A Lexicon of Fight, Part 1: Battle Carnage

February 16, 2009

Roleplaying games typically treat all fights as the same, which is a bit crazy. Here’s the beginning of a breakdown of different kinds of fights, techniques for depicting them, and why you might want to use them.

In movies, fights can be broken down into several different varieties, with individual sequences of choreographed violence frequently shifting between them over the course of a single “fight.” Each variety has its own visual language and cinematic vocabulary, through they clearly share some traits as well. The varieties I want to talk about are:

  • Battle Carnage,
  • Against All Odds, and
  • the Showdown.

Battle Carnage is when you have sizable opposing forces engaging each other, as in a military battle or a large street brawl. Battles can be broken down into the following general components:

  • Foreplay,
  • Carnage, and
  • Spotlights.

Foreplay is the critical part before or during the battle where there is no violence but the film builds anticipation and hints at what is going to happen. Remember all that stuff before swords start swinging in the first moments of Gladiator? That’s foreplay. While foreplay is usually battle formations and speeches and saying goodbye to each other and reaffirming relationships between soldiers, foreplay can even involve folks getting killed, as in cases where a single arrow shot starts a battle (Helm’s Deep). Foreplay often happens between phases of a battle as well, or when the battle is about to switch to another kind of fight (Against All Odds or the Showdown).

Carnage makes up about 1/3 of most battle footage. Generally, we don’t really care about the specific characters that triumph or die during the Carnage but it’s important in that it gives the audience a sense of being in the battle and shows how the battle in general is going. If the camera shows soldiers from one side dying more often than soldiers from another side dying, you know the battle is going poorly for them. You can do this a few different ways: altering back and forth between one side and another doing well or poorly, to show an evenly matched battle or the beginning of a conflict, and then swinging things heavily to one side to show a transition or the end of a conflict. Carnage generally depicts nameless characters fighting and killing other nameless characters. If a named character is involved, you’ve moved into the last subgroup of battle footage, Spotlights.

Spotlights are places amidst a battle where the camera shows the actions of specific characters that we care about. Often these are the formally named protagonists and antagonists of the film, but sometimes these are characters that are simply “named” by the attention given to them by the camera. Remember the crazy clawed cat woman from The Gangs of New York who rips that guy’s ear off? We know nothing about her but the camera sure wants to make us care about her (and mostly fails, I think, but that’s a subjective assessment). Spotlights generally involve named characters fighting and killing nameless characters. For a confrontation between named characters, frequently the fight will shift to the Showdown. However, that’s not always the case. The opening of Gangs of New York and the final battle of Musa: The Warriors are examples of fights where main characters are killed in the Spotlight sections of battles. These are quick, brutal, and dirty deaths, not drawn-out confrontations between evenly matched opponents.

5 Responses to “A Lexicon of Fight, Part 1: Battle Carnage”


  1. I’m looking forward to seeing more in this series.


  2. Thanks, Seth. Me too!

  3. Nir Shiffer Says:

    Good breakdown. I’m particularly looking forward to see where this series will head once the basics are firmly established.


  4. […] A Lexicon of Fight, Part 2: Against All Odds 2009 Feb 18 Check out Part 1: Battle Carnage. […]


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