Originally Published in
CURIO Magazine, Spring 1998 issue

How To Throw a Movie Punch

-by Manny Siverio

When I first got into the stunt business, I thought my extensive
martial arts background would make it easy to throw a movie punch. Little did I know, there’s a lot more to throwing a punch on film than meets the eye.

First, understand that we live in a three dimensional world (height, width and depth) and, since the movie camera cannot record depth, what we experience on screen is two dimensional. As a result, what looks like a real punch to the naked eye may look false to the camera. This can be
easily corrected by "selling" the punch, reacting to the punch, proper placement of the camera, and eventually, the cutting of the film.

Selling the punch: This occurs when the person throwing the punch physically acts out the power and intensity of that punch. Displaying anger on the face, maintaining a proper stance, and demonstrating a degree of satisfaction after the blow all help "sell" the punch. Also, it helps
to widen the arc of certain punches to help the camera "see" it. Finally, in order for a swinging-type punch to look authentic, it is suggested that the blow travel across the victim’s eye to add the illusion that the fist has made contact.

Reacting: The job of the actor taking the punch is just as important as the puncher. Again, this involves "selling" the blow via such techniques as using head movements to register the impact, keeping the lips loose, and letting the body go temporarily limp before spinning out of

Camera placement: The camera must never record the space between the punch and the person getting hit. The punch should be seen right up until it "reaches" the victim’s face. Then, it disappears for a millisecond before reappearing as it exits on the opposite side.

Cutting: If a punch is covered from more than one angle, it’ll allow the editor to use portions of the punch and cut them together in such a way to make it more dramatic and convincing. For example, you can begin with a wide shot of the two fighters until the punch begins at which
point the shot is picked up behind and slightly to one side of the victim’s back until it apparently connects and the victim reacts.

With these four fundamentals covered, lets set up the basic swing punch to the face:

Establishing shot: This shot will establish the general geography of our two players. For our purposes, lets use a side-view medium or wide shot of the two fighters that establishes that they are facing each other at arm’s length. It is important that when the man on the right begins
the motion of punching, he lets the camera see it. In other words, telegraph the punch without making it look like you’re telegraphing the punch. (This is not as easy as it sounds and requires a genuine skill to perform). Depending on what the stunt coordinator, director, or the director of photography is looking for, the puncher might have to open up his body to the camera, slightly cock back his fist, pull his shoulder back, elevate his arm, or any combination of the above. We stay in this shot and cut to the next angle somewhere in the beginning of the punches execution.

Impact shot: This angle will show the punch "connecting". Let’s position the camera with a tighter lens directly behind the victim. Since the camera has been moved (and cannot perceive depth), we can also reposition the players by increasing the space between them. The additional
space will allow the puncher to really let loose with the punch without the fear of making accidental contact. In addition, the fighters should be off-set from one another and not stacked directly in front of each other so the camera can see both players in the same frame at the same
time. After a few slow motion rehearsals, we are ready to shoot the impact and this is where the aforementioned "selling and reacting" comes into play.

After the first take, the performers might be asked to adjust or tweak their actions. For example, the puncher might be asked to slow down or speed up the punch, increase or decrease the arc, or raise or lower his arm as he punches. The victim may be reacting too early or too late or be asked to do something like spin around from the impact far enough so the camera can catch a glimpse of his face as he drops out of frame (which might necessitate fake bruises or blood). Finally, in the editing room is where those familiar sound effects are added to help moviegoers believe that the punch really landed.

Manny Siverio is a stunt coordinator, stunt man, second unit director, actor and writer. He has worked on such projects as Men in Black, The Peacemaker, Cop Land, Blade, and New York Undercover and be reached by clicking here.