Monday, October 20, 2003
Report: Tony Wolf, Fight Designer, at Tufts Univ. - maegwen @ 21:09 PST

Ringer Spy Draug, The Unspeakably Violent sends in this amazingly detailed report on Tony Wolf's recent appearance at Tufts University, including the Q&A session addressing many LOTR points. Wolf was fighting styles designer and combat instructor on all three LOTR films.

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Elen sila lumenn, omentilimo. Im Draug, Lasto beth nin.

Tony Wolf's lecture at Tufts University, Medford, MASS, lasted from 7:30-8:30 p.m., EST.

Mr. Wolf began by explaining how his career developed. He said that he more or less taught himself to read reading superhero comics, and grew up wanting to be a superhero. One day on the back of a superhero comic, he found a 'classified ad' for sendaway superpowers. Magno-power rings, invisible goggles, etc. Even though he was an 8 year old boy he didn't really expect superpowers, but it intrigued him so he wanted to see what would happenif he sent away for them. Now in these "Dark Years" before the internet, New Zealand was very isolated, so sending away for items from the USA was a very big undertaking at the time, involving going to a regional back, etc., but he did it all the same. 1 month passed. And nothing happened. 2 months passed, and still nothing came. After three months, his father wrote a letter saying that he hoped that they were not in the business of ripping off children's dreams. The company mailed him a reply, in which they stated that they indeed were. At this point, Mr. Wolf came to a realization: If you want to be a superhero, you can't do it through the mail, you have to do it yourself.

Gradually, his ambitions towards being a superhero evolved into his becoming a stunt performer.

He first worked with Peter Jackson on "Brain Dead", an insightfully cutting satire of contemporary Hollywood film themes in which Man tried to supress his inner id, in vain. This style of PJ's would become known as 'splatstick'...Mr. Wolf recommends getting the uncut version.

Mr. Wolf's development of his stunt performer career was somewhat limited by the isolation of New Zealand; there were maybe 1 or 2 books in the national library on the subject, and that was it.

Over time, he began his "semi-professional" career of designing action scenes. Because New Zealand was so isolated, at the time he was unaware of the Society of American Fight Directors which was active at the time, which normally would have aided in the development of his work. He was somewhat inspired by Bruce Lee, but he went on to developed his own system: Rather than use many moves and styles taken from all over in a scene; keep what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.

He has developed a system of 'phsyical theatre' composed of 6 Principles of Movement (which he did not demonstrate because this was a lecture and not a
training session) :( Rather than teaching a rigid style, these principles will lead to the fast track to *intuitive movement* that otherwise might take
years to learn. There is no strict initial teaching of "styles"---This is viewed as a *radical* concept among fight training circles.

He does not approve of imposing classroom style on fight scenes. He believes that his method espouses "universal forms and rules of movement". That will lead to a synergy between the two actors. Rather than showing off specific moves and complex fight styles, he believes in "sound basic principles". Mr. Wolf said that in order to be done correctly, illusion of violent action A) has to be safe and B) has to tell a story. *Otherwise, it degenerates into generic swashbuckling for swashbuckling and style's sake.

Mr. Wolf explained that while New Zealand is as large as England or Japan, it only has a population of 4 million. Because of this, number of people talented in his field in NZ was limited, so he was found working for a wide range of acting professions: ballet, opera, theatre, TV series, feature films and more.

In 1997, Tony Wolf heard about Peter Jackson doing the Lord Of The Rings. Of course, at the time he had no idea how big it would be. He was no big fan; he had read The Hobbit and some of The Fellowship Of The Ring, but was not an obsessive fan. Anyway, he had heard that PJ wanted ***UNIQUE FIGHTING STYLES*** for each race in Middle-earth. So he called the producers, who told him that PJ had said the same thing, and that's how he joined up.

Tony Wolf is officialy the "Cultural Fighting Styles Designer" for the Lord Of The Rings trilogy---a unique job and title. As a result, he had no role models for this task, or any prior opinions on what should be done. He had no idea how to begin, initially.

He began work on the William Tell series, for television in New Zealand. He used this as an example, because it too was set in a fantasy world (although it was left ambigous as to whether it was set in the past, the far future, or a different planet or dimension). This fanasy world featured many different races; wolfmen, catwomen, Herculeans (giants), and evil Zaxians. In this job, he realized that a races way of fighting had to match the character. For example, one might think that the Herculean giant would be very crude and smash-n-bash. In fact, the actor who played the Herculean, although tall, was very refined. Also, the character, although gigantic, was a cultured chef. So he realized that it would be only fitting that the Herculean be graceful in fight scenes, simply shrugging off punches, etc.

There were other examples of this in the series. William Tell, the human main character, was supposed to be very smart and cunning, so he would use objects in the environment to his advantage to defeat his enemies. The catwoman had wide, swiping attacks like a cat does. The evil Zaxians were the villians of the series. They used 'deathwands' as their primary weapon. Mr. Wolf said that a Deathwand looked sort of like a frozen lightsaber. The idea within the
mythology was that the magic was crystal activated, so switching the crystal at the base of a Deathwand connected it to a powerpack that turned it on (again, Frozen-Lightsabers). However, because of the material they were made out of, a Deathwand prop broke *INCREDIBLY EASILY* to the point that if the
Deathwand were **EVER** to make contact with another weapon, it would shatter like glass. Thus, the fighting style that was created for the Deathwand- wielding Zaxians was developed with this in mind: there was a lot of dodging, but the weapon never actually made contact during a fight, etc.. Mr. Wolf
said that they actually toyed with the idea of and eventually created a "Double-bladed" Deathwand, years before The Phantom Menace [Draug the U.V.'s note: Mr. Wolf said that if there were any reporters in the audience, they absolutely must not quote him for saying that, under penalty of torture]. So Mr. Wolf had already realized from past experience that it was only fitting that a race's fighting style match the race.

The inspiration for the styles used in the LOTR trilogy were partially based on Tolkien's books, but not heavily. This was simply because Tolkien doesn't actually describe the fighting styles in any great detail besides "Frodo took a short stab at the Cave Troll's foot", etc.. So he stayed consitent with the little that Tolkien did describe, but realized that he would have to fill in the majority of the rest. Mr. Wolf said that a great deal of the fighting styles was based on synergy/intuition, and learning as they go. Essentially, he had to ask, "What is the central aesthetic of this culture?" What are the guiding/underlying principles of this race?

Mr. Wolf used the development of the Orc fighting style as an example: An Orc isn't so much a soldier as it is a violent, sentient Animal. They are baboon-like or hyena-like. They haven't gone to civilized fighting schools of any sort, and thus they HAVE *NO* fighting 'style'. Like a baboon or hyena, their 'method' of fighting is extremely effective, and it is fierce, but it does not follow an actual style; it is not formally schooled fighting and is untrained. Their style is no style at all; unrefined savagery.

After realizing what the aesthetic of the race should be, the next step would be to see what moves the actor in the costume was physically capable of performing. An actor in an Orc suit has fairly limited ranges of motion (a Gondorian in plate armor or a Galadhrim in elf-armor also have there motion
limited from that of a human wearing no costume, but it is not nearly as drastically reduced as that of Orc-actors in heavy makeup and costuming). For example, an Orc cannot stand very high or move his arms very far back, so this affect the fighting style and moves that can be performed.

Off the top of his head, Tony Wolf said that he had personally worked on the design of the fighting style of: Uruk-hai, Moria-orcs (goblins), the basic Orc (which he said has three main variants), Elves, Gondorians, Rohirrim, Haradrim, and the movement of the Ringwraiths. Most of his part in the production took place between 1998 and 2000.

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(I'll point out which questions were actually asked by me, and bear in mind that this is summarized, not word-for-word);

Q: What was the fighting style of the Ents? Did you design it?

A (all A's by Tony Wolf): I didn't work on and Ent fighting style, and I wasn't sure if there was a very developed one or not. In either case that was
the CGI department, not me.

Q: How was the Elvish aesthetic developed?

A: Looked at how they write, talk, their architecture, and costumes: take that and figure out the aesthetic [Draug, the U.V.'s note: For example, Elves 'flow' with nature, so instead of using brute strength to block an attack, they would gracefully *deflect* the blow in a flowing motion]

Q (by Draug, the Unspeakably Violent): The Orcs in FOTR and TTT had the "baboon/hyena" figthing style (or lack thereof) that you described, but (to fill in for the defunct Uruk-hai) we've heard reports that the Orcs in ROTK will have a new fighting style altogether; can you describe it?

A: When I and others working on LOTR took on the job, we all had to sign *Non- disclosure agreements* that were so serious that they actually, in full legal terms, said that the non-disclosure was to be complete with reference to ***"THIS OR ANY OTHER UNIVERSE"*** (direct quote). So I can say NOTHING about The Return Of The King. [Draug's Note: curses, curses....("wordless screams and inane babbling..."]

Q: How do you plan out a fight?

A: I tend to choreograph by incident in a fight scene. Partially based on the script, partially just intuitive and based on priniples of motion and the environment. I'd set up a rough and tumble cowboy brawl. Are there stairs on the set? Then at some point someone should fall/be thrown down the stairs. (using/interacting with anything in the environment, like a Jackie Chan movie). Are there chairs on the set with the fith? Then during the fight someone should fall into the chairs, etc. Alot of thinking on your feet with objects in the environment.

Q(Grandmotherweb): Finding your aesthetic, do you use historical references?

A: Ancient European martial arts died out over time, but those that practiced it wrote alot down. Thus, they left behind very thorough manuals, which people are trying to use to recreate them, instead of just guessing (based on the physical abilities of the weapons, etc.).

Fencing historians around the late 19th/early 20th century started recreating hundreds of years old stuff, but many of them died in World War I [Draug the U.V's note: reminds me of "all but one of Tolkien's close friends died in WWI...", etc.] but essentially, we don't have do guess anymore because of all ofhe manuals left behind.

But that doesn't mean it has to be a historical recreation. **If a fight scene is historical reenactment, it has failed its purpose to entertain. One needs to strike a balance between: historical accuracy, keeping the fight realistic, and furthering the story (not just to entertain, not just showing of a complex swashbuckling move because it is exciting, it needs to advance the plot). *Striking this balance is the mark of a mature fight director*.

We purposefully had the actors in the movies make some mistakes, to make it seem more real. [Draug the U.V's note: Aragorn wouldn't be fighting at
peal performance in every single sparring, so it would make the fight seem more real if he didn't always perfectly execute a move. Also, he wouldn't perform a really complicated (and purely visually entertaining) move, unless he had tried using simpler moves first. Aragorn would use whatever move was
most efficient, and only gradually use more complicated styles/moves if his opponenet could handle the simpler ones]. So I refer to historical stuff, but
am not bound by it.

Q: How did you work with Digital Actors?

A: We wanted to use it to communicate the aesthetic of the styles. I made a manual of the specific motions of each race, which they based the digital actors on. Off hand, I remember that one character had 24 key points of body language and moves.

Q: How has new Special Effects affected your work?

A: As far as my theatre work goes, not a whole hell of a lot. In the movies, we've been using motion capture, getting scanned while wearing a suit that was covered in photo-reflective tape. They then moved scanning equipment on poles and such all around use to record the posotionsof the reflective tape. I have no idea what the scanner-holders were doing, but thought it was cool!

Basically, the scanners only pic up the positions of the photo-reflective tape, relative to each other, and then connect the dots to create a humanoid wireframe design on a computer screen. It looks like a "human shaped constellation of stars". They then shrink it or enlarge it on the computer, and then multiply as necessary to create armies. I only saw one completed shot while they were making it, of an army of characters marching.

While watching the Fellowship of the Ring trailer (the very first trailer) in theaters for the first time, I saw the shot of the Orc army marching across Mordor. I turned to the woman next to me and said, "Oh, that's me", and she asked "Which one", and I said "ALL of them!".

I trained Digital Extras running in the MASSIVE program [Draug the U.V.'s note: computer program that gives each of hundreds of digital characters their own Artificial Intelligence so that they can choose from fight moves that were scanned in]. The digital extras were great; they'd trip then get lost, and then wind up getting shot with an arrow, which is cool.

Q: Is training in fighting styles becoming more open, less school-bound?

A: Yes, due to the Internet. Enthusiasts that perform at Renaissance fairs, from this, other things, etc. This is fantastic, as long as it's safe and not
scaring anyone [Draug the U.V.'s note: I can't tell from my notes if Tony Wolf said "not scaRing anyone" or "not scaRRing anyone", best leave that one

Q: Are you open, and use these ideas?

A: Well, I'm neutral, I don't impose. I don't really have one set style, I try to stick with universal principles of motion, etc., not one thing.

Q(Grandmotherweb): You've already designed the fighing styles of Gondor and Rohan; What was the distincition for Aragorn and the Rangers?

A: I didn't do individuals. When we started, there was actually a very deep debate to decide if Aragorn should incorporate Elf stuff into his fighting style? [Draug the U.V.'s note: Because Aragorn was raised (with his mother) in Rivendell with the Elves. It would make sense that he'd pick up some
Elvish fighting moves] But then we went "Nah, that Elvish fighting style really only works with Elves".

Q(Draug, the U.V.): You've said that you designed that Rohirrim and Gondorian fighting styles, based after classical Europeans styles (medieval germanic,
etc.). But you also said you designed the fighting style/aesthetic of the Haradrim. The Haradrim are roughly comparable to arabs (Moors, Berbers, etc.), so their aesthetic would be entirely alien to that used by the Rohirrim and Gondorians. How would you describe the fighting style of the Haradrim that we saw in "The Two Towers"?

A: Well...oh jeez, I'll have to think back a while for that one, um, well the Haradrim....HEY! Wait a minute, we haven't seen the Haradrim fight yet, that's from Return of the King! [Draug the U.V.'s note: Having failed in my last direct question about ROTK, I tried to trick him on this one. We NEVER saw the Haradrim fighting in TTT, they just made a brief cameo, and were then ambushed and slain by Faramir's men. The fighting style of the Haradrim is
still an ROTK secret. I thought that if I lied and said that we DID see the Haradrim fighting in The Two Towers, he'd missed this and accidently let some
ROTK info slip. I actually had him going for a while and he was thinking it over for a full minute and was *GOING* to say something, when he caught
himself at the last conceivable minute. Someone shouted out that we had not indeed seen them fighting yet. Who's side were they on? I tried to argue that we did SEE them, but then everyone including myself admited that we didn't see their fighting style, we just saw them "getting clobbered". But you can't blame me for trying.....okay, maybe you can. The moral of this story? "Keep your lies consistent"].

Q: Have you been doing any work for video games (namely LOTR video games)?

A: Yes, I've done/am doing some video games, I'm looking foward to it.

In response to another question, Tony Wolf interupted and replied: "On public record, *YES* I have met Orlando Bloom" and wanted to move on to another topic.

Q: What have you been doing since LOTR?

A: Tours and things. Most notably, I was going to a tour installment in Tokyo, and I thought the my lead stuntman and I would be able to talk about
what we were going to do in the plane, but we wound up in separate cabins, so we couldn't. So we started practicing when we got to the hotel, but then they
told us we couldn't practice in the hotel. So we went to the park, and were told "no, don't do it in the park either". So we were basically frantically
sparring with each other in the end when in 2 hours we had to choreograph an entire fight.

Q: In developing a fighting style for these movies, characters often have exotic fantasy weapons, that don't exist in the real world. How did this lead
to the overall guiding aesthetic of those races? Which came first? The fantasy weapon or the aesthetic? ("which came first, chicken or the egg?")

A: Well, a little of both. When I began work in 1998, some prototype weapons for the movie had been made, but not all. So for certain races the weapon
came first and for others was developed after the race's aesthetic was developed (can'd remember off-hand which). Again, some of both.

Q: What movies do you think are great examples of what a fight should be, fights that you enjoyed?

A: "The Dualists" by Ridley Scott, because it was realistic, gritty, and down- in-the-mud dirty; "Rob Roy" starring Liam Nielsen, with Tim Roth as the
villian, again because of it's realism, and Jackie Chan for his sheer agility.

Tony Wolf went on to say that he really enjoyed a film that Peter Jackson made in New Zealand called "Forgotten Silver". Forgotten Silver was the true story of a movie maker no one remembers who, in the 1900's-1910's, was making gigantic epic Ben-hur like films and fight scenes involving hundred and
thousands of people to populate the films. What no one realized until days afterwards was that Peter Jackson had completely made it up, even though it
was heavily advertized as a true story. He had to hide out for a while because of that one.

Thank you for letting me post, this was all very fun. Frodo Lives!

I remain,
Draug, the Unspeakably Violent