Action Acting vs. Martial Arts: Comparing & Contrasting

March 10th, 2009By Category: Culture

chuck-johnsonThe funny thing about being a martial arts action actor is that knowing martial arts doesn’t necessarily qualify you for the job. In training to do action sequences properly you not only have to learn new techniques, and movement patterns from other styles, weapons play, gymnastics and a myriad of other elements, you have to spend a great deal of time ‘unlearning’ all the things you learn in traditional martial arts too.

For one, a lot of the kicks that work for real situations don’t exactly work for the camera, and vice versa. A lot of the body movements and reactions that you need to learn to ‘sell the pain’ of an impact (that isn’t really there), are the very same ones that as a real fighter you learn to suppress or simply ignore regardless of how much it actually hurts. (Like showing pain in your face or buckling when you get kicked in the stomach). Among the techniques you do know, virtually all of the techniques need to be revamped so they can be thrown differently to account for camera angles and or the safety of the actor opposing you in the scene.

Furthermore, real fighting is dynamic and completely unrehearsed, and oftentimes, you know next to nothing about the person stepping across from you. You have to learn how they move and how to respond accordingly in the 1-3 minutes you have in the first round. If the fight is only 1 or 2 rounds, you have to figure it out even faster. In action however, it’s all rehearsed. The action director looks around at his actors, looks at his environment, and then designs the sequences, and the challenge lies not in figuring out to do, but in executing it naturally…with someone else… while acting with all the proper facial expressions and body movements… while taking into account the angle of the cameras and the safety of the opposing action players and those around you both. . In fact the only thing that I think is similar between the two is the fact that both require you to spend hours and hours working techniques into your muscle memory so that when the time comes, you know longer have a need to think.

You can move effortlessly, relaxedly (and with lightning speed when you have to) because you just do. Bruce Lee once said that before you begin a martial art, a punch is just a punch, and then after years and years of study, a punch returns to simply being a punch. Maybe when he said that, he meant it for the camera as well. In any event, to be sure, since I started my own action training 5 years ago, I’ve really come to respect guys like Tony Jaa, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Wesley Snipes, and Chuck Norris not just for their real skills as martial artists, but also for their ability to synthesize all of the different talents necessary to pull off an amazing fight scene.

Author of this article

Chuck Johnson

Chuck Johnson is a Martial Arts Instructor/ Action Film Actor based in Tokyo, Japan, and Michigan, USA. He has been teaching for 16 years, holds ranks in Taekwondo, Judo, Capoeira, and Karate, and is an experienced bodyguard. He is also a member of the Screen Action Stunt Association, and Society of American Fight Directors. Additionally, he has 10 years of ELT experience, and is the developer of Phat English, a system that uses specialized hip-hop music to teach the subtle nuances of GAm English pronunciation. For more information, visit or follow Chuck on twitter at chuck_n_action

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