographed routines that were digitally multiplied to look like thousands of troops waging war. “We had a rule that we weren’t allowed to go more than two or three shots of anonymous people fighting without cutting back to our principal characters,” said Peter Jackson, who produced all three Hobbit films, as well as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “Otherwise, the audience just ends up with battle fatigue.” In Hobbit 3, the principal character actors and their stunt doubles were instructed by movement choreographer Terry Notary to deliver each fighting technique with exaggerated motion. The opponents were all trained stuntmen who were dressed in motion-capture attire, and that meant two things: One, with the help of postproduction digital technology, those stuntmen could become any creature in the final film. Two, they could wear protective padding while filming the fights, and that enabled the stuntmen to get close enough to their flailing opponents to sell the scenes even though not all the main actors knew how to fight like a martial artist. Of course, when an actor did know how to deliver a technique on the set, it resulted in a superior scene — just like in those Chinese kung fu movies. Hobbit 3 benefited even more from modern technology. It used a “virtual camera” that could change framing, timing, camera angle, lens choice and camera movement, as well as fly through the 3D landscape to add motion to the fights. It turned out to be a great way to make a simple sword slash look like an epic event without sacrificing safety. Go here to order Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)

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