Home > Commentary > So Why Can’t I See You Kicking His Ass?

So Why Can’t I See You Kicking His Ass?


Here’s the typical scenario… The star will go on a TV show to do an interview to hype the next biggest and best action film.  Great!  There’s nothing wrong when someone shills their project for the world to know about it.

Then they will talk about the many months it took for them to practice and train to make the fight scenes look great.  Sometimes we’ll get to see some behind the scenes footage of them rehearsing the fight scenes to tease us so we can  get excited about it.  I’ll often see some friends working on it in the footage doing the stunts.  I’m already hooked!  Mission accomplished!

By now, I’m excited, my hopes are really high, and I can’t wait to see it!  Somehow, they accessed the little boy in me who wants to see buildings blow up, cars crash, and bad guys get their butts handed to them by the hero.

So when the film comes out, I go to the theater, eager to suspend my disbelief.  However, when the fight scenes come on screen, we do not really get to witness the action unfold, because the camera was much too tight on the action for the audience to make any sense of it and/or the editing was so fast and choppy with no continuity flow that it could easily induce an epileptic seizure.

Many of my friends usually know what to expect when they go see a film with me when I see the action.  They usually hear moans, groans, and mumblings of varying degrees of objection coming from me.

Unfortunately, this “style of action” is status quo about 95% of the time for any type of action that has come out of the US and Europe.  Because of this, many film-goers I have discussed this issue with make a separation in their minds between the action and the rest of the movie.  The only time we get a chance to see how the fight scene will unfold is when we see the behind-the-scenes rehearsals in the DVD’s special features.

Because of the close-up camerawork and choppy editing, the audience has to work it out in their minds and figure out what happened instead of witnessing the action unfold right before their eyes.  Often times the audience just tunes out.

Why is it that we continue to see this artistic crime happen repeatedly (despite a movie critic’s rant every now and then)?

Here’s some excuses/explanation that I have heard while “in the trenches” of why they do what they do followed up with my counterpoint on why those theories cannot hold any water.

FALLACY#1: SHOOTING THE ACTION UP CLOSE MAKES AUDIENCES CAN FEEL THEY ARE A PART OF THE ACTION

This is the usual response when asked why filmmakers are so addicted to getting in so tight on the action.  Sorry, I’m not buying this propaganda.  The problem is the camera lens does not have peripheral vision or depth of field like the human eye has.

Not all filmmakers know how to shoot action.  Filming action sequences is not a curriculum taught in film schools.  So they try fall back on what they already know, which is the traditional angles they were taught to shoot dialogue (master shot, camera left, and camera right).  Depending on the type of action, this often times is not adequate in capturing the essence of the scene.  In addition, there are many traditional rules on how to shoot a non-action scene that often times does not apply to shooting an action scene that the filmmaker has to let go in order to make the action scene look effective.

What happens when you get too tight on the hero during an action scene is you cannot see the impact of what they have done to their opponent.  The reaction from the opponent is an extension of the hero and the scene, which says a lot about the characters when choreographed and performed effectively.  With the close-up, they can only rely on the hero’s facial expressions to sell the scene, which is not the complete story.  It’s much like filming only one person during an intense conversation–we are missing a bigger picture.

Originally, the reason why you get in tight close-ups with an actor during an action scene is because they aren’t skilled enough to perform the physical movements.  So to make it look like they know what they are doing, they get in close and have the actors move around to fill up the camera space and not have much interaction with the stunt actors.  This was very evident with the late David Carradine in the iconic TV series “Kung Fu.”

BUT unfortunately, this practice also extends with actors who can perform their action quite convincingly.  Check out any Jackie Chan’s or Jet Li’s American films (with the possible exception of “The One”) and Matt Damon in the Jason Bourne series.

FALLACY#2: EDITING IS QUICK & FAST BECAUSE THAT’S THE CURRENT TREND

It’s true, MTV has changed the face of how we visually see and process images we see on the screen.  But that does not necessarily have to make everything look manic.  A great editor can close up the dead gaps in a fight and make it feel more immediate.  But when you edit an action scene that resembles a hyper kinetic highlight reel for A.D.D. patients, you lose the emotion of the scene created by the actors and fill it in with an artificial one created by all those cuts.  This leaves the audience breathless but unemotional about what just happened because they are not emotionally connected.

An editor can easily change the way an action scene comes across on the screen.  This can be good and bad.  Unfortunately, in many instances, the editor is taking away from the performance by calling more attention to their editing techniques than to making the action more enthralling and connecting with the audience.  Many fight choreographers have told me that their scenes have often been edited out of order or simply put together backwards.

A typical example is with “The Last Samurai.” According to IMDB, Tom Cruise trained almost two years to prepare for the film.  Too bad, we do not get to see any of the fruits of his labor.  I am referring particularly to the scene in which Cruise is attacked at night in the alley.  You hardly get to see Cruise finish his sword strokes or and see a reaction from the stuntman, while the editing did not have a natural flow and continuity.  The same thing can also be said for all the fight scenes in Sylvester Stallone’s recent film, “The Expendables.”

This blog is meant to open up conversation on this topic, which is too complex an issue to wrap in a nice little bowtie and say “case solved.”  I will continue to delve into in future blogs about this until it is stopped…OK, well…maybe I’m dreaming.

Copyright 2011. All text is the property of John Kreng and should not be reproduced in whole, or in part, without permission from the author. All images, unless otherwise noted, are the property of their respective copyright owners.

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  1. Ivo Brito
    January 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Hello and congrats on this blog.

    I completely agree with you, the fight scenes in “The Expendables” where a major disappointing, why even bring Corey Yuen to choreograph Jet Li fights if we couldn’t see them?

    The worst part is that this trend is getting in the recent movies of Hong Kong, like the “Return of Chen Zhen”.
    This style is passing as the way to film action, on one of my classes in my film school the teacher was telling how great the action, and the fight scenes where in “Bourne Ultimatum”, I asked permission to talk and told him that he was wrong, and that I couldn’t see the action at all, and that I was a bit dizzy with that cut, cut, cut.

    He told my that was because of the rhythm, and I replied, that the rhythm as to be on the choreography,(as you say in your book). Conclusion a think my colleges thought that I was crazy or something.

    I think this kind of action passes on because people are no aware of the martial arts movies history, and tend to look to does old movies as not very good movies, but there so wrong, they just over look the martial arts movies as a genre.

    Goodbye,
    Ivo Brito.

  2. Steve Wang
    January 11, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    It really just comes down to filmmakers not knowing what they are doing when it comes to shooting action. I will say I have seen someone get very defensive about the Bourne series and how the fights in that film are far superior than any chop socky fights ever shot because that’s how a real fight is. Personally, I don’t think this person has ever gotten into a real fight. besides, it’s a movie and not a documentary. People want to be amazed by seeing others do things they could never do in real life. my 2 cents… 🙂

  3. jason cavalier Le Boeuf
    January 11, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Right On!

  4. January 11, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    From my own little experience low American martial arts budget movies have better fight scenes and real martial arts actors as stars. Making the acting might be crafty but action is very good.
    Now hollywood producing its own martial arts and action films, they need famous actors who are not forcefully martial artist and famous film directors who are not in martial arts world.
    I think if they were more open to audiences critics and was inspired by watching Asian movies, the fight scenes will be great!

  5. January 11, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    we shoot and edit like this because we do not know how to properly cast and stage the fights. tight shots hide everything, fast cuts spin the viewers head so that they cannot see our flawed performances. I can’t wait to see you choreograph DMT:2012, The Movie.

  6. January 11, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    In this article, all points are clear as to why the current trend of filming/editing action in America/Europe is detrimental to the fight choreographer, stunt team, and even the star actor(s) who put in the time to train in martial arts.

    Sadly, the bastardization of action seems to be becoming more of the trend in Corea as well for historic dramas. Even not too long ago as recently as 2004/2005 with “Emperor of the Sea,” the fight choreography was visible and heightened the storyline.

    With the current 2011 drama (though it is also awkwardly scripted in general), “King Geunchogo,” the action is shot so tightly that it grossly exaggerates the speed of the action and induces motion sickness of the audience. Not only is it such an atrocity for action (the story is about a warrior king!), I have to turn my eyes away so that I don’t get dizzy (futilely) trying to decipher which character is even doing the attacking/getting hit.

    The film world needs a revolution for fight choreography, filming, and editing!

    • January 11, 2011 at 6:12 pm

      Martial Foodie,
      Unfortunately, I have to agree that the shaky hand held camera and tight close up shots are now a beginning to be a trend in Asian action films. If you look at their films in the past, they know all the cool and effective angles with effective editing with great continuity, giving each fight have it’s own unique kinetic rhythm to it. I feel this could be because Asia now needs to make a profit on their films internationally to break even or return a profit on their investment.

  7. R. Strong
    January 11, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    Editing can make or break any film. The current style of editing, to my mind is reminiscent of the late 60’s underground movement, films by John Casavetes, George Romero and Radley Metzger.

    Being that a punch or any specific move probably lasts no more than 7 frames of film (approx. 1/3 of a second), confining that to a tight angle “is” problematic. This is not to say that it can’t be done, but it should be done judiciously and with care.

    Filming a fight scene as if you were riding a roller coaster (camera jiggling or swinging about from one point to another) is not good staging.. it is a copout and an easy fix.

  8. David Lavallee Jr.
    January 11, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    Yes. Those are my exact arguements. I hate how american action movies these days are all shot and edited to death. The Expendables was the most frustrating of all for me because it had all my favorite action heroes and I couldn’t see a damn thing they did. Thanks for posting this

  9. January 11, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    John THANK YOU!!! FINALLY someone who agrees. I hate those stupid fight scene close ups. I dont want to see close ups of a fist to the chest. I want the open shot so I can see the affect of the punches or kicks!!!

  10. Manny Ayala
    January 11, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Awesome blog!! just as good as your book John, Keep up the great work..last time we talked in chinatown you said there was another on the works, any idea when you will release it?

    • January 11, 2011 at 7:37 pm

      Thanks Manny! As far as the next book(s)… I am looking for the right publisher to make it happen! Looking forward to seeing you strut your stuff on THE GREEN HORNET in theaters this weekend!!!

      • Manny Ayala
        January 12, 2011 at 3:25 am

        Thank you sir!! and I am looking forward to work with you this year, If needed.

      • Manny Ayala
        January 12, 2011 at 3:28 am

        Thank you sir!!, I’m also looking forward to work with you this year as well, If needed.

  11. Travis
    January 11, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    I’ve seen a lot of people talk about the problems and site films that exhibit this trend. But my question is If film makers don’t know how to shoot fight scenes, how do we learn. Especially considering that Film schools don’t teach this as a curriculum.

    Low wide angles and far shots are good but then variety is needed. Perhaps close ups have their place for showing targets if a wide shot shows follow up to get their reactions.

    These are just ideas off the top of my head, Maybe i’m wrong, but as a film student I want to learn.

    • January 11, 2011 at 8:41 pm

      Travis…
      Here are some suggestions…
      #1- Get my book FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHY: THE ART OF NON-VERBAL DIALOGUE. It lays down the basic foundation to setting up a good fight scene. It took me 3 years to write it, over 500 pages, and a tree sacrificed it’s life for you to read my book… so go out there and get it! I am also available to teach workshops and seminars! So tell your faculty to pay me to fly my ass out to your school and give you guys the advantage over other film students and working filmmakers who do not know how to shoot action! LOL! SORRY FOR THE SHAMELESS PLUG, but I gotta pay the bills!!

      #2- Study fight scenes. This is much like detective work, where you are going to have to figure out how and why they did certain things. Study the camera angles, edit points, and inserts. Try watching the fights without sound so you can clearly see what they are technically doing without getting swayed by the sound to hide things. Understand visual aesthetics and rhythm with the fighters and how it relates to the camera to fill up your screen effectively.

      #3- Get a video camera and editing system so you can start shooting your own fights and experiment with it to find the right angles that work for you. You might want to go to a martial arts school or boxing gym and ask anyone who might be willing to be your guinea pig. Keep it simple in the beginning. Dancers also make great stunt people because what they do is much more performance/audience oriented than a fighter or martial artist who is primarily concerned about the opponent in front of them and will require more hands on direction and teaching to make it look effective on screen.

      #4 When you get good at this try to get the fighters to help you recreate one of your favorite fight scenes and film it shot for shot and edit for edit. You will learn a lot form doing that alone.

      This should keep you busy for the next year or so! Hope this helps.

  12. January 11, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    Great highlight of a frustrating problem! Keep ’em coming John as I think you are gettin into deeper (but accessible) areas that will make people realize conciously why they’re not enjoying the ill techniques you discussed.

  13. Hussain Abdullah
    January 11, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    John,
    great read. It’s good to see you have a blog now. The chosen topic is something I have been fighting over with producers for a couple of years now.
    We all know that in the end producers’ priority is money and they know that audiences have a viewing habbit or rather a viewing pattern. Anything that is new to them (not necessarily new to us) is risky for business, unless you are James Cameron who wants to make a film without actual settings (aka. “Avatar”).
    So the decision makers like to stick with what has proven to be successful. So even if you are a filmmaker who knows how to shoot action, it doesn’t help unless you are given total control and final cut.

    I also agree with Steve when he says that people want to see others do stuff which they couldn’t do themselves. To me action scenes don’t have to be to be realistic. Just believable.

    • January 11, 2011 at 10:42 pm

      Hussain,
      Agreed. There are so many elements that make an effective fight scene that a director, editor, and producer need to know but don’t bother to understand. I plan to delve into what elements that makes an effective fight scene here sometime soon.

  14. Dean Eyre
    January 11, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    I first noticed this type of filming fight scenes (in way too close) in Gladiator and it spoilt it a bit for me. Unfortunately loads of film use it now and its ever so slightly crap.

  15. Bryan Pentecostes
    January 12, 2011 at 1:06 am

    I’ve been making the same observation for awhile. I don’t mind closeups sometimes but it becomes confusing when that’s all you see. I noticed that someone talked about legend of chen zen. Wasn’t impressed with that movie either. There needs to be more classes on film choreography. John you should start a course or a workshop. That would be ideal for those who want to be more involved in filming action/martial arts flicks.

    • January 12, 2011 at 1:44 am

      Bryan,
      Agreed! That would be like seeing a basketball game where the camera only focus’ tight on Kobe from the shoulder’s on up throughout the whole game? What would you miss? Lots!

  16. btsmfhk
    January 12, 2011 at 1:56 am

    Nice Blog. Good critique of current fight style. Personally I hate low light long lens shakey-cam fight scenes. I want to see their feet! Hong Kong action stars/directors of the 70’s prided themselves on how many complex movements and interactions could be choreographed in one shot. All hail Chang Cheh! Recently I thought ONG BAK 2 had a perfect mixture of tight and wide.

    • January 12, 2011 at 2:51 am

      Thanks Brian!
      I am a huge fan of your work since way back in the 70’s!

  17. January 12, 2011 at 2:56 am

    Thank you John!!!! We may have differences of opinion on fight styles. But I tell you what. We agree on this!! The reason they do this is to cover up sloppy poor technique period. If they had to film scenes in continuum at a decent vantage point then I would definitely get more work. Part of it’s ego, part of it’s lack of knowledge. Fallacy 1: Ego: The film makers think that they can make anybody look like a martial arts hero. Partially true to the untrained, but Martial Artist feel cheated, and untrained people go yeah it was great, but feel empty. They don’t feel the energy and precision of a true martial artist. Fallacy 2: Knowledge: Film Makers feel that it is easier to train an actor to do martial arts than it is to train a Martial Artist to act. I tell you what I have done both all my life. Just like the late Bruce Lee did. You give me a great Martial Artist and the script and I can teach him to get into character in three months. Will he be good, sure, will he be great, no. Why? You have to train in both disciplines for years to be great. In the inverse I can take a great actor, Sure I can choreograph some dance like Martial Arts moves, but people can see through that. They can feel the “chi” on the Screen. Why do you think Bruce lee was so popular? It wasn’t his race, it wasn’t his boyish charm(okay sure that helped) but it was because one could feel his power. You can’t teach that. Only years of training can teach this. I just watched “Unleashed” loved the movie, great filming story line was great, some fantastic acting, but I have seen the same sequence of moves in all of his movies. There over a million variations of Martial arts moves. Can we see them? I am just as frustrated as you are. I guess I will remain that way until I get to make movies the way I want to make them. Which, after checking my bank account, might be awhile. But thanks for giving insight to this subject. While I love debating with you John. I see nothing but your point of view this time.

  18. John Crowley
    January 12, 2011 at 4:07 am

    John, you are an expert on this subject, yet continue to be a student. I had a dream last night, Steven Seagal was trying to teach John Wayne how to use a semi-automatic in a modified Weaver stance; The Duke was teaching Seagal how to throw a ‘John Wayne’ punch.

    Really looking forward to following your thoughts, opinions, and adventures. Cheers!

    • January 13, 2011 at 9:31 am

      Hey John! Let me guess what happens in your dream with John Wayne and Seagal next! Seagal returns the favor by teaching “The Duke” the finer points of how to dine at an all-you-can-eat buffet!?!?!?

  19. January 12, 2011 at 7:21 am

    For years I’ve noticed this about modern action films and have winced everytime I see it happen. Ninja Assassin comes to mind immediately. What pissed me off the most was that I saw a LOT of the practice videos on youtube and was very much amazed and excited at what I was seeing. It made me really want to see it! Then I get to the theater and felt like vomiting.

    The example I always like to use when talking about this stuff goes simply like this: when you watch a boxing match, a kickboxing match, a wrestling match, an MMA match, or ANY type of competitive fighting match on TV, ask yourself one question. Does the camera zoom in close and shake all around to the point where you can’t really understand what is happening? NO. I’ll say it again NOOOOOOO!!! And why? Because you as the viewer WANT TO SEE THE FIGHT. You WANT to see the money shot, the impact of the blows, the connection, the reaction. THAT is what creates the emotional connection between the viewer and the onscreen battle. The camera is always pulled back so you can see those things. Could you imagine the atrocity if Pay per view did this? Folks would be in an uproar and demand refunds for not being able to see a damned thing!

    Wanna know what it’s like to film a good martial arts action movie. Go watch “Fist of Legend” and “Legend of Drunken Master (ie. Drunken Master II).” THAT is what it’s all about.

  20. January 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    John, Congrats on the blog. And I too agree with your opinion on fight scenes. It kind of makes you wonder why the producers bother to give the star actor 2 years worth of training. With the way they cut and frame Hollywood action, all you need is a week worth of rehearsal and a couple of “dummy legs” (like Jackie Chan used in “Who Am I”), and the star can look like a black belt—to most average movie goers.

    • January 12, 2011 at 5:03 pm

      I also think it is also a part of the Hollywood hype. So when we see the movie, we only find out it’s just a trick with “smoke and mirrors.” They might not really care because by the time we sit down they already have our money. In an alternate universe, it would be interesting to see the audience pay for their tickets AFTER the screening, based on how emotionally involved they were from the experience. That might shake things up, right?

  21. Dino Vicencio
    January 12, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    This was very well written & a great read!

    I have been on projects, where after weeks of rehearsals, a beautifully staged and performed fight / action scene was completely ruined by not being filmed right & sloppy editing. It brakes my heart to watch the hard work & passion of the actors & stunt performers go to waste.

    While I have to admit that I am somewhat guilty of MTV style quick edits, I like to think I do them at the appropriate times, i.e, when it moves the story forward.

    A good fight scene is supposed to tell a story, just like any other scene in a film. and I do believe there is a time and place for some of these techniques, such as shaky-cam and quick edits, that can be used effectively in the hands of a good film-making team. The film “Taken” comes to mind. But if it’s being used to cover up mistakes and sloppy camera work, than thats just lazy filmaking and story telling. I don’t buy the excuse “it makes it real to the audience”, it’s a total cop out.

    Thanks for the insightful read!

  22. n8
    January 26, 2011 at 12:54 am

    Without dreamers or visionaries every martial arts movie would use wa,ha and snapping x ray film sound with every technique.Not only dream but dare to see the world differently and new possibilities.
    n8

  23. Neko
    April 15, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    You mentioned that scene in Last Samurai, which I found to be a good film, and though to myself, “when was he jumped in the alley?” Maybe that’s a prime example of how disconnected the action is from the viewer.

    • April 15, 2011 at 11:17 pm

      To be specific.. it was when he fought off a gang of attackers. I friend who worked on that film told me that scene was supposed to be shot 2 separate ways- what Cruise had a premonition that was about to happen in his mind and what actually happened. Sad to say, both fights were edited into one fight.

  1. January 11, 2011 at 12:29 pm

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