Recording fluid action movement in: 6 tips

Sometimes, a carefully planned long take can liberate movement 
Video taken off youtube
Hard Boiled(1992)

One of my earlier blog entries was to write a post on tips to instill fluid movement and transitions between shots when recording continuous movement in a short temporal space. This is an issue that I felt needed some fine-tuning to as I felt student and amateur filmmaking have somehow forgotten how to compose,plan, shoot and edit a fluid action sequence. I initially wanted to write 5 pointers for effective movement recording but figured I'd throw in a few bonuses.

1) Camera movement to assist actual movement

A lot of movies that I observe today have great action sequences that has a lot of camera movements either to a) exaggerate actor movement or b) To create a variety of movement.

Short static shots are typically for Close-ups that typically contain an 'impact'(refer to pointer no.8). These static shots are used to supplement moving shots rather than the other way around, which tends to be the case. This is because, if majority of your shots are static, a moving supplementary shot will stick out like a sore thumb.

The reason why amateur and student films lack fluid action motions in their films is that they don't have the necessary gear to carry out these movements effectively. Let's face it, we need equipments that will specifically suit the needs of the film. It's not that we can't get all these equipments(dolly,cranes,jib etc) to produce silky movements with our cameras, it's just that the movement options provided by dollies, cranes, jibs are generic in their movement and provide very little liberal movement. Hollywood producers would get manufacturers to customize certain gears to fit their needs right?

Actually, if done in the right way, handheld(Shoulder mount or stabilizer off course) can make your motion shots look good. Don't be afraid to stray away from the tripod. Remember, we want liberal, organic movements, not mechanical movements. You can take inspiration from the fight scene below.

 (Press #3 on keyboard to see the fightscene between Ting En and the challenger)
Video taken off youtube
 Fist of Legend(1994)

2) CU Reaction movement rather than CU of hands performing movement(Closed & Open framing)

The common mistake that is done today with amateur auteurs is that when they do a close-up, most of the time, it is of the hands throwing a punch or hands holding a gun(Closed framing) instead of an Open framing of the persons' face to suggest an action.

I'm not saying that it is a bad thing to include closed framing CU shots of the person's hands. By all means, do it, but moderation is key. Remember that since the hands are moving fast and wildly, it means, you'll either capture a) information that is too fast for your audience to catch or b) Your audience doesn't know what's going on. That's why, to capture a facial expression of him taking the gun from his pocket(off-screen sound) and shooting(off-screen sound) is muc more impactful. In my opinion use the Closed framing "hand shot" if the shot it is undercranked or on the 'results'(refer to pointer no. 8)

3) Editing pace

Photo gotten off

I think the care and attention to the edit pace amongst student and amateur films have decreased over the years. Action sequences in a film by amateurs would be conformably be fast throughout. As a result, audiences don't follow you through the motion because some things take much more time to be absorbed into our brains. While others, like the 'hidden shots'(refer to pointer #6), can be instilled into our brains instantly after the split second burst.

The common advice that I would repeat here is pay more attention and follow circumstances, don't just bulldoze through the pace of an action sequence.

4) Variety of shots

Are you using a dslr? If you are, then you can get even more variety of shots and angles from hard to reach/manouver places. The article below is a testimony of this fact:

Captain America uses 5D Mk II for it's action sequences

It is best if you record the same action from the beginning of the whole action sequence to the end. Then you'd just keep doing it again for another shot angle or camera movement e.g Cam A takes a steadicam one-take of the whole sequence, Cam B then takes a crane view of the whole sequence. Once both cameras are done doing their run, Cam C will take the insert shots needed for the scene to be more dramatic or understandable. Off course, since Cam C is a supplementary camera to the Cam A and B, the action of the whole sequence need not be repeated as a whole anymore. In this sense, you can do a multi-cam edit if your system supports it.

Oh and by the way, Cam A, B & C can all actually be the same cam.

In this regard, the reason why amateur films are not as efficient looking in action sequences compared to their hollywood counterparts is because amateur films show repetitive action. In order to avoid the greatest "sin" in cinema: Camera shake, Amatuers stay on the safe side and do it on a tripod. What you end up with is a huge amount of 'perfectly' static shots which looks very unorganic( I don't prefer it!).

I worked on a short film before with a local Singapore filmmaker for the film "Steadfast". Basically, what this guy shot instead of a tripod static shot is he held the camera close to his body and fake a subtle "swaying" motion so that the static shots are not completely static.

I think it definitely works better.

5) Frame rates

Frame rates are the most important and to me, the most basic which is overlooked here. I remembered someone saying that 24fps is how the mind's eye sees things, while 30fps is how the human eye sees(that's not the exact quote but it's around that same department). The reason why films look so dreamy while tv looks "too real" lies in the different frame rates. That is the most simplest way I can think to put it. Ahah.

There's also variable frame rates which you would want to put into certain parts of your film to suit your story and improve motion. For example, take a look at martial arts films that speed up their frame rates so that the action is faster? or some action movies which slow down it's frame rate to add emotional content to their action(hem…John Woo, i'm looking at you).

Bonnie & Clyde End scene

‪(Press #6 to view the awesome undercranked shot)

6) Hidden shots that often get overlooked

You might be surprised what you might discover when you open that DVD casing once again and insert it into your DVD player….under the influence of alcohol. When everything moves so slowly, this is the most opportune time for me to re-watch a movie with complex actions and complex editing. Most of the time, we miss shots that are so fast, they last barely a second! the amazing thing is that, the whole action sequence wouldn't make sense without it!

The other day, I was watching the Roger Ebert's commentary on the film "Dark City" by Alex Proyas under the special features. It was mentioned there that Alex Proyas had a more than three cuts for the opening scene whereby the knife rotates in mid air and lands on the floor! Or how about Inception's "rotating hallway" scene?

(Press #9 to view the 'split-second' shot)

Therefore, it is advisable that you take into account all these 'hidden shots' to make your story more efficient.

7) Don't forget your over-the-shoulders shots

Quite essentially, every amateur forgets to add this, but it adds the value of facial expression and action information in your shot. This is an advantage especially for films that require close proximity hand-to-hand combat. Need I say more?

(Go to 3:38 to view the wonderful OTS shot)
Video taken off youtube
 Fist of Legend(1994)

8) The basic formula

When shooting action, there are some general formulas in the way in which it is edited. In most circumstances, the general flow consists of four mechanisms; run-up,impact, result, reaction. These four form the backbone of your action sequences no matter whatever which way it is decided to be put. Remember, different films require a different way of approaching it's action sequences, some add and modify to the aforementioned 'building blocks', others throw away one or two of the four mechanisms. Long takes displaying an action sequence in one single take also bypass this.

So: After you establish the lead-in to your action sequence, you are ready to display the four mechanisms, run-up, impact, result, reaction. After which, you just "rinse and repeat" several times(when I say rinse, I meant, reshuffle your order of mechanisms)

Do take note that mechanisms stated here ARE NOT shot variations! Some mechanisms contain a few shots to complete the idea.

e.g. Set-up: Fugitive manages to escape from his holding cell. He leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake. A surviving security guard sounds the alarm before he faints again. Good cop gets a call-up from his headquarters, and a car just went past him driving at 100mph, upon closer inspection, it is the Fugitive which he apprehended two days ago. He's escaped! Good cop now rushes to his car and starts his engine, before long, Good cop is already chasing the Fugitive's car in front of him…the chase begins

Run-up: is the beginning of the motion that reveals the action/intention.i.e punch, gunshot, item drop etc Typically this happens very fast. If this were to be applied from the 'set-up', it'd be: Fugitive sees Good cop trailing him. Fugitive peers out his window and fires a few shots aiming at the tires of the Good cops' car.

Impact: Is when the action/intention comes to it's full realization.i.e punch landing the face, gunshots hitting a person, item lands onto the floor. Typically, this is a once only shot, unless the director wants to make the movie a highly stylized action sequence like in Ong Bak). If this were to be applied to our 'set-up', it'd be: Good cops' window glass crashes all around him. He ducks, but one of the shots graze past his shoulder. Blood gushes out.

Result: This is the aftermath of the impact. Short and simple. This shot or series of shots establish the damage taken from the resulting impact.i.e broken jaw, person falling to the floor, item breaking into pieces. Typically, 'results' and 'impact' are so intertwined together that it can be in a single shot together and you wouldn't notice anything e.g. Discovery channels' TimeWarp. There has been a large trend of undercranking 'results' in the cinemaworld. If this were to be applied to our 'set-up', it'd be: Good cop flinches in reaction to the pain. He applies pressure to his shoulder to regulate bloodflow. 

Reaction: This is the facial acknowledgement to what just happened prior. It conveys the emotion to the audiences and at the same time, lead them to be feeling a certain way(which is planned for). i.e a shocked expression. Typically inserted to add drama. If this were to be applied to our 'set-up' it'd be: Good cop shouts in pain. He looks up to the fugitive's car in front of him. Fugitive turns around and gives a smirk.

>>That sums up all of the mechanisms. Now…it is time to 'rinse and repeat'.
e.g. Good cop now returns the favor, he fires a salvo of shots straight for the fugitive. One of the shots hits the fugitive. The fugitive's car swerves and hits the lamp post. The car is overturned but the fugitive is still trapped inside, unconscious.



  1. I think you are going to be a good film maker if you translate into results.

    I am disturbed by the violence. I actually hate it now - so much of it. It takes away the value and glory of human life. To continue in this vein, even view it or study it is a serious mistake in a world that is falling apart. you need to study Forrest Gump instead. Now that is worth the time to study, not this shoot em up crap.

  2. Hey man,

    Great article, enjoyed it and the links a lot. I think violence is one of those instinctive urges deep in a person's subconscious so it definitely doesn't derive away from human life like the previous commenter said. To deprive this "dark" human side of things and deem it not "worth time to study" would be just ignorant.

    Wish you all the best in your film making ventures.


  3. Thanks to all who have left comments=] And Glenn has a point


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