Before we start, here’s Kung Fu vs. Zombies for your viewing pleasure.

The premise behind our short Kung Fu vs. Zombies was simple – pay homage to the iconic alley fight scene from Big Trouble In Little China.

Inspiration for Kung Fu vs. Zombies
John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China (1986) – Chang Sing vs. Wing Kong

(If you haven’t seen Big Trouble In Little China yet, please do. You’ll thank me later. It’s on Amazon for a dollar as I write this.)

When watching the clip above (there’s no spoiler in it, don’t worry), there are about 20 different fights happening at once. The fights that we focus on are in the foreground, but there’s a lot happening in the background that fills the scene out beautifully. We’re not supposed to focus on the background fights… but I can’t help myself. They’re hilarious.

Check out the fight in the background
Choreographer: “Alright everyone, even though you’ll be in the background, I want your fight scene to be intense and fast-paced.”
Stuntman with the hatchet: “Whatever, man, nobody’s gonna be watching us.”

Still, anyone who saw this scene ages ago was blown away by the amount of action happening on the screen. We wanted to make that. This would require building a set, hiring 50 martial artists, and shooting for 3-5 days with a crew of 30. Total budget: $100,000 USD on the low end.

Or, we could motion capture the entire thing with TWO martial artists and a crew of THREE. We could get an awesome location on the Unity asset store for $50, buy a couple character assets, and shoot the entire thing in two days in a motion capture volume. Our version would have a twist: the kung fu heroes fight against a zombie invasion in Chinatown. We could even bring in a dragon and a giant zombie that we could climb on. To make it a true homage, include a Jack Burton walk-on at the end.

When we started motion capturing Kung Fu vs. Zombies (KvZ) we didn’t even have a location in mind. We just knew it had to be a Chinatown alley. I’d deal with that later. I had Dennis for a day, so we just started shooting.

We started with the lineup, an iconic Western-style standoff that kicks off the scene. We did 16 or so takes for both sides, including the run up. We only had enough run distance to get a total of 2 steady run cycles, but this is enough when bringing it into post.

Kung Fu vs. Zombies mocap shoot

We then shot a ton of fight scenes. Dennis and I have worked together for over 15 years. Ever since Contour, we’ve figured out how to move together so easily that we can complete each other’s (physical) sentences. Choreography isn’t even really a process. We just move around and it becomes fight choreography. Sometimes I’d be the zombie, other times he’d be the zombie.

Eric and Dennis motion capturing the action in Kung Fu vs. Zombies

The goal, again, was to shoot everything the way John Carpenter did. I’d put every fight scene happening consecutively in the same location and just shoot vignettes, so the entire location would be chock full of action constantly. All the background action is just a repetition of what you see in the vignettes, but the audience is engaged, so they’re only watching the foreground stuff.

Some of these fight scenes were shorter than others. This would become a problem later on.

We then shot the giant zombie scene. This is the tentpole of the whole piece, the “Bad Guys Close In” segment to use Save the Cat terminology. Dennis acted out some basic navigation. We simulated the giant zombie eating one of the characters, which was just me sitting on a barstool, and also did some ladder climbs so we could have some characters climb the giant zombie leg.

Lastly we shot our Jack Burton footage outside. The Xsens system works off a router, as there are no cameras. I went out of range but that didn’t matter, since the suit buffers all the capture and loads it onto the computer once you go back within range.

Post-Production

For post, I decided on Unity because it allowed me to quickly drop the motion capture files in, put them on the free 3D models, and not really have to mess with anything. Plus I had already tinkered a fair amount in Cinemachine in our previous 3Viz video.

When I lined everyone up in Unity, I looped the run-up animations at the crossing of the feet so that it would blend relatively smoothly. You have to tinker with the motion settings so they don’t go off at an angle, but when doing this, I could have them run forever.

A short run cycle for each character that’s repeated so our characters can cover any space we put them in

I used the original Big Trouble in Little China scene as reference and shot it essentially the same way using Cinemachine. All the shots were done manually with keyframes.

I went with these low-polygon heroes at first because they were free, plus I thought it was a cool throwback. But when we released our first and second dev diaries, people commented on the low quality assets compared to the more realistic zombie assets. In the end we purchased some higher quality character packs from the Unity asset store for $12.

Another asset that we needed before making much progress was the location itself. I bought this Chinatown scene for $25 from the asset store and spent many hours tweaking the lighting and environment to get it to look cinematic.

Then I had to fit everyone into the alley. This was redundant work because I had already positioned everybody on the blank white background. Had I started with this set, I would have been done much faster.

Yet more lighting tweaks. You really have to put an arbitrary limit on things like lighting, or else you’ll tweak it forever.

Note: I added a 24-frame pre-roll before my animations started. This allows the lighting to “kick in”. Otherwise, the first second of animation would have various lights clicking on for whatever reason. There might be a toggle switch for this somewhere in Unity but I didn’t find it.

Special thanks to Adam Myhill for the cinematic tips like adding fog and some Cinemachine filters.

What I noticed right away too was the sheer amount of swaying and unnecessary movement from the heroes. The Wing Kong and the Chang Sing were almost perfectly still, but our guys were shuffling around like we all had to pee. And I had tried deliberately to reduce this movement during motion capture, because there’s a tendency for mocap actors to add way too much unnecessary movement (neck kinks, shoulder twists, lots of nervous footsteps in place, random weight shifts, none of which is natural). Still, old habits die hard. I slowed a bunch of these down to 0.5 speed to resolve this.

After ensuring that no characters were clipping through one another or through the surrounding scenery, the lighting looked good enough, the seams in the ground weren’t too obvious (which could be resolved by raising the range and decreasing the intensity of the corresponding light source, a task that became increasingly more complex as more lights were added), I shot this scene with Cinemachine and released it as dev diary episode 2.

Since I was dealing with so many characters, each shot required lots of cheating and shifting of characters and it took many hours more than necessary to shoot this part. If I had to do it again, I could bang this scene out in an hour or two. With an actual Vcam (like Dragonfly, which we used in Cabin Fever) it might take 20 minutes.

Every camera angle was exported using the Unity Recorder package add-in, something you can add to your project for free (make sure you select “Show Preview Packages” in your package manager window). I only exported mp4 files, which are relatively low quality in Unity Recorder, even when the quality is set to “high”. Adding an image sequence export option would have concurrently exported a PNG sequence, which could have been stitched together into a beautiful 422 ProRes file in Media Encoder, something I didn’t do until the next scene.

Movie export settings in Unity Recorder
Image sequence export settings in Unity Recorder

Another mistake I made in this scene was failing to make a proper hierarchy for my vcam assets. All the cinemachine vcams were in the root hierarchy, which was messy, but I was more concerned with just pumping shots out and getting the thing done. I assumed I could rearrange these after shooting everything, and so after I was done I stuck all the vcam shots into an empty “Virtual Cameras” object. But suddenly Cinemachine didn’t know where these vcams were located anymore, even when I re-linked them in the animation window. I would have to move them BACK OUT to the main hierarchy for the Cinemachine angles to function properly again. Still, not wanting to hamper my progress, I just tucked them away somewhere and moved on.

We felt pretty good about our dev diary. Then someone mentioned that the low-polygon heroes looked cheap, especially compared to their sleek, sinewy zombie opponents. So I paid $12 for two packs: PBR Fighters and this Ninja Pack. I spent a day or two re-fitting all the characters with their new, high-poly skins. For $12 I went from Virtua Fighter 1 graphics to PS3-PS4 quality.

Swapping high-poly characters for older low-poly characters

Kung Fu Fighting

With the lineup done and shot, it was time to move on to the fighting. My plan was to animate every fight scene as a single animation strip and layer them on top of one another and place them in various places throughout the scene. The question then became: how do I do a new timeline with all this stuff already in the scene?

I probably went about it all wrong, but it still worked. I basically duplicated all my characters and made one folder for “Fight Scenes”, where each Kung Fu vs. Zombie fight would happen, along with their associated weapons and props and effects, and one folder for “Vcams” with their camera angles.

Since each character had a parent object that could be moved about freely, I could mess with distancing whenever necessary. So when Dennis throws a kick at my stomach, we could do it from 2 feet away and I’d put a keyframe there to move the characters close together. When I grab him immediately after, I keyframe that spot and reposition the characters. It works flawlessly, save for a bit of foot sliding (which you could tweak in MotionBuilder), but the camera rarely looks at the feet. This is the benefit of havirng control of your camera and style. You don’t have to worry about making everything look perfect: just shoot the stuff that looks good and cheat the rest.

Fudging character distance in the Unity timeline

Lots of the fights had swords. We should have done prop capture, which would have made for less work and more realistic looking weapon animation. Instead I had to hand-key all the weapons, though parenting the weapon to the characters’ hands makes this relatively painless.

Some fight scenes were shorter than others. If a background fight suddenly ended, the characters would vanish. I’d catch this most of the time, but sometimes there’d be a distant fight scene with a disappearing kung fu fighter that I didn’t catch until much later into production.

To resolve this, I would go into the vcam animation track group and add an “Activation Track” for the background fight in question and make sure that it was deactivated on a camera cut. Some fights mysteriously disappear between shots, but at least it’s not mid-take, and nobody will notice this stuff.

Activating and deactivating characters per virtual camera in Unity’s Cinemachine

Vcamming all the fights was fun. Shooting and editing is where you can make action really sing. We had all these shots and edits basically planned in our heads as we were motion capturing them, so this part went smoothly.

We don’t shoot coverage-style, which would mean shooting the entire fight from multiple angles and then editing it together later. This shooting-editing style tends to come off as unintentional, but we wanted every shot to have a definite meaning, like a proper kung fu film. We pop off particular shots for particular action, even if that means doing 1 move in a camera setup. This was the Sammo Hung style, which negates the need to repeat action over and over and risk injury. Sammo’s impact-heavy style meant that stuntmen would be subject to wear and tear, so he’d pop off a couple takes of only that action, call it good, and never do that action again. I call this performer-economy since it doesn’t exhaust the performers.

Performer-economy shooting style, with zero coverage
From Sammo Hung’s Pantyhose Hero

In 3D, we’re tempted to over-shoot because it’s free to keep popping off angles. There’s also the perverse incentive of repeating choreography in different angles and attempting to sell it as different action, but we believe in disciplined shooting and maintained this same performer-economy style. In keeping with a rhythm Dennis and I have developed over the years, we would typically do 3-5 camera setups per action vignette, for a total of about 120 vcam shots for the mass-fight scene.

The entire short has the same motion blur. I shoot my live-action fights with a 1/50 or 1/60 shutter, or 1/120 if there are weapons involved (though for this short I never changed it). Strobe-y fight scenes shot with a 1/500 shutter are visually strange. This trend took off after Gladiator, where it was used to effect with the weapons and cool production value, but for some reason cinematographers and directors decided every fist fight needed to also look like Gladiator. The naked eye has a natural motion blur that registers movement to the brain. If your fight has a strobe-like quality, the brain might register the images, but without motion blur, the viewer requires more processing power to string these images together and process the fight scene.

Strobe-y fight scene from Fast & Furious 7 (2015)

Another issue with a strobe-like effect in a fight scene is that contact lines get compromised. A punch across the face shot at 1/50 shutter creates a pleasant motion blur, which allows the performer 2-3 frames of leeway to react in time. But at 1/250 or 1/500 shutter, the punch will be on one side of the face, then the other side of the face, with no blur. The audience will wonder why the impact is off, and it’s because there was never any contact.

So, I applied the Cinemachine motion blur filter to the global camera profile so it would never change.

I had the option of vcamming everything with the Dragonfly vcam, but unlike in Unreal’s Sequencer, there was no obvious way to edit these vcam shots in Cinemachine. Dragonfly works much better in Unreal. There’s also the Expozure vcam system, which is super high-grade, but we weren’t ready to transition by the time we started working with that one. We’ll use Expozure for the next short.

I should have put the vcams in the same folder as the fights themselves, because then if I moved the fight, the cameras would move with them. Instead, whenever I moved a fight, I’d have to move the cameras independently as well, which messed up all my shots.

Benefit of having vcam shots in the same folder as the corresponding action

Some ideas had to be thrown out, such as some bone breaks, which would have required some MotionBuilder work, as well as dismemberment, which would mean editing the 3D model in Blender or some other 3D tool to show the cross-section of the removed limb. The choreography never really called for this, and it was too technical for me. Maybe next time.

Next time, we will do finger capture. This would have been a huge help to the animations, and as it is we only did minimal finger adjustments for the “Hung Gar hands” portions, another nod to Big Trouble In Little China.

Paying homage to the Chang Sing hand signal (“Hung Gar hand”)
Big Trouble in Little China 1986

After an internal viewing, the Sumo stuff stole the show, so we added some shots for him on a pickup day. We also added a comedy bit with the red ninja’s shuriken (Dennis’s idea) and the rhinoceros smashing a zombie into a sign. This was accomplished with a series of 3 animations blended together.

Zombie Giant

In theory, adding a giant to your scene is pretty simple. Just mocap your actor, compensate for his size (maybe 10 meters translates to 50 meters in the 3D scene), and slow him down a bit. We fit the giant zombie into the scene without much of an issue, but I realized that he’d collide with all the Chinese lanterns I’d hung in the scene. I tried to animate them so they’d fall down, but it looked crummy. So, like any good filmmaker, I just cut away and added off-camera effects.

We barely had enough of a “scared run” cycle, and only 4 of them at that. We should have captured 16 of them, and tripled their length. So whatever you see is all that there was. You’ll see some characters begin to stop, but I tried to cut away to avoid showing this.

Climbing up the giant zombie legs was relatively simple. I parented the ladder climb animations to the zombie leg and compensated for the pant leg depth. In the end it looks okay. It would have been even better to animate the heroes’ legs dangling more and swaying with the motion of the walk cycle, but for a cheap edit job this worked pretty well.

Parenting a character animation to another character’s leg, with keyframe editing on the transform properties

We planned for a dragon to enter the scene and didn’t think much more of it. It turned out to be pretty simple, as the dragon cost us $15 on the Unity store. There was a built-in effect for the fire, but I couldn’t get it to work, so I had to build my own using the particle generator. I also parented a similar fire effect to the giant zombie’s head for when he goes down to the ground.

Using Unity’s particle emitter to create a dragon flame

After spending a bit of time learning particle systems, I figured I’d try my hand at making blood effects too. This turned out to be a huge ordeal. I tried purchasing two blood asset packages, neither of which worked. There was no clear-cut tutorial on making a blood particle system. So I tweaked and tweaked, probably for a total of 10-16 hours, until something looked acceptable. Even then, the blood has no collision properties and falls through the floor, so this would have to be (again) hidden with camera and editing.

Using Unity’s particle system to create blood effects

Still, once the blood was made, it was easy to replicate it everywhere. I could easily make splatters for the Sumo attacks, and by parenting a blood particle system to a character, it will follow them around. These really add to the scene and I’m happy I invested the hours.

For the final Jack Burton cameo, I didn’t consider the fact that we’d actually have to find a character that resembled Jack from Big Trouble In Little China. And it turns out there’s nothing out there, nothing even close. Also, creating the iconic Jack Burton tanktop was way beyond my pay grade, so I used Adobe Fuse to build a Jack wearing his simpler cream-colored poncho in the beginning of the film.

Jack Burton created in Adobe Fuse and the $5 truck from the Unity store
Jack Burton, late to the party as usual

Getting your Fuse animation into Unity isn’t a simple task. First I exported it to Mixamo, which generates the rig. However, this skeleton isn’t prepared to run the Xsens mocap animations we had. Our MotionBuilder tech Mike Foster rigged it up in MoBu and made it ready to go. Still, importing the character into Unity results, for some reason, in the textures being set to transparent. So I had to extract the textures and reapply them to all the body elements. Then we had Jack.

I spent about 2 days on sound design. I have a very fast process for doing sound that I developed when doing previz on Heart of a Champion where I can bang out sound designs really quickly. It involves a lot of hotkeys and organization techniques. I’ll write a separate post about that someday. I also nested each character’s sound effect group and created sequences from those and dropped them in as background sound whenever I wanted to fill in some ambient fight sounds.

Sound design and mix done in Adobe Premiere

Mark R. Johnson handled all the titles. We went with the Carpenter style for both the intro and final credits using the Albertus font. And JP Franco created our thumbnail.

Final Takeaways

I learned about 6,482 things doing Kung Fu vs. Zombies, but here they are narrowed down to a top-8 list:

  1. You can make crowds really quickly using motion capture.
  2. Unity assets are cheap and they have everything you could ever want on the asset store.
  3. Cinemachine looks great but takes time compared to using DragonFly iPad-based vcam. (Unreal’s Sequencer takes arguably as much time as Cinemachine.)
  4. Making a single blood particle system is hard, but once you invest in making it look right, you might as well use it everywhere.
  5. If Unity had nested timelines like Sequencer, it would be a far more competitive filmmaking tool.
  6. Organize your vcams carefully when using Cinemachine. If they’re intended to move around with the action, parent them under the same object. Do not start editing your vcams until your hierarchy is set!
  7. Adobe Fuse is a powerful tool for making quick character models, but you’ll need to tweak it in MotionBuilder before it’s ready for an Xsens mocap animation.
  8. When exporting using Unity Recorder, if you’re exporting a clip that starts 2 minutes into the sequence, Recorder renders everything, rather than just skipping to that 2-minute mark. Recorder is solid, except for this one issue.
  9. All the cool people have seen Big Trouble In Little China. Have you?

    and finally…
  10. Learning that we could make a full-blown action movie using nothing but some motion capture suits and a Unity scene changed how I see filmmaking. This kind of movie would have been impossible 10 years ago, but as storytellers we have all the tools we could ever want to make whatever we want. I look forward to seeing how Unity, Unreal, and Maya get utilized by the indie filmmaking world, because today, there’s no longer a barrier to entry to telling a story. Just learn the tool and start making stuff.

Many thanks to the people who have kept watching our projects over the years. We believe the action of Kung Fu vs. Zombies and the ease of creating it is a sign of things to come.

Since the priesthood requires diligent adherence to a set of legacy rules to prevent another crisis, it’s normal for priestly texts to be pretty tedious in their instructions. The text describing the building of the tabernacle is practically a carbon copy of the instructions previously given.

The repetition is annoying for most readers, and it’s common for an exciting journey through Torah study to grind to a halt here. The minute details in the instructions and subsequent execution of the instructions sounds is like a process doc for building a portable nuclear reactor. And based on how the ark functioned, that’s probably an accurate description.

This OCD-level of detail should be expected from any priestly portions of holy texts because these are the sections where the author(s) can demonstrate that they not only took the critical instructions seriously, but actually executed those instructions exactly. The modern equivalent would look like a set of CAD designs and process instructions for the nuclear reactor, followed by a detailed checklist of how each instruction was carefully heeded, maybe with an accompanying signature from a foreman signing off on every step.

An uncontrollable crisis such as famine, infertility, and violent contagion – in other words, total annihilation – is just around the corner in the ancient mind, and priestly matters deal with the control centers of the crises. Before the Semitic alef-bet, these matters were either passed down verbally and suffered decay from a game of telephone, or they were written in a indecipherable languages like Tangut that could only be read by officials. The point wasn’t to democratize the priestly process, but to just write it down so that the priests (or bureaucrats) had a process to follow to avoid certain destruction.

Part 3 of The Art of Violence Series
Read Part 1, Mirror Neurons and Human Violence, here
and Part 2, The Blood-Ritual Spectrum, here

I’ve used the blood-ritual spectrum to demonstrate that combat rituals allow the contestants to balance the blood debt. On one end of the spectrum is the blood feud, which gets the job done fast with a high risk of violent contagion. At the other end is the choreographed war dance, which is a slow burn but with almost no risk of violent contagion.

That article was primarily concerned with the participants in combat ritual. Participation in ritual has one clear benefit aside from balancing the blood debt: it was a release valve for built-up, violent intents, which if bottled up could easily explode in violent contagion.

This article covers an element that all combat rituals have in common: spectators. Spectators weren’t just there for their own entertainment, and they weren’t just ticket sales for the promoters. Spectators form an integral part of the combat ritual equation: their presence is also critical to keeping violent contagion in check.

The Violent Spectators

We can simulate this scenario in a few ways. Let’s go back in time and imagine a peaceful tribe on one side of a large canyon. On the other side is a gang of cannibals. The gap prevents the cannibals from invading the peaceful tribe. For the sake of argument, the peaceful tribe can’t escape. So once the cannibals build a bridge, they’ll enjoy the human buffet waiting on the other side.

The peaceful tribe watches the cannibal gang sharpen their teeth and hone their axes all day. Their peaceful mirror neurons are slowly inundated with the cannibals’ intentions to eat them. Cannibalistic notions will begin invading their once-peaceful thoughts. One goes crazy and stabs his brother with a sharp stick. A cousin takes revenge for the stabbing. A small feud erupts. At this rate, the peaceful tribe will kill itself off before the cannibals can even finish the bridge. What can they do?

The peaceful tribe, like any society, still has to balance its blood debt. It does this while weighing the risks of violent contagion. As mentioned previously, blood feuds don’t mix well with neighbors. In an open system like this, the stress of an impending cannibal invasion is too much kindling for the fire.

Peter Gibbons in Office Space

Before we propose a solution, we need to understand the mechanics of what’s happening in the peaceful tribe members’ mirror neuron systems. We can use the modern example of Office Space. Peter is an office worker. His overbearing boss Lumbergh and annoying coworkers get on his nerves. They bombard his mirror neuron systems with malicious intentions. Peter is constantly inundated by his job, just like the peaceful tribe is inundated by the cannibals.

If this were medieval Iceland, Peter could kill Lumbergh and rule Initech. If it were the Old West, he could challenge Lumbergh to a gun duel, or maybe a fist fight. Even a quick Jujitsu match could settle things quickly. But the corporate world of post-1994 doesn’t allow for these modes of resolution.

Fight Club posits an interesting resolution for inundation – get together on Friday nights and do fist fights (level 3 on the blood-ritual spectrum). Corporate boxing gyms are all over America for this reason. The physical release of the intent loads can clear the air for office workers and allow them to keep working. If boxing isn’t an option, they can run, lift weights, or do something physical that, at least partially, targets these problematic intent loads.

But let’s say Peter didn’t do anything, or he can’t do anything. Or he didn’t have time. What happens to all the intents that he loads into his brain? His relationship is on the brink, and he’s miserable. He might snap and stab someone. We have the same situation as our cannibal invasion: intents are loaded, they’re boiling over, and our subjects can’t physically do anything. Peter goes to a hypnotist, but that’s movie logic and won’t work for us. We need a resolution to the problem of inundation without action.

Inundation – Intents Kept In a (Volatile) Potential State

In Mirrors in the Brain Rizzolatti theorized that when we observe an object that requires some kind of action, such as a coffee cup, the PMVr (or “F5”) region of our brain builds a simulation of the action. This is stored as a potential motor action. The simulation helps us to process exactly how to pick up the coffee cup, which then allows us to act. Intents are loaded and then released by action.

Once we have discovered how to conjugate the different kinds of motor acts with specific visual aspects relative to objects, which therefore become object affordances, our motor system will be able to perform all the transformations necessary to carry out any act, including that of picking up our cup of coffee.

… Many objects, including our coffee cup, have more than one affordance. It follows that when we see these objects, more than one set of neural AIP populations will be triggered, each of which will code a specific affordance. It is likely that these action proposals will be sent to F5, sparking off what can be defined as potential motor acts. Now, the choice of how to act will not depend only on the intrinsic properties of the object in question (its shape, size, and orientation), but also on what we intent to do with it, on its functions, etc. Going back to our coffee cup once more, we will grasp it in different ways depending on whether we are picking it up to drink from it, to rinse it, or simply to move it from one place to another. Moreover, our grip on the cup varies according to the circumstances, whether we are afraid of burning our fingers, or the cup is surrounded by other objects; it will also be influenced by our customs, habits, and our inclination to adhere to certain social rules and so on.

Rizzolatti, Mirrors In The Brain, (pp. 35-36)

When we do not act on the potential motor act, the intention is retained in a potential stage.

When an act is performed, the discharge of the neuron represents the activation of a motor command, such as ‘pick this up with a precision grip’, but what happens when there is no action involved, just observation? If the neuron also discharges in the same way in this condition, this discharge should convey an identical message to that sent when the animal moves, but which instead of determining an overt action, remains at the potential stage. This happens automatically whenever the monkey looks at a given type of object. … [W]e are interested here in the functions to be ascribed to the vocabulary of motor acts even when there is no explicit intention to act.

Rizzolatti, Mirrors In The Brain, pp. 47-48

Interestingly, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder can’t seem to ignore the inundation of objects and will constantly act on these stored intentions. Studying Autism as it relates to the mirror neuron system might reveal some interesting clues. This will be covered in a later article.

This same function of storing potential motor action helps us comprehend the intentions of others performing an action. The potential motor action builds a simulation within our own brains of what the other person is trying to do.

The ‘act on the spectator’s part’ is a potential motor act, determined by the activation of the mirror neurons that code sensory information in motor terms thus enabling the ‘reciprocity’ of acts and intentions that is at the root of our ability to immediately understand what we see others doing. … As soon as we see someone doing something, either a single act or a chain of acts, his movements take on immediate meaning for us, whether he likes it or not [and whether we like it or not]. … The mirror neuron system and the selectivity of the responses of the neurons that compose it, produce a shared space of action, within which each act and chain of acts, whether ours or ‘theirs’, are immediately registered and understood without the need of any explicit or deliberate ‘cognitive operation’.

Rizzolatti, Mirrors In The Brain, p. 131
Office Space

These potential intents, if not acted upon, are what cause us to be “bogged down” or inundated. Inundation is a huge load on our mirror neuron systems, begging us to do something. Of course, doing something about them would get us fired. We can’t all be gangstas.

The Cathartic War Dance

Back at the impending cannibal holocaust, our peaceful tribe needs to resolve the inundation from their cannibal neighbors, without sparking violent contagion within the tribe. A chieftain comes forward, who understands the whole situation. Understanding the situation requires decoding the simulation going on in the mirror neurons of his tribe. In our case, the intent load looks something like this:

  • Cannibals want to eat us
  • We can’t stop them
  • Feuds are erupting from our inundation

The chieftain then makes a blueprint of a counter-simulation which, in the minds of the peaceful tribespeople, could resolve the threat of the cannibal holocaust. This data would be:

  • Our tribe unites
  • We use weapons to beat the cannibals
  • Peace is restored

The chieftain gathers some of his warriors. They’re a little out of shape, so he paints some six-packs on them and makes them look hard. He choreographs a dance with them, a simulation of a defense against a cannibal holocaust. He integrates some aspects specific to their tribe like the red color of the soil and some local bird quills. The chieftain consults with the priests, integrating lore and storytelling into the routine.


War Dance – Thomas L. McKenney & James Hall, History of the Indian tribes of North America, London 1837 (vol. I, frontispiece)

The chieftain gathers the tribe together and presents The War Dance. The people are enchanted as their warriors battle and tell stories. At the end is an animal sacrifice, which brings a symbolic peace on the whole assembly. The war dance rallies the troops against the inevitable cannibal attack, but it also serves to calm down the audience. It clarifies the “we” against “them cannibals”.

God of War

Like the war dance, in any story we are introduced to the main character of the drama, whom we relate to in some way. Typical stories have a “save the cat” moment where our mirror neuron systems can click with the protagonist. His desires become our desires, his enemies our enemies, his struggle our struggle, and his catharsis our catharsis. His entire drama is simulated within our mirror neuron system, which becomes our internal reality for the length of the drama. If our intent load doesn’t click with his, we can’t sync up with his story, so we’ll pick a different drama. Netflix has 160 TV shows as of writing this post, so people have no shortage of dramatic options to choose from. Corporate bosses like Lumbergh might connect with a show about a politician, a laborer will connect with a show about a coal-miner in post-Edwardian England, etc.

No matter what intents we’re loaded with throughout the day, there is a drama out there, a war dance, that we can sync with. Our protagonist will vanquish the villain, offloading her intents through the resolution of, say, a final sword fight. This has the effect of unhitching the same intents that we’ve been inundated with up until that point. The death of the villain simulates the intent offloading, and we’re suddenly freed from the inundation.

(Sidenote: This is the same method used in possession and exorcism rituals. I’ll write more in depth on this subject in a later post. But essentially, the shaman/Netflix syncs with our MNS and uses various sacred objects/imagery to help us expel foreign intent loads. The more we study our ancestors, the more we realize that we haven’t changed.)

The removal of these loaded intents gives new meaning to the Greek word catharsis. The “purification”, “cleansing”, and “clarification” of catharsis makes a lot more sense now. Netflix and the war dance have this very cathartic effect on the spectator: the shedding of unwanted intent loads so that we don’t kill each other.

The Formal Era of the War Dance

Going back to our impending cannibal holocaust, the cathartic war dance (or any media that we watch for its cleansing properties, and not for research) keeps the peaceful tribe from killing itself off. It’s on the cleanest end of the Blood-Ritual Spectrum, where violence is codified and not actually violent toward anybody, so we could call this period a formal era. The goal is to keep violent contagion to an absolute minimum.

Formal eras don’t necessarily require an impending, external crisis. If we look at war dances like the WWE, Wushu, and Pakistani Kabbadi, these aren’t due to the threat of invading cannibals. However, highly coded forms of combat always stem from a strict taboo against violence, whose roots might be in the distant past. China’s reverence for traditional martial arts comes from millennia of peasant revolts and military conquest, which come with a host of coded taboos (even taboos against violence while eating). These traditional institutions bear the mark of history and are worth preserving for their weapons alone.

If we introduce an updated ritual combat system like MMA, there’s no reason to destroy the older, formal combat institution. Sometimes they even mix in interesting ways. Just don’t let them mix in the wrong way, or the state will intervene in the name of preserving this once-critical institution. Because you never know when you’ll need it again.

In the case of our peaceful tribe, formal violence is actually quite an accomplishment. Putting boundary lines around choreographed combat requires a long continuity of cultural signs, which is only possible if the tribe has escaped destruction from within and without.

But what happens when we do descend into a crisis?

When Cannibals Attack, We Eat Them – Plummeting to the Crisis Era

The tribe was too distracted watching the war dance and the cannibals built their bridge and attacked. The tribe attempts to fight, but their rusty weapons fail them, and they’re not in fighting shape. They take massive casualties. The cannibals finally devour the chieftain and secure their dominance. The tribe are caged and will be eaten over time, not necessarily for food, but more as a flex. Plus, that old fickle sun god seems to like it when they eat people.

The peaceful tribe’s collective mirror neurons have been inundated for months, maybe years, by the cannibals. They never acted on these loaded intentions to preemptively strike and stave off the attack, so now they’re lunch. We can look to history to see how dire the situation is for our peaceful tribe.

So now, perhaps without thinking, and with no other options, a handful of the peaceful tribe members gang up on the prison guard and eat him in front of some other cannibals. They begin to act like cannibals themselves, going on a rampage against the invaders. The once-peaceful tribe totally lets loose in the interest of self-preservation. Some of them even seem to enjoy this moment of animal-like brutality. The cannibals are then vanquished. They cross the bridge and murder all the cannibals’ family members too, just to be sure they don’t come back in a generation to settle the blood debt.

The tribe has rid themselves of the cannibals, but they have a new problem: now they’re cannibals. The dividing line between the animalistic cannibals and the high-minded tribe has been totally erased. The hero has become the villain, the villain the hero. There’s no right or wrong. This “undifferentiation” is the crisis, when critical differences and categories are lost. In this case, the difference between “human life” and “food” has vaporized.

In the wake of the crisis, the tribal mirror neuron network just looks like a bunch of cannibals. The network says, “Eating humans brings peace.” They’ve officially gone there. “Cannibalism” is now associated with “peace and victory” in the mirror neuron network! Uh oh! They want to go back to what were before, but whenever a threat crops up, they go to ritual cannibalism. It keeps the peace, but things aren’t the same anymore.

The elders come together and realize, in the interest of self-preservation, that they can’t just keep eating people. There at least has to be a sunset on cannibalism, because nobody wants to be the cannibal tribe. It’s not good for trade and it scares the kids. Worst of all, cannibalism is very bloody on the Blood-Ritual Spectrum, causing more than its fair share of contagious violence. (Food for thought: maybe the cannibal invaders were just trying to shake off their cannibalistic practices!)

The elders come up with a plan to de-cannibalize. They restrict cannibalism to prisoners only, then to only dead people, and then only domesticated animals that they pretend are people. Modern Latin American sacrifice calls for a chicken, which the priestess gently rocks like a baby. Then she cuts its throat. Sacrificial substitution gets the tribe out of the crisis situation and into an structure governed by a higher ethic.

If no plan is given, de-cannibalization might happen naturally. Eating a human in a dispute causes far too much revenge and anger. Disputes will have to be settled in cleaner ways (again, we can reference the blood-ritual spectrum). Disputes will become regulated by the elders, who will place strict boundaries around the contestants, which moves the tribe out of the crisis era and into the lawful era.

Lawful Era – The Market of Combat

The lawful era is when our new combat rituals emerge, which as we saw in the blood-ritual spectrum serve to settle blood debts among participants. New chieftains will emerge to help inaugurate these combat rituals. They will provide adequate cathartic release for the spectators, integrating various familiar cultural symbols, turning them into events that can draw many spectators.

It’s impossible to arbitrary dictate which type of combat to institute. Ethnic factors, inter-tribal relations, and geography are just a few of the many variables that will cause the right kind of combat to emerge in the lawful era. Take America, for example. The blood feud (1 on the spectrum) came with the territory, as did the duel (2) and the bare-knuckle fight (3). We see the pro wrestling match (war dance – 8) at early carnivals. Gloved boxing (5) was the sport of choice starting in 1892, and around the same time the bare-knuckle fight (3) and the duel to the death (2) were phased out. Much later in the 60s came competitive Karate (free fighting – 4, though arguably much cleaner than its later UFC counterpart) and only recently did we see the emergence of the Bare-Knuckle Fighting League (back to 3 again).

In a lawful era, the emergence of combat forms will be all over the place. Sometimes a ritual combat will displace others, and at other times both can exist side-by-side. Today, most developed countries have everything from free fighting to war dances (4-8), and many warrior societies still have bare knuckle fight rituals (3). Duels are mostly gone, and blood feuds are mostly gone too.

The lawful era is inherently stable. Rules and regulations are the basis of combat. Contagion is limited by emerging combat markets which balance participant payment with the demand for event tickets. Combat rituals which become outlawed might be commemorated in nostalgic media (Westerns, Chambara) or regulated as cultural treasures if they fail in the market. Lawful societies are generally able to balance the blood debt, avoid violent outbreaks, get the catharsis they need, and defend themselves from cannibals.

Despite its stability, there’s always a chance that a lawful era will descend back into a crisis era: lawful combat rituals might result in an explosion of violent contagion; cathartic outlets might not provide the juice and result in riots; or the cannibals might fly an airplane into a tower.

If the society fears violent contagion and decides to move toward cleaner combat, it might seal up the borders, outlaw all rituals besides the war dance, and institute a formal era via martial law.

Back Into the Formal Era – Aesthetic, But Unstable

A formal era is inherently unstable: borders have to be closed, the state will come down hard on violence, and people have no recourse to blood payment except through the state. Without strict military protection and a smart propaganda campaign, cannibals will infiltrate and destroy a formal society.

The Chinese Government created Wushu and entered its purely formal era for decades, but the formal era was eroded with the reforms of the early 2000s: China invited in more outside media, the borders were opened, and MMA took off. Wushu is still around, but for how much longer? China’s formal era might be on the brink and the country might be joining the rest of the world by moving into a more stable lawful era. North Korea, though it allowed Taekwondo, would still be considered a formal society, albeit a very unstable one.

Nostalgia for authoritarian formalism, original link

And just like the lawful era, a formal era can quickly unravel into a crisis era, as our peaceful tribe discovered.

Though formal eras are unstable, nostalgia for past formal eras permeates society. Musicals like West Side Story and spoofs like The Naked Gun feature highly coded violence. They call back to a time, often a fantasy that never existed, when violence was divorced of its contagious element.

Eras – Blueprints for Action Films

We will return to these eras – crisis, lawful, and formal – when we begin studying genre film, and action films in particular, since action film is a commemoration of the combat ritual. But first we will investigate media more broadly. How do crises affect media storytelling? How can we, as storytellers/filmmakers/choreographers, make the right kind of cathartic media? The next article on code-making will cover this and more.

Part 2 of The Art of Violence Series
Read Part 1, Mirror Neurons and Human Violence, here

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has grown interested in the topic of violence, which is driving us back into some old wisdom. If the CDC could avoid politicking, it could show that human violence in general is a contagion. Otherwise it’s just more political theater.

Credit: The Trace

In my article Mirror Neurons and Human Violence, citing Gans and Girard, I claimed that human violence is unique due to our complex mirror neuron systems and our (perhaps related) ability to use tools. This categorically differentiates humans from animals. Our tendency to escalate violence to extremes leads to one of two outcomes – a standstill, or total destruction.

Blood = Violent Contagion

The ancients were very sensitive to human violence. Any sign of it signaled to everyone that a crisis was at hand. One clear indicator of violent contagion was blood. Armor was ritually washed in Torah after battle. As a sign of contagion, blood from child birth and menstruation was quarantined to prevent further outbreak. This was a ritual common to most, if not all, parts of the world, enforced by both genders. It was not to eliminate bacterial contagion (even if that was a side effect), but violent contagion.

Menstrual shed in Nepal. Credit: NPR

Violent contagion is commemorated, or ritualized, in various ways. Bloodbaths are simulated without casualties in La Tomatina. The sight of red doesn’t result in mass warfare because the safety release valve of the ritual, a booster shot, inoculates the crowd against future violent outbreaks. Early depictions of Holi indicate that the primary color for the celebration was red, though the Indian diaspora seems averse to using red.

If we’re going to try and think like ancients, then we can’t look at the taboo against blood and its related rituals purely as ignorant superstition. Red color has real meaning: sometimes taboo, sometimes fortune, but red is never meaningless.

La Tomatina – Simulation of Blood. Credit Wiki

Ritual is a virtual simulation of violent contagion. The ritual injects information into our mirror neuron system, which counteracts the gradual build-up of (often violent) intentions that we unconsciously download from others over time. Ritual unhitches our intent loads in a cathartic release, putting us back in right-thinking. (Its addictive qualities result in some interesting changes over time, which we’ll touch on later.)

The total destruction of society is too risky for any organization of people, so in the past we come up with some interesting ways of dealing with this. And we still use all of it, just with different coats of paint.

Case Study: A Territorial Dispute Leads to Murder

To begin, let’s simulate a situation common to all time periods: territorial dispute. Abe claims his property line includes the cedar tree. Bert claims his great grandfather planted the cedar. Abe builds a fence and encloses the tree. Bert knocks it down. The two shout. There’s an escalation. Intent loads escalate to extremes.

Image result for people arguing fence

Abe has a knife in his belt. Bert anticipates violence. So he hits Abe in the head with a pickax and brains him. (Read Njáls Saga for an Icelandic example.)

In a functional, modern legal system, Bert gets arrested, tried, and goes to jail for second degree murder. But not long ago, Bert instead incurred blood debt. There are lots of ways of describing blood debt: “the ground demanded Abe’s blood”, “Abe’s blood cried out from the earth“, etc. Abe’s family would then collect the blood debt from Bert by demanding some form of payment: financial compensation, killing Bert, or Bert offering the life of someone from his family. Trumbull records this in his 1885 book Blood Covenant:

Hence, in the event of a depletion of the family by the loss of blood—the loss of a life—the goel had a responsibility of securing to the family an equivalent of that loss, by other blood, or by an agreed payment for its value. His mission was not vengeance, but equity. He was not an avenger, but a redeemer, a restorer, a balancer. And in that light, and in that light alone, are all the Oriental customs in connection with blood-cancelling seen to be consistent.

… Von Wrede, says of the custom of the Arabs, in concluding a peace, after tribal hostilities: “If one party has more slain than the other, the shaykh on whose side the advantage lies, says [to the other shaykh]: ‘Choose between blood and milk’ [between life, and the means of sustaining life]; which is as much as to say, that he may [either] avenge the fallen [take life for life]; or accept blood-money.” Mrs. Finn says, similarly, of the close of a combat in Palestine: “A computation is generally made of the losses on either side by death, wounds, etc., and the balance is paid to the victors.” Burton describes similarly the custom in Arabia.

Trumbull, Blood Covenant (1885) p. 89-90

Blood accounting and the feud are not-so-ancient concepts that we have to wrap our heads around if we want to understand ritual combat (and action choreography by extension). Without it, we’re left with a useless emotional reaction to sports combat and other ritual acts of violence (bloody MMA bouts, fist fights in Hockey) that thrive in modern pop culture. My hypothesis: ritual violence is a blood accounting simulation.

Emotional Reactions to Blood

An emotional reaction to blood is normal and healthy. This is a legacy function of our brains which creates a stress response when blood is present, signaling a real risk of violent contagion. There’s no need to resist this healthy impulse. The difference is that our ancestors had proper action understanding surrounding blood – they dealt more readily with open wounds, fought each other more often, saw a lot of human death, and killed a lot of animals with their bare hands. Most of us don’t have this kind of comfort with blood, but we don’t need it.

Nonetheless it’s critical that we understand violence so we don’t react emotionally to it. This helps us think clearly during violent threats and analyze the ritual violence of our ancestors fairly. Without some level of understanding, then violent experiences become locked behind an emotional firewall, preventing their rational discussion.

Take this cliche argument between an academic and a fighter. The academic argues from emotion. The fighter is ready to fight. The academic is coaxed into punching the fighter in the nose, drawing blood. The two might trade blows until the academic, having now built up just a little bit of action understanding, can suddenly speak and think rationally. The violent intent load has been released from behind his emotional firewall, giving the rational part of his brain access to it. This is also how EMDR claims to work. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether to proceed, because it gets a little bloody.

With that, here’s the Blood-Ritual Spectrum.

1. THE BLOOD FEUD

Icelandic bloodfeud
  • Blood-heavy
  • High risk of contagion
  • Rapid response to unplanned violence
  • Examples: Icelandic Commonwealth, Albania, Death Penalty

On the bloodiest side of the blood-ritual spectrum is the blood feud, a stripped down duel whose aim is to balance the blood debt. The concept is that once payment has been made, the feud is over. On a local level, this seems to have “worked”. It survived for a third of a millennium in the isolated “anarchist” Icelandic Commonwealth a thousand years ago. It’s not an ideal form of tort law, but it also didn’t seem to destroy everything in sight.

The death penalty is the only remaining remnant of the blood feud, whereby revenge is prevented via the police. Until recently the death penalty was a public affair which drew large crowds, with the implicit warning to onlookers that they were to “keep the law or this will happen to you.” Today, the death penalty in the USA is a mostly private, bloodless affair, which minimized violent contagion. They even sterilize the needle for a lethal injection. The old mindset believes that violence and plague share the same contagious channels. To them, this level of sanitation makes sense.

One problem with the blood feud is that it doesn’t function well with outsiders. Neighboring tribes may not have the same sentiments about blood accounting that we do. Perhaps have different views on revenge, or what weapons should be allowed in the blood feud. If we can’t agree on the terms, then either we have endless war, or one side subjugates the other. The blood feud is a disaster in a global economy. A single assassination can kickstart an entire world war.

Another issue with the blood feud is the contagiousness of it. Blood feuds often spread like wildfire to the loser’s next of kin and beyond. It was in everyone interest to put up some boundaries to confine the conflict between the two parties. This became “the duel”.

2. THE DUEL

Musashi vs. Ganryū
  • Usually bloody
  • Honor-based
  • Lower risk of contagion
  • Examples: Samurai, Western Gun Duels, later Icelandic sagas

The duel is a humanitarian response to the blood feud. If revenge spiraled out of control, boundaries were erected to reduce or eliminate the spread of contagious violence. At the same time, participation was mandatory. A combatant did not back down from a challenge. In Japan it was better to kill one’s self than to forfeit a sword duel. Icelanders called them níðingr (nithingr), or the lowest form of cowards. European gun and sword duels functioned the same way.

The anticipation of a duel, with death hanging in the air, was a good incentive for others not to let disputes go this far.

Nonetheless, after a duel, a bloody corpse usually remained. Blood contagion was still a factor, just less so than the blood feud. Revenge against the victor was taboo, but not unheard of. The observers might be contaminated by the duel and unleash their own violence in a later, unrelated event. There was an effort to clean up the ritual while still maintaining the dueling elements.

3. FIST FIGHTING

Crib vs. Molineaux (Wikimedia commons)
  • Moderate blood (broken noses, busted lips and knuckles)
  • No casualties
  • Longer, more exciting battles
  • Dramatic
  • No weapons
  • Minimal wear-and-tear
  • Examples: Irish fist fighting, Takanakuy, BKFC, Russian boxing, Lethwei, Hockey

The bare-knuckle fighting Wiki page says the first recorded fist fight was in 1681, but that wasn’t the first ritual fist fight. From the moment we realized we could sort out our differences without the fear of death, we fought bare-knuckle brawls. Fist fighting is a critically important institution in America (Dawg Fight, 2015), Ireland (Knuckle, 2011), and anywhere else where warrior classes are legally obligated to abandon their arms and sort out their differences in the arena. They resort to bare knuckle fights because they’re the next-best option to dueling. Peru’s Takanakuy requires combatants to shake hands before and after the fist fight.

Takanakuy – Peru’s fist fighting festival that takes place every Christmas

Academics criticize bare-knuckle fighting for its supposed “barbarism”. This concern stems from the preponderance of blood in the sport. Common injuries include face cuts and broken hands, fingers, and teeth. However, there are myriad benefits of bare-knuckle fighting over its sanitized cousin boxing.

Bare-knuckle fights are fast and result in only surface injuries. The risk of a broken hand incentivizes contestants to throw strategic shots. By contrast, boxers’ hands are protected by gloves, incentivizing them to punch more often. Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) fights last a maximum of 5 rounds, 2 minutes each, for a maximum of 10 minutes. Boxing fights run 12 rounds, 3 minutes each, a maximum of 36 minutes. More shots thrown and longer rounds in boxing result in far more head trauma than in bare-knuckle fighting.

Artem Lobov (L) vs Paulie Malignaggi – June 22, 2019, Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships, Florida State Fairgrounds Entertainment Hall in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

Academics-turned-lawyers have tried for centuries to outlaw bare-knuckle fights and enforce the use of gloves. This comes from an emotional reaction to the sight of blood, an element that is permitted in the sport. This confirms that blood contagion at the sight of blood is real, even to an academic.

But bare-knuckle fighting has its limits. The audience will demand a longer fight. They’ll want variety beyond just using one’s hands. A fight promoter doesn’t want a corpse on his hands, and we might try and clean up the blood a little more. This was the introduction of free fighting. (Kyokushin Karate and some other contact sports and competitive martial arts fall somewhere within this category and the next.)

4. FREE FIGHTING

Muay Thai, Thailand (credit: Tiger Muay Thai)
  • Less blood thanks to gloves
  • Longer rounds (3-5 min.)
  • Multi-limbed combat
  • Examples: UFC, Savate, Muay Thai, Sanda

The free fight is a little cleaner than the bare-knuckle fight and is far more marketable. It’s often characterized by the use of gloves and allows the legs as weapons, and sometimes includes throws and grappling. Gloves, mouth guards, and groin cups allow the fights to run longer than the bare-knuckle fight. Early UFC fights featured no gloves and unlimited ring times, but the introduction of grappling meant fights sometimes went beyond 40 minutes, and the audience hated it. The UFC has continually re-written the rules to strike a balance between portraying realistic combat and keeping the fight entertaining for the spectator.

Bloodied mat in UFC 189 McGregor vs. Mendes (Credit: Sports Joe)

Blood is allowed to flow in the free fight. It’s common for UFC fighters to bloody the mat up, and it’s extremely rare for fights to be stopped due to blood. Still, free fighting is just less visceral than bare-knuckle fighting.

There’s always the potential that a ritual combat league or combat sport will transition into a cleaner category. The Masvidal vs. Diaz fight was stopped due to a standard cut over Diaz’s eye. Many claim the state-employed doctor who made the call was inexperienced and responded emotionally. This was no surprise to UFC fans who have known New York ti be particularly hostile to MMA, beginning with its 1997 ban in the state.

If stopping UFC fights due to blood contagion were to become standard practice, Dana White would be forced to transition the league into a cleaner category. But this is unlikely given the audience’s backlash from the decision. And if the UFC were to be cleaned up, leagues in other countries would quickly take its place and soak up all the fans. And given President Trump attended the Masvidal vs. Diaz fight, there’s no indication that the American (or New York state) government will make a move to clean up the biggest free fighting organization in the world.

But cleanups happen. That’s how you get boxing.

5. BOXING

Anthony Joshua vs. Andy Ruiz Jr – 12/07/2019 – Diriyah, Saudi Arabia (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
  • Restrictions on blood
  • Very long fights (up to 36 minutes)
  • Extremely limited set of movements
  • Examples: Boxing, fencing, kendo, airsoft (see bottom of section)


Boxing is universally recognized and understood. Equipment: shorts, gloves, mouth piece, groin cup. 4 moves: jab, cross, hook, uppercut. 3 minute rounds, 12 rounds. If they can’t stop your bleeding, you lose. Boxing is where ritual combat becomes very clean.

Aug 26, 2017; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Floyd Mayweather Jr. lands a hit against Conor McGregor during a boxing match at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The world loves boxing. We’re drawn not just to the combat, but to the stories and the rivalries. Our mirror neurons immediately sync up with Pacquiao and Mike Tyson, who went from nothing to global superstars. We become stars ourselves as we watch them rise to the top. Their rivalries sync with our own interpersonal feuds. Boxing’s lack of blood is compensated by the human interest dramas that accompany each fight.

The combination of reduced blood contagion and entertaining human interest stories is why boxing is one of the biggest commodities in the entire world.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has made boxing something of a political hot potato in the West. Gloves protect the hands but not the head, incentivizing combatants to throw more strikes. Gloves reduce blood contagion, instead causing cleaner injuries. A bloody bare-knuckle punch destroys the teeth, but a boxing punch destroys the brain. MMA fighters face brain injury too, though for different reasons and probably less often.

Perhaps MMA’s cathartic bloodletting will bring it to the top of the charts. The UFC is creeping up on boxing in terms of PPV sales, and McGregor tops the list, undoubtedly for the same reasons. It’s no wonder he challenged Mayweather. But for now, boxing is the “gentleman’s sport”, not because of the behavior of the combatants, but because the rules, which reduce the fighter’s arsenal to a very limited set of movements, naturally enforces gentlemanly-ness.

Riot following Bowe vs. Golota stoppage, 1996

When we watch boxing, our mirror neuron systems is constantly loading the intents of the fighters. We unconsciously simulate the fight in our brains. The intentions are absorbed and either released later in our boxing gym, or maybe they erupt on the spot. Boxing, and combat in general, clearly has a tendency to rile up the audience. Theoretically, if striking were removed from the equation, you’d have an even cleaner form of ritual for our combatants.

Many other combat sports fit the cleanliness, limitations, and aggression of boxing, but employ different weapons and rules. Kendo and modern fencing require skills that are beyond the average person, so they could be considered cleaner. Others, like airsoft and SCA, might be categorized as bloodier.

6. WRESTLING

African wrestling. Credit: Vice
  • Very low chance of blood
  • No striking
  • Examples: Judo, Jiujitsu, Sambo, Senegalese wrestling

By removing striking and only permitting throwing or grappling, the audience is deprived of the cathartic punch of the Boxing ritual. Wrestling, by contrast, is a far cleaner affair. The audience’s violent contagion should be restricted to some broken bones, with minimal blood contagion.

The fantasy of living in a warrior society devoid of blood contagion has prompted some interesting films such as Johnny To’s Throwdown (2004). Compare this to the grim reality portrayed in a very different grappling film like Mamet’s Redbelt (2008).

Can we go cleaner? Do we need to? Can wrestling get out of hand and grow bloody? It can. Can we keep the clashing bodies, but eliminate the combat component altogether?

7. CONTACT SPORTS

NFL
  • Rare chance of blood
  • No fighting (except hockey, in “fist fighting” above)
  • Heavily rules-based
  • Examples: Rugby, American Football, Roller Derby, Kabbadi

Contact sports are on the very clean end of the blood-ritual spectrum. The rules for fighting vary within these sports. Charging the mound has fallen out of style over time. American Football has low rates of fighting, likely because the clashing of bodies lets off more than enough steam for the players. And football/soccer has a hilarious incentive system. Takraw is a conduit for non-violent sparring.

FC Lokomotive Leipzig fans before their team’s encounter with SG Dynamo Schwerin in the East German FDGB-Pokal in 1990. Credit: Wiki

Sports players aren’t the problems in sports. It’s the fans who get out of hand (even the winners riot). Football Hooliganism (literally the name of its 8-mile long wiki page) is a global phenomenon. It reveals that a clean, non-combat sport like football/soccer will still have a massively contagious element.

Perhaps we’re so far from the blood end of the spectrum that the sporting event itself causes more problems than it solves. Or maybe guys will fight over anything, and football happens to be what they chose. We could still maximize the cleanness by totally departing from aggressive competition.

8. THE WAR DANCE

Chinese Wushu
  • Zero blood (except some WWE)
  • Combat is choreographed or friendly
  • Movements can be applicable
  • Controlled storytelling
  • Examples: Wushu, some Kung Fu forms, WWE, Lucha Libre, Pakistani Kabbadi, Kalaripayattu, Capoeira

In 1958, the communist party of China determined that the traditions of kung fu distracted the individual from his duty to the state. The Chinese State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports then created Wushu, a performance art combining kung fu and military poses, but emptied of kung fu’s more traditional, sacred elements. (Communist states tend to try and wipe out the sacred center, replacing it with the state itself. Strange things will often happen.)

Wushu, one of the most physically demanding sports on the planet, is on the clean end of the spectrum. While the combatants attack with fists, feet, and weapons, the movements are entirely scripted like an Olympic gymnastics routine. Wushu is as white-washed as combat gets. Nobody riots after a Wushu performance.

WWE’s Steve Austin and Vince McMahon

Ritual arts have a long legacy in their respective domains. Pro wrestling leagues around the world like the WWE, All Japan Pro Wrestling, and Lucha Libre feature choreographed moves and scripted character drama. The stories before and after the match are an integral part of the fights. Pro wrestling is the ultimate stage drama because writers determine the narrative. Peking and Cantonese Opera function the same way. (The WWE isn’t always clean, however.)

The clean end of the spectrum might be home to some outliers. Capoeira isn’t scripted, and while its moves can be used in combat, the roda is a mostly friendly affair, and the movements of Capoeira call back to a significant part of Brazilian history. Wing Chun Kung Fu also has some application, but much of the ritualization in the art centers comes from its history. Animal styles of kung fu feature a similar sort of physical storytelling.

The Blood-Ritual Spectrum Overview

Bloody: Paying down blood debt despite high risk of violent contagion.

Less Bloody: Strict rules of battle reduce spread of violent contagion.

Clean: Cathartic entertainment with heavy restrictions on blood.

Cleanest: Ritualized storytelling without fear of violent contagion.

The audience plays a huge role in this. Cathartic entertainment is what they came for, but the intents they load have to go somewhere. We’ll cover this in the next post.

UFC 248 Adesanya vs. Romero

Adesanya vs. Romero in UFC248 was mostly a stand-off. In round 1, Romero lured Adesanya in and tagged him. Adesanya said, “Okay, now I know I can take his worst punch.” Yet, Adesanya played an outside game, with Romero hoping to lure him in again. Repeat for 5 rounds.

Chess fights like these are normal in the streets. The opponents have their different weapons, ready to draw, but the rules of the game create conditions that don’t incentivize the contestants to ever use them. The opponents’ intent loads bounce off one another until they realize the risk of death isn’t worth it, so chess fights usually end with some “f*ck you’s” and a stand-down:

Credit: @steviegale22

The audience hates these. We have our own violent intents loaded from resentments built up over the week, and we watch fights expecting the opponents to resolve these intents by mirroring what’s in our own brains. When the contenders play chess, our intent loads are left unresolved.

Sanctioned combat is not designed for the fighters. The rules are for the audience, except in the case of safety and liability laws. New rules are always introduced to urge the contenders in the direction of proper intent offloading. Otherwise, the audience leaves unfulfilled and the show loses tickets. That’s show business.

Romero vs. Adesanya is more representative of a real fight than most stuff in the UFC, but events like this in UFC248 may result in rule changes. We’ll see what happens.

The camp fire was the center in our ancient world. It’s where the animal sacrifice was cooked. Our ancestors distributed the meat equally to the periphery members. Animals didn’t function this way: alphas ate the meat, the betas ate the rest, if any was left. A beta could challenge the alpha, and when he won, he didn’t create a popular democracy with the other betas. He became the alpha.

We humans, as opposed to animals, divided the meat equally among the periphery. There’s a good reason this happened: mirror neurons in the human brain. Please read my article Mirror Neurons and Human Violence for some context before going on.

The human’s mirror neuron structure, in the context of a challenge between an alpha and beta, presents a paradox: we create a simulation of the opponent’s intention to kill us, so we might as well strike first, but we, and everyone around us, are aware of the uniquely human prospect of total annihilation. A binary solution means we either go all in and decide who’s the alpha, or we stand down. Both options result in the continuation of the alpha-beta relation, with no chance of transitioning into an egalitarian tribal model.

Stone Age Warfare is a photograph by British Library, uploaded on June 14th, 2016.

How and why humans “decided” or “evolved” to become egalitarian has been a favorite topic among academics, who often want to deride capitalism or push other agendas. Conversely, their opponents balk at the lack of growth in these egalitarian “backward” tribal societies. Neither side could ever posit how or why this transition from alpha-beta relations to the distributed, egalitarian model happened.

For this, Eric Gans has developed the compelling Originary Hypothesis. I suggest reading it. There’s also a wiki page. In short, the human alpha male wanted the meat exclusively for himself. The “betas” converged in a plot against the alpha, armed with hidden weapons (rocks, etc.) at their disposal, a uniquely human problem. Animals don’t mob the alpha with weapons, but humans do, and an alpha human has no fighting chance against the mob. Knowing there was no chance against the intricate network of human mirror neurons surrounding him, and the crowd intuitively knowing that a mob action against the alpha could destroy the entire community (or just continue the status quo), someone (it doesn’t matter who, this is purely a hypothesis) emitted the first sign, either verbal or gestural.

Source

This first sign was the first act of language. In the midst of the angry mob, the alpha, or anyone who could assume legitimate leadership, took on the role of dividing the meat equally and averting the crisis. This was nothing short of a miracle. The animal at the center was thanked and worshiped for its divine ability to stop violence.

(The raised hand might be the first reciprocal sign. It’s universally known by all nations, and any child will understand it. Trumbull writes at length about its use as a covenanting gesture between fellow humans and with the supernatural. However, whatever this sign was, or when it happened, doesn’t matter. The hypothesis doesn’t even claim to explain a transition from one stage of humanity to another, and so it can also be seen from the orthodox view as the origin of humanity.)

The one in charge of the distribution had the ability to replicate the distribution process the same, earning him the title of priest.

Henry Davenport Northrop’s “Treasures of the Bible,” 1894

But people have bad memories and began wondering why the priests received special treatment. Envy set in, even among those working alongside the priests. Temple duty wasn’t enough for Korah – he wanted the priesthood too. Before Paleo-Hebrew, writing the process down was impossible. So it was retold, usually in an address to the crowd.

The priest took the center of the scene and told the crowd about the miracle of peace that fell upon them after the distribution of the meat. Some details, of course, might have been altered, either deliberately or because over the generations the game of telephone produces some pretty wild stories. The storyteller could embellish things however he wanted, so long as the story justified the differentiation between the priesthood and the rest of the tribe. This storytelling was critical for maintaining the peace and keeping us from killing one another. It was our earliest form of entertainment.

There were tribes who also sacrificed humans, which according to Rene Girard began when two sides of a feud scapegoated a person, whose death brought peace. It’s a grizzly thought, but there’s no better way to explain the Aztecs’ murder of thousands of children, slaves, and virgins each year to appease the sun (presumably their own fiery “center”). This emissary murder had to be explained, or the kids might wonder if they would be next. So burned humans became phoenixes, drowned women became mermaids, people thrown off cliffs became winged gods, etc. Mythical exaggeration is a “lie” in the rational sense, but to our ancestors, the ends justified the means. They had a Spock-like utilitarian mindset: better one emissary murder than the entire society collapse. Not that I agree, but this is a pretty satisfactory explanation for their actions.

Aztec sacrifice

Priests have always held a monopoly on storytelling for the masses. They inform us as to what’s sacred, what’s profane, what we can say and what we can’t, who the good guys are, and who the bad guys are. Who to vote for, who not to vote for. What’s cool and what’s boomer. Their position has a long legacy of keeping the peace, so their status is zealously guarded by an elite group of media personnel, execs, and whoever else can be employed to maintain the equilibrium. If their stories are kosher, then we’re in the hands of a good priestly class, and we can sleep easily. But if their stories stink of murder, if they’re just propagating lies to keep the machine running, what do we do?

In the West, we have the popular notion of “rising up” against the lies of tyranny. This produced rabid mass murdering alphas like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Ze Dong, and countless others throughout the 20th century. They were united in their desire to counteract the “lies” of their time’s priestly classes, but their media turned out to have more lies than the ones they left in ruins.

Counteracting a lying priestly class requires a legitimate priestly class who can tell bulletproof stories. A story is bulletproof not just on its own merits. “True stories” become festering lies if you tell just this one story and claim it represents (or voids) every other story. Bulletproof stories present a reality that is true for every conceivable story.

The priesthood of Aharon in Tetzaveh is backed by the authenticity of the scene at the burning bush. The Elohim who wouldn’t give Moses His name, but instead gave a sentence “I Am That I Am”, is the Elohim who is inaccessible by summoning Him at the fire. The burning bush was devoid of a center. The sacrificed animal or human was not their Elohim. He is not there and never was. He is that He is. His story is true for every conceivable story. A priesthood built upon this reality creates bulletproof stories. (See Eric Gans’ Science and Faith.)

Defanging a lying priesthood can be a pretty peaceful endeavor when you have access to all the necessary tools to tell any story you want, at almost no cost. But the story needs to be bulletproof. True storytellers hold legitimate power. If the story is bulletproof, the lying priesthood will be de-legitimized. All this without a single alpha-beta battle.

by Eric Jacobus
I spent years doing traditional pre-vis (or “previz”) for action scenes in films and shows like Altered Carbon, Black Panther, and A Good Day to Die Hard. I took this overseas for Heart of a Champion and Man Who Feels No Pain. Previz is a video blueprint for a movie. They did one of the first pre-vizzes for The Karate Kid, essentially a walkthrough of the entire movie. You can see it on YouTube [EDIT: looks like the video is gone. Pre-viz became more advanced with digital filmmaking, which Yuen Wo Ping employed in The Matrix‘s previz, and with 3D tools in the sequel. Serenity‘s previz, done by 87Eleven, employed sound effects, props, and crowds of stuntmen wrecking on concrete and wooden stairs. This was probably when the previz market exploded. Every indie action filmmaker had learned camera and editing skills over the previous 10 years. They scored big Hollywood jobs, but those filmmaking skills sat dormant. Now they could be employed to full effect to sell a coherent action vision. (The industry term, in the action world, is “stunt-viz”.)

High quality stunt-viz became its own selling point. It became common to work stunt-viz into the budget. The market began to demand that stunt-viz include, besides choreography blocking, all camera angles, editing, sound design, visual effects, music, color correction, and if possible wirework.

The limitations of a live-action stunt-viz required constant re-shoots, repeated falls and reactions for the stunt performers (unwelcome wear-and-tear), and many late-night re-edits. The result was the equivalent of a short action film created over the course of a week or two, which the production could use to demonstrate its high-quality action team.

When it came time to shoot, it was anyone’s guess whether they would actually use the stunt-viz. Most of the choreography would inevitably be thrown out due to time or performance constraints. They threw out the entire rooftop stunt-viz for A Good Day to Die Hard, but I never found out why. They might use some camera angles from the stunt-viz, but the DP will have his own vision. (Forget even asking him to come to the stunt-viz session. He won’t.) And if they do use the stunt-viz edit, then you’ve found a unicorn, or the production just wants everyone to be happy so they can traffic heroin on the side.

At any rate, whether or not any of the stunt-viz was used in the project might not matter. The team still got a long gig out of it, and the stunt coordinator got a high quality demo reel with the stunt-viz.

Since then, previz has become an entire market. Halon, Third Floor, and every stuntman on earth has the means to create high quality previz. Some of them are ridiculous in their production value and have so much gloss they could almost be short films. Almost…

What exactly can you do with stunt-viz? Or live-action previz in general? You can polish it up and add vfx and try to make it into a short film. At best, it’s a bunch of stuntmen in workout pants doing choreography in a gym. Live-action pre-viz just doesn’t carry very far beyond:

  1. Reference for the production
  2. A demo reel to pitch for the next production
  3. Fun behind-the-scenes material that you hope will get a couple thousand views on YouTube

The Process Is the Problem

Live-action pre-viz is a process problem. The reason stunt-viz loses value is because film productions are linear by their nature. They weren’t always that way. Chaplin and Keaton films were, in a way, non-linear. They were like live performances when everything happens at once, only with a camera. Set-construction was Keaton’s specialty, and his gags hinged on this process. Chaplin would rearrange entire scenes to get a gag right. Jackie Chan, with the same live performance background as these Vaudeville performers, used the same process to make his great works. These productions were vertically integrated. The auteur‘s vision had perfect continuity because he exercised control over the elements of production. And that’s how you made good comedy. The auteur was a busy guy because he had to ensure every department carried his vision to completion. Or he just did it himself.

Jackie Chan editing Project A in 1983

The studio system commodified film by making the process linear. Set construction was graciously taken off Keaton’s back so he could focus on things the studio deemed more important, like learning his dialog lines to take advantage of the new sound capabilities of film. This was the death of Keaton and the rise of screwball stars who could say funny things in funny ways. Fortunately, Chaplin had a good voice… and his own studio. The filmmaking process would become more like an assembly line.

The linear filmmaking process.

The linear studio system is what we have today. It’s Netflix, Universal, WB, and Disney. Production departments have relative autonomy over their processes. There’s some oversight, but generally these teams are free to do what they need to do, but they do it with caution. Camera team will overshoot (just to cover themselves), and editors will edit the mountain of footage. When a single edit might work perfectly in a scene, the editor might use ten, because ten angles were shot. And you don’t want to throw stuff away. The camera operator doesn’t edit the film, and the choreographer doesn’t shoot the action. The common result is the “Blockbuster style” – lots of camera angles, lots of editing, lots of money. Bollywood and Chinese blockbusters are the same. The linear process is the antithesis of the Chaplin, Keaton, and Jackie Chan genius.

You got a job at Marie Calendar’s because they tasted your grandma’s signature apple pie recipe. Now you work the line building pies. There are fifteen stations of the Marie Calendar apple pie. Your job is to cut the apples. The guy down the line puts marshmallows in the apple pie, because they sold 80 million applemallow pies in China last year. You wish you could make your grandma’s apple pie, but hey, it’s a job.

The Non-Linear 3Viz Process

I did some motion capture for God of War and some other games. One day I walked past a sound booth on the way to the mocap stage, where a sound designer was working on the sound for today’s mocap shoot. This broke my linear filmmaking brain. How can you predict what the sound design will be for something you haven’t even shot yet?

Game design, and 3D filmmaking in general, is not a linear process. It’s a spiral. I snapped this photo of the game design process during a Unity presentation:

This isn’t a revolutionary way of thought. This is how great action and comedy were made almost a century ago. Sometimes, great ideas are very old. The process also applies to virtual production, which is when 3D engines and filmmaking cross paths. In a virtual production, you can motion capture animal movements and stream it live onto an LED wall or into a green screen, composited on the fly, and tracked with the camera movement. Once disparate processes of filmmaking suddenly collide into the same moment. The auteur’s vision can be executed at every second, but only if he can grasp the tech.

That’s the moment I took a right turn from the traditional, live-action world and began learning Unity, Unreal, MotionBuilder, and the Xsens system. We created action scenes using these tools, pitching them as high-end 3D pre-viz, which I dubbed 3Viz. With 3Viz, we could shoot and edit the pre-viz, or we could ship it to the production and let them do it. Reshoots and re-edits in 3D were as simple as moving some camera icons around, altering the timeline a little, and re-exporting. A reshoot might take a couple hours for a single person. The alternative was the live model, which meant getting our 15 stuntmen together again at the gym and re-shooting and re-editing everything.

The goal of 3Viz is to get the director’s action vision solidified before post-production, before cameras roll. The director might want to change the environment to accommodate the action. He might want a character to be 30 feet taller. Or move the sun 90 degrees west. All of this is 3D modeling 101 and requires a few clicks. Finishing the 3Viz mocap, shoot, and edit requires a team of 4-8 people, who can work remotely from cruise ships or hot springs at the same time and see live updates. The film is pre-finished this way.

The 3Viz is sent to all relevant departments. Art department replicates the textures when painting the set, carpentry builds the set that the director devised for the action, wardrobe is looking at the asset costumes, and camera team has a very defined shot-list. Any shots they can’t accomplish practically have already been sent to VFX, who are using the camera animations created in the 3Viz to build those VFX shots. VFX also have the motion capture files, character assets, and anything else for creating VFX shots in post. Publicity are using the assets for creating posters and social media posts to promote the film. Sound department is designing a soundscape based on the 3Viz edit. The composer has already playing to the 3Viz, and his music can be played on set like Morricone’s.

Cameras haven’t even rolled yet, but the film is almost done. During shooting, production can change the lighting on the fly to reflect the 3Viz using LED walls, and other lighting setups were pre-programmed weeks ago. Dailies are passed to the editor, who edits to the same 3Viz edit that he’s supervised for the past few months.

Post-production? What post-production? Clean it up, take a week-long vacation, and release the movie a month after shooting completes. The result is an action vision that is exactly the way the director planned it.

Cabin Fever is a demonstration of the 3Viz process which allows continuity of vision throughout the entire production. 3Viz can be a pre-viz and just stay that way. Only shoot what you need. Mocap for a day, edit for 2 days, and it’s done. Iterate away. But all the assets acquired during pre-viz can be kicked up to production and be worked into the final product.

In the case of Cabin Fever, the 3Viz IS the final product. With some facial capture, finger capture, asset creation, additional lighting and all that, we could have made it look as good as a Pixar film, but the action and the comedy, the bread and butter of the project, remain the same through all this. We hope you enjoy the short, but even more we hope you like the process. We cover that at the 5-minute mark.

Email me at eric@superalloyinteractive.com if you’d like more info, or if you wanna give it a shot.

Credits:
WRITTEN & DIRECTED BY ERIC JACOBUS
PRODUCED BY ZAC SWARTOUT
ERIC JACOBUS AS “THE MAN”
DENNIS RUEL AS ZOMBIE, ROBOT, AND “BERNIE”
SET TECH/BEHIND-THE-SCENES/TITLES MARK R. JOHNSON
MOCAP SUPERVISOR/UNREAL TECH/MOTION EDITOR MIKE FOSTER
MOCAP TECHNICIAN CORDERO ROCHE
LIVE VCAM OP JEREMY LE
PA’s – CHRIS CORTEZ & DANIEL SHEPHERD

MUSIC: “HOME ON THE RANGE” BY CHRISTIAN LABRECQUE
“DAWN OF THE DEAD” THEME BY GOBLIN
“A HAPPY DAY” BY Z80
“GODZILLA THEME” BY ARTIFICIAL FEAR
“TERMINATOR THEME (COVER)” BY NEON FRONTIER

POST-PRODUCTION BY ERIC JACOBUS
BUILT IN UNREAL 4.23
SHOT USING GLASSBOX DRAGONFLY
SOUND DESIGNED IN ADOBE
MOTION EDITED IN AUTODESK MOTIONBUILDER
SPECIAL THANKS TO TJ GALDA AND ALINA KLINAEVA

CREATED WITH 3VIZ
COPYRIGHT SUPERALLOY INTERACTIVE 2020 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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.

You can visit the Eventbrite page here:
https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/ama-masterclass-series-with-stunt-professional-filmmaker-eric-jacobus-tickets-59906664446?aff=erelexpmlt