Masking the Action [revised]

Have you ever watched an action scene and had no idea what was going on besides the fact that it is a fight scene? You probably only heard the sound effects of the blows connecting but not visually. There are many current action films where action scenes are confusing and frankly, it has bothered me for a while. Anne Billson, a writer and Film critic for The Guardian, states that “Hollywood has forgotten the art of filming combat.” In her article, she talks about the problem with action films and how fight scenes just end up looking clunky. The writer makes a good analogy for why people go to see action films by comparing dancing to fighting: “You don’t watch Top Hat or Swing Time for the plot or dialogue; you watch them for the dancing,” meaning that you go watch an action film for the fights and stunt. If the fight inside the action scene is terrible then you are just going to be disappointed.

One of the reasons why action scenes can be incoherent at times is that “few Hollywood actors are trained in martial arts.” There are only a few actors in Hollywood that actually know how to “fight” and do their own action sequence and stunts. Keanu Reeves, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, and Tom Cruise are examples of this. When actors do their own fight scenes it doesn’t require the camera to move around and “mask” the action, which allows the audience to see the full scene. When the camera moves behind an actor, it is to hide the fact that it is a body double or to make it seem as if the blow connects. Even Jackie Chan says this in an interview by saying “In American movies there is a lot of movement. When the camera angle movement, the actors, they don’t know how to fight.”

Jackie Chan even goes deeper on this in an interview with IndieWire. Jackie Chan acknowledges that martial arts in action films are difficult to shoot. Jackie Chan categorizes stars that are in action films into two categories: actor action star and action star. An action star is basically anyone that can do their own fight sequence and stunts. “Liam Neeson, for instance is not an action star, but they can use a small shot and make him become an action star” (Chan).  Jackie Chan categorizes Liam Neeson as an actor action star because although Liam Neeson is an actor, he doesn’t have a strong background knowledge that other action stars do. By using these “small” shots and “easy” action, even actors who do not know how to fight can make it seem like they can but this just ends up hiding the action. Jackie Chan also uses Matt Damon’s role in The Bourne Identity as an example. “They can use a camera and, its so good! And, even I see it and I’m like, ‘Wow! Matt Damon can fight that good’!” (Chan).

I want to use the movie, John Wick as an example for a good fight scene. The action is clear in the scene and the camera isn’t forced to swing around or go behind the actor to hide the fact that he can’t fight. The scene itself is coherent it is easy to see what is going on in the scene. Keanu Reeves knows how to fight and goes through intense training in order to make the scene itself good.

 

 

 

 

An example of a bad fight scene is the final fight scene in Taken 2. The camera moves around so many times in the scene that it is hard to see the action itself. All we see are the hands hitting each other for less than a second before the camera moves. The fight scene itself is incoherent and it is hard to see who is even hitting who. All you hear are the sound effects of the scene and not a full view of the action itself. This goes back to what Jackie Chan has said: Liam Neeson is a star but he is not an action star. The editing and camera movement makes him seem like one.

 

Making a good action scene isn’t easy as it takes time to practice for it and requires the actor to put themselves in injury prone positions. If you can edit the scene to make it look like there is a fight, then it is faster than shooting the scene over and over again until you hit perfection. This not only saves time but also money as well. This also allows actors who have never starred in an action film to look like an action star: “But, in America they’re so good! They’re so clever! They can use special effects and computer graphics to make everybody become an action star” (Chan). Next time you watch an action movie count how many times the camera moves during an action scene just for fun. You might be surprised by the number.

 

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The Importance of Choreography

I have written many blog posts about how quick cuts and shaky cam are used to mask the fact that the actor themselves do not know how to fight in Hollywood films. In this post I wish to talk about the differences in choreography between Hollywood and Hong Kong action films and see if it is possible for Hollywood to break the trend as discussed in prior posts. Choreography is defined as the technique of representing the various movements in dancing by a system of notation, but this definition can be applied to action scenes as well.

Hong Kong films use actions scenes as part of the story line while Western films’ actions scenes stop the story line. In an article by Offscreen, written by Melaine Morrissette, states that “the fights in Hong Kong  martial arts films  need not be considered only as confrontation but as a narrative elements.” Fight scenes are non-verbal narratives and as an audience, we should be able to understand the narrative and meaning behind that. Hong Kong action films are well known for their clear, easy to see action and we can clearly see it in any martial arts based film. Yuen Woo-Ping, a Chinese martial arts choreographer and film director, famous for his works in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Matrix, will not even select an actor who does not know martial arts to play a role of a character that requires them to know martial arts. He states in an interview ” In Hong Kong, if the stars have little experience, they all have some kung-fu knowledge; also, on set they rehearse the upcoming scene, so we can shoot the scene right away. Here, in United-States, the Western actors don’t know martial arts; so we need to train them, sometimes three months in advance, and after that can we shoot.”

In the article, Morrisette also compares the difference between the comprehension of choreography and it’s representation between Hong Kong and Western films. She simply states “There is one thing that Hollywood will never be able to absorb, it’s the combat on that level, Hollywood is simply not up to par.” She also states that “An understanding of choreography is a major asset in increasing dramatic tension of a fight scene” and it is something that Hollywood films lack. One of the biggest difference is also the role that the choreographers play in the actual production of the movie itself. Choreographers in Western films usually only play a minor role and “could explain the fractured representation of fighting scenes” (Morrisette) while choreographers in Hong Kong “often not only arrange fight scenes, but also plan the shots; they virtually take over the role of the director in some instances” (Morrisette). In Western films, directors have no knowledge of martial arts that in order to compensate they have to use certain camera techniques, cuts and editing which ultimately give off a “false sense of rhythm, often destroying spatial coherency” (Morrisette).

 

Put generally, the actor’s performance is minimized and other cinematic techniques compensate for that. The rapid cutting, the constant camera movement, and dramatic music and sound effects must labor to generate an excitement that is not primed by the concrete event taking place before the lens.” -David Bordwell

 

I believe it is possible for Hollywood to break from the current trend. If choreographers in Hollywood can play the same major role in the production of the movie as in Hong Kong films, shaky cam and quick editing can disappear and we will be able to see the action clearly. In the article, Morrisette makes a good point by saying, “In musical movies, like in martial arts cinema, the best films have been made by people who know the object being represented, whether it is dance or martial art” and I agree with that. Let the professionals do what they do best.

 

For Style, not for Trends

In a previous post, Masking the Action, I discussed how action scenes in action movies are often hard to see due to the frequent camera movements. When the shaky camera effect is also thrown in, it further masks the action and makes it even harder to see what is going on in the scene. The shaky camera effect is prevalent in almost all current action movies. In fact, the shaky camera effect is overused that if you were to type in “shaky cam” into the Google search engine you are likely to receive large amounts of negative feedback of it, but it is important to understand that it isn’t necessarily bad to use shaky camera in action sequences. The shaky camera has to stylistically match the movie and directors in Hollywood seem to have forgotten that. As long as directors are willing to use shaky camera for the chaotic in the situation feel without thinking about how it matches with the entirety of the movie, it will not be possible for Hollywood to break out from this trend.

The Bourne Trilogy, directed by Paul Greengrass, is a good example of how shaky camera and an action scene work together. Chris Stuckman states in his video “this guy knows how to use shaky cam and he knows how to use it as a style and he knows how to use it where it’s appropriate. He doesn’t mask poor storytelling or poor stunt work with shaky cam like some films do. He uses it as a stylistic expression for the moment that he is trying to convey in the film.” Bourne Trilogy movies are filled with shaky camera but it works well because it stylistically matches the movie. In an article from Cinema Shock, the author makes four points in why it works: The world he lives in, his inner conflict, the way his mind works, and shaky cam as a stylistic choice. The Bourne Trilogy is about a CIA assassin who has to figure out his identity while running from other assassins. The shaky camera effect works because as a whole, it fits with the premise of the movie and it works well in an action scene.

In an interview with Paul Greengrass by Cinemablend regarding the Bourne movie, the director says “I always try and bring screenplay, shooting, and editing as close in alignment as you possible can get them, consistent.” Paul Greengrass makes sure that the way that he shoots the movie is “in alignment” with screenplay, meaning that they have to be able to go hand in hand. Shaky camera should not be used just because it is popular and easy to do. Directors need to think about how it fits in stylistically with the movie as a whole. Hollywood directors have the potential to break this trend and I am not saying that they need to stop using the shaky camera. We have seen action movies before that have not used shaky camera and were considered amazing, so why not try Hollywood?

Trendy Camerawork

We have all seen it before, action films where the camera shakes and moves with the character in an action sequence. This is further intensified with fast cutting during the sequence and barrage of sound effects. By doing this, it allows us to be where the action is at and shows us how chaotic the situation is at that time. Matthias Stork, a scholar and filmmaker, calls this style of action film as “Chaos Cinema” due to the fast paced hard to see action. Stork makes a simple analogy of the current trend of action films by saying “trying to orient yourself in the work of chaos cinema is like trying to find your way out of a maze, only to discover that your map has been replaced by a reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting, except the only art here is the art of confusion.”

The most common camera work used is known as the shaky camera. In almost every action film you see today, it is used often. In early times cameras were big and heavy and were mostly rested on tripods for that reason. It was not until the 1960’s when cameras become lighter and were able to become handheld. It is important to know that there is a difference between shaky cam and handheld though. Chris Stuckmann, an author and film critic defines the difference as, “handheld cam is simply a shot that isn’t locked down by a tripod or any other device. Often times the cameraman is physically holding the camera and this creates unpredictability to the camera work. Shaky cam is literally just the cameraman shaking the camera back and forth on purpose.” An example of a handheld camera technique is the famous D-day scene from Saving Private Ryan while an example of a shaky cam is the Cornucopia Bloodbath scene from The Hunger Games. In fact, shaky cameras have the nickname of “queasy cam” because too much of it causes people to feel sick.

There are many recent action films that use the shaky camera technique with the use of fast cutting in between. Many film critic site Paul Greengrass’ work on The Bourne Supremacy as the reason why many action films follow this formula. Josh Spiegel writes in his article Why Shaky-Cam is Ruining Modern Action Movies, “In the decade-plus since The Bourne Supremacy, so many filmmakers have adopted Greengrass’ style, less because it fits a story and more because it sufficiently caught audiences’ attention and studio heads felt it should be replicated ad hominem.” To simply put, filmmakers use shaky cam because it is the current trend and appeals to the audience and not because it matches the story. Filmmakers also use shaky camera because it helps masks the action if the actors do not know how to fight or complete the stunt. Even though it may seem like a winning formula for Hollywood, the issue arises: Can Hollywood break away from the current trend of camerawork in action films?

From the year 1995 to 2016, action films are the third highest grossing genre and in 2015, action films were the top grossing genre. Actions films are on the rise due to the rise of superhero movies from both Marvel and DC, both which fall under “chaos cinema”. As audiences we should expect a good action scene where the action is coherent and not just chaotic camerawork. The camera shouldn’t have to shake and transition in angles throughout the fight sequences constantly. We are paying money to see fight sequences and if the action isn’t clear what is the point? We are just going to be let down.

Villainous Motivation

Last time I talked about what makes good action hero. This time I want to talk about villains. What is an action movie without a villain? Who or what is the force that the protagonist has to fight against? There are many definitions of the word villain. In its simplest definition, it can just be a scoundrel or a criminal, but is also defined as “a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot” (Oxford). The villain is the reason why the hero has to act but the villain is also the driving force of a plot as well. Danny Manus, a writer for Script, states in an article, “Your antagonist needs to be almost as complex as your hero.” If your villain is just a one dimensional person who just wants to take over the world where is the fun in that?  Villains need to have their own story of why they are doing the evil things. This is where the importance of motivation comes in.

In a segment of Chris Stuckmann’s video of The Problem with Action Movies Today, he talks about villains and how important it is in “giving him motivation that we can understand. The best villains are the one we can actually understand.” If the reason why the villain did his deed was because they are a psychopath then the villain isn’t very compelling. There has to be more than just “he is a psychopath”, we need to know why. “There should be something so innate – so driving – that no matter how much they are defeated or rejected, your villain should still think they are in the right (Manus).” The villain needs to stand behind his motivation until the very end because that is what challenges the hero.

I want to use the example of The Joker in The Dark Knight. The Joker is the definition of chaos and anarchy, the complete of opposite of Batman who lives by justice. In the beginning of the movie the Joker’s motivation is unclear: he doesn’t want money; he doesn’t want to rule the city. As the movie progresses, we start to see what is going on. Every time they face each other face to face, The Joker opens up more to Batman explains his motivations. Joker is shown to be a crazy but his motivation is clear; he isn’t killing people just because he is crazy. He wants chaos and he wants to challenge Batman’s morality. Alfred sums up Joker’s motivation well by saying “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker knows that Batman will not kill him and even says “You have nothing to threaten me with” as he attempts to push Batman to the edge of his own morality. He doesn’t even want to kill Batman and even tells him clearly he doesn’t want to because Batman completes him. Even at the end when Batman captures the Joker, the Joker still stands behind his motivation and tells Batman they are destined to do this forever while he laughs, knowing that he had succeeded into pushing Harvey Dent into madness.

Manus finishes off his article by saying “And often times, films become iconic because of these antagonist characters more so than for the heroes” and I agree. If a hero can just beat a villain easily then there is nothing exciting about that. The challenges that the hero faces has to be created from the villain’s motivation. The stronger and more complex the motivation, the harder the challenge is. It is because we remember the villain’s motivation that the film ends up becoming iconic. Who are your favorite villains and what were their motivations?

Humanity of Heroes

What makes a good action hero? Is it their strong, stoic side? Is it the ability for them to overcome any obstacle with ease? It is actually more than that. Ryan Lamble, an author at Den of Geeks, says in his article, The Problem with Invincible Action Heroes, “we want to see strengths we’d like for ourselves – the ability to fight, bravery, skill – but enough humanity to make them recognizable as one of us”, meaning that action heroes should display the heroic qualities that make them a hero but at the same time be relatable because they are human like us. Claudia Puig of the Los Angeles Times also says in her article, Here’s the real secret to being a great action hero, “It’s their humanity we respond to instinctively. They are who we would like to think we’d be if faced with unimaginable peril.” Just watching an action hero take down every enemy that challenges them with ease is just boring and sometimes, laughable. There has to be something that makes us want to be them.

An example of this is the famous Hollywood hero John McClane from the Die Hard series. John McClane was always portrayed as a reluctant hero. A reluctant hero is defined as an ordinary person with several faults who is pulled into the story or heroic act reluctantly. Even though he is a rugged and foul-mouthed detective he still wants to help people. Throughout the series, John McClane fights with his own personal problems such as his marriage and children while dealing with the villains as well. When he fails to save people from danger he breaks down emotionally. Even during the action scenes John McClane get’s shot and beaten to a pulp and stands up with tenacity even though “McClane is shown exhausted, pensive, frustrated and sore” (Lamble). “We may know in the back of our minds that victory will be theirs by the end credits, but that thought’s eclipsed by their unfolding crisis. It’s during this crisis that the hero’s vulnerability (or lack of it) comes to the fore” (Lamble) and John McClane clearly shows his vulnerable human sides during crises.

In the 5th installment of Die Hard, A Good Day to Die Hard, John Mcclane’s character and personality gets ripped apart. He is no longer the vulnerable, human hero that we saw in the previous 4 installments. He stopped caring about helping people and it is shown clearly when he punches a civilian just to take his car and create a path of destruction to chase down another car. We can no longer relate to him anymore and in our eyes he is just a despicable protagonist.

 

Lamble says “We can admire power and strength, but we can relate to vulnerability. This, I’d argue, is the vital element in any action movie” and it is something I agree with. We follow the action hero during an action movie. They are the ones who tell the story and we invest ourselves in them and if they are human like us, we end up loving and admiring them. “Viewers need to feel their personal struggle, sense something poetic and urgent — even desperate — about their being. At the same time, we must be convinced of their strength, courage and commitment” (Puig). Just having strength, courage, and commitment isn’t enough: we need to able to see our favorite action heroes at their emotional lows and highs  Who are your favorite action hero and what is it about them that make them so relatable to you?