One of the most memorable shoots that I directed as Video Production Manager of Paladin Press was on combat knife throwing. Paladin was a small publisher and we did books and low-budget, high-quality instructional videos; my job consisted of everything from contract negotiation to directing, producing, shooting, editing, and marketing. I kept busy.
I was the only full-time employee in Paladin’s video department at that time, but in a small business everyone wears many hats. For this shoot I took someone from Marketing to do second camera and someone from the print-on-demand shop to help with miscellaneous production tasks. Usually I only had the Marketing rep, but Paladin’s owner/publisher, Peder Lund, wanted me to show the print-on-demand guy the video ropes. We referred to him as FNG until a new FNG came along, as you do.
This shoot took place in late spring on the author’s family property in semi-rural Tennessee. Beautiful country. Hot and humid as all get-out, particularly for us Colorado boys who loved the dry air. Yes, we did make the occasional Deliverance joke, up until we tried to find the turnoff to the author’s place and, after driving up and down country roads for half an hour, had to stop at a ramshackle convenience store to ask for directions. As it turned out, the entrance to his property was a slightly wider gap between two trees that we’d driven past a bunch of times, so we turned the minivan around (Marketing guy hated that I always rented us a minivan, but it was cheap and it fit all the production equipment) and eased our way deeper into the woods.
The enclosing trees spread out a quarter mile down the road to a clearing that provided a breathtaking view; I did the best I could to capture it on video. On a typical shoot, the day we fly in we drop off our personal luggage at the hotel, go meet the author, and plan the next day’s work. The author (Ralph Thorn), however, had different plans: unlike us, he was not an early bird, and wanted to do some shooting in the late afternoon/early evening sun. So we got to work.
As I set up angles to give us good, glare-free shots of both Ralph and the target (a log), I asked, somewhat facetiously, “So, is there any, uh, local flora or fauna we need to be aware of out here?”
“Not much,” Ralph replied. “Just poison ivy. I’m immune to it, though.”
“Ah,” I said. “Is there…any nearby?”
Ralph pointed with his chin at the Marketing guy, who was adjusting focus. “He’s standing in some there.”
The Marketing guy, who wore shorts all the time, quickly stepped out of the patch and we re-set his camera elsewhere.
The next two days didn’t go as smoothly as we’d like because it was so damned hot and Ralph needed a bunch of breaks to rest. I didn’t blame him. It’s difficult enough throwing knives for hours at a time. Imagine having to teach knife-throwing on video and throw and actually get good hits on target in the hot sun.
One time during a break, while we stood under a tree with our cameras, eating Clif bars for lunch while Ralph went inside to take a cold shower and ice his shoulder, FNG said, “Who’s that?”
A little girl in a dress, maybe nine or ten, stood in a nearby meadow, watching us with eyes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Keane painting. She was very pretty, but her appearance felt strange, like she was a ghost, and when I lifted a hand to wave, she turned and ran across the meadow and disappeared behind a shed. Later on, Ralph told us she was probably one of his nieces.
Ralph’s knife-throwing style was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The vast majority of throwers fling the knife so that it spins in the air, and you have to accurately gauge distance to hit point-first consistently. Am I close enough for a half-spin throw, or do I try for a full-spin? That’s why it’s such a difficult thing to master, and nearly impossible to do in the chaotic circumstances of an actual fight. Despite cinematic representations of knife throwing, there are no credible real-world accounts of someone being killed in a fight with a thrown knife.
Ralph, however, taught a method of knife throwing that didn’t rely on spins and fine distance calculation: you release it in such a way as to make it sail into the target point first without spinning it. I don’t know if he developed this method himself or learned it elsewhere, but he was not only very skilled, he could teach that skill with some detail.
Over a year later, while shooting a video with some high-speed combat shooting instructors who worked in security management, one man told me that he loved Ralph’s video and had learned how to throw knives from it. So we weren’t peddling bullshit. Still, when we did knife-throwing on lunch breaks at the office, we went with the half-to-full spin technique. Easier to do with minimal practice.
We spent the last shooting day with Ralph doing extra knife-throwing shots, still photos, the introduction, the conclusion, and a bunch of voice-overs. Ralph loosened up a bit at the end; we’re easy to work with, but sometimes it takes a while to fully break the ice. At the end of the conclusion, while we were setting up for the final outdoor shot, he did an Elvis impression that was absolutely hysterical. I got some of it on video, but I can’t remember if I put it on the DVD as an Easter egg or not. It seemed so out of character, but it wasn’t; he was just glad the shoot was almost over. Us, too. A typical shoot day had us working from early morning until evening, then a break for dinner, then sitting and watching footage half the night in the hotel room to make sure we didn’t miss anything or if the equipment crapped out without us knowing. Shoot days were always grueling: during them you have to be 100% on your game for 100% of the time. The author can screw up: no problem. But the crew can’t.
Even though I bitched about it, I miss it, a little.
I looked for it at home, but I think Combat Knife Throwing: The Video is one of those few I didn’t get a copy of, which is a shame.