Journal of Theatrical Combatives June 2002

"True to Middle Earth Cultures": Creating Fighting Styles - an interview with Tony Wolf.

Copyright 2002 Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.  Introduction

…But everywhere he looked he saw signs of war…out of the East Men were moving endlessly: swordsmen, spearmen, bowmen…all the power of the Dark Lord was in Motion. (1)

Beloved by readers for years, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is now being made into a trio of films by New Zealand director Peter Jackson. The undertaking involves a veritable army of actors, stunt people, and techies of all sorts. The culmination of all this creative activity has resulted with the release of the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, at the end of 2001. While, as expected, modifications were made to the story to accommodate the medium, skeptical Tolkien fans were amazed at the level of respect accorded to the author’s vision as well as the high degree of realism achieved by the film.

Tony Wolf Tony Wolf is one of the legion of behind the scenes workers blessed with a unique and exacting challenge - rather than accomplish the fight and battle scenes with generic fight choreography, director Jackson decided to have him design movement styles for the different cultures and species of combatants: Orcs, Uruk-hai and others. Drawing on his expertise in martial arts, combat choreography and a wide variety of indigenous fighting styles from around the world, Tony created unique styles and taught them to teams of stunt people. This method then allowed those in charge of the actual fight scenes to work within a certain framework of tactics and body mechanics with trained personnel. Tony also worked with motion capture technicians to create the epic battle scenes, such as the one described in the quote above.

When Tony, who is also an editor for EJMAS’s Journal of Manly Arts, contacted me for a possible interview, I grabbed the opportunity in order to pursue several ideas concerning both the making of LoTR and how computer technologies are interpreting human movement. I also wanted to know what his opinion might be regarding the intersection of stage combat and martial art practices; a subject in which he is uniquely qualified to comment.

The interview took place via email during March and April 2002 (EJMAS’s travel budget being non-existent). I hope that the inevitable lack of spontaneity is more than made up by the thoroughness of Tony’s responses, and the fascinating subject matter.


Deborah Klens-Bigman: Can you give us a little background on your training in both martial arts and stage combat?

Tony Wolf: When I was about ten years old I came across a comic-book mail order course for "Super Powers Made Simple," and I sent off my five dollars and never heard back from the company. The life-lesson was that if I wanted to be Batman, I'd have to work it out for myself. It wasn't a matter of money, and it wasn't going to be simple.

It led me into some pretty obscure areas as I was growing up - old Vaudeville acts and circus skills, various martial arts styles, professional wrestling, dance and theatre movement disciplines. I became a sort of amateur anthropologist of combat and movement forms. I was always fascinated by the basic principles that united different systems, as well as by the elements that made them unique.

My father was an actor early in his career, and he was the President of New Zealand Actor's Equity during the '70s. I was involved in performance from a pretty early age. I'd been staging fight scenes informally for years, and I became a fight director more or less by osmosis.

Up until the mid-1990s there was no formal stage combat training available in New Zealand. In fact that term was quite foreign to the theatre scene here. Fight scenes were generally strung together by whoever wanted to do the job, so you’d get ostensibly Elizabethan-era rapier and dagger duels staged by modern fencing coaches, or brawls staged by actors who’d had a bit of boxing training. Sometimes it worked, but not often. I ended up developing a system that identified universal movement and staging principles that could be applied to any performance combat genre. It was a process, rather than a collection of techniques or styles.

In 1995 I attended the first International Stage Combat Workshops in London. That was really my first contact with what the rest of the world was doing in this field. Later I helped to establish the New Zealand Stage Combat Society, which maintains a national curriculum for actors and drama students.

DKB: How did you get what seems to me to be the world's coolest job?

TW: I had worked with Peter Jackson before, as a stuntman on Brain Dead - that was a splatstick zombie movie set in the '50s - and I had stunt coordinated Forgotten Silver, which was about the amazing life of Colin McKenzie, the Cecil B. DeMille of silent-era film-making in New Zealand. "Colin" was actually a product of Peter's imagination and the "documentary" was a complete hoax. Some people didn't get the joke. Apparently it's still playing on documentary channels around the world!

Anyway, I happened to know that Peter was intrigued with the idea of exotic fighting styles. When I heard that he would be directing the Lord of the Rings, I suggested that the fighting arts of Middle Earth should be designed from the ground up, in the same way the sets, costumes and props were being developed. The styles should be organic to the different races and cultures, rather than the sort of generic "stunt fighting" that you sometimes see in this sort of movie. That jelled with what he was thinking and it was my entry into the project.

DKB: Did your work involve all three films or just Fellowship?

TR: Because all three movies were shot simultaneously, the fighting styles for each one were largely designed during the pre-production phase.

DKB: Would you tell me your "official title" for the film, and explain what your job entailed on Lord of the Rings?

TR: I was officially the "Cultural Fighting Styles Designer." I was responsible for the fighting styles of the Orcs, Rohirrim, Uruk-hai, Gondorians, Elves, Goblins and Easterlings. Each race or culture had its own sub-styles as well, based on different weapons - Rohan axe and shield, Elf swordplay, Goblin spear fighting, etc.

I was inspired by the level of detail on the props and costumes that were being produced, and the weapons, even though many of them would never be seen in close-up. My ideal was that audiences would be able to tell the character types apart, even if they were seen in the far distance or in silhouette, just by the way they moved and used their weapons. I also wanted each fighting style to be unique to the Middle Earth culture that produced it, not just a pastiche of "moves" from disparate real-life sources.

The research phase for each style began by studying a particular culture; costumes, armour, weapons, background stories, biomechanics, physical capabilities and limitations. We pored over Tolkien's books, of course. There were also lots of meetings with other designers, graphic artists, the director, and others.

The key was to start from an intimate understanding of the characters, then to figure out where "outside influences" - animal predation and defence techniques, combat tactics, locomotion dynamics, dance and movement styles, and different martial arts traditions could seamlessly combine to create something that made sense for our story. It was a synergistic process.

We used the term "fighting style," but we meant something more than a style in the formal martial arts sense. There's no such thing as an "Orcish martial art," for example - they're stupid, brutal, chaotic creatures, and it would be ridiculous if they all suddenly turned into Musashi on the battlefield. Also, from a practical standpoint, the Orcs had one hundred and eight different types of weapons and there was no way to create a formal fighting style for each one. Because the Orcs were so diverse, their “style” is more tactical than technical.

ORC fighters

Their fighting techniques, weapons and armour are efficient but ugly, because they are cannibalised from those of their victims. It's almost like a grotesque parody of skilled combat techniques, like baboons or hyenas that have learned to use swords and spears.

By contrast, the Elves are beautiful, magical beings and their martial arts are exquisitely formal. Elvish swordplay reflects a cultural tradition that's been refined over thousands of years. I had to approach each culture on its own terms.

The development phase included a great deal of full-contact sparring, which was video taped and analysed. We would pit an Uruk-trained sword and shield fighter against a Rohan-trained spear fighter, for example. We had to develop special training systems and equipment to safely improvise fighting, moving and reacting in character, because at that stage we were going for - I don't want to say "total realism," but as close to that as we could get. The styles had to function believably as battlefield-worthy fighting skills before they could be transformed into performance vehicles.

Battle Scene LOTR

Peter's motto was, "We're not making fantasy movies, these are historical epics set in Middle Earth." That was a major inspiration for me. The danger with fantasy is that you can get lazy. "We're making it all up, so who's to say *this* can't happen?" I wanted the discipline of knowing exactly what was right for each character, down to the finest detail. Which elements of 15th century German longsword fencing will work for the Gondorian style? Can an Orc straighten its arms? Can Elves hear attacks they can't see? How strong is an Uruk's helmet? You wouldn't believe some of the questions that we had to answer.

At the same time, we had to be able to break the styles down into key points so different production departments could modify them according to their own needs. It was a constant balancing act. After a while I would literally be watching people walking around the studios and I'd be mentally translating their movements into Orcish, Elvish, etc.

Fight choreography was another major aspect of the design phase, because many of the LotR characters have abilities that humans just do not possess. The Uruk-hai, for example, are strong enough to use powerful edge blocks with their machete-like swords, and human performers couldn't copy that action in sparring. They'd wreck their wrists. Likewise, the Elves have all sorts of superhuman abilities that we could only simulate through pre-arranged choreography. We developed hundreds, maybe thousands of "quatrains," which were brief choreographed routines that demonstrated different aspects of the styles.

Once I was happy with the design it was approved or amended by Peter Jackson. The final phase was to develop a curriculum for teaching it to the stunt team, and getting everything down on video and in written form for reference by other departments (stunts, digital FX, Previz, etc.)

DKB: Can you describe what might be in a given "quatrain" used in the development of the fighting styles?

TW: The quatrains were situational acting exercises as well as technical choreographic sets. I also used them to communicate the styles to different departments within the production, including many people who knew absolutely nothing about fighting, stunt work, or martial arts.

One quatrain would demonstrate a Goblin archer, for example, scuttling backwards while firing several arrows at an enemy. Another would show an Elf swordsman calmly awaiting an onslaught of Orcs, then slicing and dicing several at once. We had quatrains for mounted fighters, like the warriors of Rohan, that demonstrated spearing and lancing techniques from horseback. I also developed "twists," which were variations on individual quatrains - I'd change one key action and it would give me a slightly different result, to demonstrate how the various quatrains could interlock.

You know the old saying about teaching someone to fish, rather than just giving them a fish? As training exercises and demonstrations, the quatrains were designed to teach "fishing." If I had just said, "O.K., here's Goblin spear thrust number one, go drill it fifty times," people would have understood that one technique. It was much more important that they understood the key points of posture, dynamics and character, so the quatrains emphasized all of these equally and served as conceptual models. Individual performers, choreographers and production departments were then able to extrapolate and adapt the styles to fit their own needs.

This was important because at that stage we didn't know exactly what the characters would be required to do! All the style design and training work happened during pre-production, so we had to be flexible enough to cover a whole range of possibilities, and at the same time be very specific about the key points and details - like I said, it was a real balancing act.

Legolas the Elf

DKB: Outside of the referring to the trilogy itself for clues to movement characteristics, did "human" fighting styles influence the creative process? For example, in the film, it seemed to me that the Elves' circular movements might have been reminiscent of Chinese fighting styles.

TW: The thing is, although I made extensive reference to real-world fighting styles, I didn't necessarily give them any more weight than dance styles, or even influences from sports. At the R&D level I was looking for nuances of movement. If I were to start imposing specific techniques, I would have become false to the Middle Earth cultures. Everything proceeded from the character and the culture, so in the case of Elf swordplay, it wasn't a matter of saying, "Oh yeah, there's this cool move from Takemusu Aikido we can use, and how about this Northern Shaolin sword flourish?" It was all about the congruity of weapon/armour function, body language, dynamics and tactics. Once those were determined the techniques essentially created themselves.

After the fact, you can deconstruct that style and see how individual techniques resemble those of real-world systems, like Aikido or Maori Taiaha combat, or the ringen am schwerdt (sword grappling) arts of Medieval Germany, or even the movement of a matador dancing with a bull. I think it's great that people can do that, but it's important to stress that during the design process we borrowed concepts rather than techniques.

I must admit, if I had any favourite among the different styles, it would have to be Elf swordplay. It felt as if we weren’t creating something new, so much as rediscovering something very old. We visualised the Elves training in these amazing temples high up in the mountains or in deep forest glades, totally in harmony with nature. The design process involved a lot of kinaesthetic and proxemic sensing exercises.

Here's a quote from the "Fighting Styles Guidebook" we produced for continuity reference - "The Elves are graceful and fluid beings whose every action is poised, neither stiff nor heavy. Their breathing is centered in the lower abdomen. They are grounded from the waist down, yet light and free from the waist up. As holistic fighters, all of the Elves' senses are fully engaged in combat. Their movements are circular, fluid, evasive and deceptive, employing spiralling deflections that flow into lightning-fast slicing attacks. There is a magical, sleight-of-hand quality to their fighting techniques. They do not always look directly at their enemies in combat, seeming almost to be engaged in a kind of moving meditation."

DKB: Can you give me an example of what you might do in terms of specifically training a stunt person, for example, one of the Uruk-hai? What would his training day be like?

TW: To paraphrase Richard Schechner: "Rehearsal is a way of setting an exact sequence of events. Preparations are a constant state of training so that when a situation arises one will be ready to 'do something appropriate.' Preparations are what a good athletic team does." (2) That was my training philosophy in a nutshell.

Given that the stunt team was being trained during pre-production, often weeks or months before any specific fight sequences would be rehearsed, I focused on "preparation." I believe that it's important for stunt people to be actors, to be able to imaginatively inhabit the characters they're playing. Then they should be able to "do something appropriate" when they get into rehearsals.

We began by discussing the Uruk-hai as living beings. We went through a precis of all the research that had already been carried out. Then I gave them breathing exercises, because the breath informs the posture - Uruks breathe harshly and deeply, and they're enormously strong, tense creatures, top-heavy juggernauts, with massive chest, neck, shoulder and jaw development. I thought of them as "gorilla-bulldogs."


Also, even though the stunties would be wearing prosthetic masks and helmets during shooting, I encouraged them to act with their faces. Uruks snarl and grimace, as if they are in constant pain and their only relief lies in violence. We'd improvise moving around the training room as Uruks. Their gait is like walking uphill on railroad tracks, because as soon as the Uruks are spawned, they get locked into heavy plate armour, so there is a feeling of crushing weight and momentum to their stride. They have difficulty turning quickly.

I also taught the stunt people a few words of Black Speech - that's Tolkien's Orc language - and had them grunt orders and curses at each other. So you have this platoon of stunt people lurching around, slamming into each other, roaring and shoving. They had a great time and they learned what it felt like to be Uruk-hai.

Then we used quatrains to explore how Uruk soldiers used their weapons and moved in combat situations - everything from one-on-one fights to mass charges on the battlefield. We knew that the Uruk-hai had very limited, if any, formal training - maybe some basic drill work - but they were lethal instinctive fighters, much more dangerous than the Orcs. They use their cleavers and spiked shields pretty much interchangeably, smashing and bashing. Their defenses were power blocks - no finesse, no deflections, just brutal chops that could bounce an attacking weapon straight back the way it came. Sometimes they didn't even bother to defend themselves, they'd just rely on their armour and move straight in to the attack. They would hammer and chop, and occasionally flip their swords around and use the back-spike to pinion an enemy, or gut them with the prongs on their shields. Very nasty!

The final phase was to get the stunt people to choreograph their own quatrains, because if they were able to work creatively within the style, it meant that they had internalised it - it had become "their thing." The ultimate test is to be able to improvise in character.

DKB: It must have been wonderful to have the time to do all the R&D and training of stunt people. How unusual is it to take the time to develop fighting styles and train people in them?

TW: It was a unique situation. As far as I know, this was the first major movie project to have devoted serious time and money specifically towards designing fighting styles. If you're doing a historical epic, for example, you'll normally research the fighting styles of the period and work from there. In LotR the task was to create believable styles that had never existed before, without falling into the anything goes/fantasy trap.

DKB: How did all of this coordinate with the actual fight choreography?

Aragorn TW: I thought of the fighting styles as platforms that the various fight and stunt coordinators could stand on. In combination with the more general movement styles, they established a continuity between live action and digital fights, and they allowed a congruity between the huge battle sequences and the more personal combat scenes, like Aragorn's climactic fight with the Uruk leader, Lurtz.

DKB: One thing I know absolutely nothing about, but it's important to know, is how all this movement training coordinated with the special effects work on the film. It's easy to pick out fantastic effects in, for example, Gandalf's fight with Saruman, but I know they use computer effects throughout fight scenes. Can you give us an example of a scene in "Fellowship" of how this worked?

TW: If you look at the LoTR prologue battle footage, which is set in Middle Earth's First Age, you'll get a sense of the scale of the battles to come. There's one shot in which a broiling mass of Orcs charges at a line of Elves, and the Elves perform a synchronised upward slash with their swords, cutting the Orcs down in a kind of wave. There may have been, I don't know, five thousand individual warriors on screen at that moment. It probably won't surprise anyone to learn that Peter didn't hire five thousand stunt people to get that shot. It was created by combining digital effects and live-action footage.

Battle Scene

The digital effects department also made very extensive use of motion capture, which is a form of live-action based animation. It's the same technology that is used in cutting-edge video games. A mocap performer wears a black costume covered with photo-reflective markers, and performs in a special studio with a series of cameras hooked up to a computer system. The cameras pick up the pattern of reflections, so what is recorded by the computer resembles a moving, three dimensional, human-shaped constellation of stars. This pattern can then be "dressed" by artists to create, for example, a digital stunt double for an actor, or multiplied to create an army, or distorted or enhanced in any number of ways.

It can even be used to help "train" digital warriors who fight and move independently, making their own decisions and reacting to their virtual environment without any human direction.

DKB: Wow. That's incredible. Is the physical movement of the actors enhanced in a close-quarters fight, or is it only fight choreography and camera angles? If it's digitally enhanced, is that through use of programmed motion capture figures? Or some combination of human and animation?

TW: I was only closely involved with the motion capture side of things, so I'd be guessing as to the other applications. In general you're looking at a whole range of SFX techniques. For example, I can tell you that Orlando Bloom (Legolas) was a very enthusiastic Elf and really got into that style, but some of his rapid-fire archery had to be digitally enhanced because humans just can't shoot that fast.

Lagolas firing

DKB: I know you have a background in various martial arts. How did that training, specifically, help or hinder your development of the fighting styles?

TW: It's hard to answer that without getting all Zen, simply because my training background supported literally every aspect of the process. Everything. I've studied many different martial arts, from a wide range of cultures and historical periods. Different styles organise themselves, their curricula and so-on, almost as microcosms of their parent cultures, their founders' personalities, etc. For example, Brazilian Capoeira is a very intuitive art, very emotional and spontaneous. It's both urban and, in a sense, tribal, which is probably why it's becoming popular in the big cities. You can contrast that with something like Tae Kwon Do, which is organised on a more military model, with overtones of modern athletic training. Then you have old-school, British style professional wrestling as a sort of blue-collar, combative commedia del' arte. Maori martial arts are formal and ritualistic, and there's a distinct Polynesian depth to the ritual. And so-on. I've ended up with a very holistic, yin-yang perspective on the whole field.

When I look at any system I tend to see it as a unique combination or application of stylistically neutral, universal principles. For example, I'm heavily involved in the revival of historical European combat styles. One 15th century German master, Sigmund Ringeck, wrote of the principles of "Fuehlen" and "Indes." Basically these are tactile sensitivity to another fighter's movement, and a sense of timing derived from that sensitivity, so that you can intuitively counter their movement. Ringeck was talking specifically about the martial arts of his culture, but if you look closely, virtually every system applies these principles - Asian, European, African, Polynesian, modern, ancient, battlefield, sport, whatever. They don't always articulate it, but it's always there in some form or another. And then in performing arts there's a modern dance discipline called Contact Improvisation that is almost entirely founded on these two basic principles.

DKB: Obviously the martial arts background then was very important. The reason I was asking was (and this may be an unfair question for someone who has trained in both stage combat and martial arts) there seems to be some tension between martial arts and stage combat people, at least in some quarters. I had an opportunity to spend a little time with some of the people involved in recreating or restoring Western European martial arts, and they were adamant that they not be confused with stage combat artists or (worse) the Society for Creative Anachronism. Do you feel any conflict, or do you feel it's part of some sort of continuum?

TW: Most of it comes down to the difference between the professional and hobbyist perspectives. You can't take it too seriously. It's a pity, a missed opportunity if it actually causes conflicts between people.

It's very important to remember that as a performing art, stage combat is much closer to dance than fighting. The paradigms are "with" and "for." Actors move safely with each other, for the entertainment of an audience. That is their priority and perspective. The martial arts paradigm is, excepting special cases such as Aikido, "against." Martial artists compete against opponents in sparring, or fight against enemies in real combat. That's an over-simplification of course, but bear with me.

A fight director creates a representation of physical conflict, a dramatic illusion that is subject to a whole raft of artistic decisions, of which the technical choreography is only one aspect. Many people are very passionate about their martial arts, and sometimes they can get frustrated when they see "their thing" being represented in a dramatic context, rather than being presented as it would be in an educational demonstration or a sparring match, or even in a battle, for that matter. It's the difference between, say, "Ben Hur" and a documentary about ancient Rome.

Some of the criticism I've seen offered in this debate is valid. There are definitely cliches in fight direction, the residue of early Hollywood screen fencing, for example, which still has its place, but not at the head of the table. On the other hand, very few martial arts-oriented critics understand the practical realities of film-making - the production hierarchy, the logistics of rehearsal time, budget issues and so-on. The conditions that apply to the hobby just do not factor into the business of film-making. It's a different ballgame.

As a martial artist, I'm interested in re-creating the historical European combat systems accurately. As a professional fight director, I relish the chances I get to represent these arts on stage or on the screen. The challenge lies in making artistically mature choices and balancing historical accuracy and combat realism with the requirements of safety, story and character.

The good news is that there is an emerging "New School" of fight directors who are moving the art in new directions, including serious research into authentic historical styles and new methods for creating ultra-realistic fight choreography. Much of this depends on research materials and technologies that weren't available even a few years ago. In the meantime, I'd encourage all martial artists with an interest in this sort of thing to be patient and open-minded. If positive communication becomes the norm, then everyone wins.

DKB: By the way, congratulations on LoTR's Oscar wins. Personally, I thought it deserved better in terms of categories.

TW: We may have to wait until the whole trilogy has been released …

DKB: You were mentioning the constraints on fight choreographers with regard to budget and timetable, but what about personnel? Many years ago, I choreographed an Equity Showcase production of Cyrano de Bergerac, where I quickly found out the limitations of working with actors who have variable skills to say the least. Did your work on LoTR involve any actors, or were you fortunate enough to work mainly with experienced stunt people?

TW: I trained some of the actors and doubles that were available during the pre-production phase, mostly working on the movement styles.

DKB: Having considered some of the things we discussed above, I know of at least one fight choreographer/stage combat teacher who insists that stage combat is a form of martial art. I happen to disagree. Do you have an opinion?

TW: In the abstract human potential sense, sure, stage combat and martial arts training can offer similar benefits - increased sense of well-being, improved co-ordination, etc. But really, you could say the same for any dance style and most sports. It comes down to the paradigms I was talking about earlier - a performing art is cooperative and audience-centered and a martial art is, at least theoretically, antagonistic. There are overlap points at the historical and cultural levels, everything from Beijing Opera to professional wrestling, and it’s true that martial arts often evolve into performing arts or include a performance component.

Some aspects of martial arts training are essentially forms of fight choreography, and many fight directors make some use of martial arts methodology. I developed a form of full-contact, armoured freestyle combat called "jamming" during the LoTR style design process. Still, I would say that performance combat and martial arts are essentially very distinct disciplines.

DKB: Are you still working on the other LoTR films, or are you moving on? What's next for you?

TW: The style designs were all largely established during pre-production. I’ve just been invited to tour Japan with the Washington Opera Company’s productions of “Otello” and “Tosca.” I’m looking forward to that one, we’ll be working with Placido Domingo. Then I’ll be back in New Zealand for a month or so, before heading off to Europe for a teaching tour.

I'm also trying to squeeze in a book and video project, so things are humming along quite nicely.

DKB: Thanks a lot for your time.

TW: Thank you.


1. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994, p. 391.

2.Schechner, Richard. “From Ritual to Theatre and Back,” Ritual, Play and Performance: Readings in the Social Sciences/Theatre NY: Seabury Press, 1976, pp. 196-22.

Copyright 2002 Deborah Klens-Bigman

JTC June 2002