Posts Tagged ‘fight scenes’

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“We Are Not Sick Men!”

March 24, 2015

Not Sick Men

For those who are not martial arts film fans, the above quote might seem a little strange, but it comes from the 1972 Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury. Right at the beginning of the flick, some Japanese martial artists from a rival school give the Chinese students an insulting gift- a signboard with the often-repeated cultural slur “The Sick Men of Asia” calligraphed on it. In the very next scene, Bruce defeats a dojo full of Japanese students, shatters faces and cultural prejudices alike and proclaims on behalf of the Chinese people “we are not sick men!”

A key moment in Chinese cinema and martial arts movie history, sure, but why do I bring it up here? Because it’s a nice segue into the fact that action films are generally treated like they’re the “sick men” of the film industry. And, like Bruce Lee, they most definitely are not.

This isn’t to say action movies aren’t appreciated. Virtually every studio’s tentpole offerings year after year are action movies. They cost lots of money and they make lots back, both at the box office and then on download, disc and pay per view. They are important. But they are not respected.

I'll just leave this here.

I’ll just leave this here.

You see it all the time… Audiences, critics and other filmmakers alike all look down on action movies like they’re the cheap amusements of a bunch of undereducated morons. How many times do you hear the words “big” “dumb” and “action movie” slung conveniently together in that order? I have to admit, I’ve used that phrase more than once. How many movies are pardoned off as “guilty pleasures” because “you can turn your brain off” when watching them? As if they’re somehow beneath your aspirations and you feel embarrassed for liking them in the first place. Well, don’t be. Comedian Dara O’Briain has a similar defence of pop music in one of his stand up routines and the bottom line is that if you enjoy something, don’t feel bad about it. Not every piece of music is a Bach and not every movie is a Kubrick.

Action movies are frequently looked down upon because they are considered to be mere entertainment and not art, but that is bullshit of the highest order. Some films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero or John Woo’s The Killer have very strong artistic qualities, certainly more than many art house dramas.

I think if other filmmakers took a closer look at action movies or better yet, tried to make one, they’d respect them a little more and realise a few things.

Like just how fucking difficult they are.

The main reason non-action filmmakers struggle with action films is because a lot of what they know and rely on as directors goes out the window when you’re shooting action. You see, with normal, non-shooty-kicky-boom-boom scenes, directors, editors and DoPs can fall back on the “Hollywood method” of shooting coverage (not to be confused with the “Hollywood method” of contraception which involves not having a stylist/personal trainer or just being Adam Sandler). I talked about coverage before… ooh, ages ago… but if you don’t know what it is (and shame on you, this being a filmmaking/directing blog and all…), it’s about shooting a master shot of the scene, followed by sub-masters, over-the-shoulders, close-ups and anything else that’ll give the editor all the options and headaches he could ever want. Thing is, coverage doesn’t work like that for fight scenes. If you shoot a master of the whole fight then cut in for character A’s punches and reactions, then do the same for character B and try to edit it together, it’ll look like shit.

(Above: Shit)

For a start, wide shots are difficult for the actors and stunt performers. It takes a lot of skill to perform multiple precise techniques in a full frame and not fuck up- that’s why it’s only skilled and experienced fight performers like Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao that take twenty plus moves in one take in their stride. Even if you have skilled fighters, you’ll also likely tire them out on the wide master, so that by the time they get to shooting their other angles, they’ll look as attractive as Adam Sandler on a stairmaster.

In recent years, american movies have taken to throwing out the master and just sticking to the close-ups, disguising the relative shot repetition (and potentially shoddy technique) with nausea-inducing wobble-cam. I’m looking at you, Paul Greengrass… Fast-paced and kinetic? Yes. Clear and expressive? Once I’ve recovered from synaptic overload, I’ll vomit out a “no.”

In Hong Kong, they choose the camera angle first and then choreograph the action with that angle in mind, because certain moves and techniques look better or worse or stronger or faster from certain angles and lenses. Each shot is designed to showcase a certain part of the choreography or story, the camera moves with the action and each edit point flows seamlessly into the next (meaning the last move of one shot is the first move of the next, allowing you to cut invisibly on action). This means you have to be aware of things like the 180 degree rule, the 30 degree rule and the effects of camera movement in order to pick your shots properly. For people like Yuen Wo Ping, Lau Kar Leung and Sammo Hung, they can make this shit up on the fly and it cuts smoother than Barry White carving out soft scoop ice cream, but generally, you need to know how the scene will edit together before you shoot it. This obviously limits the creative options in editing to a “when to cut” rather than a “what to cut to” which is why a lot of session editors hate it. I know that one first hand, which is why I prefer to cut my own shit for the lack of arguments if nothing else.

This “see it edited beforehand” process is also necessary for chase sequences, gunfights and anything that involves effects work- shooting Hollywood-style coverage on any of these will likely result in hours of useless footage and lots of money, time and cast/crew goodwill wasted.

It’s one of the few areas where even the most experienced action directors plump for storyboards. Not just to communicate to the crew (including a second unit tasked with the fun explody stuff and cutaway minutiae), but also to work out the editing for the sequence- knowing what shot goes where and when. Which is weird when you think about it, because like all still images, they can’t convey the passing of time or anything that changes over time, like movement. But short of doing an animatic, storyboards are probably your best tool for prepping an action sequence.

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film "Dead Meet"

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film “Dead Meet”

Sometimes, particularly for a fight scene, it’s worth following up the storyboards by shooting a blocking tape- essentially a rough shot-by-shot edit-by-edit assembly of the fight to see what works and what doesn’t. It can give you a sense of pacing and progression that storyboards lack and especially for an inexperienced or otherwise faithless crew, it can also give them the confidence in both the sequence and you as a director.

(Above: Part of “Dead Meet”s blocking tape)

So if you’re one of those filmmakers who sneers at action flicks because no action film has won at Cannes or Sundance or some other festival where hipsters in black polo necks congregate, then I suggest you have a crack at making one. Shoot a chase sequence, a gunfight or a post-modern hyper-ballistic kung fu battle. And send me the link when you’re done! You’ll learn a shit-ton and probably have more fun on the shoot than the time you worked on that promo with all the supermodels…

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Or maybe not…

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Story Principles and Fight Scenes

February 12, 2015

DeanKick The weekend just gone, Emily (my frequent collaborator and long-suffering AD) and I drove up to Birmingham to meet stunt performer and actor Dean Williams and actress Francesca White and work on some choreography for our latest short film. I’ve been writing and rewriting the script for the film since about September last year and we’ve been in a tortoise-esque pre-production for the last few months or so.

The film is an action comedy about a female assassin (played by Francesca) and, lest people say we don’t challenge ourselves, in its 15-20 minute runtime we have two somewhat ambitious action sequences. There’s a big gun battle at the end of the film and in the middle, a one on one fight scene in a pub bathroom. And it was the latter we went up to Birmingham to block out and work on.

Although both Emily and myself had shot action before, we wanted this to be better and more complicated than what we’d done previously- and this meant getting a professional stunt performer involved. Besides, all the people I used to shoot fight scenes with are not the 19 year old Jackie Chan and Jackass-inspired headcases that we used to be. So a professional headcase was needed! Dean was actually a recommendation of Francesca and because he can fight, fall and choreograph as well as being a decent screen actor, he was coming on board as a one-stop fighter/actor/co-ordinator shop. He was working on the prep for a feature film whilst we were up there, casting and training actors (it’s a pretty cool film called Enter the Cage and you can follow its progress here), so we had to grab him and Francesca when we could.

Which left Emily and I with a bit of time to plan out how the action scenes would work from a narrative standpoint. “Narrative standpoint?” I hear you repeat, “but surely fight scenes are just kicky-punchy-flippy-off-the-wall-that’s-so-cool kinda scenes?” Not really, dear conveniently mistaken reader, (although some films really don’t help dispel this stigma) so allow me to explain…

Contrary to what a lot of filmmakers and amateur stunt teams think, fight scenes aren’t just about the fighting. They obey the same rules and satisfy the same criteria as any other scene or sequence in the movie- they serve the story. They need to advance the plot, develop the characters, add depth to the world or contribute to the big picture or preferably all four. If an action scene doesn’t do one or more of these things, then it should be cut. I’ve talked about my four elements of storytelling before but the ideas apply to every part of a film, from a standard dialogue scene to a car chase. Fight scenes need to have a narrative through-line just like any other scene. Since fight scenes are very much like dialogue sequences with back and forth exchanges, confrontations and submissions (both literally and figuratively!), most of a fight’s narrative is centred around the characters.

As an example, let’s have a look at the end fight scene from the Van Damme magnum opus Kickboxer. For those who haven’t seen the film (or those whose therapists have convinced them to block it and most of the 80s out), JCVD plays Kurt, a martial artist bent on revenge after his kickboxer brother is paralysed by Muay Thai bad guy Tong Po. Now, the final fight could just be Van Damme kicking six bales of hay out of Michel Qissi, but there’s actually a bit more to it from a narrative perspective. Not a lot more, obviously- this is a Van Damme film not something by David Mamet, but still…

Before the bout, Kurt and Tong Po wrap their hands and dip them in broken glass to add a bit more jeopardy to the proceedings (because elbows to the face aren’t intimidating enough). Kurt is also told beforehand that he needs to let Tong Po “punish” and beat him or his brother will be killed. This affects Kurt’s attitude and thus the choreography of the beginning of the fight, with Kurt trying to avoid harming Tong Po without taking too much damage himself. Inevitably, Kurt takes a lot more damage than he dishes out in this first part, giving the fight the typical “good guy loses until he makes a comeback” curve. This comeback comes when Kurt’s brother escapes his captors and appears ringside. Kurt realises his brother’s safe and he doesn’t need to hold back any more. But the filmmakers also use this for a character moment- now that he can fight back, Kurt decides to remove his glass-covered-wraps (although why when the rest of the fight is primarily his feet smashing against Tong Po’s face is anybody’s guess!), showing that he has a sense of restraint and morality. He’ll happily beat Tong Po but he doesn’t want to kill him. The next few minutes are pretty much the JCVD kicking showcase you come to expect from these sorts of movies set to some 80s ethnic power rock. While the whole sequence is quite simplistic, the little narrative nods affect the choreography and allow for character moments.

"Character Moment"

“Character Moment”

Our fight scene was to be a bit more complex than Kickboxer- from both a story and choreography standpoint- although saying that is hardly difficult. Our assassin, Cleo, would follow her target into the bathroom and try to kill him from behind with a knife. He spots her and resists, forcing her to change her game plan. She attacks with the knife, he disarms her and sends her flying with a flashy jumping kick. Now both she and the audience know that her target is a lot more skilled than originally thought. Cleo can’t hope to match him in strength or power, so she has to fight smart. She uses the environment around them to injure or destabilise him, targeting his legs (so he can’t kick, move or stand properly) then one of his eyes (affecting his depth perception) before taking an opportunity and finishing him.

The above narrative helped divide the choreography into sections, each with its own story progression and methodology behind the styles and techniques used. These sections make the fight easier to choreograph and perform as well as making it easier to shoot. But the big thing is the story progression of the whole fight. What it reveals about the characters- Cleo’s tactical thinking, her target’s pride and OCD- and what it adds to the story as a whole.

When you’re shooting an action film, there’s usually the decision to either cast an actor and teach them how to fight (at best you get Zhang Ziyi or Keanu Reeves, at worst you get Ben Affleck) or cast a martial artist and try to teach them how to act (historically, there usually isn’t a “best” in this scenario, only a lot of worsts!), but we got lucky with our casting. Francesca is fast developing a reputation as a gung-ho action actress, game to do all these fight scenes and learn martial arts and stunts. It was part of the reason why we cast her. She also has a background in dance and is pretty flexible, making it easy for her to remember choreography and perform what would otherwise be difficult-for-a-beginner kicking techniques. As a martial artist myself, I know there’s a big difference between looking like you can do a spinning hook kick and actually being able to do a spinning hook kick, but the broader our performers’ skillsets the more chance we have of getting a really cool fight at the end of it. Which is why it was great to get Dean on board. Dean is a veteran of the martial arts and stunt world and has a range of styles and techniques at his disposal, which made for interesting and varied choreography. He’s also an actor, so the little character moments in the choreography will add an extra dimension to what could just have been two performers wailing on each other for a couple of minutes.

It was a long day and we had to steal Dean and Francesca when we could, but I’m glad we did. It’s helped me get a handle on what we can do with the fight and what it could look like (filming some walkthroughs in an actual bathroom helped!) as well as bolstering Dean’s character with some detail work you wouldn’t normally see. Next step is to do a whole day of training and run-throughs to really work out the choreography and block out the camera moves as well. From that we can put together a blocking tape so we can be much more efficient when it comes to shooting- we’ll only have a day to shoot this scene so the more prep time, the better.

It was also good to meet some of the cast and crew of Enter the Cage and see the way they’re approaching the action for the film. Special thanks to Dean and the director Kevin for letting us gatecrash their party!

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My Love-Hate Relationship with Editing

August 17, 2013
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Couldn’t resist.

I have very mixed feelings towards editing. On the one hand, it’s the defining part of the filmmaking process and where the film actually becomes a film. On the other, it’s a massive ball-ache where you have to dredge through hours of footage, find ways to mask or fix continuity and sound issues and tread that fine line between systematic and creative approaches. And don’t get me started on NLEs and their buggy performance issues.

The strange thing is, my history with editing is pretty much my history with film and video production in general. Although I was innately a storyteller, I don’t know if I’d have taken to the craft of the moving image quite so readily were it not for the availability of consumer editing software.

When I started paddling in the pool of filmmaking, the first things I shot were fight scenes. It soon became obvious to me that the camera-sat-unmoving-on-a-table style of cinematography I was using was not only dull visually, but playing out the whole thing from this one angle made it doubly so. I realised I needed to shoot things from different angles and edit them together into a sequence. At this point I knew only what most people know about editing- that it’s just about “taking out the bad bits” (a definition so narrow, Victoria Beckham would have trouble walking down it). The only source of information I had on the subject was a copy of Jackie Chan: My Stunts on VHS and the brief sequence where he illustrates, amongst other shooting techniques, how continuity of motion was achieved with editing. This was “cutting on action”- one of the basic principles of continuity editing- and I had learnt it, even if I didn’t know the name, from a man who falls off things for a living.

(I couldn’t find the exact clip, but you get the idea…)

Since digital camcorders and consumer NLEs were new and I was shooting on Hi-8, my first attempts at editing were done between the camera and a VCR. Anyone old enough to have experimented with this method knows how much of a ball-ache it is to pause the recorder and frantically find the next bit of footage before coordinating the play/record button presses so things actually go to plan. I’m fairly certain that splicing on a moviola would be less stressful. Would I have chosen film as a career based on this experience? Doubtful. While it taught be how to plan a shoot and see something edited in my head before I shot it (both excellent and necessary skills that new filmmakers don’t always pick up right away), it was a real pain and just wasn’t as immediate a creative process as I’d have liked.

Needless to say, when I got the money together (courtesy of getting fired from my first full-time job and payroll accidentally paying me twice for the last month!) to buy a DV camera, a FireWire card for the PC and some editing software, things became much more malleable.

Urgh. Just urgh.

Urgh. Just urgh.

The first NLE I used was Pinnacle Studio (later called Ulead). It was a fairly simple drag and drop affair with clip boxes rather than a timeline and very limited sound options. But it enabled me to cut clips at a frame by frame level, assemble them into a sequence, add some music and shitty titles and create a digital file of my creation. It also allowed me to add a myriad of crappy transitions, but even then, naive as I was, I knew that starwipes were tools of the devil and stuck to straight cuts or dissolves if I wanted to transition from a scene. It was from using this less-than-impressive software that I learnt about the importance one frame can make to a cut- as Tarantino said in an interview it’s like the difference between a sour note and a sweet note in music. I also quickly realised by shooting these fight scenes that there were only certain places I could put the camera so things would edit smoothly. Person A needed to stay on one side of the screen and Person B on the other otherwise no one would know where the hell things were in relation to each other. Yep, the 180 degree rule. Again, from fight scenes. I realised if I wanted to shoot from the other side, I needed to either move the camera during the shot or cut to a direction-neutral shot in order for it to work. I also intuitively discovered cutaways and inserts by shooting these fight scenes, the former for bridging gaps in continuity and the latter for highlighting details. My education in editing had begun.

At this point, I still had no formal training. My interest was martial arts and kung fu movies and while the internet was definitely a thing and we had access to it, I was only interested in the martial arts fights amateur stunt teams were shooting and editing. So even though filmmaking was a topic of discussion on these sites, it was rarely beyond the concept of shooting angles and editing techniques.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that I wanted to study film and video production properly and enrolled in a course at the local college. Immediately, I felt out of my depth. Everyone else had done some kind of course before. They knew the terminology, they knew the process and they knew Final Cut Pro- which was the editing system of choice at Reading College. I struggled to keep up, desperately trying to internalise lecture notes, read up on things I didn’t understand and try stuff out with my friends on our next fight scene shoot.

Eventually, after about eight months, I quit.

I got a full time job which I hated. I saved some money. I started to get over my depression. And I got withdrawal symptoms from not doing any filmmaking.

Realising I might have made a mistake in quitting, I bought a new camcorder since the old one had died, my first Apple computer (the hernia-inducing eMac) and a copy of Final Cut Express. I shot a short action film with my friends and realised I had actually learnt things from the course. I had learnt more about shots and composition, about continuity and storytelling and I had learnt a bit about Final Cut Pro. This was the first real project I edited in Final Cut and the process was several magnitudes of difference from Pinnacle Studio. I had a timeline, I had a viewer and a canvas, I had bins and filters and colour correction and audio tools. I could do L and J cuts (again, something I figured out for myself rather than being taught it) and I could do admittedly crude slow motion- I think that might have been the holy grail for me!

FCP screengrab

But Final Cut was a bit of a beast. Like before, it took ages to capture my footage from tape, but this time I felt compelled to log it as I went, setting in and out points, naming scenes and shots. This was something I hated, but it did mean I was viewing my footage as I went looking for the good take (this was 2003- I only had an 80Gb hard drive and DV took up 1Gb per 13 mins so it paid to be frugal).

Somewhere along the line, editing stopped being fun. It became a slog. That necessary evil that has to be done so you can enjoy the fruits of your labour- like changing the bedclothes before you hump in it.

And I started to hate it. Mostly.

I still enjoyed the magic of making something work and seeing it how the audience would and I still enjoyed editing when I was in the zone at 2am, trying to get the narrative to flow. But like a panda in London Zoo, I was rarely in the mood and frankly, it all looked too much like hard work.

Van Damme couldn't believe just how long this render was going to be...

Van Damme couldn’t believe just how long this render was going to be…

When I re-enrolled at Reading College (now the diet coke university TVU), I found myself to be far more experienced than many of my classmates. This meant that I could help them with the things they found difficult, but it also meant that I had the time to expand and develop what was being taught rather than scrabbling to just keep up. I still hated editing for the most part but I also acknowledged that editing was where the film actually became a film. And I wound up doing a lot of editing myself because I was much more comfortable with Final Cut than some of the others but also because I frequently shot stuff with the edit in mind. And for someone who wasn’t me, this was often a problem.

Editors are both craftsmen and creatives. They’re like engineers, using a complex series of tools to assemble something else. But they’re also like collage or mosaic artists, taking tiny bits and putting them together to make more complicated, much better pieces of art. It’s a real straddler of a role and it relies on having a range of raw materials to work with. The problem is, I would frequently save time or energy on set by knowing how I wanted something edited and only shooting the material necessary to make that happen. So when the editor sat down to edit it, he found that the footage could only really be assembled one way, thus robbing him of his creative involvement, or worse still if he couldn’t see that end product and only saw insufficient footage to edit it how he wanted. On The Good, The Bad and The Undead, a movie I co-produced, DoP’d and somewhat visually directed, the editor frequently found I hadn’t shot the coverage he needed to assemble the scene. I’d shot enough to assemble it my way, as per my storyboards, but I’d left no room for leeway or his creative choices. And I didn’t exactly deal with the situation well either. When he pointed out I didn’t have enough coverage for the main fight scene in the flick and said it flat-out wouldn’t cut together, I took the footage, cut it and mixed it overnight into a pretty good fight scene just to cuntishly prove him wrong. This antagonism was probably one of the reasons why that film took ages to edit but it left me with this feeling that if I was going to shoot things this way, I needed to be the editor. Not for any sense of auteurism, but because I didn’t want to annoy and frustrate an editor.

So for every project I directed after that, I did the editing. Even Persona, where Don Allen the producer really wanted to get someone else in to edit, I insisted because I knew that at the pace we would be moving I was likely to cut corners (and I did) and for an editor, this would be a nightmare. Strangely though, I have grown to like shooting coverage more and more in the last few years- in the main because I don’t need to plan as much as I used to and I can pace things better and add to the performances in the edit if I have a reasonable level of coverage. And if a particular shot is definitely what I want to use, I will structure that coverage around it, making it integral to the scene, but giving myself (or another editor) some degree of flexibility.

Now we have a new generation of NLEs. Final Cut Pro X was hated by many professionals on its launch (I have to confess, I didn’t like it much either) but over the last year I’ve grown to like it, even as I find its new ways of doing simple things frustrating and liberating at the same time. One thing I have found though, is that I’m a faster editor with it. I used to be a slow, picky perfectionist with editing, but FCPX is very much a slam-it-together-and-see-what-sticks NLE and I’ve found this means I put together an assembly quicker and then spend my time tweaking and tidying it rather than plodding through it on Final Cut Classic. L and J cuts are actually easier, stuff doesn’t go out of sync as often when I’m in full-on tweak mode and thanks to the codec-agnostic engine and background render, the whole video format thing is something of a non-issue.

Given that the tools are somewhat improved, you might be surprised to learn I still have my love-hate thing with editing. I’ve mellowed somewhat and I like it a bit more because I’m better at it with the new tools, but it’s still Vicks in my Vaseline.

I’ve always thought that, as a director, when working on a project you end up making your film several times over- each draft of the script, each bit of concept art, the storyboards, the shooting script, your vision of the film in your head, every subsequent edit and revision… each is a new stab at telling the story. And I think a lot of my negativity towards editing is because by the time I’m sitting there with the timeline, the script, the continuity notes, a big bag of crisps and a 2 litre bottle of pepsi max and everything else in front of me (or next to someone else who’s going to do much of the donkey-work), I’ve already made the film several times and really can’t be fucked to do it all again.

But then that magic happens. That moment when a scene comes together and feels natural and effortless and… good… and suddenly you forget all the waiting and the procrastinating and the software bugs and the format issues and the swearing and the frustration and realise that you’ve made a film. And it works. And you keep going because you can’t wait to see how this thing unfolds in the next scene.

And by the time you stop because the screen is blurring and your eyes hurt like someone’s poured lemon juice in them, it’s 4.30 in the morning and you have work at half 8 and you really really should get some sleep…

…I’ll just finish this next scene… I’m in the zone…

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Lights, Camera and Lots and Lots of Action!

December 23, 2012
For a 30-something, this is a familiar nightmare...

For a 30-something, this is a familiar nightmare…

I grew up in the 80s and early 90s which means I’m part of the so-called “video generation.” As opposed to kids in the 70s who grew up with broadcasted TV as their proxy parent du jour, I had a VCR and lots of tv-recorded and pre-recorded tapes to wear out in it. And if there wasn’t something on broadcast-tv, taped-tv or shop-bought-tape to watch, there was always the rental option. It’s a wonder my eyesight is as good as it is…

Our local video rental store had a monthly subscription deal- rent what you like for as long as you like- and my dad, knowing a good deal when he saw one, signed up and rented anything and everything that video store had over the course of the next few years. As a result, I saw a huge range of movies during this time, but like most teenage boys, I grew up on a steady diet of action flicks. Arnie, Van Damme, Steven Seagal… If they kicked people, fired guns and blew shit up I probably watched it courtesy of Jumbo Video Rentals. When I started training in martial arts at the age of 14, I focused more on the kicky-punchy action movies- starting with the US efforts (where gun-toting heroes occasionally spin kicked a slow motion witty retort) all the way to the Hong Kong martial arts flicks (where somersault kicks are a recognised means of communication).

For me, these movies were a great source of inspiration for my martial arts training- from them I learnt spinning kicks, jump kicks, the kip up, some acrobatics and several styles of kung fu… but they were also the source of my interest and skill in filmmaking.

When I was 19 I borrowed my dad’s camcorder and started filming my friends and I training in martial arts. As kung fu film fans, it didn’t take long for these training sessions to evolve into fight choreography. Initially, the filmmaking side of things was retardedly simple- a single camera on a tripod (or other handy level surface), static wide shot, everything in the scene. And of course, while the choreography was fine and dandy, it didn’t work because the filmmaking part of the equation didn’t sell the techniques or push the story. So I started looking at action movies with an eye to picking up how to shoot and edit them (the mere idea of editing being something I’d never even thought about prior to this!).

Over the next couple of years, my friends and I shot a number of short films/fight scenes, often with a dumb, contrived almost-plot bookending things. But, daft though they were, these learning experiences were what taught me the basics (and in some cases, the not-so-basics) of filmmaking craft:

  • I learnt how to use and maintain the line of action and the 180 degree rule because in a fight scene losing track of who’s where can be disastrous.
  • I learnt about keeping a certain amount of visual difference between consecutive shots so that when you cut between them the compositions don’t jar.
  • I learnt the importance of cutting on action to preserve motion and continuity. I also learnt to use double cuts and overlapped cuts (where a few frames of the action is repeated in the second shot so your eye perceives the fast movement as smooth and continuous)- things that a lot of editors never pick up at all.
  • I learnt to use camera placement and composition to give strength, speed or power to a performance- things that are also used in dialogue scenes and visual sequences alike.
  • I learnt how to use slow motion- in particular, how to use it with standard and undercrank speed to create a strong effect.
  • I learnt about inserts, cutaways, overlapping audio, spot effects, the importance of music and how to create basic titles and graphics.
  • And I learnt to see the film in my head before I shot it because if you’re dealing with potentially injury-inducing takes you don’t want to waste time shooting stuff you’re not going to use.

It was only when I went to college and started to study this stuff properly that I learnt to use some of these techniques in a more normal filming situations like dialogue scenes, silent storytelling and ensemble sequences.

raid redemption 1

So why have I bought this up? Because I’ve been watching a lot of action movies recently- including such awesome soon-to-be-genre-classics as Indonesian fight flick The Raid: Redemption and big explosion-fests like The Expendables 2. I’ve also been re-watching all my 80s & 90s straight to video movies and John Woo bullet ballets. And they’ve reminded me how much I loved shooting action and how distinctive that sort of work is. Looking at my directing career now, if I had some quality action on my reel it would look great for my job prospects. A cool action film might also get me some recognition at festivals- necessary if I’m to land an agent. I know I can direct great drama and character pieces and with a skilled and enthusiastic crew produce something I can be proud of- all I need to do now is bring that same production value and skill to an action flick.

So that’s what I’m planning next year- a high quality short film with a distinctive style, witty characters, a cool story and lots of gun-toting, high-kicking, squibs and gun flares, slow-mo bullet ballet, balls-to-the-wall action sequences. On a budget of fuck-all.

Wish me luck!