What makes a great fight scene, is it the incredible choreography? The story and emotion of the fight? Or perhaps the realness and brutality of technique?
When it comes to fight scenes that transcend the simple level fantasy of moving at someone with choreography to a level that is believable and almost all too real, there is one component that connects us to the fighter’s emotions, that moves strikes at blinding speeds, and that sharpens the swords we see on screen. That component is sound, and it enhances the scene in many aspects, so let’s take a look at a few:
Sound Adds Emotion.
A fight is a story in itself, representing the struggle and chaos of the characters emotions on a physical level. We don’t need words to explain the stress and pain of the event, when we hear the shout, grunt, or heaving of a character, we instinctively know what they are going through on both a physical and emotional level. But because fight scenes have to convey more of a story than a typical brawl or even combat sports, there are more emotional sounds added to almost a 1:1 ratio. The shouts and grunts can also punctuate the strength of the strikes themselves. We can hear how hard the strike is not just by the sound the person makes when throwing it, but the bellowing it elicits when it lands.
This is an excellent example of the emotional content of sound. At this point in the fight scene, the two have already fought several rounds at an equal level of skill and strength, the music fades out and all we’re left with is the sounds of the two exhausted fighters struggling to outlast the other. As the viewer, you are brought into the fight itself, hearing the labored breathing and sounds of the strikes, and the pain after each one lands with no upbeat song to cover it up. This is now a fight in raw emotion.
*You should watch the whole fight scene here on VjVlad’s channel
On a side note, addition of simple sounds of confusion, hesitation, and even chuckling can add emotion to a fight scene giving it a comedic tone to an otherwise gory scene. Just listen for the random crowd noises, the chuckling and random comments like “how do you like that?” and “come here!” in this fight by Martial Club. Although the sounds aren’t necessary to the dynamics of the fight, they add humor and contrast to some brutal techniques!
Sound Adds Depth.
We all know the whumps, thumps, and slaps of a fight scene. Things have come a long way from the old days with only one whoosh and one hit sound, to the now complex and intricate layering of sound design. Sound has delved beyond the surface level of strikes and given us a new depth of action, joint locking and bone breaking. My favorite example of this from the Tony Jaa movie Tom Yum Goon AKA The Protector. The crunching and snapping of each joint lock and bone break sets for some devastating fight action.
The revenge he unleashes is both satisfying and cringe inducing and beyond a couple of prop arms and legs, the majority of the techniques wouldn’t have much of an effect on the viewer without the sound, because it’s not visible and all implied.
Another excellent example of bone snapping action can be seen in Jet Li’s Fist of Legend.
Sound Increases Speed.
When it comes to film, speed can be enhanced either by speed ramping or frame deletion, or the combination of the two. Speed ramping is usually easy to recognize as the actions are too unnatural, and used mainly to cover up when an actor has little or no skill. Frame deletion has emerged more recently and is used to make individual strikes seem faster so the rest of the action maintains its regular speed and looks natural to the eye. Though it is common even with trained and skilled fighters to enhance their skill, it can also reduce the quality of the fight scene if done improperly. Besides the two visual methods of speeding up a scene, there are sound techniques that can make the fight seem inhumanly fast. It’s more than just whooshes, in fact, even the sound of cloth moving indicates speed of the strike as it represents the beginning of the movement, or can be used in addition to a whoosh for even when the strike doesn’t land. However, one of the most effective ways to add sped to a scene comes from a sensory bombardment of fast movements and sounds. Extra hit sound effects can be added to imply strikes that don’t exist, giving the impression that the fighter is faster than the eye can see.
The IP Man series with Donnie Yen are filled with examples of adding sound hits. To enhance the speed of his Wing Chun chain punches, extra impacts are used to double up on the strikes.
Sound Sharpens Swords.
In the old days, the only noises you would hear from swords were either a whoosh or a clang. It was enough to get the message across that the sword was moving fast, and hitting something. For the sword to seem sharp, visual cues like cutting a table in half or slicing the skin and drawing blood were employed. Still there only seems to be two sound effects for the whoosh, and the clang in this scene from Legendary Weapons of China.
However, more recently, digital metallic noises are added to scenes with swords to make them sharper. These sounds go beyond reality but yet still retain a sense of naturalness to the audience when implying the sharpness of the weapon to the point where even when the sword is simply held, it can sound razor sharp. I love this scene from Super Bodyguard because it shows the sharpness of the sword cutting hair, and pallets, but also the continuous slicing sound while not even hitting anything makes the sword seem super sharp.
Try It For Yourself.
Watch this scene with Donnie Yen and Wu Jing from the movie Sha Po Lang (SPL) or Kill Zone. It’s fast, it’s aggressive, it’s non-stop intense from both the visual and audio standpoint. It’s a classic scene and has all the elements we’ve already looked at. See if you can sort through their nearly blinding speed to isolate each of the elements by yourself in the first clip, then watch the second clip without sound.
The pacing seems slower, clearer and rhythmic. Now, don’t get me wrong here, it still is an incredibly impressive display of martial arts choreography and high level skill, but removing the sound drastically reduces the power and impact of the scene. Don’t forget, Donnie got cut at the end of that exchange, something we wouldn’t know without the sound or him looking down to show some blood.
It becomes easier for the brain to process what is seen when it is not trying to sort out a bombardment of sights and sounds. Muting a scene is an excellent method to study the mechanics and choreography of a fight scene, so for all you aspiring stunt/choreographer/martial artists, take some time and watch your favorite scenes muted to see what is actually happening. For all the film makers out there, this is also a good chance to see which sounds can elevate a scene from good to great and how they are applied, from subtle to obvious.
I hope if nothing else, you come away from this with a new perspective about what elements make a good fight scene, especially in the realm of sound design. These are all lessons learned in the industry from years and years of experience, that hopefully can inspire the up and coming film makers to adapt and evolve their productions to a new level, and eventually change the industry itself.
Sifu Brian Kuttel is based in Geneva, Switzerland and has nearly two decades experience in Choy Li Fut kung fu and Yang Tai Chi and shares his knowledge on his YouTube Channel. He has also written for publications like Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine and Inside Kung Fu Magazine.