How To Edit An Action Movie
As an editor some of the most fun I’ve had in editing a scene is when there’s a good amount of action going on.
Now in my ‘normal work’ that opportunity doesn’t come along all that often, but there are some really useful insights that come into play when editing an action sequence that are actually very applicable to editing any type of scene.
So I thought I’d put together a quick post on some of the best resources and insights on editing action sequences, car chases, fight scenes and more.
But first, my two cents on what makes for a good action scene.
The audience needs to care
If the audience doesn’t care and empathise with your central character it doesn’t matter how impressive/expensive/crazy your action sequence is, they’ll snooze out.
In one of the post production extras on Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers he mentioned in that it was crucial to cut back to a central character every few shots during the battle for Helm’s Deep sequence because otherwise you’d just get lost in the melee.
It can’t just be about huge crowds thrashing each other.
This is also why the first half of Rocky is about him helping change his neighbour’s lightbulbs and being a good guy, because you need to care about him to root for him to win in the big fights later on.
The Intention and Obstacle need to be clear
In screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass on writing effective screenplays, his fundamental principle for any workable scene was a clear intention and a clear obstacle.
The good guy wants something, the bad guy (or the forces against him) want to stop him. (or her, it is 2016 after all!)
This is why most big battle/fight/chase scenes are preceded by a spell-out-exactly-what-we-need-to-achieve type of scene most memorable from Mission Impossible and Star Wars planning scenes.
It’s also why you might have a third character or perspective on the scene that is adding in extra information or re-iterating what needs to happen next.
E.g. “You’re running out of time to stop the bomb.”
So that the intention and obstacle is clear all the way through the scene or sequence of scenes.
Clarity needs to be maintained
The third ingredient in a successful action sequence is that the audience needs to know what’s going on.
This might sound obvious, and it is, but if you’re trying to ratchet up the tension and the speed of the action then making things confusing, crossing the line, editing in lots of close ups for blurry action can be tempting. But it won’t be effective.
The audience needs to know what’s happening, where all the key players are and have some idea of what might happen next.
Even if that’s only a few seconds into the future. For example, we’re about to run out of road and we need to jump the bus, a la Speed.
This most excellent one-punch fight scene has all of these elements involved.
The audience cares about the characters, they are clear about the stakes involved and the meaning of the outcomes, and the through line of the action is obvious at all times.
I’ve included this video just because it’s awesome. Although if you were to download it and play through it shot by shot, or even frame by frame, you would learn a lot about how to cut an action sequence together too.
How to Edit an Action Sequence
If you only watch one video in this post (unlikely) make it this one.
In this presentation from editor Eddie Hamilton (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Kick Ass 1&2, Kingsman: The Secret Service) you get an exceptionally rare opportunity to see a before and after showcase of cutting an action sequence.
At about 24 minutes into his presentation (which is all worth watching) Eddie plays the first cut of the scene and then his final version. This provides a masterclass on how to re-edit an action sequence to make it more dynamic and how that can sometimes rescue a lack-lustre scene.
For more great insights from Eddie, check out this previous and very popular post Inside Professional Editing Timelines, which includes stills of his timelines from Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and other films.
You can also read more about Eddie’s edit of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation in this previous post too.
In this Manhattan Edit Workshop video you get to hear editor Bill Pankow ACE discussing this action sequence from Brian De Palma’s superb Carlito’s Way. Again the intention and obstacle are clear, the through line of the action is obvious and the result is great. According to Bill, that’s all there in the dailies.
I feel like the dailies speak to us. We read the dailies and the tell us how they want to be edited.
The impact of the shooting style on the edit is clear from both Bill’s comments and Eddie’s re-edit. It’s also evident in the shooting style of Mad Max Fury Road. I originally included this great video in my massive round up of behind the scenes goodies on the film.
Editor Vashi Nedomansky draws attention to how much of the clarity of the action, especially when it comes to being able to ‘read’ every shot at high speed, is due to the way the film was shot – centre framed.
This was an edict passed down directly from director George Miller. Over the walkie talkies during every scene he could be heard saying “Put the cross hairs on her nose! Put the cross hairs on the gun!”
This was to protect the footage for editorial and to ensure that the entire high speed film would be easily digestible with both eyes and brain. Every new shot that slammed onto the screen must occupy the same space as the previous shot.
This is by no means a new technique, but by shooting the entire film in this way, Margaret Sixel could amplify and accelerate scenes, cut as fast as possible with the confident knowledge that the visual information would be understood.
Be sure to check out Vashi’s full post here for more great insights into this.
Vashi extends this idea by comparing “5 films that average 2 seconds per shot and average 3000 shots per film. They are being played back in their entirety at 12X speed.” Mad Max Fury Road is the only film that survives this speed up and still makes sense.
This bird’s eye view at high speed is something I often use as an editor to help judge the pacing and visual variety of my own work. By pushing the boundary of human information intake, it helps me spot trends, patterns and gives me an overall feeling of the visual mosaic I am creating at that moment. By speeding up the footage I can literally see WHERE in the frame the energy and emphasis exists and I use that information to my advantage.
This video from Cinefix breaks down why the bridge ambush sequence in Sicario works so well.
It’s interesting that in analysing the tension in the scene they also compare it to the rest of the film in this visual map. Well worth a watch.
Editors on Editing Action Scenes
In this Manhattan Edit Workshop video Oscar winning editor William Goldenberg talks about cutting the raid sequence from Zero Dark Thirty. It’s interesting to hear how he handled the dailies and choreographed the scene to make it as ‘un-Hollywood’ as possible.
These links will provide you with a good few hours of reading, and a plethora of useful insights.
- The Accountant – Editor Rick Pearson
- Spectre – Editor Lee Smith
- The Magnificent Seven – Editor John Refoua
- Dr Strange – Editor Sabrina Plisco and Wyatt Smith
- Hong Kong Action Movie Editor David Wu
- Mad Max Fury Road – Margaret Sixel
- Deadpool – Julian Clarke
- The Hateful Eight – Fred Raskin
- Captain America: Civil War – Editor Jeff Ford
- Batman Vs Superman – Editor David Brenner
Here is Editor Lee Smith talking about cutting complex action sequences, as found in the latest James Bond film, Spectre.
Normally, for a straightforward scene I would just cut it straight from dailies. If it’s a complex action sequence, for example the helicopter doing all of the barrel-rolls, that sequence was shot over five days of principle photography and probably ten days of second unit – so maybe 100,000 feet just for that one scene.
I would sit in a theatre and pull selects while I was watching it. I’d be talking to my assistant, John Lee, and I’d be saying, “That’s a good take.” “That angle’s good.” “That camera’s good.” Then I’d pull a selects reel of all of the best moments.
Just try and do a fast pass of just bolting it together because the only way you can actually see your way through these big, big sequences, it’s a good idea not to let them overwhelm you.
Just do a slam cut where everything happens as it should happen in about the right time and don’t worry too much about jazzing it up.
Just make it make sense and then go back, but you’ve at least got the structure, so you’ve built the house before you come in and do the fine sanding.
Editor David Wu shares a great story in his interview about saving a performance and an scene with some creative editing.
When I was cutting an action scene of this first-time director, Christophe Gans in Vancouver and there was this scene where a Japanese lady decided to commit harakiri, killing herself with a sword. Her performance is OK, but the director is not too excited about it. It’s OK.
I look at all the dailies to enhance this moment where she stabs herself, looks up at the sky and collapses. I was looking for a moment that visually captured it. All of a sudden I accidentally found it: at the end of one Steadicam shot, the Steadicam operator tripped and flipped and the whole camera swirled around.
So when the lady stabs herself I inserted about 16 frames of that trip – VOOM! – like that and there you go. It’s a great scene of harakiri. Back then, I’d go into another room to continue cutting while the director was watching on the Steenbeck, so when he was watching in the other room, everybody heard him slam the editing table with his hand – BAM! – and everybody thought he was throwing a fit.
But after the BAM! they heard him yell, “Nobody cuts like David Wu cuts!” Then later he told me, “Every movie I make, you have to cut, otherwise I cut you.” We became very good friends.
How to Edit a Fight Scene
If you want the chance to take a crack at editing your own fight scene then the course offered by Film Editing Pro will be right up your alley.
The Art of Action Editing allows you to download rushes for a fight scene, along with extremely detailed tutorials and cut your own version of the scene. For a lot more detail on this check out this previous post in which I reviewed the course.
The video above has actually been cut by one of the students who has taken the course, Jan-Lourens van der Merwe.
It’s quite different to the scripted version but it’s very well done and he’s obviously put a lot of time and effort into the structure and timing of the cut, the sound design, grading (adding lens flares) and even recording his own ADR.
No matter how small it might seem, everything in a scene should support a character’s essence and by making use of those opportunities you can add more depth to a character. For instance, we have a character called Mouth. His name almost gives you everything you need to know, so in support of his character most of the thug vocals I added are his.
Jan-Louren’s is interviewed in some detail about his edit and his experience of the course here, and it’s an excellent read.
This new Film Editing Pro preview video will walk you through what the course offers and how it works in detail.
You can also sign up for a free three-part editing course here.
In this entertaining video with editor Joan Sobel discusses a fight scene from Kill Bill Vol 2 and how Sally Menke messed with the usual dynamics of a fight scene.
For a completely different take on editing a fight scene VFX artist Sean Devereaux talks through the process of using visual effects to make punches land in Southpaw.
Tips on Editing a Car Chases
To kick off this section of the post (we’re getting there guys!) here is a great Supercut of some of cinema’s best car chases by Filmnørdens Hjørne.
For some editorial wisdom on cutting car chases we turn back to Vashi Nedomansky.
In the video above, which is part of this much longer post that you should go read for the rest of the tips, you can see the highlights of three tips Vashi shares on editing action sequences, including speeding up your car chases.
For car chases, actors running and fight sequences, 22 frames per second retains a natural and authentic look but adds a palpable boost of energy.
Once you get to 20 frames per second or less…you risk a comical or unnatural look to action. That’s not to say it won’t work…as the tone and genre of action films can vary from serious to full out comedy.
Many cameras will allow you to dial in the frame rate and capture it directly. If your camera doesn’t have that option…change the speed by the appropriate percentage in your editing software. Experiment and use what works best for you.
In this vintage video from Film…Sound…Colour you can get an entertaining breakdown of several different car chases from (what used to be) the BBC’s Top Gear. The third version is actually pretty epic, and the importance of good sound design can’t be understated!
In this final video Jim Emerson breaks down the car and truck chase sequence in The Dark Knight. I orignally included this video in a much (much) older post which features a similar breakdown of Salt and San Francisco based car chases.
They’re a little more ‘academic’ than some of the other videos in this post, but absolutely well worth a watch for a more detailed analysis of some of the concepts I’ve been covering here.
Editing Action Comedy
In this episode Tony Zhou focuses on the master of action comedy Jackie Chan, to answer the question of how does Jackie create action that is also funny.
As always it’s a brilliant analysis of Jackie’s work and the difference between bad Hollywood fighting and Jackie’s masterful work which incorporates camera work, editing and even budgets.
Check out more of Tony’s excellent Every Frame A Painting videos in these previous posts.