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7 Tips for Tackling Action Scenes

Laura Beth Feb 09

Action and Stunts

Action and stunt scenes come in all shapes and sizes.

Sometimes it’s just one guy pretending to faint, or one guy “hitting” another guy on the jaw…  and sometimes it’s a huge scene with 10+ guys, cars flipping over, and stuff catching on fire!


Complicated action scenes can be intimidating, but at the core they are just like any other scene:  There is a dramatic objective and an action described in the script.  Your challenge is to design and capture the scene in a way that achieves its dramatic purpose for the story.  Identify the scene’s story objective, keep that clearly in your mind, and you will be well on your way to crafting a successful scene.

Here are 7 Straight-Shooting Tips for Tackling Action:


1.  Be Safe.

Use common sense.  Not only is a black eye or broken arm horrible for the injured person, it will also stop your movie for the day, week, or indefinitely.

2. Be Up-Front.


On the set of “Jail Bait: 17 & Life”

Discuss your expectations for the fight/stunt/action sequences with your actors before they are hired.  Don’t save that conversation for the shoot date.

If you need someone to actually be naked and barefoot running/tripping/falling through the woods in the middle of winter, clarify!  Otherwise, you run the risk of a standoff mid-shoot.

Don’t assume that they agree just because “they read the script.”  Or, if you do choose to assume that, then know that they may also be assuming that you were going to “shoot it differently.”  If you need something specific, be up-front about it.  They’re either in or they’re out, it’s best to find out ASAP.

You want the actor to feel as passionate about achieving the scene “your way” as you do!

3.  Lose the Master.


A frame grab from Di Lee’s “Battle Ballad” Music Video

You don’t need a master.

Your actors aren’t really going to beat the shit out of each other, so the punches and hits won’t sell from all angles.  A master is inevitably going to have huge sections of useless stuff in it while you exhaust your actors, waste hard drive space and lose valuable time.

Find the right angles and put the camera where it needs to be for each moment.  You will probably want a few moments of a wide shot to establish scale, or to introduce a new area of the location, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth doing the whole sequence in a 5 minute “sloppy master” just for 5 seconds of screen time.

Take a moment and think through the edit.

Letting the actors just fight while you whip the camera around is a cheat, and unless the actors are UFC champs it will look like a cheat.

Find the angles that work.

If it looks lame, go tighter.

And if all else fails, shoot reactions and shadow puppets! 🙂

4.  Choreograph.

Aways have a stunt coordinator.  On a very tiny project, that might end up being YOU, nonetheless, one person has to take responsibility for orchestrating the fight and keeping actor safety in mind.  Specifically, it should never be an improv situation; it should always be choreographed even if that choreography happens 5 minutes before the blocking.

An improv fight might make a good a youtube video, but it’s not necessarily filmmaking.  🙂  

4.  Hire a Good Camera Operator.

LB Love, DP

On the set of “Kolossus”

For action scenes, you want someone agile, in shape, paying attention to your story, and who will be proactive in rehearsing/finding/getting shots.

 So much of selling the fake punch is on the camera operator, especially if it’s a hand-held or steadicam sequence. You need that guy or gal to be on your team, actively engaged in the story, and not just performing as a hired hand.

5.  Shutter Angle.

Increase the shutter angle a bit to keep fast action clear.  (At 1/48 it will start to blur)  This is especially helpful when shooting stunts against a green screen (keying through the blur can suck, but always consult your VFX team before making adjustments for their benefit.)

“Saving Private Ryan” and “28 Days Later” are iconic examples of this increased-shutter-angle effect.  1/60 or 1/90 are a good start.  Anything more than that might get crazy.

On the set of ARC Angel: Kalina

On the set of ARC Angel: Kalina

6. Screen Direction, Schmeen Direction.


You can relax on the screen direction a little bit.  As long as the objective is clear and the audience can tell who’s winning the fight, or where they are going… it will be fine.

When it doubt, keep proper screen direction, but fights are disorienting and it’s OK for the audience to occasionally get disoriented in a fight scene, as well.

Still in doubt?  Shoot a “rough draft” on your phone and edit it together on your laptop real quick.

7. Remember The Story.

The objective of the scene might be “hero gets his ass kicked.” But the drama probably comes from our hope that he’ll fight back.  Or, our hope that the other guy will show mercy, etc.  There has to be a story within the fight.

A frame grab from "TV Face"

A frame grab from “TV Face”

Beware of the action line in a script that reads “bar brawl” or “then they fight.”  Usually, that just means that the scene hasn’t been fully written, and if you want that fight to be satisfying you’ll have to invent those beats so that you can shoot them!

“Two guys going at it” is only spectacle and, without context, the audience won’t care.  Sometimes the close up of the hero’s face after the punch is more important than the punch itself.

Best of luck!  And let me know how it goes!  Subscribe to this blog for email updates!

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Copyright © Laura Beth Love and LBLove.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Laura Beth Love and LBLove.com, as appropriate, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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