From Jason Bourne to Indiana Jones, This Is the Secret to Better Action Scenes
Today, we’ll discuss how to create a more cohesive action sequence when dealing with hand-to-hand combat, as well as long-range action scenes.
Imagine a movie where in every important dialogue scene, the actors just yell at each other. They blow out the audio levels, their words slur together, they talk over each other, and despite catching a few words here and there, you can’t really understand what’s happening. Or, imagine a dialogue scene in which the words are crystal clear but because of the cinematography, you’re not quite sure who’s talking to whom, where they’re supposed to be looking, or if the actors were even on the same set together.
To me, either scenario is some kind of awful. We would never accept this chaos in our film’s important dialogue scenes, so why do some filmmakers find it acceptable to film action sequences with the same disregard?
I’ve discussed in detail the first scenario when applied to action scenes (shaky camera, hard to follow action, etc.) in the article Directing Fight Cinematography: The Right Way and the Wrong Way. In this article, I want to cover the second scenario, wherein the action feels disjointed. You may be able to clearly tell what’s happening in each shot but, as a whole, it feels a bit lifeless, like one person just talking to a wall. I’ll talk about how to create a more cohesive action sequence by focusing on engaging your opponents and propelling the scene forward through cause and effect.
Action scenes happen in a film because a character must overcome an obstacle, like a dangerous scenario or an evil villain. The action is exciting because our hero must engage in some form of physicality to accomplish his goal. However, if we can’t capture that momentum, it ends up feeling like random shots strung together. This concept can be more easily conveyed with a gun fight. Watch this clip from the film Mile 22.
We rarely, if ever, get any kind of over the shoulder, where Mark Wahlberg (or his allies) are firing at the enemy. There are few shots of heroes and villains together. Aside from one of the last shots, this sequence almost feels like two different scenes mashed together. Compare this with the sniper scene from The Bourne Identity, the first Bourne film.
At first glance, this scene may look similar to Mile 22, but there is one huge difference: each of the opponent’s actions affects the other. In other words, there is engaging cause and effect. We see the reflection of the gas explosion and its smoke obscures the sniper’s vision. We see and understand how Jason’s tactics work and affect his opponent. There is continuous cause and effect that determine each player’s decisions, unlike in Mile 22, where we almost have to be reminded that Mark Wahlberg and company are in danger.
This engagement is one reason the John Wick films are so amazing. Despite the heavy use of firearms, the choreography and cinematography capture Wick continually engaging his foes. We see and feel the cause and effect. The enemies are not some distant, faceless threat – even when they wear literal masks. In fact, you see them all in many shots together. The enemy’s firepower influences Wick’s decisions, engaging the two parties in true combat. Imagine the following scene, but instead of a fluid battle, it’s just a series of close ups on each opponent. Without the momentum of engagement, the scene would feel completely flat.
Perhaps one of the best references for great action sequences is Spielberg’s work in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Every action scene is exciting and dynamic. Even on back-to-back viewings, you still get a feeling of anticipation as you watch Indiana Jones fight for his life. Spielberg achieves these exciting and dynamic action scenes by deftly capturing Indy’s engagement with his adversaries.
If you’re looking to improve your own action sequences on camera, remember to capture a sense of engagement. Don’t take this to mean your action shots need to be engaging – that’s a given. Your opponents need to literally engage each other, and you must capture this cause-and-effect dynamic on screen. Establish that the actions of the heroes and the villains have consequences that affect the decisions and outcomes of the scene, by having each player react and adapt to the situation. AND, you should seek to have a majority of shots feature BOTH the hero and the villain, especially in long-range fights. Keep these two principles in mind when filming your next action scene and avoid the shot reverse shot formula. And remember, these concepts apply to more than just hand-to-hand and long-rang action scenes! They apply to anything in the action universe where challenging scenes can give short shrift to the pace of the story, like chase scenes and heists.
Cover image via Lionsgate.
Discover more cinematography and filmmaking tips in these articles:
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- Mastering the Subtle Techniques of the Zoom and the Punch In
- Choosing Aspect Ratio: A Guide to Everything You Need to Know
- 7 Tutorials on Adding The “Cinematic” Look to Your Videos