I write this as an action director and an audience member. Some movies and action sequences are simply etched in my mind.
I could write a dissertation on these films and a couple hundred others. Since I can’t cover everything, I will point out one or two things that stand out in each movie. I’ve read reviews and seen “video essays” about these films, and critics wrongly credit the action scenes to the first unit directors. Don’t make the same mistake. It takes a different crew with an entirely unique set of skills!
First, I will always talk about the first three Bourne films, partly because they were made before the superhero evolution. Just good solid filmmaking, writing and directing.
The Bourne Identity. If there is one movie you should study, it’s this one. All those stunts can easily be done. These are the basics yet executed perfectly! Pay attention to the sound mixing (not the sound design), in the Mini car chase. The sound mixing adds an ebb and flow to the emotions by creating texture in the car chase.
The Bourne Supremacy. THE car chase. How this movie was edited changed the way Hollywood movies were made, especially for the following 5-7 years. The final car chase was initially 8 minutes in length, but the editor cut it to the existing length. Nevertheless, what you see in the movie is close to the editor’s first cut.
The Bourne Ultimatum. The rooftop and fight sequence. It’s a masterclass in action filmmaking. And of course, the window jump ending in an epic fight. The music drives the whole piece. Note: a parkour (freerunning) sequence is cheaper to shoot than a car chase…but the choreography uses similar mechanics. It takes two people. Do NOT rely just on the talent. They’re not machines and after 8+ hours filming, you are looking for problems. Camera angles and scouting are just as important to emphasize their movements and create the awe factor.
Conceptually speaking in the field of action, there haven’t been many game changers. Sometimes you are lucky to have ONE movie per decade.
The Matrix was one of those movies…Everything about it was conceptually different. The story, the bullet style filmmaking, and the frame rates mixed with an old school master Woo Ping, legendary Hong Kong fight coordinator/action director. This is a great example of what happens when the artist(s) get a free ticket!
This decade is Mad Max: Fury Road. On the first round of watching that film I felt like I was 9 years old again! A true experience of how film should affect you. I recall looking over at the other people in my row. Everyone had a death grip, eyes bulging out, riveted. A key thing here is the stunt rigging. Think of these people as artists in the realm of movement. They are like grips but operate with different tolerances and emphasize movement. Hands down, the camera car driver is the unsung hero in Fury Road.
You can’t talk action without mentioning the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible action extravaganza. Not my all-time favorites, but when I saw that bike sequence in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, two words came to mind: “Fuck yeah!” How they did it was not only crazy but awesome! Bike content has been virtually the same the last 20 years. Time to push the envelope.
The Marvel mantra is an action sequence every 8 minutes. Here’s an analogy for you.
Imagine watching Led Zeppelin in their prime and every 8 minutes Jimmy Page does a guitar solo. Even with a rock god like Mr. Page, you will get sick of him. You are there to see Led Zeppelin! An algorithm will never create a masterpiece.
The movies I highlight don’t use this model. Instead, they feature two or three epic sequences.
Zhang Yimou’s Hero with Jet Li. When I first saw this movie, I knew I was missing out in my life in terms traveling and learning as an artist. There are many things going on this movie but what still gives me goosebumps is the backstory of Tony Leung’s character – that his sword fighting skills were tied into his calligraphy skills. This is PURE filmmaking made with a very different point of view. I would encourage you to watch a few Chinese films as they emphasize sacrifice over individual glory, and a message as opposed to a three-act story.
How does this differ in the ad world? It’s the same…but it’s not.
In advertising, some brands don’t want to do “stunts.” But look at the opening sequence from The Bourne Ultimatum (in Waterloo station). The tension comes across so well it “feels” like an action piece. The choreography of people and camera moves in the Collateral night club scene with Tom Cruise is well thought out too.
On this topic, I talk a lot more about how to create speed without actually using speed in my book.
Let me share a precept with you. It’s the movement that is the story. Look at how a confident businesswoman walks, or at a street fighter’s swagger, a skittish dog, a veteran fly fisherman, etc. They all tell a story with their bodies and movements. Look closer and you’ll learn even more in the details.
Action is not just stunts. And it has nothing to do with how big the budget is. The Bourne Identity sequences are done cost-effectively. Study them… and the industry will change.
Thanks for reading!