Filmmakers, from both outside Hollywood and in, have attempted a variety of ways to shoot action sequences. Some styles tend to draw more attention to themselves, like the visually tantalizing battlefields of “300,” while others try and help you feel completely immersed, like you’re not watching a film at all — “Black Hawk Down,” for example.
With action sequences in older films, the camera was generally very still. I don’t mean that in comparison to the shakey/handheld camera style you see every once in a while now, I mean even in comparison to some of the steadier camera work we saw in the 70s. The reason is twofold: the styles hadn’t developed to the levels they have now, and the physical camera systems were just significantly larger than they are now. They couldn’t realistically follow troops into the staged battle very easily with their enormous cameras, and they certainly couldn’t navigate quickly through tight spaces the way you see nowadays.
Consider this clip from the 1930s “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Lewis Milestone. Notice how most of the camera movements are still, scattered between dolly shots (moving slowly left, right, forward or back on a dolly/rail system) and pans.
Technology continued to develop, making cameras lighter and allowing for new techniques (the digital revolution was a key part of this). Eventually we were given what many have come to dislike: the “shakey-cam” style. This was born from the increasing popularity of documentaries, the ability for average people with handheld cameras to popularize home-movie type stories, and, in some instances, developing taste with filmmakers. “Saving Private Ryan” capitalized on this technique, as did the Bourne trilogy. However, both of those examples use it to perpetuate and influence the story. In “Saving Private Ryan” we feel like we’re among the men storming Omaha Beach in 1944; in the Bourne movies we feel like we’re frantically on the run with Jason Bourne as he narrowly slips away from the authorities (though some would argue that even the handheld style in the Bourne movies is “too much”).
But, like many innovative techniques, other filmmakers simply saw these successes and treated it like a formula for success and an easy way to cut corners. Countless action movies have come out since those first few, using the handheld camera technique as a crutch for poor filmmaking, rather than a technique used to influence the story.
For a time, the industry was quite saturated with this handheld-technique, and it was rarely used correctly, but eventually people started longing for the older way of movie action sequences. They began to look at eastern action films, who were influenced by old Kung-Fu movies, where the actors didn’t have to hide their ineptitude in martial arts with a thousand quick cuts — they knew what they were doing and the camera just had to roll.
Here is an example from “Oldboy,” a Korean film from 2003 (graphic, hand-to-hand fighting).
As you can see in the clip above, another emerging style is the “one-shot” format, and it’s one that many western filmmakers have adopted in not only just action sequences, but dramatic sequences as well. The director Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the older actor) uses this all the time in drama, and Alejandro Iñárritu has been using it in both drama and action. His films “Children of Men” and “The Revenant” both have excellent, large-scale action sequences that are comprised of a single shot. This has only become possible in action films since they have been putting more of an effort in training their actors, and the size of the camera systems make it possible to move with the actor or stuntman.
And this isn’t just a cool trick, at least not for Iñárritu. He doesn’t really bring a whole lot of attention to his “one-shot” action sequences (though he does in “Birdman”) — it simply makes you feel like you’re on the battlefield alongside the main characters. In “Children of Men,” there’s an excellent scene where the protagonist is navigating a warzone, dodging between tanks, walls exploding, people getting mowed down — every second with Clive Owen’s character there pulls you deeper into his world.
As the budget of television has skyrocketed in recent years, they too have adapted this style. Check out this clip from Netflix’s “Daredevil.”
Personally, I am a huge fan of the “one-shot” technique as long as it’s not used as a gimmick. And it doesn’t have to be one shot, but the slow-moving, ever present feeling you get from newer, well made action films generally give off this same vibe.
Finally, you have the middle-ground, which is what a lot of the big name directors still use. Films like Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” or Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai” generally use large, sweeping cinematography, punctuated with slow motion shots here and there, alongside moments of hand-held camera. These directors are generally making it so the cinematography and editing techniques they use do not bring attention to themselves, instead they focus on what’s going on inside the frame lines of a film.
In my opinion, I am a big proponent the newer styles that have departed from the crutch of handheld filmmaking, but still capitalize on the freedom of movement like you see in the “Daredevil” clip above, or in “The Revenant.” With this style, in war movies or gunfights I feel like I’m “in the stack,” running and gunning alongside John Wick or whoever else I’m watching.
Videos courtesy of YouTube. Featured image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, from “The Raid 2: Berandal.”