Come join us for an Ask-Me-Anything session at Vancouver Film School on Apr 16th, when I’ll talk stunts, motion capture, beards, action choreography, working in the industry, more beards, and so on. Hope to see you there.
In an industry obsessed with deifying the star, the spotlight often evades those who work tirelessly behind the scenes. The success of a film is often attributed to its face but seldom to those who constitute the spine. And so, in this column titled Beyond the Stars, Firstpost highlights the contributions of film technicians who bring their expertise to the table.
The recently released action comedy Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, directed by Vasan Bala, has been hailed worldwide for inventively choreographed action sequences. Firstpost got in touch with its action director, Eric Jacobus, for an exclusive interaction on how he came on board the film, why an action film has a lot to say, and how Mumbai served as a great setting for stunning action pieces.
Devansh Sharma: You are a widely recognised actor, stuntman and martial artist in the US. How did you get on board Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota as the action director?
Eric Jacobus: Vasan Bala contacted me because he had seen my indie action film Rope-A-Dope on YouTube, recommended by Mumbai stuntman Prateek Parmar. In Rope-A-Dope, we, the action team, were responsible for everything from the writing to the camera angles, final edit, and sound design. It was an action film to the bone. Vasan asked me if I could create Rope-A-Dope action in Bollywood. I joked, “I can’t even make Rope-A-Dope action in Hollywood! They don’t like the action team dictating the camera angles or the edit. And the actors have to do their own stunts!” But Vasan was dead-set on making it work for Man Who Feels No Pain (Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota).
DS: Director Vasan Bala has claimed that the film is a tribute to the 1980s action heroes, predominantly Indian film stars like Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi and Mithun Chakraborty. Were you familiar with their work before you came on board? How did Bala familiarise you with the styles of these influential Indian action stars?
EJ: I knew Bollywood action before stepping foot into India. I also knew how Vasan wanted to innovate within that genre. He referenced these ’80s films all the time, and how Bollywood stuntmen had speaking roles and they weren’t just generic bodies being thrown about. He wanted every stuntman to have an acting role. So, similar to how the actors did all their own stunts, the stuntmen had their own acting roles. They show up in later scenes with bandages and can even steal the scene. So the actors and stuntmen are playing by the same rules. The actors aren’t gods, and the stuntmen aren’t dirty. It speaks to a global change, when Tom Cruise is doing stunts and stuntmen like Chad Stahelski are directing movies, a total convergence of the two domains.
DS: Bala has also revealed that global action icons of that era, like Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow and Buster Keaton, have also shaped the action of his film. How did you incorporate the styles or signature moves of these stars into the visual narrative?
EJ: If we only copy moves or gags then we don’t get at the heart of what makes Jackie Chan and Keaton so great. The standard action hero is built within a house of cards replete with shaky camerawork and choppy editing to create an illusion we can believe, but that house of cards falls very quickly today. The global audience is far too smart because they’re all critics and they all make their own movies. We know when it’s a stunt double wearing a bad wig, we see the green screen or when a wire stunt defies physics. Keaton and Jackie didn’t build a house of cards to hide their tricks, but instead used a very deliberate style of filmmaking that helped us believe everything they were doing, and that’s why those films stand up to this day: They’re trustworthy. So we took this same philosophy: We need be trustworthy and not hide anything. The actors need to train to fight like stuntmen, like real action stars. This way we don’t lie. Then we ask, Now what can they do? How far can we push them? Can we have Gulshan fight 100 men in a single-day’s shoot while hopping around on one leg? We pushed and pushed, and the actors were happy to reciprocate. The gags and techniques revealed themselves and it’s all very unique and specific to Bollywood, so we’re not stealing anything directly from Keaton and Jackie, but their influence is all over this film.
DS: How did the central character theme of the protagonist Surya’s (Abhimanyu Dassani) inability to feel pain factor into how you designed the action? Did it lead to innovative Deadpool-esque stunt sequences?
EJ: This “disability” that Surya has is why I took the job. When you’re given a job directing action for a typical action scene, you’re always looking for that variable which drastically affects the action. You could almost call it a ‘multiplier’ in that every single movement from the hero calls back to that variable. Zatoichi’s multiplier is his blindness, and Surya’s is his ability to walk head-first into a punch. But whereas Deadpool heals over time, Surya is a young man who pushes himself too far, and when he runs himself into the ground, he gives out. That’s a major disability. So his choreography involves a lot of mental calculation: how not to get dehydrated, how to check whether his body is injured, how to react appropriately to pain (“Ouch”). It’s no longer a matter of technique; it’s all character. That’s a choreographer’s dream, when choreography keeps popping up everywhere you look.
DS: Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota also boasts of a leading lady who is anything but a damsel in distress. But she is also not a dominatrix. Through her action sequences, how did you strike the balance between contemporary sensibilities and the template of a B-grade action movie from the 1980s?
EJ: As coordinators, we’re always tempted to make feminine women into better, faster, stronger fighters, because that’s the easy way. But she’s fighting men much bigger than her, and we had to avoid descending into fantasy. And her co-stars have these insane “multiplier” effects like painlessness and fighting only on one leg. So if she’s not vulnerable, she’s not human, and we lose her. So we play her as smart and more determined than anyone, which was exactly her character. She uses props like her jacket and a glue bucket, anything she can get her hands on in the environment. We paint average guys as real threats because that’s the reality for a woman half their size, no matter their skills. We push her to failure because that’s how she became so smart and capable in the first place.
DS: How did you design action around the various props in the film? Can you talk about the most frequent ones like the water tank and pipe of Surya (the only chink in his armour), Supri’s stole and Karate Mani’s crutch?
EJ: Vasan created the water pack and Mani’s crutch, and we created Supri’s shawl with the sharp metal charms during the pre-visualisation process. These are the multipliers that open up so many action opportunities. We then ask: What happens when they lose these things? Karate Mani is a tactician and a precision kicker with his crutch. We based it off the one-legged man in Born to Fight. But without his crutch, he’s a one-legged raging bull. When Surya has his water pack, he’s cocky because he can go for hours. Without it, he treads on thin ice, or he exhausts himself. Supri’s scarf can be used to wrap and tie up weapons. When it’s cut in half it becomes like brass knuckles, and without it, she grabs the next available object and improvises.
DS: Mani is the only character that is in constant pain because of his one legged stunt scenes. How important was it to also show pain and fallibility in an action film essentially about a man who feels no pain?
EJ: If our heroes don’t feel pain, we don’t feel pain. You have to hurt the audience so they know what it means to feel good. Surya’s pain is mental because he takes on such insane odds. We give him extreme highs so he can have extreme lows. Mani’s dedication to Karate created a strong façade that’s saddled with a mix of shame and resentment toward his brother. The pain experienced in a fight goes to another level when it comes from the story.
DS: How did the landscape of Mumbai lend itself to the action? Can you talk about how you used settings like an office floor and an under-construction building compound?
EJ: We didn’t know any of the locations until a few days before shooting. We choreographed all the bits and pieces (the words and phrases) in a gym, but the location is what shapes the words and phrases. We did a walk-through a few times to figure out how to integrate all the gags, where to build walls, place desks and tables for stuntmen to fall into. Then we take all that and re-shoot the pre-vis, which is more like a reference-vis, cut out half the choreography that simply won’t fit, integrate all the new environmental factors, block it out with all the performers, and even add some dialogue with Vasan’s help. I then shortlisted everything, taking into account the size of the crew, sunlight, fixed lighting, and makeup continuity. Then we shoot, and it goes smoothly. The fight in the office is a great example. There’s a gag that the elevator is taking too long, and all the bad guys decide to take the stairs. Then the elevator comes. We did this because the elevators in that building were called “High Speed Elevators” but they’d take four or five minutes every time. It was a natural fit into the scene. Vasan’s agile and can incorporate things like that very easily.
DS: Vasan has maintained that cinema begins from action films and that even a B-grade action flick is laced with social commentary. Do you also echo the idea that action films have a lot to say?
EJ: Action films are the artist’s resolution to a cultural crisis, which he solves by directing human bodies. Bodies (and their language) speak to the audience in a way the royal drama can’t. A man’s mouth says, “I’m only a peasant” but his body says, “I am royalty”. The pleasant, ritualistic movement of Crouching Tiger and The Matrix in the year 2000 spoke of a time when violence was predictable and pleasant. Then, only a year later, after the terror attacks of 9/11, the violence became random, and Jason Bourne’s movement in The Bourne Identity has to reflect that. Tony Jaa’s body reflects Thai rage against human trafficking in Ong Bak. Iko’s constantly moving body, violently cutting apart enemies, reflects anger and rage against drug cartels and police corruption in Indonesia in The Raid. When the physical action language and all its filmmaking modes reflect the current crisis, that’s called “code-making”. Human bodies needed to code-create to reflect that cultural mindset. This way the audience doesn’t have to decode anything because the code underlies the very experience of watching the movie. With Man Who Feels No Pain, we code-made the action with this in mind: This Bollywood film is confidently hitting the savvy, global market. We’re 100% percent confident it can compete with the best out there.
DS: With CGI-dominated huge action sequences taking the foreground globally, what scope do you think hand-to-hand combat or forms like martial arts have in movies around the world?
EJ: There will always be a demand for physical bodies to take on the current cultural scene. This is how Kayfabe works in the WWE or Japan Pro Wrestling; a body acts out the audience’s pent up resentments and trauma. He’s their cathartic outlet, the way the warrior dance was. As the news media globalises, people in the US, India, China and everywhere else in the world are beginning to experience the same news stories and live the same trauma, so they demand the same movement from human bodies. Global hits are made by teams who can successfully code-make according to that cultural crisis, and by performers who can successfully embody that code-making.
Hard to believe its been 8 years since we opened @NetherRealm studios…. and while we’re not quite ready to talk about our next game… Be assured everyone here is working very hard to make it our best game yet! pic.twitter.com/ND3nKbK4Mo
At Festigame Coca Cola 2018, we were able to interview Eric Jacobus briefly, Kratos’ double of action in the new God Of War game. We asked him some questions related to his work and what it means to be double action, and this is what he answered.
Nerdmacia : Being double action must be a very fun job. How was it that you became one?
Eric: Uff is a long story, but very nostalgic for me. It happens that I grew up in the era in which feature films were at their peak (mid 80’s and part of 90’s), and I have fond memories of having seen very good shows on MTV and other interesting movies. I remember that I began to imitate everything they did, the pirouettes and other things. That was on my side, but in Hong Kong I had some friends who made action movies at a low price, so we finally decided to get together and started making independent films in the patio of our house. Over time we had the attention of several people for what we did, and then in the 2000’s Youtube was born, a platform that allows you to upload content for free. So I made my channel, and I started uploading the content that we generated in that place, and that was when the bomb exploded. They began to see us from many parts of the world, not only people, but also important companies. So the work began to viralize and began to have more attention, and the next thing I knew was that I was already working as a full-time action double. So eventually I came to Sony to work on the new God Of War.
Nerdmacia : Could you tell us about your experience of working in a video game?
Eric : It’s very different to work in a videogame than in a movie. I thought I was going to do more things than I actually did, but it turns out that in a video game you only do twice as much as a 3D model, it’s not that you’re really participating. In addition Kratos is played by 2 different people, on the one hand is Christopher Judge, who is the one who lends his voice and movements in general, and then I am double acting. So yes, it’s very different. In this game it only required, to give you an example, of about 8 hours working out every day, which is very exhausting, whereas in a movie it is much easier to divide the times, and it is a lighter process in the long run.
Nerdmacia : Working in videogames and traveling through fantastic worlds should be a truly unique experience. What was the first video game you worked on and how was the experience of seeing yourself in a world that does not exist?
Eric : The first video game I worked for was Mafia III from the 2K company, since fortunately I had a friend who was involved in the production and I lived a few blocks away from him at that time. Then he contacted me mainly because they needed a guy who accepted all kinds of beating haha, that is, stabbing, kicking, shooting, so my first job was capture movement and I remember being days and days and days in that and had to recreate falls and different types of pirouettes that in the movies is very rare to see, and not only for one person, but for several at the same time. In the game we see children falling, old people falling, women falling, then I had to, as I say, receive all kinds of beatings haha. It was very funny because I ended up being the laughingstock of everyone, but finally that is what led me to success. The truth is ironic.
Nerdmacia : How long does it take you to make a scene on average?
Eric: Again, it’s a totally different process in video games and movies. In a movie, a scene of fights takes a lot of minutes to shoot and if it does not go well you have to do it again and so on until someone says “I liked it” and then it’s cut and that’s what’s left. In a game like Mafia III or God Of War there are several cameras and with different angles each, then they are not even minutes. You simply do a pirouette and say “cut” and then do another and “cut” again. And in the end all those divided shots unite them, and the whole sequence appears. In movies it is longer, but by not being divided, you get to enjoy the process much more. But that’s what it’s about being double, of putting all your energy into what you do, whether it’s a lot or a little.
Nerdmacia: In an interview that we did earlier you mentioned that you had a very serious experience with one of your knees. How was that and what health measures are taken to ensure that nothing happens with the production?
Eric: Oh yes, my knee. It happened that right in the recordings of God Of War I fell badly in one of the many pirouettes, and I began to have a very sharp pain in one of my knees. I did the work, but obviously many people in production realized that I was limping, so one of them, Carlos, comes up to me and says “Hey … how’s your knee?”. Of course nobody wanted to stop the production but Carlos told me that, if necessary, we would stop it if my pain continued. The pain continued, but Carlos was very kind to me, almost an angel … he gave me some medicines and advice so that it would not happen again, and in fact he helped me a lot in those scenes so that he did not have to suffer so much. Finally the pain healed thanks to his advice and I have not had a bad experience like that again. But of course, at the time it was very scary.
In light of his performing stunts for Kratos in Sony’s 2018 hit God of War, Eric Jacobus was invited to participate at FestiGame in Santiago, Chile in early August. Jacobus was first asked to give a stunt demonstration and motivational talk, but then he saw the numbers: over 40,000 video game fans from all over Latin America would attend FestiGame, and he had a stage to work with. So he quickly brought together some teams to do something that’s never been done before: a motion capture stunt show starring a live video game character.
Jacobus knew that the right tool for the job would be Xsens MVN, a marker-less motion capture system that utilizes sensors and can be utilized anywhere without the optical cameras one requires in a Vicon or OptiTrack system. He originally saw the Xsens suit at E3 in 2017, and now he knew how to apply it. All he needed was a character to embody in the live show, and he discovered that the upcoming Chilean fighting game Omen of Sorrow would be at FestiGame. The show coordinator contacted AOne Games, and they agreed to let Jacobus use their Dr. Hyde character.
Chris Adamsen of Xsens rigged the Dr. Hyde character in Unity, and using an Xsens plugin streamed Jacobus’s movements in the Xsens suit directly into Unity and manipulate the Dr. Hyde model. The result was a stunt demonstration in which Jacobus brought a video game character to life in front of a live audience. (Video shot by Zac Swartout)
Jacobus plans to bring live motion capture stunt shows to other venues and hopes to portray other video game characters in the near future. If this is of interest for your show or if your video game character is a good fit, perhaps you can both make it happen.
Eric Jacobus is back with another entry in his Tekken In Real Life series, this time with Akuma from Tekken 7. Jacobus recently took a short break from producing the series while moving his studio again, but now that he’s settled in, the raging demon could be unleashed.
Jacobus writes in the video’s description:
Akuma’s moves are the result of doing Karate in sandals for a thousand years. His stance is totally grounded, as if his toes are gripping the ground. Everything is heavy-handed and Karate-based, except for some of his impossible airborne attacks. Nonetheless, if you find yourself in a street fight and you’re wearing flip flops, don’t try to fight like Akuma.
EntZone: How long did it take you to get accustom to playing a blind man? What, if any, specific training did you go through to achieve such a realist look and feel to the character of Walter Cooke? When you were ‘in character, did you find yourself being treated differently by others around you?
Eric Jacobus: … People are also totally off their base when interacting with the blind because the blind don’t play by the same cultural rules as the sighted, so it throws the sighted into confusion. We start wondering why we chose the shirt we wore today, or why we’re attracted to the women we’re with. That’s the beauty of the Zatoichi films. He throws everyone off base because they’re suddenly in the presence of a man who lives on the periphery of culture, where we lose sight of what’s fashionable and begin facing hard truths. Why do I want that car? Why do I care what color my shoes are? Real-life Walter lived by these hard truths and rattled off a litany of rules he followed for every situation. It stopped being about coveting the goods others have or lusting after women we otherwise wouldn’t care about and became much more grounded.
DMR: Talk about rehearsing the various fights: what are some of the new techniques and action you learned along the way?
EJ: We start with the story. Walter has a sword, these guys have guns. You can’t make a long, intricate fight when it’s a sword versus a gun. We could do “gun-fu” or flail the sword around for five minutes like a Rurouni Kenshin fight scene, but that would only service our egos as stuntmen. You lose people with that mindset, so as stuntmen who are creating from the ground up we have to pull back and ask, “What’s the story here? What are the key moments to capitalize on?” Takeshi Kitano made memorable fight scenes out of a single move – jamming the hammer on a revolver with his thumb, or putting a bullet in a guy’s mouth and socking him. This is smart film-making, so we start there. The choreography falls into place effortlessly then.
Read the full interview here. Thank you Danny Templegod for the opportunity.
Be sure to check out Blindsided: The Game on YouTube here.