guide to filming good action

This essay will attempt to guide potential film makers in their pursuit of filming good action. While I am no expert myself the following is an assortment of ideas to which I come back to time and again in my evaluation of the action genre. Most of all, to film good action you need three things: patience, practice and persistence.

Let’s start with the classic fight sequence. In such a scene the director wants to create energy and to do so must be technically proficient with the correct tools. I would recommend using the Osmo camera and rig to ensure consistent quality image and maneuverability. Like an additional limb this tool should help make the dance of choreography easier. The most important part of this process is planning. Choreograph the entire scene shot by shot using stunt professionals ensuring that the choreographer works in conjunction with the cinematographer and that the scene is condensed and decisive. In any good fight sequence it is important that each shot has purpose. For example following the fist of one combatant into the protagonists defence to introduce the next combatant stage left of the shot as he attempts a kick to the gut. Giving the viewer a visual reference makes the action sequence dynamic and fluid as each new addition is introduced and excluded proficiently. It is important to reveal new threats from the protagonists perspective so that the tension remains elevated and every new threat is equally new to the protagonist as it is to the viewer. The danger should not be visible until the attention of the protagonist is necessary providing a level of urgency to the scene. One can observe this in the Raid as the hand to hand combat reveals threats suddenly and dynamically. This can be achieved by using sound editing to introduce a new threat before it arrives visually mid-action. This mirrors on a sensory level how the protagonist picks up on new threats.

Many filmmakers rely on the 180 rule which dictates that the camera should never switch to another subject or aspect more than 180 degrees from the current shot. At an advanced enough level however a fight scene should be able to jump past this rule effectively as seen in Captain America: Civil War. In the elevator scene of this film the multiple threats presented appear in quick succession. As Steve struggles to free himself from one hostile the camera switches to an incoming threat to reflect his switch in attention and to have a broader kick shot. This shot reveals him escaping the grip and deflecting  a hostile in a way that only breaking the convention could achieve. Every good cinematographer will guide the viewer through the space intimately.

For a foot chase sequence I would recommend the DJI drone, with a 4k camera, small size and responsiveness this camera is perfect for woodlands and winding streets. But before you get to the technical level you must scout out the location shot by shot. Without this the sequence can lose pace as the sequence is stretched between one advance and the next. Find point A and point B and plot the tropes in between. I recommend using Google maps to identify similar streets and potential routes. To achieve parkour or any form of acrobats i would use four shots: a close side angle, a clean plate shot and finally lock down two wide shots. This creates fluid, consistent movement and  the cut between shots is not jarring but engages the viewer. Use after effects to key frame around the position of the figure to bridge the two shots and then cut out the appropriate frames. It is important to create a versatile sequence but one must limit the shot types for a particular action to two. When the momentum stops two shot types should be used for the hand-to-hand combat: the wide panning shot and the traditional triangle coverage shot. The greatest disadvantage of a triangle coverage shot is that the viewer loses their commitment to the protagonist when the violence is obscured. In short busts, however this shot can mark a pause in pace phenomenally well. Always attempt to use actors prepared to do their own stunts in wide shots where the impact is explicit. This can be achieved by making quick and close quarter movements, filming and then duplicating the original on after effects to be masked around and extended. The best camera set-up for this is the DJO Oswold – responsive and precise in it’s angles for maximum authenticity.

Just as in the fight sequence it is essential to include action-reaction shots in one form or another to introduce new elements to the sequence. To increase the impact of these scenes speed ramping is an important tool to give the illusion of chaos and to heighten the tension. Removing the frame at the point of impact, whether it is in a car chase or bar fight, is better as the recoil is strengthened as is the visual overall. This subtle intensity increase is complemented by layering sound design into production, effects and music. At the earliest stage of sound editing this is useful in creating a clear sequence of sounds. Importantly, the editor should incorporate reverbs software which blends the music and sound effects into the scene for more natural sound. The full sensory experience has a symbiotic relationship with the visuals.

My personal opinion is that it is crucial not to obscure blurry camerawork on the one condition that the framing has purpose and is blurry with purpose. Show action, don’t imply it. Including a longer sequence of movements adds energy. By adding a lengthy action shot the viewer is immersed in the world even further and adds to the realism and therefore stakes. A poor director would cut away to create energy whereas the longer shot will articulate the scene in a fuller and more nourishing way. Life isn’t lived in rapid cuts but one fluid succession of happenings – neither should action. This can be seen in many of the training scenes in The Matrix when Neo fights Morpheous. The length of the shot adds justification to the new information that the program can install highly skilled combat knowledge in an instant. A second alteration is to create a clear sense of space such as in the sandstorm scene of Mad Max. Combining close shots and wider shots at appropriate angles must incorporate a sense of space so that the viewers understand the character’s decisions. In this scene the camera switches between a side shot of Max leaning on the car roof to a closer shot of him flipping back and kicking his assailant to a shot of his expression as he kicks to a shot of him dislodging the antagonist. Each shot is given appropriate space and delivers the thought process cleanly. The last technique is to include action and reaction shots in the same shot to give a sense of the scene’s geometry and the decision making process of the characters. This makes the scene more impressive and believable as the character appears in the scene and not in their own head. This can be seen in the destruction scene 15 minutes into Gravity as Sandra Bullock is tossed around the flying around the debris, her expression in full view.  Or again in the drop shot during the first invasion sequence of Live Die Repeat in which Tom Cruise swings suspended by his crashing helicopter as the camera moves in and out.

Good implied action is hard to come by but it has it’s moments. In the invasion sequence of Saving Private Ryan Tom Hanks’ character hits the beach in the same way as the camera, hides behind obstructions and ducks low like the camera in a way that implies the action to give the impression of action without wide steady shots. The shutter speed drops and the camera becomes increasingly blurrier as the scene progresses. Shots emerge moment to moment out of context to reflect the erratic nature of war. Keep in mind this is only possible because of the simplicity of the movement – the soldiers are moving up the beach. Therefore the shots have less explaining to do and can rely on style in place of substance. This approach reminds me a lot of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers as well as Sergio Leoni’s Once upon a time in the west. Epic battle sequences must always have contrast. All three movies have silent scores however at the same time use silence and sound effects to set the stage. This contrast between the anticipation before a conflict and the inevitable chaos.

Many of the shots in the Helm’s Deep battle sequence are monochromatic. The late cinematographer Andrew Leslie had the challenge of maintaining the feel of a night battle in the rain while making sure the visuals were intelligible enough to the viewer. He infuses the scene with a strong bluish backlight to draw out edges to ensure that shots aren’t too busy for the eyes.  He creates twenty four notable beats to the sequence which are important in demonstrating the advantages one side gains over another and revealing emotional cues. This helps to create a fully realised narrative structure in an action sequence within a wider film. Having a series of narrative cues like this one keeps the audience engaged. In this sequence darkness contrasts with light, hope with tragedy and levity with despair to fully prove the theory that contrasts matter and engage the viewer. This helps to resonate with the recurring theme of action films of darkness contrasted with light.

It is essential in filing good action to keep the viewer in the mind-set of the dominant figure. Often times viewers forget that action scenes must be full scenes in and of themselves and therefore do not include emotional arcs. At the midpoint of the Matrix the central question of the film is posited: Is Neo the chosen one, the hero? Because of this set-up the final fight scene with the computer is climactic because it begs that particular question – it has purpose. The scene balances spectacle with resolute dialogue to remind the viewer of the significance of this scene. Balancing the use of spectacle is important. An explosion or fire is fine and even should be encouraged. However, striking a balance with dialogue and purpose is essential. One must put the characters in the moments of spectacle to create tension so that the two are intrinsically linked. During the Dubai tower sequence of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol the ground is laid for this scene’s spectacle and therefore it earns purpose. Ethan Hunt is placed in opposition to the obstacles that confront him and is required to be reminded time and again of his purpose within the spectacle through dialogue.

Communicating through editing is an underappreciated skill in Hollywood. Take for example the interrogation scene at the beginning of Avengers. When Black Widow head bashes the General the editing uses an action reaction shot switching too quickly and with not enough space between the heads to convince the viewer. The effect is jarring, the scene seems blunt and obtuse from this awkward start. It is essential that the cinematographer shows the complete action without gaps. An example of good editing is in Django Unchained as directed by Quentin Tarantino. In an early scene Walken’s character emerges from a bar hands raised as he is threatened by the town sheriff. In a quick turn of events Walken’s character pulls a small gun from his sleeve and shoots the sheriff. One might expect a quick cut but instead Tarantino pulls in quickly until the small gun dominates the frame. This is followed by a reframing of the scene showing the reaction of the non action characters and their horror in a wide shot. This gives the scene space and a synergy appears between the action and the shot type and style. Similarly in a later scene Django asks a black maid to say Goodbye to her master’s wife. The maid says the line. There is a pause and Django fires a shot to send the master’s wife flying. All of this is carried out in one continuous wide shot which emphasises the jarring question only to be broken by the comical action punch line in the form of a quick burst of action.

The Coen Brothers are a less contemporary example of this technique. In Fargo there is a shot atop a car park where Steve Buscemi’s character is kicking something out of shot we know to be the body of the man he has just murdered. He is bloodied and exhausted as he takes out his frustration at his failed covert murder. This is known as comical violence. Steve’s failure is emphasised by the absence of the body in the shot and his pathetic, frustrated kicks are almost humorously self deprecating as he proves again he is no natural born killer. Later in the film Buscemi’s ‘Carl’ is sat in a car, bloodied and has contemplative expression on his face as he comes to terms with the bag of money beside him on the passenger’s seat. The Coen Brothers use a long shot which grows in it’s mockery of Carl as he attempts to take himself seriously. The scene shows little violence except from Carl bleeding however demonstrates a complete comprehension of how to direct comical action sequences. The inaction in both of these sequences is the most provocative as the scene guides the viewer to mockery. Notice Shane Black’s approach to comical violence in films such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or The Nice Guys in which he expresses fully the comical awkwardness of violence in a way that engages the viewer conversely grounds the viewer in it’s dramatic purpose.

A personal opinion of mine is that when writing for a n action sequence one should always start by writing beat for beat, swing for swing. Later in the process the writer should allow for flexibility leaving the scene open to later reinterpretation. Recognise the why of the scene and then articulate the what. If an obstacle appears in the shooting process always revert back to the why to find an alternate route. This is perhaps best articulated in the South Korean action film Old Boy and in particular the hallway fight scene. This sequence uses subtlety to move the protagonist through the onslaught of enemy combatants from point A to B. As we mentioned earlier in the essay, the complexity of the scene’s choreography can only work with an overarching linear movement as seen in the Omaha beach scene in Saving Private Ryan. The camera uses one long continuous shot so as to highlight the confines of the physical space and to underline the stream of uninterrupted violence in the wake of the protagonist Dae su Oh. The movement from Left to Right involves the viewer in the action as it’s linear nature reflects the narrow visioned purpose of it’s protagonist.  This gives the scene a power dynamic which switches between the two sides of the action as both overcome physical or emotional weakness.

Cinematography, pacing and blocking are the three elements which converge to solidify this sequence;s position as a classic fight sequence. The hero appears in the center of the screen as the camera centers in on his figure revealing him as the dominant character in the scene. As he loses his energy and loses this control he falls off center and at one point disappears in his crowd of combatants to indicate him succumbing temporarily to his opponents. Later in the sequence Dae arrives at the far right of the frame signalling an end to this segment of the sequence as a visual cue for the audience. This reflects a subconscious observation made in reading books and watching races in which the eyes move from left to right, from start to end in the phrase Sinistrodextral. In film the goodies are usually on the left and the baddies (their obstacle) are on the right. In this way the roles are reversed and the immorality of violence is flipped on it’s head as the protagonist enters the right hand side.

The pacing of the action adds a fourth dimension to the action sequence as Dae’s youthful energy expands on the screen in the initial few seconds of the scene. He strikes with accuracy, ease and tenacity in these opening moves using adrenaline to set the tone of the scene. The foolishness of this action reveals itself in his overwhelm at wasting his energy as the pace reduces itself gradually. Vulnerability adds to the realism of an action sequence regardless of the odds on both sides of the conflict. The camera is exhausted with Dae just as the audience feels his deflation.

Blocking is a technique used in film and theater used to stage the positions and actions of characters by giving them visual statuses. By placing a character upstage or downstage the director articulates their dominance in the scene. This can also be done using stature and posture as in Tarantino’s Reservoir dogs as the two men draw guns on one another with one on the floor and one looking down his sight standing. This technique is useful in creating an arc within the confines of an individual scene as dialogue or actions change the course of the scene. It is important to block characters in films such as Old Boy so that all of the actors are fully visible to add authenticity to the fight scene both emotionally aesthetically. For example, when Dae holds the extra with a red t-shirt he is wordlessly articulating the threat surrounding him as well as his diminished confidence with a visual symbolic cue. Using the environment to lay a separate beat to the scene is essential in adding versatility to it’s shifting morphing progression. Later in the sequence when Dae breaks through the crowd so that he is no longer surrounded his opponents hesitate to enter the space between them as they have the focus of his attention. This dynamic use of space articulates the new power dynamic. In this way the audience’s sympathies grow as the anxiety and fear oozes out of the screen realistically and convincingly. At the end of this shot the camera switches to a high shot overlooking Dae’s accomplishment as he grins with what we think to be relief. A reverse shot reveals this to be in reaction to an eelevator filled with new combatants to overcome in a clever play on expectations. This is an essential part of continuing or setting up a new sequence following a climactic moment. Using quickfire trickery to explore further the mental and physical traits the audience has come to admire in the previous sequence creates fascination and then a fascination with the protagonist. This can be done through puns, clever dialogue or a closeup aspect shot but is quite possibly the best bridge between action sequences.

Now let us turn our attention on how to set up good action sequences as demonstrated by the new action series phenomenon John Wick in which the wider community of assassins is only suggested and not definitive. By insinuating a wider universe instead of constricting the plot to itself the story feels realistic and the film seems less like a playground and more like a reality.  As we are given small nuggets of information the intrigue grows and exposition becomes unnecessary. Often in Hollywood movies a revelation is explained and not learned by and to the viewer in a way detrimental to the film as a whole. When we understand everything it limits the opportunity to shock and surprise the viewer.  In John Wick the creators exploit the ignorance of the audience by holding information because it grabs their attention. The characters fully understand these secrets and therefore the film has no reason to slow down for the audience to catch up and the film flows with no cinematic disruption. This is done using various visual and auditory clues. Including a larger world leaves a distinctive aftertaste as the viewer wants to learn about it and find out more. By allowing the viewer to inject their own theories and speculation around the drama we cherish the deep and interconnected narrative structure. Sometimes it is what the film doesn’t tell you which is what draws you in. Wick goes further than an exciting piece of escapism by giving us a world to talk about.

The hallway dream fight or as I like to call it the mental acrobat sequence is injected into the climax of the film Inception as the physics from another layer of the dream dictate in sporadic and unpredictable ways the movement and direction of gravity while the minds defense system seeks to attack and eradicate the dream altering invaders. As a director Christopher Nolan has made it abundantly clear that he prefers real visual effects in his films as much as possible and refuses to film digitally or using 3D. This traditionalist approach is to be admired as it questions the rapid advances in film technology. A less brave director would say yes to CGI, yes to digital film but Nolan is far more considerate of his complete range of choices at each part of the technical process.

In the case of this scene  Nolan employed a construction team to create a 100 foot rotating corridor drawing inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whereas traditional filmmakers would use NASA’s zero gravity flights to film action sequence in altered or warped gravity Nolan employed this additional realism for extended effect. This hallway was attached to a roller system controlled by a computer system for precision. While using the real actors for the majority of shots might have been seen as an impediment to the filming process Nolan found it a benefit as Levitt’s inexperience as a stunt professional added real human energy to his performance in a way that a professional could not capture fully. To display the actor in full view as they carry out these stunts makes these feats an equal facet to their character as would dialogue.

One of the most demanding parts of the filming process was the lighting and camera placement. Lighting proved difficult because it was impossible to light the corridor externally or add it in after effects. Therefore the lights had to be fitted into the set design. Essentially the production team used real practical illumination within the rotating sets. This allowed for longer moving shots to appear natural as the lighting remained fixed within the confines of the set. Therefore shadows moved naturally and realistically.

Camera positioning proved difficult as the camera had to move through the rotating set without moving with one of the surfaces so as that the illusion of gravity shifts were emphasised. By placing the camera on one surface statically it would appear that the fight involves the actors falling up and along walls. The implication of a lack of gravity would not be present and the effect would therefore be jarring. To overcome this impediment Nolan turned to the camera telescoping arm which could track down the middle of the set on a bearing so that it could reverse and move forward, rotate and swivel as well as to be controlled remotely. This expanded the opportunities available to Nolan and his cinematographer giving way to extended shots with multiple shifts in gravity in a way that moved towards and away from the camera and that moved as the set rotated simultaneously. Moreover, this camera rigging technique locked the action as consistently being the middle of the frame of reference in a way that articulates plainly and subconsciously the physics of the action sequence.

During the filming process Joseph Gordon Levitt had to overcome the nausea and sickness of moving around a rotating set and used an interesting and innovative technique. In the moments before a shoot Levitt would listen to a classical tune and picture the blocking of the scene: where he was meant to be as each note carried him through the scene so that his mind was distracted. After this, when carrying out the stunt, Levitt used basic psychology to shift his perspective throughout the process. As he moved trough the sequence he would repeat to himself when he landed on a new surface that this was the new floor so that he felt comfortable at each part of the choreography. The effect of this was to blur out the realities of the stunt so that the visual spectacle could take it’s place. Unlike Old Boy it is sometimes appropriate to dampen down a character’s human vulnerability at times so as to continue with the desired pace and deliver the message at the correct speed free of distractions.

The editor of this film, Lee Smith, started the sequence with a slow tracking shot as the two figures made first contact. The cuts become quicker however as the action intensifies and the gravity forces the two combatants into closer quarters. In this scene the two men fall into a smaller room and the fighting becomes more rapid, less spaced out and heightens in intensity so as to emphasise the final impact of the scene’s punchline. Levitt slides along the floor catches his misplaced gun and turns to fire as his attacker pulls his gun barreling towards him. The loud gunshot and sudden crumpling of his attacker’s body creates a dramatic punch to the sequence. The editing approach of Lee Smith sets the correct tone and adds the essential ingredient to the sequence – pacing.

What is most interesting about the scene is that it is a close quarters hand to hand combat scene between a side character and an unaccredited actor yet is able to maintain dramatic tension through the intelligently choreographed spectacle of the scene. The scene appears to have a narrative structure of it’s own as each of the elements and stakes tied to it are emphasised and heavily linked in earlier scenes so that the result is truly magnificent. Inception is an example of proficient technical ability, constructive innovation and a confident director. The combination of these elements in this creative process serve to emphasise the importance of having a full comprehension of how to use rules in film making, when to be selective and when to break convention.

When watching the Omaha Beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan one can pause the screen at any frame from the start of the sequence and it will uphold obvious intent in it’s visceral visual stimuli. Spielberg made it his core aim in directing this sequence to recreate as real an experience as possible. He does this by accurately conveying the thoughts of many real life infantry in the film by mapping the progression from chaos to regret to fear and so forth. This natural progression was essential. The intensity and purpose of the sequence contrasts with the Hollywood extravaganza used in features such as Battle Los Angeles in which the rapid cuts reinforce spectacle and not the character’s vulnerability. Using abrupt cuts and poor continuity the audience is disengaged with the material. Saving Private Ryan makes sense of the chaos. in the pre-production stages of the film Spielberg researched war photographer Robert Cappa who provided what is known as the epic eleven photos taken on the beach mid-battle. Spielberg utilised the more poignant cinematography by using this as inspiration. The photographer ducked and dived to take the photos and survive. Therefore the composition and depth was poor and this was reflected in the camerawork of the film to create a ferocious energy to the frames in a way that is legitimately personal as the photos were when they were taken. The shots use a bleach bypass and a streaker camera to create virtual streaking through the frame.  The camera captured 12 frames per second which were stretched across to 24 to give the illusion of newsreel footage and an in depth sense of realism. Spielberg used his context to adapt his composition to the harshness of the documentary style cinematography. If you pay careful attention it becomes obvious that the camera never appears clearly staged or positioned and therefore has an organic, intimate feel and to reflect the mutable actions of Tom Hanks’ actions.

As the camera moves along the beach it ducks and hides with the soldiers to intensify the intimacy. Throughout these shots the focus remains intact despite the shaky camera effect so that the purpose is not lost. Spielberg uses these principles to create the action rather than relying on the blood and gore because he understands that the spectacle speaks for itself and is inherently difficult to watch. By piecing together these action-reaction shots in succession the action sequence has more impact than tipping the balance toward spectacle and visual clarity.

Although it is not a helpful example as it required a massive budget, I find that the Inception hallway gravity warping sequence is the mark of an inventive and technically proficient  approach to action film-making. It is difficult to draw definitive objective conclusions from this sequence for the average or middle-budget film makers I feel each person can draw their own interpretation of it’s merits. Inception is directed by Christopher Nolan and includes an original screenplay and concept however was very much a collaborative process with a huge team of experienced professionals to create this thirty second sequence. The collaboration of construction, stunt men, actors, cinematographers etc. are bound together in the process of film making as an inevitability of the creative process however there is perhaps no other more closely knit project than committing to a technically challenging and visually stunning action sequence. This scene type magnifies the ability to work collaboratively where other sequences are less demanding.

So next time you watch a movie that attempts to invoke a strong reaction from you, just think whether it’s purely for spectacle or whether it is actually true to the intent of the film’s ideas.

A GUIDE TO FILMING GOOD ACTION

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