Thursday, 26 May 2011

Action Scenes : Levels of Complication

This article is an attempt to show the degrees of complication in action scenes, the simple elements that are used to build excitement. Separating and classifying the blocks that build action scenes is by no means an exact science and there are, undoubtedly, messy dribblings wherever cuts are made.

One Level

This is the bare bones Fight or Chase.

Thor : Fistfight vs Security Guard. A simple tussle.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
: Flight into the forest. Jen flees pursued by Li Mu Bai

Two Levels

An extra element of danger or uncertainty is called into play. This could be the geography of the place or nature of the arena in which a chase or a fight takes place - height, fire, or unpredictable foreign elements such as traffic. The reason for the fight can also be the second layer, for example a bomb primed to explode. In other words: time. The two levels could equally be the combination of a fight and a chase (i.e. firing at each other while running/driving).

Quantum of Solace : Suspended and swung over the ground on ropes, Bond and Mitchell attempt to kill one another. This evolves from a chase (three levels - involving gun fire and rooftops).

Batman Begins : Monorail fight - the track is destroyed and time waits to trigger a fall

Attack of the Clones : Arena Battle. Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padme fight off the Geonosians as well as the monstrous creatures that have been set upon them. Two adversaries are present with separate and differing motives to be vanquished.

Three Levels

Yet another danger. Another action or consequence to be taken into account. Maybe another person is put into the equation.

Spider-Man 2 : Fight on the side of a building. The fight itself, the height of the building on whose wall it takes place and the precarious position of Doctor Octopus' hostage, Aunt May, used as a pawn to weaken Spider-Man's position.

Fast Five : Two cars chased through traffic (two levels) pulling a bank safe that destroys cars in their wake. A chase with weapons and serious obstacles.

Four Levels

Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull : Jungle Chase. A chase through the jungle by car (one), weapons such as swords and rocket launchers (two), height in the precipitous cliff that suddenly appears to one side of the chase or the possible fall awaiting the swinging Mutt (three), and the perils and pitfalls of deadly ants (four).

Yes, these don't all take effect simultaneously but I think it qualifies nonetheless.

Five Levels

Mission Impossible III : Wind Farm

One: Having rescued one of their agents the team board a helicopter and fly off. They are then pursued by another helicopter. Thus an action scene is born.

Two: The team's helicopter heads into a wind farm, introducing a level of danger and uncertainty requiring skill and nerve to overcome them.

Three: The enemy chopper enters the wind farm. By shooting a heat-seeking missile (which the team will head off by swerving and shooting flares) they have launched the scene onto a third level.

Four : One of the team (Lindsey) is lying on the floor of the helicopter in great pain. It is discovered that she has an explosive device in her head. A defibrillator is readied that will deliver a charge that may disable the explosive. Two countdowns converge: the machine's countdown to readiness and the invisible one behind her eyes.

This is not strictly a direct part of the action but it does divert the energies of those involved. It is, regardless, part of the scene.

Five : Height. Zhen slips out of the door of the helicopter because of the pilot's tight manoeuvres. She hangs on for dear life.

Eventually the enemy helicopter is chopped up by a blade. Lindsey, however, dies seconds before the defibrillator is ready to save her.

*      *      *

Of course none of the above takes into consideration Emotional Complications. Take G.I. Joe Rise of Cobra or Mr and Mrs Smith, where men and women must fight people they once, and perhaps still, love. What about when the eponymous hero of Spider-Man is faced with the balanced fates of a tram-load of passengers and the woman he loves, Mary Jane.

There are many ingredients at the disposal of artists. By using or eschewing them they excite, tease and torture.


  1. Brilliant outlining of the way that action set-pieces can be constructed, and the multiple layers of complexity that they can contain, encouraging and audience to follow along not only for the sake of sensational thrills, but also a sense of cause-and-effect imagination. In the right hands, a well-constructed set-piece can be cinematic brain food.

    Though it falls outside the parameter of the single-scene set-up you're talking about here, the prolonged interlocking series of sequences in things like the "Star Wars" movies and in "Inception" have a great way of creating layers within layers. I just finished watching TPM right now (partly to make sure my PS3 hasn't been damaged by a skippy copy of "Lord of the Rings"), and there you've got four distinct set-pieces at the end (Droids vs. Gungans; Queen & Company retaking palace; Naboo pilots vs. Droid Ship; and Jedi vs. Sith), each with their own distinct layers of action and each associated with one another in concrete, cause-and-effect exchanges (Gungan battle diverts droid-army from the palace; Jedi fight the Sith to protect the Queen; Naboo fighters target the Droid ship to protect the Gungans; Queen retakes palace to stop the war entire). Multiply the layers each individual set-piece has (each has their own variations on geography, enemy and force-fields) and you've got at least 12 levels of complexity.

  2. Thanks very much Bob.

    "In the right hands, a well-constructed set-piece can be cinematic brain food."

    For sure. That's something rather under-recognised or, worse, not even contemplated.

    You're right about interlocking scenes whose action impacts across them in-film and raises excitement for the viewer. There has always been a fine line in Star Wars between killing the momentum of one of these scenes when leaving it and magnifying it through another scene before returning. Timing here, I think, is everything.

    More often than not Star Wars does it successfully.

  3. Agreed. The timing is a key element of importance, and Lucas' gift with editing helps keep the momentum moving at a crisp pace, even when an action-strand or two isn't quite up to snuff with the rest (the prolonged ending of AOTC is a bit like this, and feels like a demo-reel of "Star Wars" outtakes, albeit still enjoyable).

    For the sake of completism, I decided to map out how I see the "Duel of the Fates" sequences in "The Phantom Menace", and low and behold, I can count 4 levels to each set-piece, and ironically I never realized before how big a role chance/fate plays in each one.

    (1) Gungans vs. Droids

    a: Geography-- large open fields, no place to hide and take cover, plenty of terrain for enemy tanks to travel.
    b: Enemy-- Droid army has artillery & blaster rifles, but Gungans have only slings and catapults, weapons that require physical coordination (something that we see is lacking in Jar Jar).
    c: Force-Field-- Gungans protected from enemy artillery, but not from army, which can enter slowly, and take out shield from inside, leaving them weak to artillery again.
    d: Chance-- Jar Jar accidentally destroys lots of droids in haphazard antics, showing unpredictability of battle.

    (2) Queen Retaking Palace

    a: Geography-- Queen and company must navigate through invaded city, hangar and palace halls. Circumvent normal travel by blasting open window and using ascension guns when hallway is blocked. Goal is throne room.
    b: Enemy-- normal droids, more dangerous Droidekas and Darth Maul. Normal droids can be fought, but can outnumber. Darth Maul must be fought by the Jedi. Droideka must be taken out by Anakin's ship, or surrendered to.
    c: Force-Field-- Droideka. They stand in the way of Queen in the hangar, and only Anakin taking it out lets them pass. In the palace, they're trapped.
    d: Chance-- Anakin's help unpredictable. Darth Maul's appearance unpredictable. Queen only succeeds when Trade Federation viceroy mistakes her decoy as the real Queen. Mistaken identity.

    (3) Naboo Pilots vs. Droid Ship

    a: Geography-- Pilots must escape from Naboo hangar (guarded by droids and tank) and fight in space. Again, no place to hide.
    b: Enemy-- droid fighters, artillery cannons of battleship. Outnumbered and out-gunned, plus the Trade Federation can always send for another battleship if this attack fails.
    c: Force-Field-- battleship's shields too powerful to be penetrated by Naboo weapons.
    d: Chance-- Anakin only joins battle by accident-- in cockpit on Qui-Gon's order to be in a safe place, on autopilot (motivated by attempt to help Queen). Anakin winds up destroying the battleship by accident after crash-landing in the hangar and blasting it from the inside. Connected to all story strands.

    (4) Jedi vs. Sith

    a: Geography-- duel occurs largely in reactor chambers, with height a big danger, constant SW peril of bottomless pits.
    b: Enemy-- Darth Maul, adept in the Force and fencing. Double sided lightsaber makes him an equal foe to two Jedi at once.
    c: Force-Field-- separates Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at crucial mid-section of the duel, leaving Qui-Gon vulnerable to Maul's attack.
    d: Chance-- separation of the Jedi leads to Qui-Gon's death, the random shield generation. But Qui-Gon's death also leads to Obi-Wan beating Maul with his master's blade, theme of Jedi self-sacrifice.

    I'm also tempted to do this same thing for the set-pieces of "Evangelion", but then I've already done as much in my "Operation Yashima" piece over at Wonders. I'm glad to see somebody else taking action sequences seriously (something you already did with that great "GI Joe" piece-- sad to know that Stephen Sommers won't be directing the next one).

  4. Boy, that's something...

    Though your definitions of what constitutes a level aren't exactly the same as mine - which themselves are decidedly flimsy! - it does show how you can create a balance or imbalance with various elements. I will re-watch those scenes again at some point with your notes in mind.

    Thanks again re G.I.Joe. That is one of the most entertaining action scenes I've seen. The amount of energy and carnage is actually humorous. I didn't know Stephen Sommers wouldn't be directing the next one. Then again there are quite a few films I see without knowing who the director is at all.

  5. I suppose if you were really to try and isolate what the levels of any given action set-piece are, you'd probably have to look at 3 basic things-- goal, obstacle and presentation. Eveything we're talkign about here all fall under the "obstacle" portion, for the most part, but really they all are interrelated. You can't talk about one thing without the other.

    It's odd-- watching TPM today just after watching half of the LOTR movies is something of an eye opener for me to see what I like about the first, and what I don't like about the second. It's even clear in the aspects of TPM that even I'm not terribly crazy about. Take Jar Jar, for instance-- I've always found him somewhat annoying, but never as much as, say, Merry and Pippin from LOTR. Why? One thing might be Jar Jar's general good-natured quality. Yeah, he's clumsy, speaks pidgen English and sounds like Roger Rabbit, but he's pretty much always trying to help. Merry and Pippin, on the other hand, are like overgrown caricatures of Peter Rabbit melded with Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, always getting people into trouble with their selfishness. Even Jar Jar's biggest mistake, voting to give Palpatine emergency powers, is motivated by a desire to help his friends.

    I think the next "GI Joe" movie is being directed by somebody who just did a 3D street-dancing movie, or some such nonsense.

  6. Yes,

    There are levels of complexity when it comes to articles about levels of complexity too. It would be interesting to try and visualise (diagrammatically) all these elements - physical and emotional - to get a sense of a scene's 'map'.

    It would also be interesting to study in what way action scenes have moved story and character on. This is a criticism often made, that action scenes often just suspend or delay the movement of story.

  7. More to the point of your examinations here-- one of the things I liked is looking for the "countdown" in each set-piece, the insturment of action whose resolution will automatically end the conflicts in motion, setting a time-limit to the whole thing. It's something I noticed when looking at "Operation Yashima", with the Angel's drill penetrating NERV headquarters as their time-limit. In "Batman Begins", you've first got the Dark Knight trying to stop the monorail from crashing into Wayne tower and unleashing Ra's Al Ghul's fear toxin through all of Gotham. In "MI3", there's the nice competing countdowns of the agent with the bomb in her head and the defibrulator. The original "Star Wars" had the Death Star moving into the Rebel base's orbit as a looming risk. It's always nice when filmmakers can find a concrete, visual way to generate suspense with something we can track on screen ourselves, rather than simply resorting to a literal timer counting down.

    Even "Seven Samurai" had the deaths of the warriors themselves, by gunfire, as a kind of countdown, as well as the deaths of the bandits.

  8. Sorry, forgot to respond to the rest...

    Jar Jar never annoyed me but he isn't a character I particularly like either. I did find his vital intervention in Attack of the Clones amusing.

    I didn't really like The Lord of the Rings. It feels very much like the book. The language is straightforward and easy to read with no real panache. The film is the same.

    I haven't seen the dance film so I can't really comment.

  9. I forgot about the nerve toxin in Batman Begins. That's really complicated things. Oh dear...

    Countdowns are great, especially when a character has two things to concentrate on or take care of. You get a real feeling of haste and desperation.

  10. Interesting points on how people often criticize action-scenes fro delaying a plot, or adding nothing to it. Often this si true, but in the best cases I feel that agood action sequence is literalizing onscreen the themes at play in a story, that have only been undercurrents or sub-text until that moment. They're occasions for the filmmaker to try and summarize their implicit themes and arguments through action, and bring everything together for some ultimate expression of the work. This is sometimes easiest to see wheen a movie has a series of escalating action set-pieces, and you can compare how they punctuate the movie, expressing the same ideas at different intervals and levels of volume.

    Off the top of my head, "Heat" is a good example of thise. We get an epic war-sequence of a shoot-out through the streets of Los Angeles in the mid-point, but a more intimate, minimalist recreation of it in the end, by the air-port. Both express something fundamental about the mercenary loneliness of their characters, the mirror's image way that Pacino and De Niro's cop and robber reflect one another. They just do it at differen heights, different scales.

  11. I don't actually think it needs to move the plot on nor necessarily should. Its function can be merely as a cap to what's lead up to it, a flash of excitement or (oddly) a breather and a punctuater.

    Yes, those that can bring together themes and ideas in action as well as significantly progressing the plot are often the best.

    About Heat , I saw it a long time ago and can remember little apart from not being a fan. The opening shootout actually felt too long to me precisely because it felt like a set piece to be admired on its own rather than a battle that came from a physical/emotional place and is leading to another.

  12. Corrections :

    "What's LED up to it" "punctuatOr"