Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with fight coordinator Chris Brewster about building an epic comic book brawl.
Forget that Dwayne Johnson spent the last fifteen years bringing Black Adam to the screen. With that long-gestating process comes an almost painful anticipation from the frothing fanbase. The movie must deliver, especially when it comes to the beatdowns. After all, the hierarchy of the DC universe is about to…well, you know the rest already, right?
The super anti-hero called Black Adam (Teth-Adam to his friends) explodes outta the DC Comics, a catastrophic realm where brawn usually determines victory. Thousands of artists have crafted millions of fights on the page. When a reader opens a comic, they’re looking for the brawl to end all brawls. Every month.
The library of destruction DC Comics offers is infinite. For fight coordinator Chris Brewster, their books provided an immense resource. They also represented some stress. Translating an apocalyptic Black Adam blow from a comic’s flat surface to a live-action arena required more than a tweak, especially when those fights had to fit within the necessary CGI spectacle.
“There’s a very strong communication that is always going on between the VFX team and the stunt team,” says Brewster. “A lot of the time, they will animate a concept for what they think the fight will look like. We will take their animation and try to do it justice, and we’ll put our guys on wires and try to match their movement.”
Designing a fight is a long conversation between many parties. Each department adds a little flavor. The goal is for the melee on the screen to look organic despite the heavily constructed, back-and-forth development.
“Our specialty lies in the actual moves that they’re doing,” he continues. “The VFX team might animate two guys flying at each other, and they’re kind of doing this [Brewster mimics an emotionless Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot]. We’re like, ‘Cool. We love the fight, we love the angles, we love everything that they’re doing, but instead of doing this, this guy’s going to grab him. Then, he’s going to block that off and tag him in the face there and go for the elbow. Then, we will shoot our stunt previs and send that back to the VFX team.”
Designing a fight in a comic book movie is not the same as designing a fight in a non-comic movie. Brewster and his partners tortured themselves, ensuring their bouts aligned with the massive fights that readers could find in the books. And Black Adam has not appeared in one or two stories; he’s appeared in hundreds of comics.
“The first thing I did was get every single Black Adam comic book,” says Brewster. “I downloaded every single fight scene that he’s ever done in any of the cartoons or DC video games. We spent about a month where Tommy – Tommy Harper, he’s the main stunt coordinator, my mentor in the business, my idol – we just sent things to each other, little Black Adam facts, like what his powers are and exactly how strong he is.”
With as many comics and ‘toons in his head, Brewster grasped a better understanding of Black Adam’s fighting style. Even more importantly, Black Adam’s powerset. Brewster did not want his super anti-hero to operate like every other super-powered DC or Marvel character.
“I think when you’re designing action,” says Brewster, “it’s really important to know what rules you’re working with. If you’re working with a superhero like Captain America, who is a human plus ten percent, it’s a little bit different when you’re working with a god. And Black Adam, he’s a god. He’s untouchable. He’s Superman and Thor put together.”
Brewster adopts the character’s mindset. He puts himself in Black Adam’s position. The titan would never throw a punch the way Brewster would. How Black Adam swings a fist wouldn’t even be constituted a punch. His immense power creates a colossal confidence that nearly walks into the room before he does.
“We really wanted to find the truth behind the movement of Black Adam,” he says. “Ultimately, we came up with a style that has no style. He’s somebody who has never really been challenged or rivaled to this point in time. He’s invincible. He knows that he’s invincible. So, there’s no need for defense. If anybody hits you and it leaves no mark, and it doesn’t hurt you at all, you would never worry about blocking it. When you’re faster than anybody, when you’re stronger than anybody, you don’t need to have a style. Whatever they do, you’re just going to take it and destroy them.”
For Brewster, the excitement comes after Black Adam awakens from his long, cursed rest. The moment when Black Adam squares off against the Justice Society of America is also Black Adam’s introduction to a proper confrontation. These characters might not be gods, but they’re only a few steps removed compared to us lowly mortals.
“The first time Black Adam meets the JSA,” says Brewster, “and the first time he meets Hawkman’s mace is the first time he’s ever been put down. It’s cool to actually see the character arc of somebody who’s never actually been put down. He’s just been nothing but rage and power. Now, he actually is like, ‘Wait, I don’t want this thing to hit me. That thing could actually do some damage. I need to avoid that.’ So, we build from that character moment, and we feel what he’s feeling every step of the way in that fight.”
Brewster becomes especially giddy when discussing the blows exchanged between Black Adam and Hawkman (Aldis Hodge). They have almost nothing in common. They cannot see each other eye to eye philosophically or physically. It’s style vs. god-complex superiority.
“The most exciting thing about designing the fight-specific style for the Black Adam and Hawkman fight is the dichotomy between the two characters,” he says. “Again, Black Adam almost has a style-less style. He has never before had to block anything. He’s so fast that he’s going to hit you before you do anything. Whereas Hawkman has lived many, many lives, and in each life, he’s learned different fighting skills.”
As a constantly resurrecting being, Hawkman provides Brewster the chance to play in multiple combat arenas. With this one character, the fight coordinator finds himself standing in line at Baskin Robbins with thirty-one flavors to test. It’s an opportunity to mix and match tastes that should not go together but somehow magically do.
“He’s mastered different martial arts and different weapons,” he says. “It was really cool to try to pull from the most unique and polar opposite martial arts, to create a style where Hawkman can transform from doing a very soft style, a Chinese kung fu-esque martial art, immediately into Kenpō, hard elbows, Muay Thai, just the most different martial arts in the world, but make them blend seamlessly together.”
Brewster loves every piece of the puzzle. He’s thrilled when he gets the script; he’s even more excited when the VFX folks deliver their pass on the sequences. However, the real pleasures hit when he gets his squad together. It’s a critical type of play.
“We pre-plan each step of the fight,” says Brewster. “Then we bring in our stunt doubles, and it’s almost like full-size G.I. Joes. We bring people in. We’re like, ‘Okay, one, you’re going to charge it, and you’re going to throw one, two, three. And then you’re going to avoid, one, two, and then weave under this. Then, you grab him.’ You plan through it, and then you sit back and watch it, and if it’s not fully telling the story you want, you think, ‘Okay, what can I do to amplify it?'”
Chris Brewster felt a weight on his shoulders while working on Black Adam. Before he came on, Brewster was aware of the film as Dwayne Johnson’s passion project. Also, he knew what the character meant to so many comic book readers. Their passion elevated his own.
There was a fear of disappointment created by such fervor, but a natural boost occurred when he gave himself over to the character and their many adventures. In consuming all those comic book and cartoon fights in Black Adam’s history, Brewster caught the bug. He fell for the character and couldn’t fathom contributing a lackluster brawl into his canon. It’s simply not possible for Black Adam. Knowing that brought relief and allowed Brewster to do what he does best.
Black Adam is now playing in theaters.