Movie Contrivance #12: Disorienting Action Sequences

If you don’t know anything about The Hunger Games, don’t worry–there are no spoilers below. (And if you really don’t know anything about The Hunger Games, I can assure you that it is not, as one unwitting friend guessed yesterday, “Man vs. Food but teams”).

After devouring all three Hunger Games books the day they came out, I’ve been excited about the prospect of the movie for quite some time. The movie is a solid adaptation of the first book. It plays a bit like a highlight reel of the book, and in certain places it adds things that the book could not due to the limited first-person perspective in which it was written. The main character was particularly well cast, and both Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson are fantastic in their adult roles. It’s worth watching even if you haven’t read the books.

That said, the director made some interesting choices when it came to filming and editing some of the action sequences. I don’t know what it is, but in recent years it seems that some very acclaimed directors have pieced together action sequences–particularly close combat–with a combination of shaky cam and a myriad of quick cuts that have left me confused and disoriented.

Michael Bay is notorious for this, but it bewilders me that a director with the talent of Christopher Nolan (director of the latest Batman trilogy and Inception) does the same thing with his action sequences. Go back and watch Batman Begins and tell me if you have any idea of what happens in the close-combat action sequences.

I’m not a movie director, so I don’t understand the difficultly of filming a believable action sequence. After all, you can’t have actors actually hacking at each other with swords or throwing real punches. They have to pretend, and the director has to use his tools to create the illusion of reality. However, a 15-second action sequence with upwards of 25 cuts and shaky cam is just lazy to me, and it’s a disservice to your audience.

Again, no spoilers, but there is a fight scene in The Hunger Games in which some characters are battling with each other, and you have no idea what’s going on. It’s as if they each have a camera strapped onto them and the director is switching between the three cameras every millisecond. And then, for one second, the camera switches to an overhead view of the action, and it’s this amazing moment of clarity because you finally know where everyone is in the scene and what they’re doing.

I challenge more directors to shoot action scenes with clarity in mind. Can you think of any examples of action scenes that you loved or hated based on the way they were filmed?

Also, you might recall that the Tournament of Josh ended on Sunday. I kept the poll results hidden until now, so it’s my pleasure to announce that the winner is…Josh! Specifically, Josh C. from Virginia, for the 99% poster seen here. Other Josh, you may no longer use the name “Josh” in the comments section. “Imposter Josh” is fine. Or David. I don’t think we have any Davids here.

Also, for your viewing pleasure, Trev submitted his version of the Charlotte meme. He probably would have had a good chance at claiming the name “Josh.”

12 thoughts on “Movie Contrivance #12: Disorienting Action Sequences”

  1. You know, I just figured the fight scenes in Hunger Games were, for lack of a better term, vague, because the movie was rated PG-13. I know you’re talking about action scenes in general, but if you distinguish them from battle scenes, I think a lot of the “disorientation” in fight scenes may stem from the need to keep things less graphic for PG-13 audiences. I feel like you see a lot less of the quick cuts in combat scenes in R rated movies.

    • Neha–I definitely see what you’re saying, and I should probably clarify: It’s not the element of violence that I’m interested in when I watch action/fight scenes. I don’t need to see the knife actually cut into someone or the blood splatter everywhere. You can’t have those things in a PG-13 movie anyway.

      What I’m interested in is clarity. I want to know what’s happening in a scene–any scene, really. I think it’s the director’s job to show us what’s happening in a way that we can understand it. Sometimes that means setting the stage with some stable overhead shots. Sometimes that means keeping each character’s perspective consistent with the direction in which they’re moving/looking (this is key during car chases). Sometimes, as Trev mentions below, that means stabilizing the camera even when a character is full of motion. And sometimes, particularly in close combat, I think it means reducing the number of cuts so it’s not a complete mess.

      The best example of this in The Hunger Games (slight spoiler here) is when Katniss and the knife girl are wrestling on the grass. It’s not even a particularly violent scene–they’re just rolling around on the ground. Why were several dozen cuts needed there? Again, I definitely see what you’re saying about PG-13, but I think that particular scene could have been shot completely within the bounds of PG-13 and been a lot more clear. Instead, it was so disoriented that it took me out of the moment, which is the last thing a movie should do.

  2. Laura and I went to see the Hunger Games last night, and I experienced the same contrivance. While I enjoyed the movie, I caught myself wondering a few times if I needed glasses while watching movies on the big screen. In addition to the fight scene, there are a few scenes of Katniss walking in which the camera seems to follow her way to closely and shakily, as if it’s stuck to a pole a few feet behind her at all times. I found it very disorienting and I hope directors stop doing this!

    Also, Tebowmania!!! Charlotte didn’t turn out as well as I would have liked. The Tebow tattoo (which some dude other than Tim Tebow actually has across his upper back) just looks like a band-aid, and for some reason, when I copied imposter-josh’s poster, I ended up with some odd lines on it. Oh well. I’m most proud of the inconspicuously placed Tebow-Hanes poster 🙂

    • Oh I didn’t even noticed the Tebow tattoo! Very clever. Although it definitely looks like a bandaid. Katie, can you please take a photo of Charlotte Te-bowing?

    • So that’s how they make sweet tea in Virginia!

      I have been bested by the 99%. I shall retreat to my lair overlooking Zuccotti Park in defeat.

      Trev, your T-Bo mania Meme is incredibly awesome. The layers of detail…Love it. I demand more.

  3. The reason that this is done is because they are (effectively) creating uncertainty and tension. The characters don’t know what’s going on, and so it wouldn’t be as suspenseful if the audience knew what was going on. The scend you describe, as a single long shot would be boring, and the viewer may not be as emotionally invested in the outcome.
    This is especially interesting given what you mention about the First person narration of the book vs. Omniscient narration POV of the movie. I like action stories that are based on first person narration for the same reason that I liked your idea of writing with minimal editing. I feel it’s a more realistic perception of the events as they unfold.

    • Red, I see what you’re saying, but do you think that applies to the example Trev gave about the girl running through the forest? Does the camera really need to shake and have a lot of quick cuts to portray anxiety and urgency when a character is running? I’d contend that it does not–it’s moreso a matter of trusting your actor to show those emotions.

      • Agreed. In the archetypal shot from North By Northwest (you tube North by Northwest Cropduster), where Carey Grant runs from the plane that is machine-gunning him down Hitchcock shoots what Michael Bay would consider a series of boring long shots. But I think that if Bay or Nolen read your critique, they would explain that the shot was intended to make you feel disoriented, because they believe that the character is disoriented. It’s the difference between a storytelling being the action of listing a sequence of events, and storytelling meant to communicate the emotions associated with the characters.
        I’m also not making a value judgement on either method. But rather expressing that the style that is achieving what it’s intended to.

        • Good point. I think I’m just more of a fan of letting the actors show me what their characters are feeling instead of the camera and editing.

  4. Ugh. Try writing a fighting scene with clarity in mind! It’s like… they need to invent more words for it. The English language can be so excruciatingly limiting sometimes, I just want to hit it over the head with a skillet. Anyway, back to writing my novel…

    • Ha ha…very true. That can’t be easy. I’m sure my attempt at writing an action scene would look like this: And then he blam blam blam and throws his arm like this and kablooey and then he runs around and around and hits him with his fist like boosh boosh boosh and then wrhiiiiirrrr.” So, pretty much a bunch of nonsense.

      Oo, another novel? How ambitious you are!


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