Posts Tagged ‘editing’

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

January 11, 2011 35 comments

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.


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.


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.