Posts Tagged ‘shooting action’

h1

“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…

1427_123488840160_9206_n

Or maybe not…

Advertisements
h1

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!