New Year’s Resolution: The Better Fight Scene

Welcome to 2018. I imagine you have a few New Year’s Resolutions, yes? If you’re a filmmaker, then I imagine that some of your resolutions include improving on your filmmaking skills or expertise. If you love action sequences, then you may want to apply your resolution to capturing those epic action scenes right. This article looks at some technical yet simple tips for adding some polish to fight scenes through the camera lens.

Still from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Let’s start with the lenses you’ll use to capture your dream fight scene. First principle – the simple choice of lens matters. While a wide angle lens can capture all of the action, it is not ideal at hiding the distance between actors or selling hits. Misusing the wide angle lens can lead to fights reading as flat. Wide angle lenses are great for masters, however. Make sure to work with your fight choreographer to ensure the action will structured to read in a master. Narrow angle lenses, on the other hand, shrink the depth of field and distance between the actors, making them look like they’re closer than they are, thus better selling the hit. You can safely place your actors or stunt people out of harm’s way while “cheating” them to look like they’re in the path of danger. The downside is that there is greater shake to a narrow angle lens. Handheld might not be best here unless your operator is the human steadicam. Always have a human steadicam. Or just use a steadicam. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon used lenses brilliantly for its fight scenes.

Still from The Matrix (1999)

Now let’s talk quick and simple frame rate action hacks. 24p is a standard film frame rate. If you shoot at something like 60i, you are filming faster than 24p. Film at 60i for shots that you want to have in slo-mo. This allows playback of the clip at 24p in post production without things feeling jumpy. Just make sure to encode all of your footage at the same setting upon render so that an awkward slo-mo patch playing at an obviously different rate is avoided….the things I’ve seen. It’s almost as bad as trying to blend camera footage from different camera families! Just don’t. You can also undercrank (shoot at a rate slower than 24p), so that when you play something back at 24p it appears to go much faster. Pho mo, on the other hand, is when the actors act and move on set in slow motion, and when filming at 60i, this can help create extreme slow motion or else hide the fact that the cameras used can only shoot at 24p…Let’s face it. We’ve all done that run and gun project at least once in our lives with a…subpar available camera. This also allows actors to safely maneuver more complex stunts. Think it’s a ridiculous technique? Say that again about Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows! Or try saying that to my face!

Still from Dunkirk (2017)

We’ve discussed fight choreography in the past, so let’s now discuss some camera choreography. The terms crossing the line and 180 Rule have likely been beaten into your skull by now. Screen direction for each actor must be preserved (i.e. Actor 1 stays screen right and Actor 2 stays screen left. You get it). One way of breaking the line is by using camera movement to break the existing axis and orient the audience to a new axis. This requires pre-planning and understanding how you want the scene to be edited. Motivate camera movement by following a character, following the action, or switching from character to character landing a blow or taking one. Needless shaky cam/handheld is just, the worst. Handheld cinematography is in vogue at the moment, but shaky cam is not. The advantage of handheld is to place an audience in a moment and free up the operator in some ways while adding challenges in others. The handheld motion seen in Dunkirk is very different from Blair Witch. Hold on to that thought. There are many different techniques and aesthetics under the handheld umbrella.

Everything works symbiotically in film, from pre-to-post production. Vision starts with the script. Success happens when the filmmaker knows how to apply technical knowledge to achieve that vision. Directing is as scientific as it is artistic. No one respects a director who just has “vision” and nothing else to bring to the table. Knowing the technical helps a director better communicate with their team. And when it comes to photographing and directing fights and stunts, technical knowledge and planning become issues of safety.

Also, you should also be a nice person. That’s generally a good film and non-film New Year’s Resolution. After all, no one respects a tyrant on set. 😉 It’s the 21st Century.

Happy filmmaking! Cheers!

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