You’re a director, producer, or casting director, and you are looking for one of the rarest types of actors for your short film, your series, or your feature film: the one who can act and fight professionally. No one has told you, though, that combat is forgivable on stage yet screen combat is taken much more seriously, because in theater, the acting is the thing while on screen, the visual is the thing. So you’ve seen many well-made action movies that you have a vague idea of how it should flow, however, you’ve seen too many green-screened, washed-out “fight” scenes in your Backstage applicants’ reels that you’re willing to accept the hand of God if he invites you through the gates of Heaven right about now. And then you remembered the other crew members that have to be there with you when you plan, rehearse and ultimately shoot the thing. Whenever you’re ready, God.
One reason many actors and filmmakers have poor action choreography in their reels is because they assumed it was easier than they expected, that it’s simpler than it looks because the idea of doing an action sequence is so cool, it gets the better of them and they underestimate the challenge. Plus, many beginning content creators have a tendency to churn out content too fast instead of managing patiently and learning what needs to be learned first.
If you’re aspiring to film an action sequence, you will learn all you need to know right now. In this article (the first of a two-parter), I will guide you through the process of staging your action sequence during pre-production, where so many of the critical steps are done before you even shoot it, yet will ground your shoot so it’s as smooth as possible. While I’ll focus mostly on fight scenes, these guidelines will give you the rundown of how to stage any action you may come up, as the same wisdom and virtues apply.
It begins in the script.
Your action sequence has to be provoked by the conflict between the characters engaged in action. Action is merely violence that is stylized aesthetically so that it is visually-appealing to the viewer, but it’s also emotionally-stimulating as the characters are risking their lives to try to resolve a conflict that grounds the movie. To accomplish creating an appealing sequence using such an appalling event, you need to blueprint it with the written word.
First, make sure your overall script concept is sweet and to the point. A concept is born from clear character desires and motivations that lead to conflicts due to opposing sides fighting for what they want. Fair warning, do not create action for the sake of it, for shock value, or between character types that would never have a strong enough conflict to warrant an action sequence on film. This is what I mean:
Wife (not given name in script): “Honey, I’m leaving you because you’re mean to me.”
Husband (named Brock in script and given nickname “Mad Dog” in high school): “Bitch - pulls gun out - I can’t let you do that because I am a lonely man and this is a movie about how men are terrible.” Car chase ensues because she runs out the house and this is the climax of the movie and I need to have something
Domestic abuse is violence, but it is not action. A cop forced to fight an enemy that is assigned to kill them after they’ve dug too deep into a case is ground for an action sequence. Its quality varies from other ideas, too. The enemy can carry a specific fighting style, like brute force, precision-striking or a martial art, while the cop doesn’t share their style but is forced to fight in his or her own way. Also, cops have guns, but what if the gun becomes useless against this opponent? If they both have guns, it’ll be a gun fight, but will they use them the same way, or even have the same type of gun?
^^ A still from my short film, ARSON. Jo-anne Lee knew wushu and kung fu, while Lucas Niedzalkowski was a war veteran. His strength opposed her short size and physical weakness against him. But she had a mean kick…
By creating obstacles, thinking of the environment they’re in, and being mean to your protagonist, you have direction for a legitimate action sequence already in script form. Do not over-write it with excessive direction like this:
“With his left hand, he pulls out a knife and goes for one slash, then looks down, then his opponent smirks and jabs this and twists this and blinks twice, and then does this then that then this that, etc.”
I made this mistake for Arson, last year, and my crew took extra time convincing me to let go of the original script and develop something realistic and do-able. So be concise yet flexible like this:
“He goes for a slash but misses, then his opponent strikes his exposed kidneys, then takes him down and gives him blows to the face.”
This is perfect for really brief but impactful violence, especially for a dramatic film with a character who has a short burst of rage provoked out of him or her. It gives room for you and your stunt coordinator to continue writing the sequence based on the direction of the story. If you are doing a straight-up action film and you do - or even don’t - have an approach already, just do this:
“They’re face to face. With his nightstick and her blade, they duel in a brief (or lengthy) fight…”
But pace it. Action scenes are scenes. A “but” is a twist that gives one fighter the upper or lower hand. Remember where your story is going, keep your action sequence’s description concise, flexible and brief, and rehearse with your actors and crew to continue “writing” it. That said…
Hire all the right men and women for the job as early as possible.
And I mean all of them, starting with…
The Stunt Coordinator. You are not getting away with ignoring this person. If you are filming a fight sequence, even a few punches that need to be impactful for your scene, you need a stunt coordinator, also called a stunt choreographer. SC’s are trained and experienced in developing action properly for the screen, and all you have to do is have a decent script that clearly shows character motivations, conflicts and skill sets in order for the SC to help you develop the right kind of fighting styles for them. Even more important, based on your direction for the fights that must be consistent with the overall tone of the film, he or she will help you coordinate a sequence that best fits your goal.
Are you going realistic – like I did – while wanting plenty of cuts between the characters during the fight, which develops a kind of fast-paced tension at the climax of the film (so long as each shot is clear and smoothly-edited) or something else? No matter, the SC will help you by pointing out how many moves each take should capture, how fast the actors must perform, the positioning of them on location, how movements will affect editing, and how many rehearsals you will need before you shoot.
These are just some things your ongoing conversations will cover. Take disagreements easily; a disagreement or a suggestion isn’t a kick to the groin. You’re both working to achieve the right style for your movie.
The SC is your best and most important friend when staging action, and believe me when I say that outside the film project, you may as well turn out to be best friends because of how closely you need to work together.
Your action sequence is impossible without the SC, and it will show when you screen your project.
The Director of Photography: It’s best he or she is there during your rehearsals with the SC and actors. All of you will discuss the potential style of fighting, but your DP will help map out what they feel is the best filmmaking style for your action based on their expertise in shot composition, lighting, and more. Close-quarters filmmaking? Longer takes with more room? A balance of these two, or a unique approach? It is developed through conversations with the DP. How will this affect camera focus, camera movement, the 180 degree rule no one should ever break? If you already know your approach, your DP will either agree and help you, or have suggestions, but by all means, let the experts share their opinions and really digest them because you are not a one-man filmmaking machine.
My Director of Photography, Henrik Meyer, studying Jo-anne in order to perfectly capture her for a future scene, while I focus on the next scene to shoot in the background. Having him with me to scout Ryders Alley the day before allowed me to focus on more immediate tasks on the day of the shoot and get great coverage. We finished on-time each day.
DPs also keep track of sunlight to give you an estimate of how long it could take to film the sequence you’re developing, plus what walls are best to shoot against, what camera tools to use to perfect the camera movement, etc. There are too many benefits of having your DP along with you during rehearsals, because your action sequence is ultimately shot in front of the camera.
Actors with Stunt experience on screen, NOT THE STAGE: This is the trickiest goal to accomplish, so just be clear on your job postings. If your characters are trained fighters, you need trained fighters! The opportunist, laughably-awful amateur actors piling up on your applicant list will cause you to consider lowering your standards due to time constraints and that empty slot staring back at you.
For the love of God, who’s offering his hand right now, don’t do that. Do this:
Actor: “No stunt training, but I can do stage combat.”
You: “Get the f**k outta here.”
Actually, just say no thanks and find the right person. If you’re filming soon, you don’t have time to train beginners or amateurs. It takes years of training! Persevere, just as the Nickelodeon cartoons you grew up with told you to do, and fight for what you need, as all the action-packed Cartoon Network shows told you. Keep asking around, and keep your standards where they should be: high, but fair.
And look in the right places. Facebook has pages for stunt men and women for film, and they are some of the coolest, humble and talented people you will ever meet. They even have some acting chops! Their unique abilities will help you develop your action based on what the actors can already do, but remember: if your fighters are acting, especially acting more than fighting in the overall script, they need a balance of good acting and fighting talent. Tough to find, but they are out there. Find them, and the feeling you get after nailing them is like beating a Dark Souls game. They are that special.
The other members of the dream team: Lastly, you’ll need your Assistant Director and producer, but I also encourage you to include your writer and your editor. Together, you cover all your ground, from concerns about the budget and location to the ambitious potential you can meet. Just stay on schedule and keep moving forward.
Find, book, and rehearse on-location.
While this isn’t always possible in filmmaking – in fact, it didn’t happen for me and probably won’t for you - strive for this ideal approach. Locations are a b***h to find, book and afford, but use your individual talents to nail appropriate ones as early as humanly possible because these locations are the environment in which your action is staged, therefore it is a character in your project.
You can scout the place a couple of times with them, and rehearse in private spaces like $10/hour studios or any place you know until you visit your set location at least once with your actors before you shoot there. This way, you have an idea of how things will go on that day. But go for the ideal approach, if possible. Rehearse on location or a similar location, if it is allowed, to get your best work.
Just don’t sweat it too hard if you’re allowed to shoot there but not rehearse. As long as you rehearse as many times and as well as you and your SC know you have to, the other tools I mentioned you need will go a long way. Look how me and my team rehearsed in our own space last summer:
I was the dude in the blue.
On the subject of locations, you are good to film anywhere as long as you have the permission to do so. For many exterior locations, you’ll need adequate permits and insurance for your action scene. This is a topic I’ll write a separate article about, but since action is violence, you’ll need permission from the location-owners or the city itself to shoot. As the New York City permit office told me last year, “the people don’t see the cameras, they see the action.”
In the United States, the rules for filming vary a little bit across state borders, with New York City especially strict towards gun props due to their realistic aesthetics. But for your action scene, you need permission and you need it ahead of time. If you’re shooting in a house or apartment building, get it from the owner and inform the neighborhood of your project. If you will be outside in public like Ryder’s Alley, especially if you’re using weapon props, you must talk to the city offices for Film Production and discuss your goals.
It is illegal to go guerrilla with an action sequence, and in New York City, it’s illegal to even use prop guns unless you rent them from a certified movie prop company such as The Specialists and have them insured. So for the love of God, engage your inner professional businessman and talk business with the professionals.
This may leave you stressed and scared for a while about finances and maybe even the script changes that may happen in order to accommodate the location and the government, but don’t bluff. You’ll get caught and go to jail. This is still a perfectly doable step in the process of staging your action, as long as you do what you gotta do.
“NO CREW PARKING ALLOWED”. That changed the beginning of my film, but it made it an easier day in the end. But I was lucky for that.
Stay tuned for a full article on how to navigate the permits and insurance process, and for Part 2 of this article where I’ll cover the Production and Post-Production process of staging your action sequence. Read part 2 here.