Prop Weapons: Steel, Rubber, CGI


The Hero Sword

A work of art. Any closeup of a sword in Lord of the Rings was a Hero Sword.

Hero weapons are frequently made of stainless steel for its shine. Like your cookware, stainless steel will keep an edge well, but it’s brittle. That means that hitting them can cause them to shatter or splinter. Stainless steel swords are the mainstay of knife shops who sell swords for you to mount on your wall. They may be sharp or blunt, but you should never swing them. They feel solid, but the worst accidents happen with stainless steel.

A Hero sword will never be hit against anything, even if it’s constructed of high carbon steel or another high quality material. It needs to be pristine for those close ups.

The Stunt Sword

If an actor or a stunt performer needs to fight with a sword, there are many material options.

Rubber:
Used on many film sets, a rubber weapon will look good, and feel very light. They are very resilient, and can bend without breaking, splintering or damaging anything. These are never used on stage, because they don’t sound like metal. On film, the sound (foley) is added in post-production, so the live sound is not a problem.

Yes, rubber is safer than steel, but never underestimate the ability of any object to put out an eye. One of my objections to using rubber is that adult actors treat the weapon as a toy which is both bad for performance and bad for safety. A rubber sword slashing at the full speed a big man can swing it can break an arm.

Wood:
Old samurai movies used balsa wood, and many movies today also use painted wood for weapons. They justify it by claiming that it is safer than steel, but the reality is exactly the opposite. Steel can take a lot of abuse, but wood will spliner and shatter in ways that can impale. Again, a real sword will command respect and caution while the fake version causes more injuries through misuse.

Aluminum:
It has become more and more popular to use aluminum swords for live performance. It rings like steel, but it’s light like rubber, so in many ways it’s ideal.

I personally don’t like aluminum for two reasons. First, it is quite malleable which means as soon as the fighters clash them together they can show dents in the edge which need to be corrected by your armourer. Second, the lightness may make actors happier, but the weapons start to look unrealistic. Of course, that would be the obvious choice for fantasy like Conan or Final Fantasy. (Watch this trailer for Final Fantasy XIV, it’s movie-quality)

What to Train With

In Fight Directors Canada, we generally train with high carbon steel.

High carbon steel can take the abuse that stainless cannot, and only occasionally needs de-burring. The best thing about it is that a longsword feels like a longsword, because that’s what the real thing is made from. Actors develop the actual skill to wield the sword, it makes an authentic sound when struck, and everyone on set respects the inherent danger.

At Academie Duello, one of our core tenets is “Proper Arms”, meaning the swords we learn to fight with are as close to the historic equivalent as we can replicate. Weight and balance of a weapon make a great different to how one cuts and thrusts, and what defenses are effective. The weapon’s weight will influence the fighter all the way to their feet in footwork and speed.

Broken Props

broken-swords

From time to time, a weapon will snap, and it’s often right at the the shoulders of the blade, where the fort meets the guard. Until that happens, it is virtually impossible to tell that the metal is weak.

If you think a weapon looks “beat up”, rusty, or the edge is gnarly or has sharp bits, you can refuse to use it. It’s not only your safety, but that of your acting partner and everyone on set (and the audience in a live theatre). Shards of metal can fly off of a brittle blade, and if it snaps in the centre, a segment several feet long can fly through the air at high velocity. You don’t want to be the one holding the handle if that happens.

Most often, it’s best to trust your props master or armourer to be able to tell a compromised weapon if there are no external signs.

Compromises

Speaking of compromises… a big-budget production will procure or make duplicate weapons, and use them differently in different shots. A low-budget film will need to decide on their optimum choice because they can only afford one.

Consider what you need:

  • Sound: For live performance you want metallic sounds. High carbon steel or aluminum.
  • Weight: Huge weapons or superhuman characters need light weapons. Aluminum or rubber. Realistic violence should go the other way: high carbon steel.
  • Looks: Glamour shots of the weapon needs sharp and shiny. High carbon steel or stainless steel. Don’t fight with the latter.

Visual Effects and CGI

Some blood effects are done with special effects and fake blood, but many films today use computer graphics and visual effects to add blood spay. One of the first good examples of this is Zaitoichi.


In today’s films, entire battles may be made up of virtual characters using motion capture and rendered in banks of computers. If you’ve got the budget, then your weapons may be made of pixels and code instead of steel, rubber or wood.

But it still takes martial artists and stage fighters to create realistic movement. I train them with steel so they know what they’re simulating.

Canes and Other Weapons

This Saturday is an Introduction to Bartitsu: Fight Like Sherlock Holmes workshop in which we’ll be learning some genuine martial arts using an apporpriate weapon: the walking stick.

The next Introduction to Stage Combat, when you can start your journey toward being an Action Hero, will be on 3 February.

Sign up for either workshop at Academie Duello, 604-568-9907 or on the website.

Head of Stage Combat at Academie Duello and certified Instructor with Fight Directors Canada. Head of Bartitsu at Academie Duello, the longest continuously running Bartitsu program in the world.
Read more from David McCormick.