Into the Badlands Finally Brings Great Martial Arts to TV
Everything about Into the Badlands feels like a gamble. It’s a martial-arts show set in a post-apocalyptic, almost steampunk future. It features long, complicated fight sequences that incorporate heavy wirework, a la wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s even the first time that network AMC has ordered an original show straight to series without seeing a pilot first. But for the show’s director of photography, Shane Hurlbut, these weren’t risks—they were opportunities.
“It has a style that you haven’t seen in very many movies—and not at all in television,” Hurlbut says of Into the Badlands, which premieres on Sunday night. And after a nearly 20-year cinematography career that has spanned genres from action (Terminator Salvation, Need For Speed) to sports (We Are Marshall) to musical (Drumline), he’s bringing all the tools in his arsenal to help make the show not just a smart gamble, but a winning bet.
Created by Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar and based loosely on the classic 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West, Into the Badlands takes place in a land where civilization has rebuilt itself after nuclear devastation—and outlawed guns. Seven ruling Barons control the society, each backed by an army of assassins; machinations among the rival Barons threaten to plunge the world into all-out war. Without guns, the spotlight is squarely on kung fu, as well as bladed combat using swords and axes. Like Game of Thrones, there’s manipulation and action in equal measure; unlike GoT, however, that action is decidedly flashier.
While martial-arts films became hugely popular in the 1970s, the genre has long been a rarity on American television. Karate was a quirky inclusion in early shows like The Detectives in the late ’50s; Bruce Lee helped popularize martial arts as Kato on The Green Hornet in the mid-’60s, but only as a sidekick; two late-’90s cop shows doled out justice with high kicks, but were saddled by hokey morality (Walker, Texas Ranger) and horrific acting (Martial Law). The height of the genre remains the ’70s martial-arts western Kung Fu, in which David Carradine played a Shaolin monk searching for his half-brother in the Old West.
These days, martial arts is largely relegated to Daredevil on Netflix and Arrow on the CW; generally, though, those shows restrict combat to close-quarters situations, with little to no flourish. Into the Badlands, with its wirework and extended sequences, looks to push the art form farther than it’s ever been on the small screen. The show’s martial arts coordinator, Huan-Chiu Ku—also known as Master DeeDee—honed his technique in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Once Upon a Time in China, and Tarantino’s Kill Bill diptych, and the first episode features an 11-on-1 fight scene before the show’s title even appears.
To capture that action, Hurlbut relied on a setup he’d used in his work: a combination of Red Dragon cameras and a gyroscopic handheld camera stabilization system called the Freefly MoVI. The production used 14 cameras in total: eight for the main unit that shot the show’s non-action scenes, and six for the dedicated fight unit. On Need For Speed, he used as many as 50 different cameras on a single day, but even this relatively bare-bones setup was virtually unheard of in television. “We could easily adjust to whatever the choreography would morph and change into because we had all the tools to be able to deploy to bring it to life,” says Hurlbut. “I guarantee you, you can go across the board and you will not find another TV show that has this arsenal.”
In one scene in the show, baron Quinn (Marton Csokas) is luring a young recruit named MK (Aramis Knight) into his lair. “He was doing it like a cobra,” Hurlbut says, “so, off of that performance, I was like, ‘we’re going to snake along the ground and we’re gonna slither into this beautiful two-shot.’” One take later, Quinn moved his hand to his head in a way that inspired the cinematographer; via headset, Hurlbut told the MoVI operator to move to the left, change the frame to make Quinn look like a boa constrictor coiling around M.K. “I was able to direct that in the moment as Marton did it,” Hurlbut says. “He didn’t do it on any other take, but I was able to take advantage of it, and that’s the one that’s in the cut. This is the beauty of being able to react to what the actors are doing, to be able to capitalize on incredible moments that aren’t so rehearsed. David Dobkin, our director, had never used the MoVI before, and within the first four hours he was like, ‘OK, I’m never doing any project without this device.’”
That flexibility extended to the fight scenes as well, which required anywhere from one to eight days to shoot. At one point, a massive 25-on-1 fight between mercenaries and central character Sunny (Daniel Wu) moved up two weeks on the shooting schedule; Master DeeDee and fight director Stephen Fung hadn’t yet finalized the sequence, so they were forced to choreographic broad strokes on the day. Their experience working in the fast-paced Hong Kong action scene, however, proved invaluable. “Master DeeDee and his team don’t even have to talk,” says Hurlbut. “It’s a bunch of hand signals and expressions and the team knows exactly what is required. It’s a shorthand for them. It was absolutely magical to watch them.”
In order to fit everything in, Hurlbut says, directors David Dobkin and Guy Ferland planned the shoot using all six of the first season’s episodes, which meant shooting up to 11 different scenes in a single day—sometimes from three different episodes. Judicious use of the effects budget was as much about efficiency as effect: relying on wirework rather than CGI fights enabled the creators to spurge on CGI blood effects (the practical version of which would have been extremely time-intensive) and post-production wire removal. But above all, it was the fight unit’s chops—and the resulting balletic scenes—that made the difference. “The Hong Kong style of doing this type of work is so much faster than anything we do in the States,” says Hurlbut. “It was absolutely magical to watch them. The wirework has an elegance that’s just out of this world; everything is turned up to 11.”