“You’re not breathing, you’re just, not breathing.”
I guess I wasn’t. It was the first time I’d ever attempted to throw a punch, let alone dramatize it, and it wasn’t until the instructor pointed it out that I realized I’d been holding my breath. I let my belly unhinge and got back in my starting stance in front of my partner. “With each movement, try making a sound,” he encouraged, demonstrating what sounded like a train picking up speed after grasping for air: huuuuuuuhZUH, huuuuuuuhZUH. That helped.
“Now, just don’t actually hit his jaw,” I was told. “Fake it.”
There’s a reason Christian Bale’s face (or what you can see of it under the Batman mask, anyway) always seems to fit perfectly in the frame during The Dark Knight Rises fight scenes. It’s not because the camera loves him—at least, not only because the camera loves him. He’s cheating.
Christian Bale is among a small group of actors known to take on their own fight scenes, along with Tom Cruise, Daniel Craig, and Matt Damon. But they’re the minority. It’s the younger, less experienced actors who don’t even have the option—the ones production companies wouldn’t offer to hire a stunt double for—and they better know how to fake a hit, or they’re likely not getting a call-back. This is where Cinematic Fight Studio comes to play, a place where actors make their dream of becoming the next Bruce Lee into a reality.
“Actors who are just starting out come here for training to build their resume,” Cinematic Fight Studio co-founder Lang Yip explains. “Directors want to see the whole package so they don’t have to worry about hiring a stunt guy. We’re here to teach them how to cheat.”
So what does cheating entail exactly? “It’s all about selling a punch, selling a dramatic fall, and, basically, how to exaggerate everything,” Yip says. Another thing: learning where exactly you should place your hands so that the camera never blocks your face. “You might cover up your face more if you’re actually in a fight, but on the camera it just won’t look as good.”
This sort of “shortcut” is frowned upon in the martial arts community. Thirty-three-year-old Yip, who has studied martial arts since he was five years old and is a third degree black belt (although “belts are just a belts, I still don’t consider myself a master”),takes heat for his technique. “They’ll say ‘you shouldn't be doing that, Lang’ because it takes years for them to master certain skills and certain weapons. And I was like, you know, I’m just gonna make these actors look good on film, what’s the harm in that?”
It’s a market that’s barely been tapped, especially in New York. As of now—according to what’s advertised on the Internet—there’s only one other studio in the New York City area with a similar mission. Yip, who has been teaching fight choreography since 2006 for indie films, says his actor friends have expressed frustration in not being able to learn prior to being on a set.
Cinematic Fight Studio is tucked away on Borden Ave. in Long Island City. Don’t let the industrial setting fool you. The space, which Lip and co-founder Adam Lee opened in May 2013, may be tiny, but it’s clean—and houses loads of equipment for all sizes. As of now, there aren’t any set classes, but people can call to make an appointment to fit their schedules.
A basic film combat session, which costs $60 for a two-hour class, is a full-body workout, too. The class starts off with about 10-15 minutes of warm-up exercises, followed by actual punching and kicking drills you might learn in a standard kickboxing class. “You have to know how it’s done before you can fake it,” Yip says. Things like right hook and jab quickly become part of the class’s vocabulary. Once that’s tackled, the tricks come into play. For example: learning how to move your torso as if someone is punching you in the side of your stomach. Some ways to trick your brain: imagine a hot iron is just slightly grazing over your rib, or, as it was presented to me, a creepy guy ever-so-slightly touching your waist. Another drill is following the tip of your partner’s finger as it moves slowly and then faster in front of your face, in order to master the timing for moving your face during a punching scene. There’s also a lesson about the right way to fall after a “knockout” punch. Tip: slamming your hand down just before you land makes the fall sound way more dramatic.
The class isn’t just for aspiring actors, though that does tend to be the majority. Lee, who originally was a Cambodian kickboxing student of Yip’s, was at first just a fan of the art of combat fighting. “I always loved action movies, so I started learning actual martial arts and then Lang told me that he did fight choreography. He showed me how it differs when the purpose is to look good on screen.”
That’s the thing, Yip says, “There are different reasons people want to take the class. Some are actors, some are just curious, but it’s really for everybody.”
And everyone has a different level of experience, Mike Rosete, an actor and student at Cinematic Fight Studio, says. “Are they trained in fighting or not? Are they hot-headed? Or are they cool and precise?” Though Rosete has only been working with Yip for about six weeks, he’s already assisting classes.
Regardless of experience, everyone has a different fighting technique and that affects the way they’re taught. (Because of this, the class limit is four people per session, allowing for individualized attention.) “I don't think two people in the world brush their teeth in the exact same way. It’s the same with fighting,” Rosete says. “Everyone’s gonna throw their punches differently so when it comes to teaching, it’s about reacting to that style.”
Rosete was totally oblivious to the way on-screen fighting worked prior to studying with Yip. “I’m not a fighter, so when I would watch a fight I’d be like ‘oh wow, that’s really cool, he must have really had determination fucking knocking him out like that!’ But it’s a strategy. Even though it might look like you’re just randomly throwing punches, there’s thinking involved, and execution,” Rosete says.
Yip agrees, as he showcases a few moves. “That’s exactly right,” throwing a fast jab to the air and then quickly retreating, “it’s like playing chess.”