BTS Photo: Krystal “Honey” Pizarro on the set of Black Betty (2018)
“Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance”– Some Dude Who Probably Learned This the Hard Way.
In the world of action cinema, quality certainly reigns over quantity; A single well choreographed, well shot action sequence can excite more than two and a half hours of “lights and noise”. However even in action films both large and small, not much is mentioned of the things that had to come before that DVD started spinning in your player. Action filmmaking is highly technical, more so than most other genres that tend to offer more creative interpretations of on screen physicality. Being an indie filmmaker is already tough, but indie action filmmaking takes those challenges and complicates them even further.
As of this article, we are just over one week out from going into production of Black Betty, a action short film that I wrote, will direct and shoot in the style of “John Wick” and “Atomic Blonde”. Chad Stalhelski, David Leitch and the team at 87Eleven have been leading an American Action Cinema Revolution, creating a new wave of films that have the familiar feel of 80s action films while adding a fresh set of choreography skills, both in front and behind the camera, to make the final results something new and unseen. At least in the eyes of most westerners anyway, as fight film fans on the other side of the world have been used to that level of action for some time now. Chad and David are no strangers to Asian Action Cinema, especially from their time working on the Matrix Trilogy working with Master Yuen Woo Ping. While modern American Action Cinema can’t be beat when it comes to scale and scope, Asian Action Cinema has always felt more technically proficient, a combination of the balletic camera movement and powerful and clear choreography.
This isn’t my first trip into Action Cinema. I’ve done several action based shorts so far with my team at Deviant Children Productions along side stunt professionals Team One Take Stunt Action Design, including 48Z, Horangi, 2 Barrels and A Gun, The Handshake, Zato, Mr, Shifty and even recently co-directing Brothers with fellow DCP filmmaker Peter Lawton. Peter and I have worked together for years now and he always differs to me when it comes to action filmmaking. “You’re just better at it than I am” is what he will say. I try to instill in Peter, as both friend and pseudo boss that he can do it too, he just needs to get comfortable with it. However, even with my credits, even I still haven’t gotten completely comfortable with the action cinema game. A lot of that has to do with the need to constantly push the envelope. I’m not one to rest on my laurels and as such, each action piece that I have done steps it up every time.
With our project, we wanted to head into that same direction being lead by Chad and David. Presenting a stylized world filled of highly trained killers and our lead, through a combination of skill, luck and overall badassery, just barely making it to the end. With that said, over the course of a few articles, I will be providing a hopefully useful blueprint for creating action films on an indie scale.
PROPER PREPARATION – Take the time beforehand to save time on the day…
In Action Cinema, on camera fighting is wide and stretched out. The moves are open and delayed, rounded out even so that they can be seen on camera. Every hit is or should be clear and accounted for within the frame, the players moving at a rhythm where there is a dynamic, one leads while the other follows. That power dynamic will shift between the participants as needed by the story. Want your hero to really earn his victory? Give the upper hand to the antagonist for most of the action, then find the right time to switch. Hence the use of the word “choreography” is used when describing on camera fighting as very little separates it from dancing.
For that, fight rehearsals are a big part of the action filmmaking process. With the help of my good friends Hector Soria and Orlando Cruz at Team One Take Stunt Action Design, we’ve taken a spread out rehearsal schedule over the last two months and created a solid foundation for our action sequences. The story of Black Betty is set in a nightclub, and as such we needed to create action that feels real for the space. Since we were location scouting at the same time as we were rehearsing, Team One Take designed the action as a series of little mini action set pieces that can stringed together in any order we need them to to fit the space we would eventually end up with.
I’m not a fan of the “cover your ass” style of filmmaking, recording the action from multiple angles to assemble it in the edit. What happens most times is that filmmakers feel compelled to use EVERY angle they got because they have it. Take for instance, the scene from Taken 3 where Liam Neeson jumps over a fence. Why did the filmmakers need 12 angles of that one bit and then use ALL 12 angles? One angle would’ve done the trick, at most three if you are trying to hide a stunt double’s face. This is wasteful filmmaking and indicative of the issue with American Action Cinema. That is why films like The Raid and even Mad Max: Fury Road are such celebrated achievements in the action genre, because the coordination of the cinematography and fight/action choreography (and not one overcompensating for the other) created something that is both exciting and easily followed. More on this in later posts.
Recording the fight choreography in the form of a Pre-Visualization Video (a rough cut made from the rehearsal footage) helps establish shots needed to sell the fight. I’ve used this method for years and its beyond helpful when it comes not just setting up the scene but saving time. In filmmaking, time is money. As an indie filmmaker, you have considerably less time than most so cutting down the hours spent filming can be a huge benefit. I’ve seen indie action films done the opposite way and it’s such a long, drawn out process by comparison. Working out the moves on the spot, the cinematographer trying to “find” the fight, it’s a very slow way to go about things. The Fight Pre-Viz is a great way to get what is needed on the day, trimming a lot of fat prior to the edit. It can serve as a starting point if for some reason the original plan has to change on the day, providing at the very least, inspiration on what should be covered next.
Taking the time before the shoot to get to your action scenes planned out is a must for those wanting to get into the action filmmaking scene. It’s where you can establish the pace, tone and dynamic of the scene or scenes and can greatly speed up your time actually shooting. Creating a style to present your action can elevate your action films even further and is a subject we will cover in a future article.
Stay tuned for more Deviant Perspectives. And, cheers!