Blog: Behind the scenes at the Battle of the Nations

Aaron Thomas blogs on how his Medieval Fight Club story for Dateline fulfilled a childhood dream and why using a drone for filming didn't quite go according to plan.

I have to admit that my heart did a little leap for joy when I first heard about a world championships for medieval sword fighting.  

Like many a nerdy child I grew up on a diet of Lord of the Rings and Sir Arthur’s knights, and I may have even dabbled in the dark arts of Dungeons & Dragons. Somehow knights and great acts of chivalry were always just a heartbeat away.

It’s hard to pinpoint the age at which that parallel world evaporated, but it did. As the captain of the Australian team Paul Smith put it to me, “When you’re a boy you dream about being a knight and all that sort of stuff. And when you grow up you have to throw all that away.”

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Unless, of course, you don’t.

Medieval Fight Club
Source: SBS


When we arrived in Croatia for the , I realised there were literally hundreds of men and women from all over the world who had chosen to keep playing with swords well into adulthood.

It would be easy to dismiss these competitors as misfit nerds playing dress-ups – but to be honest almost none of them fitted that stereotype. Instead they were all focused on competing as sportsmen, and testing their mettle as fighters.

The romantic make-believe of knights in armour might have drawn them into this world, but now it was a serious endeavour. In fact, in Eastern Europe it’s gone almost mainstream, with tournaments held every few weeks.

To take part in this sport you do have to love violence, at least at some level. Many of the people I spoke to wanted an outlet to experience fighting and brutality in a socially acceptable way.

Australia’s female competitor Skye Burnie explained to me that “It’s just great getting in there and smashing people, because you’ve got to control yourself around society so much you just want the release. Anger frustration, pissed off at work - it’s just a stress relief I guess.”

And “smashing people” is certainly the right description for it. I had a visceral reaction to seeing full-force blows from axes and maces pounding on someone’s helmeted head. It was shocking at first.

Medieval Fight Club
Source: SBS


The competitors are right when they say that this kind of violence is rare in the modern world, and we tried hard to do justice to it in the filming.

As movie-goers, all of us are used to seeing highly choreographed sword fights that are carefully shot over many days from dozens of angles.

That sets a very high visual bar, and we knew we couldn’t allow the fight scenes in to be underwhelming. But the matches at the Battle of the Nations are brief and we knew we’d only get one shot at it.

My colleague Aaron Lewis experimented with different ways of following the action handheld, and in the end we decided to combine his roving camera with one stationary close-ups camera, one wide shot from the castle’s parapet, and a drone.

Medieval Fight Club
Source: SBS


It was my first time filming with a drone - and for the childish filmmaker inside me, shooting aerials over a medieval battle scene was a fantastic opportunity.

By the third day of competition I was getting pretty cocky with my moves, and I decided I wanted a shot that came crashing vertically down towards the action just as the two sides joined in battle.

But there was a hold-up in the start of play, and the low battery warning from the drone started sounding. I waited. It got louder. Finally the match started and I got the shot – it’s the second aerial you’ll see in the story.

But when I went to bring the drone on home, it wouldn’t ascend. In fact every movement only caused it to lose height.

Medieval Fight Club
Source: SBS


Slowly it dropped closer and closer to the battle raging beneath it, until finally a charging knight swung his poleaxe overhead, and unwittingly knocked the drone clear out of the sky in a shower of pieces.

The crowd roared. The score for that match was pretty clear: Knight 1 - Drone 0.

But even so, the knights weren’t the only ones who fulfilled a childhood dream that day.


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4 min read
Published 17 April 2015 at 12:02pm
Source: SBS