Filming an Action Scene

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Filming an action scene isn’t the easiest thing to do on a small budget. It usually means camera movement, choreography, stunts, special effects (sometimes), and enhanced sound design. While I don’t have an expansive body of work in this field, I do think that I at least understand the basics. I will be using the fight scene from our Batman spoof, The Dark Knight Chronicles – Episode III, as a reference.

First of all, I think it’s key to understand what tone and style you are trying to achieve in your action sequence. Are you going for the quick cut/shaky cam “Bourne” style? A more choreographed style? Or a mix of different styles and techniques? While I don’t think you should copy your favorite action scene shot for shot, I do believe there is something to be said for paying homage to scenes and/or movies that got it right. Analyze your favorite action scene. Why does it work? What is the camera doing and how does it help give a sense of scale? What makes your scene unique is the story and the characters, after that it’s up to you to make it visually interesting. Why not borrow from a scene that got it right?

Personally, my favorite style is that of Martin Campbell. The opening scene of Casino Royale is one of the most brilliantly executed action scenes I have ever seen. Perfect camera placement, death defying stunts, and brilliant pacing (I prefer cuts of 2-3 seconds, not a bunch of 0.5-1 second cuts). If you head over to Martin Campbells IMDB page and look under Trademarks, you will see that one of his trademarks is “fight scenes on high locations”. This is something that I wanted to emulate in our own fight scene.

The decision to have our fight scene on top of a building was made for many reasons. It fit into the story, first and foremost. I also knew that it would up the level of intensity, all the while opening up some unique opportunities for camera placement. Aerials would play a key role.

 

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It’s important to get a good establishing shot of your “arena”. Giving the viewer a glimpse of the entire location goes a long ways in maintaining that overall sense of scale as you move in closer for the action. For our scene, we went with three consecutive aerials before coming in closer.

Graph 1We could have started with Shot #2 as our establishing shot but due to the way we captured it (GH2 on a Glidecam in a small helicopter) we only had 2-3 seconds of usable stable footage, not enough time to truly act as an establishing shot.  For that reason I chose to “establish” by cutting between two usable angles.  Also, I think it’s important to segway from your wide establishing shot with a medium.  Going from a wide to a close up is just too jarring.  Ease the viewer into your close ups.
 

Once you have the scene established you can move in.  Close ups and Medium shots will help establish your character and their motives.

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It’s not a bad idea to stick to medium angles at this point.  Close ups should be reserved for when they are needed, just like the wider establishing shot.  We don’t want to see the whole scene from a wide angle and we don’t want it to be all close ups.  We also don’t want the camera to be constantly changing points of view.  Start with the wider angles, move into the mediums and stay there until the story calls for a change.
 

Pulling off an action scene on an Indie budget is tough.  We don’t usually have the resources to hire a Fight Choreographer or a stunt crew.  For that reason I think it’s key to have an alternate scene to cut away to.

Graph 3Cutting in between two scenes is tricky but can add to the overall intensity of your film.  If you follow the same process in your alternate scene (establishing wide and then moving into mediums) then you will want to re establish your action scene when you cut back to it.  Going from a medium shot in your cut away scene to a medium shot in your action scene will be confusing for the viewer.

 

Once your scene, motives, characters, and alternate scene are set up you have the freedom to “move in” and get some close ups.  Show the emotion in the characters faces and let your viewer know that it’s about to go down.

Graph 4Adding another wide angle here is optional.  If the fight is taking place in one spot you could quickly reveal the location of the characters within the scene again.   Reminding the viewer of the scale, position, and context of the fight is always a good idea.  Too many close ups in a row and the scene becomes chaotic.  This can also be a good thing.  If your character is disoriented and confused you might want your audience to feel the same way.  It all comes back to your desired tone and pace.
 

Most Indie productions don’t have the resources to hire stuntmen (or women) and Fight coordinators.  This means that your actors will need to do the scenes.  Almost anyone is capable of pulling off 2-3 consecutive moves.  Punch, block, and punch (feels like I’m trying to pull off a Mortal Kombat finishing move).  Pete and I aren’t trained fighters but we know enough to give the impression that we do for a small amount of time.  Don’t ask too much of your Actors.  You can opt for the “Bourne” shot per punch method or give a small sense of Choreography by staging a few moves in a row.

Graph 5Once you get into the actual fighting/action there are several things you can do to enhance the mood.  I personally love increasing the shutter speed.   Another option is to leave music out of the sound mix.  Having only sound design can greatly increase the level of intensity.  Check out this scene from Harry Potter which utilizes both the shutter speed/no music techniques.
 
 
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 There are unlimited ways to combine these techniques to match the desired tone and pace of your film.  This is simply the route we took for this episode.  I like to keep reminding the viewer of the space and context within the scene by cutting to wide angles when the scene allows it.  I also enjoy utilizing close up shots to enhance parts of the sequence.

What action scenes do you guys like?  Are there techniques I described that you don’t agree with?  Are there any that I missed?  I would love to hear your thoughts!

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