Shoot to Thrill
Want to make an action film? Think you can give Michael ‘Transformers’ Bay a run for his money? Here are some tips and techniques for creating a high octane, heart pounding action sequences.
Camera movement is one of the fundamental techniques that filmmakers use to create a sense of urgency and action. Although it has long been a convention of documentary film, handheld camera movement has been embraced by postmodern action films. Paul Greengrass, whose previous work included the docudrama Bloody Sunday (2002), used this technique extensively in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). In both films, the camera rarely stops moving. This ceaseless motion makes otherwise tedious scenes more compelling. His stylised use of handheld camera movement gives the audience the sense that events have simply been captured as they occur, increasing the stakes by increasing the realism.
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Use these techniques in your films to create a sense of heart-pounding action!
Handheld camera movement. Although it has long been a convention of documentary film, handheld camera movement has been embraced by postmodern action films. Paul Greengrass, whose previous work included the docudrama Bloody Sunday (2002), used this technique extensively in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). In both films, the camera rarely stops moving. This ceaseless motion makes otherwise tedious scenes more compelling. His stylised use of handheld camera movement gives the audience the sense that events have simply been captured as they occur, increasing the stakes by increasing the realism. Tony Scott is another director who takes the use of handheld camera movement to an extreme. Spy Game (2001), Man on Fire (2004), Domino (2005) and Déjà vu (2006) all feature erratic camerawork. “He has taken this aesthetic in delirious directions,” writes David Bordwell in the article ‘Unsteadicam Chronicles’. “His framing is often restless, as if groping for the right composition.”
Handcranked camera. Modern action films have also embraced handcranked cameras as a way to ratchet up the action. “A single shot may give us not only changes of focus but jumps in exposure, lighting, and color; sometimes it’s hard to say whether we have one shot or several,” notes David Bordwell. “The result is a series of visual jolts, as in Man on Fire. Scott, trained as a painter, pushes toward a mannered, decorative abstraction, aided by long-lens compositions and a burning, high-contrast palette.”While it’s probably impractical for you to get your hands on an actual handheld camera, this style can be replicated in editing programs like Final Cut and Adobe After Effects by adjusting the exposure and saturation of a clip. If you’re serious about giving your footage the look and feel of a handcranked camera, check out a commercial plugin called Twitch by Video Copilot.
Dolly in. Action films are often filled with witty one-liners. What you may not have noticed, however, that these lines are usually accompanied by a dolly in. In Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) when a bewildered Kick-Ass first meets another superhero duo he asks, “Who are you?” The camera dollies in on Mindy McCready who replies, “Me? I’m Hit Girl.” Combine the dolly in with a low angle and you’ve got the perfect shot to make your characters seem heroic.
Whip pan. Whip pans—quick pans which results in blurring—are often used in action sequences and to mask the transition between two shots. JJ Abrams used the effect frequently in Star Trek (2009), whip panning between actors aboard the bridge of the Enterprise. Edgar Wright is also fond of using this technique to make scenes more dynamic in films like Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007) and Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2011).
Canting. Canting is when the camera is tilted to make vertical lines appear diagonal. In static shots, this technique is often used to create a sense of disequilibrium. Canting combined with a dolly in is often used in action films to create a dynamic and highly stylised shot. In Armageddon (1998), Michael Bay uses canting to heighten the drama of a scene in which the characters diffuse a nuclear weapon. Every shot tilts ceaselessly as Bay dollies in on the action.
Orbital camera. Orbital camera movement has almost become a cliche of the action genre. The shot attained iconic status in Bad Boys 2 (2003) when Michael Bay circled his characters as Martin Laurence uttered the line, “This shit just got real.” More recently, Christopher Nolan used this shot in The Dark Knight (2008) when filming The Joker to create a sense of disequilibrium. The technique is wonderfully parodied in the last third of Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.
Repeat cut. The repeat cut—when a dramatic moment in the film is repeated from different angles—is another editing technique that action directors can use to ramp up the action. Although this technique has been used extensively in modern action films—look out for it in Mission: Impossible II (John Woo, 2002) when Tom Cruise does a front wheel stand on a motorcycle—it is not something new. Sergei Eisenstein pioneered the use of this technique in his silent film Battleship Potempkin (1925).
Speed ramping. The use of slow motion has been a staple of action films for decades. More recently, however, filmmakers have started becoming more stylised in their use of slow motion using a technique known as speed ramping which, in one continuous shot, shows the action slowing down and dramatically speeding again. Director Zack Snyder used the technique extensively in both 300 (2006) and Watchmen (2009). Although this might seem like a sophisticated effect, this can be easily achieved in applications like Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Adobe After Effects.
Wipe by cut. A wipe by cut is when someone passes in front of the camera lens and the filmmaker cuts to another shot as someone leaves the frame. The wipe by cut was named by Jaws (1975) editor Verna Fields. It is used extensively by both Edgar Wright—in Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs The World—and by Paul Greengrass in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum to create a sense of fluidity between shots.
Music. Of course, decent action music is a must if you’re going to create a heart pounding action sequence. Check out this article on royalty-free sound and music for further information on finding a decent score.
Think of something really boring— studying, buying milk, making a sandwich—and shoot it like an action scene. When you’re storyboarding the film, think about how you will use the above techniques to give your film a sense of drama and excitement. If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out Hot Fuzz. When Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were researching the film, they interviewed real police officers about the way they are portrayed in films and TV. Almost all of the officers they talked to said that they spend at least half their time doing paperwork. Wright resolved to put that into the film but shoot it like an action sequence. This is a great example of how the conventions of action films can be used to turn something that’s otherwise mundane into what Danny Butterman from Hot Fuzz might call a “no holds barred, adrenalin fueled thrill ride.”
Here are some storyboards that students have created for this task.
Here is an example of an action sequence that seeks to take something boring – in this case studying – and turn it into a heart pounding action sequence.