Pre-production Hell has finally come to an end. You’ll be behind the monitor for the first shot of your action sequence, an event that will wipe away all the PTSD you’ve accumulated beforehand and introduce new anxieties. You’ve been looking forward to it, though, especially since an action film demands even more tact, management and luck than normal films, but you’ll be happy to know that when shooting action on set, many of the same basic rules apply for filming any scene in any movie. For the most part. Let’s go over some steps to prepare you before you even arrive on set.
Before that, though, a few key points about filming action scenes:
1. About 80% of action scenes are ADR’d.
ADR stands for “Automated Dialogue Recording”. This refers to dialogue and sound effects that are recorded and designed after you shot the sequence. For an action scene, this can mean you record or sound-design grunts, strikes, falls and objects after it’s been filmed, which are then synced with the footage during post-production. Since actors shouldn’t be hitting each other anyway and the natural sounds of strikes aren’t effective cinematically, there’s usually no sound to record, but this is why I said about 80% of action scenes are ADR’d. There may still be something you can record, so measure how much sound you do need on the location you’re shooting in before you schedule your crew.
My action scene in Arson didn’t need recording for the actual scene, but the day at my location included dialogue for the film’s ending, so my sound recorder got that and even my actors’ grunts during the fight scene. Even with all the alleyway noise that day, they sounded clean and they synced well with the footage. The gunshots, the guns landing on the cobblestone ground, and all the strikes were designed later in post-production because they needed to be. And my current director, Matthew Merritte, and I just finished filming his first fight scene of his action-packed film, Consumed by Rage, and he didn’t record sound because there is no dialogue or room tone to get. He already measured ahead of time the amount of sound he needed for each scene of the movie, thanks to investing in the time to craft his vision and work with his team in the way I outlined in Part 1 of this series.
He could have asked his sound recorder to record room tone in the very least, but to save necessary funds and someone from traveling all the way to set just for a minute of recording, he opted to get room tone when he needs his sound recorder for a full day when they’re shooting outdoors. So, if your action scene has dialogue in the same location, schedule your sound recordist on the same day for that and for room tone purposes; they need to sound like they are speaking in that same location. But if there is no dialogue to record and you know you just need to sound design later, then it’s just one less mouth to feed.
From page left: Writer-director Matthew Merritte, Director of Photography Patrick Mauler, Stunt Coordinator Kouryou Ngin, and our actors who play Ian and Osundu respectively. Behind me, the producer, is make-up artist Nancy Zhang, and missing is actress Lauren Biazzo who already came for her silent scene and left. They were all we needed that day.
2. If you’re using gun props (and followed the producing tips about permits and insurance in Part 1), make sure they’re the right kind before you shoot.
If you need to shoot close to the actors holding gun props, ensure that you get quality ones. Metal gun props look realistic and good on camera, but doing stunt work with them is dangerous and impractical. They are heavy and contain more moving parts than other kinds, and can get damaged easily. Resin gun props are light and workable, so it’s best to rent both the metal copies for your non-stunt work shots and the resin copies for your stunt work. There’s also plastic, but they may not always look good on camera and they can make noises from your touch in the case that you are recording sound with them.
Also, make sure you train your actors to hold and aim the guns properly before or during shooting day. Either your stunt coordinator will do it, or your TCD cop, who the city will provide you if you’re shooting in public. He or she will keep curious bystanders from panicking at the site of your lead decking his co-star in the nose.
TCD showed Jo-anne Li how to holster her metal glock 17 handgun prop for my short film “ARSON” last year. She looked great in the final shots. That’s my own backyard table, btw.
This brings me to another point: all you need are non-firing replica gun props. Airsofts, for example, are popular and have triggers that shoot carbon dioxide out, and there is blowback just like real guns have, but like I said in the section of Part 1 about permits and insurance for action scenes, these tend to be ILLEGAL in cities like New York, where gun control is strict. You need to read the gun laws and ask your city or state’s permit office for film production before you go any further. If you’re shooting indoors, blowback is not an issue with the public eye, but they are still shooting something out of the barrel and can jam, so for the safety of your entire crew and the frustration of dealing with a complicated piece of technology, I encourage you to use non-firing replica props so all your actors have to do is mimic the recoil of shooting a gun. Then you can just add the muzzle flashes and sound effects later in post-production (a separate article on that soon).
Now, about that set. What do you do before you leave home?
Pack your water and locate accessible bathrooms.
Action sequences don’t always happen in cozy apartments, and your actors are going to get more tired than the rest of your crew. Bring sufficient fluids, especially under hot climates.
“No, these railroad cars don’t have toilets, honey.” Closest bathroom was a 15-minute walk away, around the closed gates back towards civilization. Inform everyone to go before they arrive on set, or plan breaks during lunch if you’re at an inconvenient location. ^ Shot in Ridgewood, NY.
Get crash pads and mats.
John Wick: “Do you want a war, or do you just wanna give me a water gun?”
John Wick doesn’t flick a dude’s shin and hope for the best. He exploits a human being’s weak points by jiu-jitsu-ing them to the ground and then putting a bullet in their cranium before they have time to make their peace with God. Even though your Stunt Coordinator will ensure no physical contact, your actors need to sell the intensity of their strikes and your DP must sell those near-misses as actual hits. Therefore, actual hits may happen, and the fear of those arises. Pads and mats make your actors want to go at 100% for your film while not fearing for their life. Why? Because you are filming violence.
But what if your Stunt Coordinator (SC) can’t make it, like mine couldn’t for Arson? This is scary for a first-time action-director. Just be sure to remember your rehearsals, absorb all the wisdom your SC gives you for the shoot, obtain all the coverage your SC and DP says you need, and just do your best.
Osundu holding a metal nightstick, also called baton in Asian action films, ready to do close-quarters choreography at 80% intensity for Matthew Merritte’s “Consumed By Rage”. What if Ian got hit?
My actor, Christiano Sanchez, who plays the idealistic gang-leader Dante in Arson, did get hit a few times because my SC couldn’t make it. During one take, Julian - the actor playing Dante’s rich brother, Gus - actually punched his jaw by accident because he was going at an unregulated 100%. If my SC were there and I were more experienced, I would have directed him to ease the intensity and rehearse it a few times. Instead, Christiano got hit hard and didn’t want to go on, which brings me to my next point:
Be a fair human being.
I stopped shooting and took him to the side. I gave him ice for his wound, a bottle of water, and apologized (so did Julian). I re-choreographed the sequence a bit to prevent further mistakes. I told him to take as long as he needs. He later told me that my approach helped ease his pain and anger. No one meant to hurt anyone, and he and Julian never had issues with each other after that.
You need to be a good person to be a good director, let alone an action film director. You are managing a team and this team agrees with your violent vision, otherwise, they wouldn’t be there. For action, they need to know you have a considerate heart because of the complexities and dangers involved in filming it. Please forget those stories of egotistical auteurs that created masterful works of art thanks to demanding their way through their less-than-stellar behavior. Did you see Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin?
Wozniak, to Steve when he’s being an asshole: “ You can be gifted and decent at the same time.”
Be that person. Bring him/her to set.
So you’re finally there. It’s literally time for lights, camera, action. What first?
Ask what your fighters are comfortable with.
After all, they are going to do stunts. Matthew did this for his bridge fight scene, and his actors appreciated it and contributed more to the fight sequence than initially planned. They did some cool flips and intense strikes with a nightstick thanks to Matt asking this question. The audience is all the more happy with characters who sell their fighting better, even if it’s owed to something small like this.
Rehearse each take 2-3 times before shooting.
Nail the choreography before you shoot. The first few times, you will run it down and you’ll see slips, but each take will improve over the last. Repetition helps memory, but please don’t be Stanley Kubrick about it. 90 takes isn’t a chance to reach perfection. It’s miles past overdue kicks to your groin.
Shoot in-sequence, if possible.
Your action scene is still a scene. If you want to nail all the correct levels of tension, power shifts and emotional arcs in the scene, it’s best to shoot it in-sequence. Action can take characters to different spots on location, though, and with the complications that can arise with using certain areas of a city or environment to shoot, it’s completely understandable if you cannot shoot the scene in sequence. Levels of sunlight, strict permission for the location (which can be timed), weather patterns, and more can shift moments of the scene out of sequence, but as long as you get them and ensure all these above factors are consistent in all the footage, you’re good. Here’s an example of a theatrically-released action film not being consistent:
On the dry set of a night scene during the production of John Wick 2, the stunt coordinators came up with an interesting variation on the “car-speeds-out-of-warehouse” bit. They had John drift out of there through a shallow ramp so he can jump out sideways, making his landing that much more difficult when transitioning from landing to driving, but that much more impressive when they nailed it. After many failed takes, they finally got a good one…
In the rain. You see, it was a dry night in the shot right before he jumped out of there, and it was pouring in the next shot when he got out. Two shots later, the old man stopped snoring, and so, it stopped pouring; it was dry again when John put the pedal to the medal toward a Russian’s back.
The clue is in the headlights. Those are rain drops. This shot lasted 2-3 seconds, so they got away with it. Until now.
This can take you out of the experience because ten seconds later, you’re still saying “What the f**k??” And because this sequence was in the beginning of the film, I expected more mistakes later. Looking for problems creates problems in the minds of the viewers, and thus can ruin the movie experience.
This scene was probably shot out-of-sequence for scheduling reasons or because they had no choice, so if you can shoot yours in sequence under consistent weather, do it. Besides, your actors will be most energetic at the beginning and roughed up by the end, just like the characters would be.
*Stay consistent with each take!
Just like lighting and makeup effects, your actor-fighters need to be consistent or else you won’t be able to match your action shots and have smooth continuity during editing. Your SC - and even your script supervisor if you have one - will make sure of this, otherwise you’ll be sorry when that nose punch you want is fast and cringe-inducing, and the best reaction shot you caught was like your actor said the “Ah” in “Ah-choo!”
Shooting in-sequence secures easy consistency with bruises and make up effects. Playback on your camera to be safe and in case you’re shooting out-of-sequence. Hire a talented, efficient artist so that you don’t lose time. Above is ours putting bruises on our lead actor on the set of “Consumed By Rage”, right in the middle of our shoot since we did it in-sequence.
You always do an extra take for safety.
Just like smart directors have their actors recite their lines again to the boom mic to ensure quality sound is there during the editing process, safety takes are there in case one or two good takes have an unavoidable issue, such as inconsistent choreography, lighting, and acting, or just some moron talking during the shoot of a quiet moment of reflection. Like me. That said…
I had these problems galore for ARSON. During editing, I ended up forcibly cutting around some footage, ending some good takes too soon, and not even using any of my closeup shots of my actors’ strikes during their fight scene. It led to a rough post-production process which gave me the hard-learned wisdom I’m passing on now. My fight sequence is still good for my film, but I felt it could have been much more if I knew all these tips sooner.
I still love my film. A few mistakes didn’t kill mine, and it won’t kill yours. Just reach for zero of them, and if you make some, ensure they’re not of the kind where your prop weapon smacks your actor in the face. You will be fine if you listen to your experts, be a fair human being, and go with your instincts as a storyteller.
Stay tuned for Part 3, which will cover the complex Post-Production process of putting your action sequence together.