Blank firing penetration test

So in the Theatrical Firearms Workshop this afternoon, someone asked, after seeing some of the paper tests, if a blank would tear the same kind of hole through skin and flesh, or if we’re harder than paper.

Good question, I said. Thankfully, I’ve never had to find out. I also didn’t happen to have any ballistic gel handy.

I did remember that from my martial arts background, water bottles or milk jugs filled with water are often used for cutting tests, as they supposedly approximate the resistance you’d get from cutting at a person. One of the students happened to have an empty small Pepsi bottle, so we tried that. I imagine that a milk jug, being softer, would probably have been penetrated, but this was not. The first shot, at a distance of a few inches from the muzzle of the Retay XR front-venting 9mmPAK blank gun, knocked the thing back, blew off some of the wrapper, and singed the plastic, but did not change its shape at all. The second, at point blank, did deform it a bit, whether due to heat or pressure.


And just for kicks, here’s another student with a top-venting Asi also in slow-mo:

Comedy of Errors

Several things have been keeping me busy of late, perhaps excusing the lack of posts here, but the man in one would be our first Fall production at the University of Wyoming, William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, slightly edited and re-staged to fit a completely modern setting. Here’s a brief unofficial promo I threw together for it around 1am Friday night, after our first dress rehearsal:

We open Tuesday, and run through a matinee next Sunday. Tickets available at or at the box office.

It’s been a good opportunity for me to try out some of me new video capabilities, playing with the Sony a6300 I bought a couple months ago. Given time, I’ll probably make a post of all that later, for indie filmmakers interested in using the a6300 – it was a shift for me, going from a Canon 60D DSLR to the Sony mirrorless, but so far I’m happy with it’s ability to do the things I want it to do. I’ve yet to make full use of its capabilities, since I don’t have the software to handle 4K footage, for example, but it’s good I’m getting more comfortable with it now, since I’m anticipating doing some videography for the Paddy Crean workshop this winter, and planning to run a filmmaking class this Spring.

If anyone is local, come to the show and say hi!


The Things that Matter, & the Things that Don’t.

Things that probably don’t matter: The design of this blog. Feel free to argue with me here, but I opted not to keep paying for the custom design layout I had before, and you can see the difference easily. I’m guessing there’s some way I can go back and make it at least a little nicer still, but I’m not sure when or if that will happen. Frankly, I haven’t been posting regularly enough to justify the expense.

Things that matter:

People, and the things they do.

339bf44b0c02f986eb15d1fa61f2b488Those of us who have been in the business of stage combat long enough remember when American Fencer’s Supply/AmFence, was the main go-to for theatrical swords (well, that and Starfire anyway, and it seems like they’re now transitioning). Their stock still serves loyally in many a theatre and school, and I have a few of their blades on swords in my Fight Designer inventory.

Kevin Kline’s sword as the Pirate King in the 1983 movie production of The Pirates of Penzance was made by American Fencers Supply Co., and it was a modification of this hilt.

Like many of us, the people who run AmFence have other projects they’re involved in as well; Matthew Porter served as an armorer for the US Fencing Team, for example, and was just down with them in Rio.

Sadly, he had to come home to… well, a lack of a home. And like me, it would appear he ran much of his business out of his home.

Story here:

Member of U.S. Olympic team returns to find home destroyed in Clayton Fire (with video)

SF Chronicle story.


Photos via SF Chronicle


And here’s the link to their GoFundMe page to help support them.


My heart goes out to Mr. Porter, and I wish them the best in recovering their home and livelihood.





Keeping it unReal

A recent lengthy expose’ by the Chicago Reader on Profiles Theatre has been causing quite the buzz in our theatre and stage combat circles lately. The pattern of abuses chronicled there only briefly and tangentially touch on stage combat, but the issue is one that effects us in several ways, and the overall aesthetic of “real” in our theatre is a larger topic needing addressed.


Yes, if we are “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” then we must recognize the representations of reality, so there must be some truth to our Truth… but the art is in the fact that it is not real. This is something artists, critics, and the general audience have a difficult relationship with sometimes. Witness last year’s accolades for The Revenant, in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s award-winning performance was generally lauded for two things: The bear attack (a marvel of the collaboration between technology and live performance), and the ‘reality’ of his suffering in the cold, making himself vomit eating real raw bison liver (and he’s a vegetarian), etc. – a strangely contradictory gift basket of “man, that bear attack was so real-looking and brutal” and “wow, they had a miserable time but it meant they did that stuff for realz!” All this somehow without acknowledging the contradictions there, that the bear attack could look and feel (to the audience) so real without it needing to feel real to the performers, and that we still somehow think it’s better if they really suffer for their art.

While sacrifice is nothing new to filmmaking or theatre, the celebrating of that suffering might be a more recent thing. Pushing the envelope for the sake of extreme results on screen is one thing, celebrating the misery of production is another, and one that makes me concerned as someone who both tries to work in it (when I can – hard in Wyoming) and sends young students out to do so. It’s one thing to admire Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa movies or District B13 for our knowledge that they really did those stunts, and another to use injuries as a selling point… Yes, The Crow gained publicity due to the tragic accident with Brandon Lee, but at least it didn’t use that to make a case for how realistic the gunplay was, like the ads for Raging Pheonix  almost did with their “Real Fight, Real Injuries” in several versions of the trailer.

I know and have heard briefly from a couple fight choreographers who worked with Cox at Profiles Theatre, and none were aware of what was happening either behind-the-scenes or after the choreographer leaves, and with systematic abuse like this I’m not too surprised the resident stage manager or others didn’t report it back. Some things, like unheeded safe words, uncontrolled attacks resulting in bruising and damage to sets, etc. SHOULD NOT HAPPEN, however, and I hope that any readers of this blog, who I assume know that already, will be in positions where they feel empowered to speak up about anything like that.

There’s so many issues at play here; the aesthetic of “real” versus, well, acting, both for audience and actors (is imagination a dirty word here?), the expectations based on movie performances (where we can use expert stunt doubles, CG enhancements, green screen compositing, pads, wires, mats, prop swaps, sped up film, depth of field compression due to lens choice, and other cheats while still keeping the final product realistic) being transposed onto live theatre rather than finding theatrical answers to those problems, and the culture-wide issues of abusive relationships, sexual assault, abused power dynamics, sexism (fake female directors, really?), career pressures, and more.

I can only hope that the horrified reactions to the Profiles Theatre piece, the #NotInOurHouse movement coming out of it to help maintain basic safety protocol on non-Equity productions, the petition to remove Mr. Cox from the theatre, the mea culpa from critics, that all of this can fuel a discussion reexamining our both work environment and aesthetic assumptions. Speak up. Take a stand when needed. We all have to walk that line between plausibility and real danger any time we pick up a sword, gun, or act out intimacy on stage, and the ‘right’ answer will always be determined by many factors, including our scene partners, the directors, the audience, stylistic conventions, and who knows what all else. Nobody can really give you universal answers, but so long as we keep the discussions happening, I think we’ll all keep moving towards a better place.


“Have you ever tried acting, dear boy?” – Sir Lawrence Olivier, to Dustin Hoffman, anecdotally in response to Hoffman’s ‘method’ approach.




Blank Firing Guns: Updates

This is a constantly changing market, in a slightly-less-constantly-changing field, so perhaps a state-of-the-industry check-in is in order, if I can dash one off. I’ve been submitting updates for The Theatrical Firearms Handbook, since it should be getting a second printing some time this Summer, and that’s had me thinking about some of this stuff lately. Incidentally, I also recently discovered it was reviewed in the IATSE journal this past year. Thanks to Eric Hart for the nice write-up. Good to see the word getting out in the technical side of the house, since a lot of it applies to backstage handling and decision-making.

Also, I’ve been trying to start to build a small prop gun armoury at the University of Wyoming, so I could offer the SAFD Theatrical Firearms workshop here – due to conflict of interest rules, I can’t rent them equipment from Fight Designer, LLC. Through placing some orders through Maxsell, I discovered a they’d had a key employee depart unexpectedly, taking some of their codes with them, but they’re doing their best to re-structure and I think improve their system as a part of this, and it seems like they now have many of the wrinkles ironed out. Maxsell has for a while now been on the cutting edge of importing new (especially front-venting) models, and I hope they can maintain activity in that area. They also recently dropped their price on 9mm PAK Blanks!A few new players have entered that market though, including Sharp Imports. Seems like a constantly shifting landscape there, and at least one of the companies I listed in the index of my book had to be removed for this latest update.

A drop in the availability of both all blank-firing Bruni and Zoraki Glocks (thanks to the previously discussed lawsuit) and the P99s by Umarex had some of the SAFD firearms instructors wondering how to demonstrate hammerless models. That got me speaking with Umarex USA, which informed me they had decided to stop importing any blank guns as a part of their operation. That saddens me, as they have some nice models (even if their semiautos are modified in strange ways for top fire) and they’re the only company securing licensing for fully trademarked replicas. They did have some of the S&W Chief’s specials left in stock though, so I bought a crate of those and sold some to my peers, since that brand is generally pretty reliable (it’s the only maker I’ve had clients ask for by name). I do still have several of those available if anyone wants – eBay pulled my listings and gave me a warning (they have very inconsistently-enforced and vaguely-defined policies against blank guns), but I can sell them for $160 + shipping each for anyone who’s interested.


There’s a rumor going around that there might be a new source soon for front-venting P99s, which would be great for filmmakers as well as instructors. I have one that I got a decade ago, and it’s been one of my prize pieces since… it doesn’t have the cut-out along the slide that their top-venting versions have, which kind of ruins the authenticity points they’d otherwise get for having trademarks. Nothing seems to be in stock yet, but here’s hoping. In the meantime, I have a new prize possession, having picked up one of the elusive Zoraki models that looks similar to a Glock 17 – it wasn’t cheap, but I’m assuming that Glock will continue to shut down importation of new ones of those, so between my stock of Brunis (including top and front venting, full size and compact Glocks) and the Zoraki, I probably have the biggest inventory of those around. From some of the earlier online images, it had looked like these Zoraki versions had a grip safety in the back (like the Springfield XD) but at least this one doesn’t.

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Moving over to revolvers for a while – I did discover an interesting oddity in the University of Wyoming props collection: a revolver that has molded into the front of the cylinder chambers something that looks a bit like bullets. Most blank firing revolvers always look unloaded from the front, since the cylinders have restrictions (to prevent loading real ammo) but are open (for venting). This .22 gets around that by having individual vent holes in the side of each chamber, which (when firing) line up with a vent hole in the top of the frame.


Hadn’t seen that tried before, and I have others by this same brand in my own collection [that just use the wedge in front of the cylinder to vent spray to both sides].

Granted, this particular example could now be used to demonstrate the reason dry-firing a .22 is a bad idea; check out the damage to both the cylinder and the hammer. Haven’t test fired it yet to see if it even works.











I still think it’s a bit ridiculous that there isn’t at least one .22 blank firing semiauto on the market here, ideally one that could use hardware store nailgun blanks. If I ever get copious free time and someone to collaborate with who’s got some experience with gunsmithing, 3D printing of guns, something like that… one of these years… along with other projects, like building musket and shotgun shells that can fit over some of my blank firing revolvers (something I get asked for fairly regularly, and for which no affordable blank fire options exist). Time is always scant though, and here in Laramie there’s definitely a window of just a few months where doing work in the garage is at all appealing.




Spring Updates

Since it’s been a while, and I’d rather not clutter up my next themed post with personal updates, here’s a quickie on the last few months for anyone wondering:

UWYO Stage Combat Workshop – this year it was held in mid-April, which was in retrospect a mistake; we got hammered by a huge snowstorm. One of our instructors, Tim Pinnow, couldn’t make it from Colorado (they closed Vail pass 15 minutes before he got to it), and we also lost a car of students from CO Mesa that were going to be following him up here. Both Fight Master Brian Byrnes and Certified Teacher/Stuntman Mike Yahn had complications to their travel, but they arrived mid-morning on Saturday, and were able to join our small but intrepid band for the rest of the weekend. We lost some Cheyenne students I think as well, and the “no unnecessary travel” warning may have cost us some locals too. We had a great time with mostly screen-based action, covering gunplay, knife, single-sword, and unarmed, and all of the students (including one up from Denver who was renewing) passed their tests, with some recommended passes in there for our SPR. It was great for me to work with both Yahn and Byrnsie, as these are pretty much my main chance at professional development as well, getting to see what others at the top of their fields (in more active markets than Laramie WY) are doing.

Speaking of Professional Development, I did also finish up my teacher certification with the National Michael Chekhov Association this semester.

Shows – I’ve participated in a couple staged readings in town, choreographed fights for a community theatre performance of God of Carnage, and was doing fight choreography for the University’s own original musical this Spring, Angry Psycho Princesses, but that number ended up getting cut before the run. In a small market like this, you’re glad for whatever work you can get.

Directing-wise, I’m already in full swing on design decisions and ore-production for the first Fall show, The Comedy of Errors, and also the last of our summer season shows, I Ought to Be in Pictures.

Classes – This was a great semester for getting to play to my strengths, having both an Advanced Stage Combat and a Movement class. I also did a couple small stage combat guest artist things at a local youth theatre, and am planning a bit more with them for this Summer.

One new class I’m looking at proposing for next year would be an intro to filmmaking in the Spring. Timing could be pretty good – there’s a screenwriting class being offered in the Fall (a one-off), and I’ll be teaching Acting for the Camera in the Spring as well. Trying to find ways to create a more active video production scene here.

Writing – Having dropped out of the Physical Dramaturgy book project last Fall, after being co-editor for a couple years of bringing the project to life, I was recently asked if I could still contribute a chapter. Routledge liked the proposal. Working on that now, as well as updates for a pending second print run of The Theatrical Firearms Handbook.




Why I do what I do: Writing edition

Obviously writing blog posts is not something I do on the most regular basis… but it’s also not the only thing I write. My most recent publication was the cover story in the Fall 2015 issue of The Fight Master, a little piece I’d been meaning to do for years, on a topic that grew out of my work on my 2012 MFA thesis: Sentiment du fer, proprioception, and using a prop as an extension of the self instead of just a dead thing in your hand.


Academia is infamous for a sort of “publish or perish” environment, but since my position is more practice than theory or research based, I’m actually not supposed to get any credit towards my tenure/performance reviews for publication (not that it hurts, especially with reviewers from other fields of academia in the chain of authority). But I do enjoy working things out on the page sometimes, sharing what I do and having something to show for it (a quality shared with screen work but often not with live theatre). And here’s the other thing: my “family” of peers, collaborators, co-conspirators, mentors, and friends, is scattered around the globe, while I’m in a relatively small, isolated community now. Writing is also a sort of letter to my friends in my field… because it gets lonely.

And sometimes they even write back, and it becomes a chance to catch up and feel close again. Take, for example, this lovely text I got from an SAFD Certified Teacher I knew from our Seattle days (neither of us have lived there now for years).

I just read your article in the FM. Fantastic! From the first sentence to the last I was transfixed and educated. I am seriously going to memorize every word and put it in my classes. So well put. Great insight. Accessible. Man, you just killed it. Thank you. Wyoming is very lucky.

…Well, any acting teacher or student would be ridiculous not to read this article, as it will truly enlighten both sides. It was just wonderful. Things over here are going well…   (etc.)

Or this lovely email from someone currently in London who I’d kill to get the chance to work with professionally (but only know in person through workshops) and have stolen several acting/stage combat exercises and ideas from:

So I am sitting in a coffee shop having done the fight call on a Les Liasons I’m working on and I’m reading the FM magazine on my iPad and enjoying chilling. In particular I am reading your article and half laughing and sighing as I have two actors that are having a hard transition from prop holders to swordsman.
I hope all is well with you and that you are thriving out West. Hope we get the chance to cross swords again before too much time passes. Meantime I shall have a refill, a cookie and a re-read in hope of inspiration.
Best wishes

The workshop thing is real; it’s not at all uncommon for us to have friends we feel close to, but actually only see every couple years (or less) at regional, national, or international workshops. While I started taking stage combat classes in DC, my first real exposure was through the Paddy Crean workshops, which have settled into an every-other-year pattern now, and I haven’t quite been able to find a way to all of them… missed one during grad school when I was working on my National Michael Chekhov Association teacher certification (which is currently pending review, after a return visit this past January to their Gainesville FL workshop), too expensive to go to the one in Australia, but I’ve done every Banff-based workshop since 1998/1999 except one, and made it to one in Scotland as well. I’ve been student, been staff, been scholarship recipient, and while I don’t yet feel qualified to be full faculty at that international level (these are still my mentors we’re talking about), I have gotten to teach a few evening classes there. I’m excited to return this coming year for the 25th anniversary – again, there are people there who I’ve spent probably a total of just a month or two around, but spread out so we’ve known each other almost two decades.
So I do what I can by way of workshops. For a couple years I was able to assistant-coordinate the VA Beach Bash, but being so far geographically removed now that wasn’t really sustainable. Regional workshops have gotten more regional it seems, making those gigs harder to get for those of us who have to fly (generally on multiple airplanes, or else drive a few hours then fly from Denver) to get there. I’ve started a workshop here in Wyoming, but it’s small; last year it just meant bringing out one of my former teachers, Fight Master Geof Alm from Seattle. This year it’s grown a bit thanks to a grant, but that may be just a one-time thing if I can’t get more people coming in from out of town, and again, there’s that location issue.
Which leaves the fleeting and shallow chats of Facebook, an occasional email, or more formal and open venues like writing.
The Theatrical Firearms Handbook is my best-known and most widely available work by far, as well as the one I put the most work into. Originally published through Focal Press, the parent company Taylor & Francis is shuffling around which imprint handles what, so the next printing will appear with a Routledge label. Last heard we were at about 200 copies remaining – of an original 3000 or so copy run, so with e-book sales too, that’s not too bad. Means some time this Summer I’ll also probably have a chance to make another round of minor revisions/updates before the next printing happens (and they did seem to think there would be one, although perhaps not instantly), so if anyone has more feedback that’s useful. I’ll add it to my approximately 2-page list thus far. Feedback by way of reviews is also welcome – it’s been reviewed in the Fight Master and in Theatre Topics, but not elsewhere that I’m aware of, and it’s only got four reviews on Amazon, three on Goodreads, and I’d love to see it get out a bit more. While it hasn’t spawned any workshops, etc. as yet, which had been one of my hopes for it, I’m sure it didn’t hurt my employability when applying for faculty jobs like the one I now have in Wyoming… and it has also resulted in a few old stage combat friends dropping me a line, which is always nice.
Here’s to my fight family, be they SAFD, IOSP, Martial Artists, or other. I’ve heard it (mostly the SAFD) sometimes derogatorily called an old-boy’s-club, and I imagine when you’re just coming into it and many of the teachers seem to have these long-standing odd friendships, that might be how it comes across. But trust me, we don’t bite (most of us anyway), we’re open and friendly (for the most part, as with any demographic), and most of us are almost as happy to find new friends to play with as we are to meet our old ones. Older by the day, all of us. But that’s perhaps something I can talk about later here… maybe some time after next week, when I’m 40-something. So come to a workshop, look one of us up and get together over coffee or something stronger when you can, or start to get to know us through our writing. We’ll be around.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens Props

Okay, for the handful of you who might actually read this to keep tabs on me or what I do, I owe you some catch-up. Later. Right now, what I want to talk about (me and millions of others, apparently) is Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

More specifically though, I want to talk props, mostly prop guns.

As most of you probably know, the prop firearms for the original Star Wars trilogy, starting with the 1977 release of A New Hope, were largely built off WWII surplus firearms. This was partly a logistical decision (hey, what can we get ahold of?) and partly grew out of Lucas’ desire to create a universe that felt ‘lived in’. Thus, we have our classic Stormtrooper Sterling submachine guns firing the galaxy’s most inaccurate laser beams (sometimes filmed using blanks), Han Solo shooting a dressed-up Mauser, etc. Seeing as how these movies, if you include pre-production, are as old as I am, I never really questioned that much; I knew them as a kid as “BlasTech”s long before I knew them as Nazi surplus or war trophies.

The prop scavenger instinct is more ubiquitous and compelling than midichlorians though, especially in television or on a tighter budget movie. Firefly provided a great game for gun geeks of “name that randomly chosen prop gun they chose to put in their sci-fi”, for example, or “hey, guess which movie they took that armor from” (Starship Troopers, in case you’re wondering). But Star Wars, as a franchise, has become huge, and known in part for its design aspects thanks to folks like Ralph McQuarrie. So here’s the thing; when you’re making new Star Wars movies, do you:

  1. Stick with the WWII theme
  2. Design entirely new props from scratch
  3. Update the WWII recycled thing 40 years or so, since the sequel takes place about 40 years after the first movie, and build off firearms of the 1980s?

Apparently the design is a mix of 1 and 3, and I’m still trying to decide how I feel about that. Thanks to a nice spread in Wired magazine, which someone else has already uploaded carefully in all its glory HERE, we can see a ton of the new prop designs.

I like the throwbacks to the WWII design elements of the originals, and we still see some of those, both in the Sterling and Mauser bits, and some new/old ones, like the muzzle shroud of the PPSH submachine gun echoed in some of these blasters:




…but wait, you say, isn’t that a Romanian AK-47 side-folder stock on the last one, and a pump shotgun forend? Yeah, it is. So we’re getting into some more modern stuff too, and in ways that might begin take some modern firearms folks out of the story a bit, as they get distracted playing “what’s that gun part”. It gets worse, in that sense:


To paraphrase comments from the last presidential campaign, you can dress a SIG in lipstick, but it’s still a SIG. Muzzle is a copy of the one used in the old rebel blasters from the original trilogy, so I approve of that as a legit in-universe add-on, but the back end is too recognizable as a SIG.

And the real obvious one to anyone who knows anything about guns these days:


Totally a Glock 17. Actually surprised Glock let them get away with this, given their rack record for shutting down replicas. The muzzle works, hearkening back to Solo’s Mauser, but sticking some picatinny rails and a strangely mocked-up AR15/M16/M4 front sight post (just as ubiquitous and recognizable to the modern audience as the Glock) on top doesn’t fool anyone. What’s worse, it’s just lazy; the front sight post without a rear sight post makes zero sense from a practical standpoint, and the rail just below that is also useless since there’s apparently a built-in sight blocking it. To me, this looks like an ultra-low-budget filmmaker took a couple $20 airsoft kits and was told to make something sorta sci-fi looking. I expected better from Star Wars.

So we seem to have a mix now. Poke around that link above, you’ll see some other M4 rear stocks, some more WWII bits (both German and US, including a 1911 in a housing), some bits from older revolvers, some I swear are bult on NERF guns, some scopes on backwards and doubled up to make them look exotic, some with what were originally built in cleaning-rods that don’t match the diameter of the barrel at all… it’s a grab-bag of Frankengun monsters, but not all made by someone who really understands functionality, and that makes me a bit sad as a fight designer and gun wrangler and action actor.

To some degree these decisions extend to lightsabers as well. Originals were scrounged parts (Graflex flash), then it became its own thing. I’ll withhold judgement for now on the quillion-style lightsabre that got folks talking so much when it was first seen ages ago (perhaps best by Stephen Colbert), but look at the detail we can now see:


From a design perspective again, as storytellers: the red wire and cut-out accommodating it obviously speak to battlefield-expedient repairs, that “lived in” aesthetic that creates spaceships you have to kick once or twice so they’ll start on a cold day. I get that. On the other hand… really? If the wire is really as important as that repair makes it out to be, first chance you get you’d run it through the housing again, because with use a loose wire like that is going to get disconnected at the worst possible moment, and then what? Bad Energizer commercial sequel, that’s what.

So I’m curious what you all think. Weathering your props, building them with a sense of history, that’s all standard practice these days. Echoing design aspects intentionally to make your evil empire seem like Nazis or Russians or Americans or whatever your agenda is, that’s pretty standard too. The Star Wars vehicles were originally (and I thought very effectively) built as miniatures using bits from various model battleship, airplane, and tank kits. Being cheap and recycling bits from other props, or straight up using other props, that’s standard too, but usually not in the high-end big franchises like this, especially where marketing of toys is such a large part of the industry – you need distinctive props, recognizable both in cosplay and action figure scale. But form should follow both function and design, in my ideal universe, and with the power of the Star Wars franchise should come the ability to create truly interesting things – as we’ve seen them do time and again with things like vehicles, aliens, and armor.


That said, I’m still looking forward to the movie.





Hang it all, man!

As it always is, it’s been a busy beginning of semester. This year’s mainstage directing for me will be Legacy of Light, a charming story that even now still makes me happy and hits me in the feels, something a script can’t always do when you’ve been living with it as just words on a page for months. Show is now cast, and we had a first read-through last night. One small sword fight, which surprisingly I’ve yet to actually think about much, but it’s certainly not a fight show. Might be time to do one of those soon; maybe I’ll throw Coriolanus or something like that out there for next year. This show makes a great subject for my National Michael Chekhov Association Teacher Certification capstone project, to hopefully finish out what I started several years go. Lots of imagination, radiating love and inspiration, etc…. and for the capstone, lots of documentation, analysis, and exercises to run with the cast, all of which I’m plugging away at as I can.

Took some time this week to do a bit of leather & metalwork though, which is something I haven’t done in a while what with the work the new house needed (still needs, but to a lesser degree) and other obligations. Rented out my main workhorse rapier hanger though, and as I’m teaching both Acting Styles (including Elizabethan and Restoration) and Stage Combat (Unarmed and Rapier & Dagger) this semester, I’ll need to teach people how to walk with a sword on their hip. Still have three or four boxes of leather in the garage, most of it having been moved at least twice (Seattle to Richmond to Wyoming), so turning some of that into decent rapier hangers seemed a worthy endeavor. None are done, but one is complete enough to wear and for me to use as a proof of concept, and another is already in the works:

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The hooks aren’t quite right historically-speaking, but that’s probably in my brainstorming I ended up forging them (sort of – propane torch and mini-anvil and ball-peen hammer can only do so much) out of door latch hook-and-eye hooks, and let that influence the final shape. If I do more I’ll probably just try to start with heavy gauge wire and make them less long, more round. Still need to work on peening heavy rivets too. Pain getting them to stay true. Still, the steel one (on the left) holds a sword (in this case a Hanwei) very securely and with little flopping, even if I hop around a bit, and the design means I can take the sword off relatively easy while leaving on the belt. As a part of this I threw together a bunch of examples on Pinterest; if anyone’s looking for ideas or inspiration for their own here it is, and there’s plenty more like it.

Also got to see proofs this week for the upcoming issue of The Fight Master, the SAFD journal, since I have an article that will be in it. Looks like we might get some nice pictures from the UW broadsword class running in it too.

Oh, and got yet another residuals check for TURN just in time for Labor Day. Go Union (SAG-AFTRA), and belated Happy Labor Day!

Ramp It Up (and Down)

Link and Video-heavy. Scroll down if you want to skip the exposition/explanation of terms.

Filmmaking blog site Story & Heart had a little piece on Speed-Ramping that reminded me of a post I’ve been meaning to write for a few months now. It’s a popular gimmick in screen action these days – a rebirth of the early kung-fu cinema fascination with slo-mo, kickstarted by the Matrix’s “Bullet Time”, now with the added flow of speed ramping (perhaps first seen by most Americans in 300, but now near ubiquitous) and enhanced by modern computer graphics.

Skip to about 3:45 to see the speed ramping really start.

My first time doing choreography or performance specifically for slo-mo was probably this trailer Marty Martin did for the TV reality show On The Lot a while back, where I was a ninja and the ninja wrangler (yes, I claimed that title).

He was the first one to point out to me personally that if it was being cranked down in post, we didn’t necessarily have to shoot at full speed either. That allows for near-misses and safe fights even with less rehearsal time (as he had on this shoot), but as the ninja lowering himself into frame, I discovered that doing a bunch of takes of that is a lot harder on your abs done slowly than it would have been if we’d been going full speed.

Obviously you have to match speeds when there’s more than one of you on screen, and there are some things that just don’t work that way, such as anything involving gravity, since you can’t slow that down (without wires or other cheats). I’ve had the pleasure of assisting and playing with (i.e. workshop, not paid professional gigs) SAFD Fight Master and professional fight coordinator Richard Ryan a few times now, including once between his work on Sherlock and his starting Vikings, and he pulled me aside to test a few things with speed ramping – which meant I got a few tips as well. For example, walking, at least in a wide shot, tends to look a little Keystone Cops; again with the gravity problem… you can still shoot slow-mo, but at that point you need to be performing it full speed.

Skip to 1:40 for the excellent use of speed-ramping:

I guarantee you if this had been common practice when Richard did Troy, Achilles’ trademark leaping thrust (Brad/Buster – not sure if that was star or stuntman half the time) would have been done that way.

All of this has been facilitated by both newer ultra-high speed cameras like the Phantom line (which can shoot in the tens of thousands of frames per second, or over a million if you drop resolution) and even amateur consumer options like that built into the new iPhones.

I think it’s worth clarifying a bit a distinction between shooting for slo-mo just to visually accent a moment and those shots actually performed at a different speed, and then either sped up or slowed down further in post. The former needn’t matter to the performer except to really give it your all in that moment… but might to the choreographer it should (for pacing/rhythm, aesthetic style, and more) and definitely does to the cinematographer, as it needs to be shot at a high frame rate. The art department people (including props and costumes) also need to know, as there are things you can get away with at speed that you can’t in slo-mo, like stunt doubles’ faces, sloppy cast rubber prop doubles, the green scored plastic or crimps on blank rounds being ejected, or pads ‘printing’ through your costume a bit. It’s another example of the higher standards demanded by ultra-HD and high frame rate in general, as written up well in a recent post about props on Bloomberg.

For the former, just know it can make things more epic, and the more you have things flying through the air usually the better (not just the performer(s), but also atmospherics like water or fire or birds flying or wood shattering, etc.).

I had a broadsword class practice session last semester where none of my actors showed up, not too long after I’d upgraded to the iPhone 6, so I decided while waiting around bored to play with the slo-mo function on my phone. This is just an out-of-shape old guy dicking around; most of what I do in it would look distinctly unimpressive at full speed, but crank it down enough, add some color correction and music and other effects (just free stuff I have on my phone – this was all shot and processed on my phone in a half hour or so), and it begins to look more epic:

What I didn’t do, as it can only be done for one part per original video on the iPhone, is much actual speed-ramping; the slo-mo feature lets you pick a start and stop point for slo-mo, but only one per video, so this is just consistently slo-mo.

Obviously when you’re not performing full speed, you have a couple valid options: Either speed it up or slow it down. If you try to speed it up to normal speed, you do need to be careful – if it’s not supposed to look distorted, the human eye spots things that don’t fit… you get into a sort of Uncanny Valley of time. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. Temporally-distorted footage (either sped up or slowed down) is easier to sell even if it’s a tad off.

Safety-wise, shooting slower lets you do two things different in a fight scene; contact hits and near-misses. Obviously a near-miss with a sword or something is much easier to do safety in slow-motion than at full speed. You just need to really sell both the effort of the attacker and the reaction of the avoider, because feeling easy and safe can sometimes read on the performer’s face and body, and that’s probably not the story we’re trying to tell.

Contact hits are a bit trickier. What we, the audience, want to see is displacement of flesh. We want to see one thing press into another, maybe produce some ripples even. The Sherlock Holmes example above is great for that.

There are two parts to a contact hit; the speed of initial impact, and the follow-through displacement, where you punch into or even through the target. Either one of these by itself won’t do much damage – one will make a sound but little effect, while the other will move you but not really hurt. When trying to do damage, you put them together… you don’t punch someone’s skin, you punch their internal organs, and you do it at speed.

Yes, as a stunt performer or stage combatant you can do contact hits at speed if you’re really good at managing penetration without looking like you’re pulling your hits (so it’s a shallow slapping impact more than a jarring displacement of internal organs and bone). Any follow-through has to be either not done or separated, so it’s a fast shallow hit followed by a push, rather than a fast hit that pushes through. It’s tricky to do both convincingly and safely.

Stuntman and SAFD CT Mike Yahn probably holds the prize for person who’s hit me the hardest without hurting, sadly not on set but just following a smart-ass comment I made outside a movie theatre where we’d seen something he worked on. It got the automatic “OW” reaction and a great sympathetic flinch from the others with us, but followed immediately by a realization of “Actually, that doesn’t hurt. Well done!” Then again, this is the friend who taught me the adage that in movie stunts, you need to hate your partner just 25% – enough you are willing to cause a little pain, but not so much you actually want to damage them. It’s a harder-edged version of Richard Ryan’s “be a good partner, not a nice partner”, which in generalized form I take into all my acting classes as well.

Slow down your performance and it becomes a bit easier to do (and take) contact hits, but different; You can’t put that pause between the two parts of the punch or it’ll show – instead, you just have to make sure you have a consistent speed, one that’s slow enough that it won’t really hurt, but no slower… and you really have to act it all. The ‘victim’ should be as relaxed as possible; as with all acting, we want to see you be effected by the actions of the other. Here’s a clip from when this topic came up during a film-fighting class at the UWYO Stage Combat Workshop last Spring – and no, the volunteer punching me wasn’t really acting it, but that wasn’t really the point. Again, this was a quickie iPhone video, both the shooting and the editing.

As you can see, he’s punching just hard enough to make a little ripple in the opposite cheek on impact, but slow enough it doesn’t actually hurt me at all. That’s what we want – although for a SAG stunt shoot, I’d probably tell him to go ahead and hit a bit faster and harder than I did for this volunteer workshop gig. I hadn’t realized before doing this that my habitual go-to reaction to a cross punch in stage combat would look like a strange duck-face in slo-mo. Might need to work on that.

Really, this post ought to exist in pure video podcast form I suppose. Some day, when I have more free time… I’d love to hear any of your experiences with slo-mo or speed ramping, or your questions.

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