Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Way It's Done

A few months back a friend pointed out to me how the action movie hero is basically a thing of the past. He was right, but what's even more obsolete these days is the action movie director. In the 90s America had the best action movie directors in the world. Guys like Antoine Fuqua, John Singleton, sometimes Michael Bay, Brett Ratner to a lesser extent and the best of the best, Rob Cohen. Look at the titles these guys produced: The Rock, The Fast and the Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Replacement Killers, Money Talks, XXX. These were real action movies. They prided themselves on big, bogus stunts, real explosions, great special effects and, to top it off, interesting enough characters to keep the story flowing. But there was also an art to what they did. They knew how to film action and capture it in such a way that the audience got the most excitement out of it. They put the audience in the middle and built the action around them. Nowadays action is alienating as it jumps and bounces and comes from all angles so fast that it's nearly impossible to know or care about what is happening. I say this because I realize that I didn't so much hate The A-Team as hated the way it was made. It's not that this style of hand-held, shaky, quickly edited action is anything new but The A-Team does it worse than just about everyone else, to the point where all the big stunts are blurred by a frenzy of editing. I went into the film wanting to see some entertaining action and was left with even more of an appetite for that stuff leaving it. Funny then that today I actually saw some good action in the form of last year's Star Trek reboot. The film is enjoyable in a forgettable sort of way but it kicks things off after the title with a great car sequence that is not only filmed well, but knows how to use special effects to their fullest extent. Instead of then giving the film a one minute review I decided to break this sequence down into pieces in order to show how good action is filmed.
The first shot at 00:27 is a great one. The camera tracks past the car at a furious clip. Instantly we have kinetic motion. However, going along with what I said in the first paragraph of my A-Team review, director J.J. Abrhams doesn't cut after he's passed the car. Instead he turns the camera 90 degrees as the car turns out onto the road and continues to track away from it until it is too far to continue to care about visually. It doesn't matter that we aren't in the heat of the chase because the camera continues to move and that's what's important. Not only has Abrams set up what to expect for the next two minutes, but he's also established the landscape in one unbroken shot. 00:36 finds the camera in front of the car. Abrams wisely films at medium length to ensure that the car is not only in the centre of the frame but to show both the road and the landscape as it whizzes by. We associate road and landscape with reality and thus the sequence is grounded in the plausible and therefore all the more exciting. That's the value of establishing landscape in action films. Abrams, without cutting, swings the camera around to show the young Kirk inside. Not only is Abrams building character visually with this introduction, but he's also establishing the entire setting for the sequence. Doing it like the Russians did, Abrams cuts to a close up of the speedometer around 00:40 as one last visual stimuli to establish what we are to expect before getting into the heat of action. Staring at 00:41, with only 6 cuts in 20 seconds Abrams builds even more character by having Kirk take a phone call from the owner of the car, scolding him for stealing it, which Kirk ignores. It's a breather moment in the midst of the adrenaline. 1:00 leads to the beginning of a joke. In close up Abrams films Kirk loosening the car's top. At 1:04 he cuts to outside the car for the punchline of the top flying off in the wind and let's the audience appreciate the full impact of the moment at 1:05 when he cuts to a long shot of the topper flying into the air, completing the joke at 1:08 as it lands on the road behind the camera as the car zooms off in the background. An excellent shot happens at 1:12 which begins as a long shot, tracks to the left quickly and intercepts with the car when it is at medium length. The audience can't feel the excitement of being in a speeding car themselves, so it is up to the camera to not only capture the action but mimic it as the camera is the audience's sole connection to the action. 1:17 employs another kid hitchhiking to set the scene once more. Abrams cuts between both Kirk's view from the car and the kid's view from the road. At 1:24, after Kirk has driven by, Abrams shoots the kid in close-up from the side and uses a camera trick to make it look as though the background has shifted in the wake of Kirk's rushing by. As a police hover cycle zooms by, Abrams establishes it's presence in relation to Kirk at 1:30, not through editing but by swinging the camera around the car so that it is at eye level in a medium shot, capturing both Kirk behind the wheel and the cop in the background. The key to a great chase sequence is to establish distance between the participants by showing them together in the same shot. Editing one imagine of the car and then alternating with an imagine of the cycle would give no visual sense that these two people are occupying the same space. To take from a theory by Andre Bazin, by putting the two things in a single image without a cut, it gives the sequence a sense of realism, especially since the bike is quite obviously a special effect. Abrams cuts to Kirk's reaction, then shows another shot of the two in the same frame but from the bike's perspective. This sets up the next shot at 1:39 which starts with a close-up of the cop and then stays in position but pans left and tilts downward to look over the cop's shoulder as he looks down on Kirk in a high angle. Abrams has established this cop as having power over Kirk. 1:44 sees Abrams taking from the Russians again as he quickly cuts to a close up of Kirk's foot jamming on the gas pedal and cranking the wheel left. At the cut at 1:45 Abrams stays with the cop as he looks back and sees Kirk evading him in the background. The cop has lost his power and is once again on Kirk's level as they are both visually on the same plane in the shot. 1:53 cuts between head-on shots of the intensity of the cop on his cycle and Kirk in his car in order to show how desperately fast the chase has become. Abrams adds to the motion of the sequence once again by starting the shot of Kirk's tires at 1:53 and moving in quickly on them until they are in close-up, giving the sense of the car speeding up. The odds are now winner takes all and neither party is giving up without a fight. The gate at 1:55 is a nice, if cliche visual flourish. Abrams raises the stakes at 1:59 as he starts with a high angle long shot of both cop and Kirk in hot pursuit. He then, without cutting, tracks the camera overtop of them and pans up slightly to show the canyon that is coming up in the distance. Not only has Abrams maintained the excitement of the sequence, but in one shot has also established the danger the lies ahead. as the camera flies towards the canyon. Abrams cuts from a close up on Kirk as he gears up for what is coming to an extreme high angle long shot. He films from in front of both car and cycle as he pulls back over the canyon, revealing even more of the drop as we see the two parties speed toward it. One last close up of Kirk, the gear shifter and the gas pedal as 2:12 moves back outside for an overhead shot as the car drifts around, sliding towards the canyon. Abrams tracks left and up past the car, while still keeping it in the shot to show the full extent of the canyon drop from overhead. Kirk jumps out of the car in slow motion and 2:17 beginning the action portion of the sequence's final shot. Kirk, in close up, lands as the car skids behind him and tips over the canyon. The camera continues to track with Kirk as he himself slides towards the drop. When Kirk makes it to the edge. where he grabs hold going over the side, the camera, without an edit, swings over top of him, shooting him from above and tracks up to reveal, for the first time, the canyon floor as Kirk hangs over it, clinging for dear life. The sequence ends as Kirk pulls himself up and is established for the first time by name as the cop asks for it. Captain James T. Kirk has now had his character established for the rest of the movie. Now that's how you film action.


  1. I'll have to assume that the only reason I'm the first to comment on this (after it's been up for a week) is that there was a perceived difficulty in tracking back and forth between the video and your text (which you did not specifically ask us to do, but which I did anyway).

    Great dissection of a scene, and I have to agree with your analysis of its impact.

    I'd also like to say how well this scene exists within the context of what Abrams is trying to do with the Star Trek franchise. How great to open a Star Trek movie on a sports car driving the dusty streets of earth? It's a split-second encapsulation of what this movie was trying to be: unlike any other Star Trek movie.

    Two great action directors you missed, though: McTiernan and de Bont. Okay, maybe de Bont only had one great movie as a director, but he shot several others.

  2. Vance, let's hope that's why no one commented as opposed to a serious breakdown of a sequence being too heavy for a lot of people?

    I guess McTiernan was an oversight byut really, for every Die Hard there is a Rollerball in his career and ya, da Bont is a good, although not American, action filmmaker. I even liked the second Tomb Raider movie.