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How To Make An Action Movie


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If you're wondering how to design a great action sequence as part of your action movie, then this blog entry is for you. I've worked as a Previs (previsualization) designer for over a dozen of Hollywood's biggest hits. So here is what I've learned:

Great action is not shooting random footage and piecing it together.

Its got to be meticulously designed.

Most of the bigger budget films now employ teams of previs artists who, a lot like Saul Bass (guy who designed Hitchcock's most memorable sequences and opening credits), plan every little detail out before a frame of film is shot.

Action scenes are essentially suspense scenes. The hero is in peril, and has to survive a formidable enemy (machine gun fire, crashing plane, big brute, ex-girlfriend) while trying to achieve his goal.

Let me reiterate. SIMPLER IS BETTER.

If you make things confusing or too complex, the audience can no longer follow and they will lose interest. Because action isn't about chaos, its about clarity. (I'm talking to you Michael Bay)

-Who the hero is (which should be set up earlier in the film) (NOTE: the more we root for our hero, the more engaged we are in his struggle).

-What he is going after or striving for (rescuing the girl, getting the McGuffin, running for his life, etc).

-Who the forces of antagonism are (villains, evil torture devices, IRS agents).

-What is the geography where the action is going to take place.

-Cause and effect. A leads to B, which leads to C. Good action is not random. Story must always be present!

-Chase scene (car chase, foot chase, aerial dogfight)
-Fight scene (bar brawl, army battle)
-Suspense scene (hero locked in a room and has a small amount of time to escape)


LEADING THE EYE (Don't let the eye ask for directions)
The most important thing to know is how to lead the eye to exactly where you want it.

Once you start cutting things quickly, if the eye placement hasn't been carefully preplanned you run the risk of losing the audiences' focus on each cut. You want them looking here, and they're looking over there.

The general rule is that if the eye has to jump its focus less than 1/3 of the screen over a cut, you're in fine shape. But having the eye looking at the far edge of screen left to a cut that requires the eye to look far screen've lost the audience. Every time you lose them, even if its just a little bit...they slowly start to check out.

USING DIAGONALS TO CREATE TENSION (Be aware of the subliminal cutting of images)
Another cool technique is to design strong diagonals into your cuts. In other words, shot A would have a strong compositional element of diagonal line, then cut to shot B which would have the opposing diagonal. Therefore you create these cool opposing lines which creates tension. And since an action scene is simply a suspense scene you're just amping the audience up even more.

LIGHTING EFFECTS (The Cameron Principle)
Another technique is to have some sort of strobing light effect. Psychologically this makes humans tense. So once the shit starts hitting the fan, you can craft some reason narratively why the lights go on the fritz. Check out any scene by James Cameron to see this technique in play.

(its a video off a TV, but you get the idea)

Spielberg is the master at this. He shows you very clearly what the geography is that the characters will be dealing with. Once that's established, you can cut in and make things as crazy as possible. Great set design will make sure that there are landmarks sprinkled throughout the set that the audience can easily recognize. You don't see a lot of action scenes where characters fight in a giant nondescript room. That would be a confusing mess.

Look at this clip from 1941 (Spielberg). Notice how he takes his time setting up the geography of the set before things get nutty. You always know exactly where you are.

CLEARLY RECOGNIZABLE CHARACTERS (Its confusing to have identical twins fight)
One of the most confusing things in Transformers (besides how the hell Megan Fox can outrun a 50ft tall robot in heels) is that all the characters looked the same. So when the fighting is going on, we're left to ponder 'who is fighting who?'. Also in Quantum of Solace, half the action scenes the director (Mark Forrester) had the heroes and villains dressed in similar colored clothes, with similar haircuts, driving similar cars. I'm sure he knew what was going on, but I sure didn't. Make things as visually diverse as you can! (This is why you'll never see two sports teams wearing the same colored'd be utterly confused as to who is who).

Here is a scene from Quantum of Solace. Both cars look alike. Retarded choice guys! (Million bucks says they were forced to do this for the product placement...sigh).
Quantum of Solace

Most action scenes are simple, hero wants A. But to really heighten the effect, you can layer in another arena of action. For example, instead of our hero fighting our villain, you have them fighting on a speeding train (filled with passengers) that is about to crash. You have them fighting off the queen alien while trying to rescue someone else AND having to get off the planet before it explodes.

Check out the great fight scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg) where Indy fights the big German guy at the plane. This is one of the best action sequences ever filmed!

Note how every beat leads to the next and raises the suspense.
1) Indy wants to get in the plane
2) Indy has to fight big guy
3) Marion maneuvers the plane, which knocks the gas tank, she gets locked in.
Now Indy has to fight big guy, avoid the propeller AND try to save Marion before the gas (ticking clock) blows up the plane.

Its a perfect action sequence.

As for pure visceral action, here is a clip from The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin).

Note the simple geography. Hackman is always driving under the elevated subway tracks. Its a straight path. The camera is mounted inside the car, low to the ground which amps up the sense of speed. Its almost musical in the editing...they'll cut to crazy driving action, then longer more removed shots of the killer on the subway. THEN SMASH, they cut right back to a visceral driving POV shot (must be a 17.5 mm lens). Its very effective. There is always movement, which adds a sense of urgency. The filmmakers were simply trying to place the audience in the same emotional space as the hero. His heart is pounding, and ours is too.

The cinematic baby cousin to that scene is Spiderman 2 (2004, Sam Raimi).

This could have been a thrilling fight between Dok Ock and Spidey, but they chose to have multiple arenas of action. And it paid off in spades.

And because you can't really learn until you see how NOT TO DO IT:

Look no further than the climatic fight scene from Michael Bay's Transformers 1. The camera is so close that I have no idea who is who and what's going on. Sure it looks cool, but as a story BEING TOLD its confusing. Gotta love Bay.

And this is just slow and boring. The camera is so far removed from the action that it has no emotional impact (please don't hurt me Trekkies)!

Hopefully that answers some of your questions about how to make an action movie, or action sequence.  If you have any questions or insights, please leave comments, or ask questions, below!

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