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Posted by on Jul 23, 2010 | 8 comments

Bruce Tanis Special: Editing Hand to Hand Fight Sound Effects

Fight sequences are a common event in many action films and they are often fairly straight forward to edit. See a punch, hear a punch. Unlike fantasy or horror scenes where you’re trying to create a mood that isn’t necessarily supported by visuals, for fight scenes, the action you see on screen pretty much determines what you need to cut. As usual, though, I tend to go a little more overboard than most other folks. I think most people tend to edit sequences from the top down and by that I mean, they start with the large, in-your-face sorts of things like the punches and impacts.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that and I think that’s the way most editors like to work. I simply prefer to build my tracks from the bottom up starting with a foundation of fight cloth movement that is cut to each character’s actions throughout the fight. The reason I cut that way is that I know the punches, glass breaks, and body falls are going to end up taking care of themselves. They’re all big, bold sounds and they are going to work into the mix just fine. They mostly have on-camera sync or, at least, temp effects cut into the OMF’s that you can use as a guide for positioning them.

So I typically set them aside for the moment and build out a good fight cloth movement track which will form a base for the punches, impacts, and whooshes to swoop in and out of later on. Simply put, fight cloth is a sound effect, found in most libraries but probably having been created on a foley stage, of someone waving and snapping a jacket or small blanket back and forth, in such a manner as to mimic a character’s clothing movements during a fight sequence. The action ranges from gentle, longer moves to shorter, violent ones in a random pattern just as a fight is made up of random movements between the participants. I’ve found that, by building a full movement track myself, as opposed to recording it as part of the regular foley process for that project, I can be a little more detailed and a little more tailored to the action than a general movement pass. Most TV projects don’t allow much time for more than the basic movement pass as required for delivering an M&E version of the final tracks so I find it useful to create my own.

Once the fight cloth pass is complete for each character, I’ll start layering the various punches, kicks, and slaps wherever they belong. Since I don’t really ever know how a particular client is going to respond to the sound of a punch or a kick, or what range the music is going to occupy at any given moment during the fight, I break these impacts out into a high, middle, and low element. Not all of these are required for every impact but in having the different elements available makes it much easier to mix the sequence to the client’s approval. Some clients prefer very realistic, smaller, punches and kicks while others like big, over-the-top impacts. By providing each of these elements, the mixer can pick which one of them to favor at any given moment. Obviously, for body punches I don’t usually cut a high-end element and for face slaps I don’t often cut a low-end one because they aren’t really needed. There is a bit of a sub-category at this point which is gore and bone cracks. If a sequence needs to be made more vicious or violent in nature, I will include a pass of bone breaks or gore squishes (usually chickens or jello!) which top the punches or kicks as needed.

Next up, I’ll cut a pass of shoves, blocks, and body falls. They are typically similar sounding events unless the body falls are of a particular character such as wood or metal, etc. but, even so, they play in approximately the same range in the mix so I group them together here. They get cut individually on different sets of tracks: the shoves and blocks together and the body falls on adjacent tracks.

By now the sequence should be coming along fairly well and there’s not too much more to do. At this point I’ll cut simple whooshes for each arm or leg movement, topping each punch or kick. I like to place these just a bit above the fight cloth pass I started with in terms of level so they nestle down in the mix and you feel them more than hear them. They’re great for contributing a sense of movement and, if they are a little sharp sounding, they can add a good bit of danger to the fight as well. If they are played too loudly, though, they call attention to themselves too easily and the sequence can become “cartoony” more quickly than with any other element I’ve cut.

Finally, after all that is finished, I’ll cut the wood breaks and glass crashes and whatever else gets destroyed during the fight. It’s really easy to make these impacts and crashes as big as you need them to be so I save them for last after assembling the more intricate pieces of the puzzle. As with some of the punches and kicks, I’ll add a low frequency element to wall hits and wood breaks and things like that in order to beef them up a little.
There’s a whole category I haven’t mentioned yet which is hand weapons. Swords, knives, kendo poles, whatever the weapon may be, they typically have specific, and usually loud impacts and whooshes of their own. Again, as with the crashes, I’ll do these last because I like having the support of the other layers to help lift them up and create a realistic base for them to move in and out of.

By cutting all these other layers first, I have more control over making the sounds of the fight swoop and fall as the fight progresses as opposed to a somewhat more sterile sounding track of just impacts by themselves. It sounds kind of silly put into words, but basically what I’m trying to do is create wave swells from the movement and whooshes that rise and fall, supporting each impact at nearly the same height in the mix and then dropping away again, sonically trying to play up the idea that a fight is very graceful and dance-like in terms of energy and motion.

Written by Bruce Tanis for Designing Sound.


  1. Awesome! Thanks!

  2. Great post. I appreciated the break-down and build-up of the layers, the way you think about options for the client and giving the mixer 3 sets of frequency ranges to help him/her prove what you’ve cut in the overall context. Thanks.

  3. Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. it was a lot of fun writing these articles and I’m really happy that everyone is enjoying them so much! thanks guys!

  5. I know I’m a little late to the party, but am just having a chance to implement your style of cutting fights on a film I’m working on right now. I gotta say I’m digging it. I’ve always wanted to put in more cloth type stuff but always left it for foley. This film is so low budget, there is no foley, so after recording a few of my own fight cloth tracks, boy does it make a difference in pulling these types of sequences together. And it’s nice doing it first because as you say the hits just fall into place nicely. Thanks for the insight, really appreciate it Bruce!

  6. hi J.R. Sorry for the delayed response but I only just saw your comment. I’m really glad that’s working for you!
    Best wishes,

    • Thanks Bruce for sharing your way of sound designing a fight scene..learned a new way to work…can you advice me how to approach a scene where a city is shown from top of a mountain and different radio stations are playing at same time with different news ..I am having problem as its sounding crowded…the theme is to show different people are listening to different radio programs ..

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