Take COVERage!

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The trick to making an intense action sequence

Watch any Michael Bay movie and you’ll notice that, when the so-called shit hits the so-called fan, there are more than sixty cuts a minute. Bay is stealing a trick used for centuries by writers: when the story gets exciting, use shorter sentences (I’m not implying Bay is a literary figure, nor am I trying to say his movies are great….so, just go with me here). This trick increases the tempo. The faster the tempo, the greater the excitement. It builds. If one shot in a movie is like one sentence in a novel, it becomes easy to see how action sequences benefit from a staccato editing style.

But if you’re producing an action movie on a shoestring budget, replicating this editorial intensity can be challenging. A Bay-sized budget action sequence takes weeks to shoot (not to mention months to plan), coverage is methodical and meticulous, and ILM is cleaning up any mistakes. But there are some reasonable ways that the low-budget filmmaker can create highly intense action sequences. The trick—as with many things in film–is to carefully plan your shoot to give yourself enough time for coverage.

In preproduction, you’ll want to sit down with your team and discuss how many different set-ups the action sequence will require. A typical action film will have something like the following: There will be a wide shot that will often be on a slow dolly or jib. If you can add even a small amount of movement to the wide shot, you won’t lose any momentum when you cut to it. Keeping that momentum makes it easier to keep up the intensity.

Then there are the requisite close-ups. Many modern action films will also record hand-held extreme close-ups of the principles’ faces for added intensity. You’ll also want to get close-ups of whatever implements are used in the action sequence: guns, knives, snakes, whatever. By this math, if you have two people engaged in a fight, for example, that’s already roughly 7 setups. More actors means more setups (but remember that if the shots are tight enough, you might not have to move everything—sometimes you just need to move the actor).

You can see why this might take a while. But if you give yourself plenty of time on set, then there’s also time to capture whatever cool, inspirational shots that the location might yield or the action itself might suggest.

In the end, your editor—and your film—will thank you. When you’re cutting between shots more than once a second, it becomes way too easy for the sequence to become repetitive. How many times, for example, are you going to cut back to that gun barrel? If you get a lot of coverage, you can keep up the intensity without getting boring.

As an added bonus to whatever coverage you get, modern HD cameras (and the ever popular HDSLRs) allow for a tremendous amount of latitude in the edit bay in terms of color correction, but also in terms of zoom. Sometimes, that medium shot can be reused as a close-up, as long as you make sure the picture stays clear. Playing with your footage in the edit bay is a good way to make it look like you had time for 20 setups when you only accomplished the first 10.

As with any sequence in a film, editing an action scene is about pace and tempo. Giving your production time to get coverage will enable your editor to employ the same intense pace you see in a Michael Bay film.

Minneapolis Director ~ Dan Voltz

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