Part of the draw of the film industry is the spectacle of it. The lights, the camera, the action and the amazing people you get to work with on a daily basis. Consider it a perk of the job, but I’ve gotten to meet some fascinating individuals. I’ve also been put in situations that no other job would afford me to do.
How many people can say they’ve stepped into the octagon with a UFC fighter responsible for 22 knockouts in 33 wins and ranked #3 in the world for his weight class?
The Axe Murderer
That UFC fighter was Wanderlei Silva, otherwise known as “The Axe Murderer.” For my overseas readers, UFC stands for Ultimate Fighting Championship and is the most popular league of mixed-martial arts fighters in the US. It’s a combination of Muay Thai, kickboxing and other disciplinary fighting styles and has a propensity to get real brutal, real fast.
I was working on a film called Red Herring in Las Vegas where Silva has a gym at which he trains with the Wand Fight Team. We were scheduled to film inside the gym, but whether or not Silva himself would appear was uncertain.
The producers planned to have Silva in a cameo role where he fought against one of the supporting characters (played by Chyna McCoy). Staged as an action set-piece to break up the otherwise brooding mood of the movie, it was going to be shot handheld on the RED camera with Zeiss Superspeeds.
On the day of the shoot, Silva showed up for his cameo with no problems at all. He was both a gracious host and guest and with his beefy stature, he loomed around set with purpose.
I was first assistant camera on the film and was thrilled that I was going to be one of two people to step inside the ring besides the fighters. I had grandiose visions of the camera work in Raging Bull, floating within the ring, bringing a visceral sense of intensity that doesn’t translate outside the ropes, or in this instance, the cage.
This is an opportunity no 9-5 job could toss up to me, nor is it something that I think I will ever be able to do again.
Shooting Through the Cage
We started the day by shooting coverage from outside the octagon. There were plenty of fast-paced dolly moves going laterally against the eight-walled prison. Some shot at 120 frames-per-second, some shot at standard 24 fps.
Overall, the lenses we used were wide and so my depth-of-field was large enough that I could afford to watch the monitor in awe as Chyna and Silva performed their choreographed fight over and over. I know they were only going half-speed, but I can imagine that I would’ve crumbled after two takes in that situation.
Chyna was probably more excited than I. He loves martial arts, but he works as an actor and a stuntman. For the month and a half I worked on the shoot, I was lucky enough to live in the same house as him and hear awesome stories of his stunt work on The Matrix as Laurence Fishburne’s stunt double or watch the presentations he had of upcoming projects — he is very prolific. At any one time Chyna has close to 24 scripts he’s working on.
For him, this was an opportunity to pit his fighting skills against somebody who spends their entire day honing the craft. It was cool to watch Chyna and Silva choreograph their fight on the fly in less than 30 minutes. Despite Silva’s choppy English (he’s Portuguese), the two were able to hammer out a routine thanks to a short hand they developed quickly.
While shooting on the outside, Chyna and Silva whittled down their motions until they were as smooth as the dolly tracks we were riding on.
Inside the Octagon
After taking our shoes off, cinematographer/camera operator Kunitaro Ohi and I stepped inside the ring to observe the fight up close. Kuni spent his time blocking the camera moves while I watched the actor’s movements, careful to keep my distance.
Shortly after, the camera was prepped and I was strapped with a wireless lav to catch reference track for the sound guy.
Finally, it was go time.
At T 1.3 on a 50mm, it was going to be tough to pull focus on the fly without marks but I was up for the challenge. I was in the zone.
The camera rolled, my 2nd AC scooted out the ring as soon as he slated, and we were off. Kuni paced around the ring with an impressive memory of the action, never once getting too close or tripping over himself. I, meanwhile, kept up as much as possible, using a focus whip when it got cramped and I needed to pull from a few feet away.
After the 3rd take, we had it nailed. Both Kuni and I were anticipating moves beautifully and it was all coming together. We moved to an 85mm for close-ups/singles and knocked those out with ease.
All the while, Chyna and Silva were more than happy to do more takes despite the sweat dripping off their noses and the exhaustion apparent on their faces.
It never got too hairy inside the ring. The two men fighting were pros and able to sense where the camera was as much as we could see where they were. The closest we got to a collision was when Silva slammed Chyna onto the mat and I felt his shoulder on the tips of my toes.
“Man, things got a little close at the end of that one. He almost landed on my foot,” I said to Kuni.
We laughed it off and were juiced up for another take. It was one of those times where everything was working in unison and suddenly you realize “I’m making a movie!”
A real class act
When we wrapped Silva, he was as cool as could be. Even though he couldn’t speak English very well, he was joking with crew and shaking their hands. He was thanking us for our time when, really, he was the one doing everybody else a favor.
Him and Chyna were kind enough to pose for a picture with the camera crew that you see at the top of this post.
The film hasn’t been released yet, but there is a trailer that I snagged a few frame grabs from:
There are many reasons why I love my job that range from the technical geek in me, to the challenges it presents, to the fact that my office changes everyday.
One of the real reasons I love it, however, are the interesting people I get to meet and awesome opportunities that find themselves falling into my lap.
Silva was a true gentle giant, but getting inside the ring where he has mangled faces, broken his nose and knocked out opponents cold was unlike anything I’ve done since.