“From ancient myths through Shakespeare to modern writers, we love tales of magic.” This passage comes from Beyond The Words – and there is definitely truth to it, with the genre’s subtle teachings, be they from books or Hollywood blockbusters, being a reason why.
The larger than life, saving the universe rhetoric most plots rely on emphasise that exploration leads to self-discovery and our sense of wonder makes us wiser. In fact, the good vs. evil formula is a motivational speech in a pretty package, doing its fair share of inspiration.
For the aptly named Samantha Swords, such stories were a big part of the childhood experience. “I found it hard to relate to the wild, Australian mountains where I grew up and I was always day-dreaming, writing and drawing to put another layer on my world,” she told Real Business, citing Robin Hood and Peter Pan as early influences.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more of a realist. I love fantasy with emotional depth, showing the strength of the human spirit. Hollywood blockbusters and productions like Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful or the 2013 video game reboot of Tomb Raider engage me.”
Her love of fantasy, however, largely revolves around the sword – “it’s the core of all mythology and depicts the ultimate heroic symbol”. Most of all, Swords explained at leadership conference Hero Round Table, it’s attached to a very real martial arts form – an amalgamation of arts spanning use of the rapier and military sabre further depicted in her speech below.
“I already had an interest in medieval combat,” she said. “But one day I came across ‘Western martial arts’ and found a community of researchers and athletes around the world reviving the combat systems of medieval Europe. These arts were preserved in books that, until recently, were gathering dust on museum bookshelves.”
Medieval re-enacting – done by friends – and years of Olympic fencing did little to satisfy her as both ruled out “brutal martial techniques that work in a life-or-death situation” to keep competitors safe. On the contrary, Western arts were built around such techniques for self-defence purposes.
It’s no surprise her dedication prompted others to seek her help. You’ll come to realise she’s a woman with many hats, and that one is labelled consultant.
“I want to share my knowledge, so helping people is rewarding,” she explained. “So far I’ve had largely positive experiences as a sword-fighting consultant, although I think that is thanks to the enthusiasm of the people who hire me, and the energy we bring to each project.”
And one of the reasons why a consultant of such means is increasingly sought after is, in a full-circle kind of way, because of the fantastical. Hollywood blockbusters and games are once again stoking public interest in sword-fighting: “A widespread hunger for knowledge about the past has taken hold, but many museums are experiencing cut-backs so the burden of research and communication falls to other areas. Games, movies and TV shows all offer that. You can see the educative power of industry successes such as Vikings or Assassin’s Creed. There are definitely vast opportunities for growth in this area, and for me that is exciting.”
Indeed, her focus on Western arts has meant working in the entertainment industry, on some of our most beloved Hollywood blockbusters. Remember the many hats? Let’s add special effects technician, prop-maker, sculptor, actor, illustrator and blacksmith to the list. Swords was part of the team that made armour for the dwarves in The Hobbit trilogy, had a hand in constructing Matt Damon’s exoskeleton for Elysium and helped make a sculpture of Kim Jong Un for The Interview. She’s even involved in Ubisoft’s upcoming For Honor, a game set in Medieval times where you can play as a knight, samurai or viking. Check out the trailer:
Her interest in the entertainment industry, she suggested, was also influenced by her love of fantasy – it led her to work on Narnia, Warcraft and Superman: Man of Steel as well.
“When I was 15, The Lord of the Rings came out and I remember Peter Jackson dedicating over 26 hours of behind-the-scenes footage in the extended DVDs. I discovered an entire industry of people like me who were encouraged to be artistic, hands-on and passionate about attention to detail.
“I struggled with regular academia, and even though my school offered a lot of enriching programmes I couldn’t see myself in a traditional role. I threw myself into pursuing the type of Hollywood blockbusters I’d seen in the New Zealand-based trilogy. Through persistence and the generosity of others, I was able to work at Weta Workshop for four years on numerous productions.”
The ability to create the swords she loves has also allowed her a better understanding of the equipment. Swords explained: “I had the opportunity to learn blade-smithing, worked at a sword-construction company and was involved in weapon-props and armour-building for Hollywood blockbusters. It definitely helps me appreciate the equipment.
“As an actor trained in movement I’m aware of how my body changes whilst wearing different gear. Good tools and attire are important when you’re fighting, and the dynamics of each weapon are different. Weight, thickness, material finish – everything changes how a tool behaves. It’s important to consider these things when you’re reconstructing ancient martial arts, or the efficiency of what you’re doing can become dependent on the modern things you’re using to practice with.”
When she says practice, she means practice aplenty! When work doesn’t get in the way, she’ll be training several hours a day, four days a week.
“It’s a constant balancing act since I’m involved with so many things and often switch roles. Given the nature of my industry, I’ll have chunks of free time whilst I’m not on a project and I’ll train hard, then I’ll have to drop activity right back down to minimal when I’m working again. It’s frustrating but it also helps me keep perspective, especially in regards to my own performance.”
Her emphasis on training and working inspired us to ask about the increasingly cited connection between sport and business – more specifically whether competitors in the fighting world and corporate landscape had something in common. The Art of War, said to be one of her favourite books, could be translated as “Master Sun’s Martial Arts”. It’s thus the best indication, she suggested, of how the two correlate.
“In martial arts, you’re always striving for excellence. Understanding yourself, the people and the environment around you helps you achieve that. It’s a combination of knowing where you want to go, overcoming challenges to get there, and also adjusting expectations so you can build more realistic goals. These are definitely traits of good business leadership.”