Action scenes can make or break an entire film. What would “Die Hard” be without its high-pace and intense action scenes? Or how less epic would “The Lord of the Rings” have been without its sweeping battle sequences?
At first glance, action scenes appear to be relatively simple to set up and produce, but in reality they are quite difficult.
You may be able to visualize the concept in your mind, but after filming, you discover the scene is slow and uninteresting.
This happens more often than you may think. I’ve seen quite a few films with actions scenes that fall flat. When you see a good action scene, it stands out from the crowd and brings the needed intensity.
While action scenes are difficult to film, they are by no means impossible. Any director has the capability to direct action well.
Here are some tips for helping you with this process.
The right kind of movement is key to any action scene. When you think about visual storytelling, realize that action scenes rely heavily on this.
Before I go into this more, check out the video above with a great example of movement in an action scene.
Again taking into account visual storytelling, this scene from J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek - Into Darkness does an incredible job of following the story and keeping a consistent energy throughout the whole scene.
Notice how the camera never stops moving. This gives the audience the feeling there is a lot going on and the pace is unrelenting.
The camera dollies in, whips to the left, tracks right, everything is happening at once. It’s very chaotic in nature.
But yet, it’s not chaotic to the point where we don’t know what’s going on. Yes, everything is happening quite fast, but we don’t lose the story or feel like we’re trying to catch up to the action.
We’re able to still connect with the characters while simultaneously feeling the intensity of the action and can’t pull away from the screen.
Movement is a great way to improve any action scene as long as it’s still assisting in telling the story.
This is a bit more of a subjective way to improve your action scenes and really comes down to your style. Either way, it is important for you understand the different between lots of cuts or long takes.
The majority of action scenes consist of lots of cuts and jumping around in the scene, which is totally fine and can really help the pacing of your scene.
Cutting here and then cutting over there is a great way of keeping the energy up. You can show tons of action in a small amount of time, which again helps maintain energy.
Let me give you a quick warning on using lots of cuts. This technique can easily be used to cover up mistakes and becomes a lazy way of putting together an action scene.
A contrary technique is using lots of long takes with specific blocking and choreography.
Due to the difficulty of this technique, quite often instead of becoming more realistic it ends up being heavily stylized. This is completely fine and has turned into quite an interesting style of filming an action scene.
Matthew Vaughn does this quite a bit in Kingsman: The Secret Service. There are multiple scenes that have longer, rehearsed takes (intercut with quicker takes), which add a unique feel to the action. Check out the second video on top!
It’s very stylized, but also showcases some impressive choreography and the premeditated thought that went into creating the different scenes.
Both of these methods can work effectively; just remember to keep in mind that everything should still be telling the story.
This topic goes along with movement, as handheld camera work is not only a style, but also a variation on visual storytelling.
Many directors have utilized this technique to great effect. When done correctly, handheld camera work brings a sense of realism to a scene.
It’s been widely debated on whether or not this style takes the audience out of the story, because they potentially could become much more aware of the camera.
But in my opinion, unless done terribly, this isn’t really an issue. An audience could become aware of a camera just as easy with something like a steadicam shot.
One particular director who uses handheld quite well is Neill Blomkamp.
Blomkamp’s shaky and near-documentary style filmmaking adds a gritty realism to his stories. This grittiness naturally brings a real energy to his action scenes.
As an audience we connect with the situation and what the characters are going through. So despite the shakiness and feeling like there’s a cameraman right there, we are still captivated by the action.
Handheld camera work is a seemingly chaotic style and it can get a little confusing to follow the story. So how does Blomkamp allow us to follow the story without sacrificing his style?
It’s quite simple actually. Blomkamp continues to shoot handheld, but cuts between shots that are much wider and show more of the scene. So while it’s all still handheld, the wide shots help the audience follow the action.
Going off what I just said above, keeping your scenes consistent is key. Once you choose a style, stick with it.
It will look quite strange if you continuously jump back and forth between styles. This really goes for film as a whole, but particularly in action scenes.
Directing great and energetic action scenes takes practice, but with every attempt something will be learned, good or bad. If you challenge yourself to shoot better scenes, you will begin to see an improvement.
The examples I’ve used above are taken from directors who have years of experience and have put in the time and effort to improve their craft. They’ve developed their own personal style and have learned how to shape every aspect of their action scenes.
You can do this too. You just have to put the work in and continue to challenge yourself to become a better filmmaker.