How To Pull Off Convincing Action Scenes on a Budget
Nail your action sequences with these behind-the-scenes details from prep to post.
Making any film is a constant struggle often likened to battle, with every production amassing a slew of stories about how they pushed that boulder up the never ending hill. No shoot comes without challenges, and that couldn't be more true than in the case of making action films.
When we attempt to construct an action scene, our goal should always involve understanding how it serves the story. Before diving into the action, regardless of budget, the priority needs to be finding something that is narratively compelling. What are the character's goals? What are the stakes?
Action is irrelevant if the audience is not invested. For me, that component always begins with the script. I know that I can't compete with a $60M film, so I always strive to find ways to achieve the same effect with other hooks. Character and story are good places to start.
Study action in other films. Strip away the technical elements that make your eyes pop and really break down the fundamentals.
Now it's okay to be ambitious, but the core elements still need to be there from the get go. I initially learned many of these lessons while directing my first film Tapped Out. However, it wasn't until my second film, Gridlocked, that I started to carry a lot of that knowledge forward. Starring Dominic Purcell and Danny Glover, the movie involved heavy amounts of action that were daunting on our budget. If you're making action on a budget, here are some of the major factors you should consider every step of the way, from pre-to-post-production.
I cannot stress the importance of prep. It doesn't matter if you have $10M or $10,000. As the director, you need to make sure you are intimately familiar with the material while also finding the time to organize and prepare your vision. Study action in other films. Learn to understand what makes them effective. Strip away the technical elements that make your eyes pop and really break down the fundamentals. Here are some ways to utilize prep time:
Have a clear vision, and communicate it clearly.
Make sure that you have a clear and concise vision for your sequence. Not only in your head, but on paper. Storyboards and shotlists are crucial. If you have a clear vision, you will have an easier time making adjustments on the fly. For example, if you know you can't get a certain shot set up due to an effect taking more time than planned, you can pull off another piece of the sequence in the meantime. Know every shot inside and out, and know every beat. The more familiar you are, the better you can handle creative improvisation.
Plan how you will communicate the sequence through clear instructions not only to your actors, but your crew. Sometimes you have this perfect vision in your head, but it's not what everyone else sees. You and your DP must be on the same page. Utilize your opportunities as far in advance as possible to have discussions and do walkthroughs. This step will save you a ton of time on set.
Decide how and when to compromise.
Accept and come to terms with the fact that your vision may likely get scaled back, especially on an independent film. Learn how to compromise and make every moment count. If you go in with unrealistic expectations, then you're only going to be frustrated with yourself and the end result. It's also going to prevent you from moving past what you're married to.
Always try to prioritize your "popcorn moments" ahead of time. Once the story beats of your action scene have been solidified, ask yourself if there are any opportunities to up the ante. This may already be story related or it might be gag related. Make sure to pepper these throughout the film. If you know that you're going to be limited by budget, find exciting and engaging ways to switch things up. Whether it's a shootout or a fight scene, find those special moments that count.
On Gridlocked, we had the ETF (Emergency Task Force) on set as it's always required to have police supervision when firing blank ammunition. As we were getting to the end of our day, we had a few more setups left with blanks but we also had a grenade gag that I knew was a popcorn moment. The AD notified me that they had already gone into overtime and I could only get one piece done with ETF. As much as I wanted ALL of the gunfire in the film to be authentic and practical, I knew that the grenade gag had to be prioritized because it was that sequence's popcorn moment. It took me no time to make that decision thanks to prep.
Get close to your stunt coordinator.
Having a strong relationship with your stunt coordinator can also make all the difference. They are there in the trenches with you, fighting to pull off these scenes. They want perfection just as much as you do, so utilize that. Get creative with the time allotted to you. Spend time with them in prep and in your off hours. Having this person as your ally can be invaluable.
On my films, I usually stay most days after wrap to walk through different action beats with the coordinator. We keep a few volunteers behind (usually the AD) and literally act out and block the sequences. We would then film our own little pre-viz so that we could show the actors and crew the next day.
I fought for actors that either had athletic backgrounds or experience doing actions films.
When you're not making a studio film, it's tough to find actors who are willing to spend extra time training and rehearsing for their action scenes. It's not like you're paying them millions. Finding a team player isn't always guaranteed, but if you manage to land one then you are well on your way. If they have the physicality, that's one thing, even if they aren't willing to put in much time. But their time alone is a major asset.
Find actors with action or athletic skills.
In both films I directed, I knew that there was a great deal of action performance required from my leads. That's why I fought for actors that either had athletic backgrounds or experience doing actions films. Some would argue that having a stunt double step in and take care of the bulk of work is the easiest solution for time. That's incorrect. Doubles still cost money, and you have to pay them every time they rehearse. As an independent director, sometimes you need to learn how to think like a producer. If you have an actor who's a team player and they've already been paid their acting fee, why not utilize them?
Dominic Purcell is an avid boxer and I knew that he'd be more likely than others to retain elements of tactical training, especially in hand to hand sequences. Prior to the shoot, we spent a lot of time having creative discussions about the script and building the right trust and dynamic between us. As a result, he was more invested in the process and was willing to come in and work with the stunt coordinator whenever he had free time. The same thing happened with actor Cody Hackman, a 5x world champion, and Trish Stratus. As a WWE Hall of Famer, she had the perfect background to bring what was needed to the screen. This saved us extra rehearsal days because she had the right skill set and picked things up faster than your average actress.
Use off-camera time wisely.
If you don't have time designated for rehearsals then get creative. On days where all of my actors had to be present for multiple scenes, I'd send them off with the stunt coordinator or gun wrangler whenever they weren't needed for a shot. I'd have them constantly practicing with weapons and running drills. Purcell would often step away in between lighting setups and work on choreography. Sometimes he'd be doing it with thin air, other times he'd grab anyone that was willing.
Let's also remember that today’s audiences are pretty savvy and they are getting better at spotting doubles. Shaking the camera at a frenetic pace and emulating higher intensity with a double is not the way to impress people anymore. Audiences get excited when they see the actor doing it for real.
One thing that I found extremely helpful was being able to cut rough pieces together during the shoot so that I could see what was truly missing or needed.
3. Shooting for the edit
It always comes back to time and money. Luxuries are not afforded to you, so don't get greedy with your shots. You'll already be at an advantage if you have an idea as to how the scene will look once it's finished, so don't start rolling on excess material. Shoot only what you need. I think that regardless of genre, it always helps if a director has some editing capabilities. Even if you are not the one cutting the film, it helps immensely if you have some sense of how a scene will play in the edit.
Review footage throughout production.
Whether you have editing skills or not, one thing I will recommend is having your DP or DMT set up a Dropbox (or other cloud-based storage) so you can review footage throughout production. Sometimes, like any scene, action sequences have to be split up over your schedule. This can be very stressful and chaotic even if it's planned and storyboarded to a tee. One thing that I found extremely helpful was being able to cut rough pieces together during the shoot so that I could see what was truly missing or needed. Whether it was on a weekend or on an evening after wrap, I was constantly making sure that I assessed every bit of footage. If you can't do this, then have your editor get a head start. It might be the saving grace when your fight scene is missing a crucial shot to set up geography, or that great gag isn't packing a punch.
Make each take count.
Since you will be limited with special effects, you may only get one take to pull certain things off. Make it count. Do a couple of extra dry runs if necessary. If you can't get a second camera, then make sure you shoot with the appropriate lens and know for certain that you're going to use that specific moment. Nothing is more painful than having a great gag that you didn't properly catch.
4. Utilizing your SFX wisely
Chances are the vision in your head and the reality of your situation will eventually intersect and butt heads. If you have an action scene that involves gunfire or sparks, dust, blood, fire, etc then you are going to have to get very familiar with the word "sparingly." Here are some ways to make the most of your SFX:
Work with your SFX Supervisor as early as possible.
During prep, sit down with your SFX Coordinator and review every action sequence in the film. Make sure they have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve. They've most likely already had a discussion with your producer and have a pretty good idea of how much money there is to spend. What you need to do is figure out how to make the best use of the effects you can actually afford.
If you have a good rapport with your SFX Coordinator, ask if they'd be willing to do some tests during prep so that you can see how a specific effect will look (for no cost of course). I can tell you that nothing is worse than having an image or moment in your mind that turns out to be completely different than expected.
Use Zerk hits for shootout scenes.
Many studio films that have large scale shootouts usually rig surfaces, cars, and walls with mini explosives that simulate bullet holes. Plaster chunks fly out akin to a John Woo film and debris scatters throughout the air. Awesome, right? Any director that imagines an action scene will surely want to have that. Why? Because it's cool and it looks legit. The problem is you probably can't do that. At best, you might get one or two. Getting hit with that reality is pretty frustrating, especially if you hate CGI.
Luckily, there's a cheaper method called Zerk hits. Essentially, they're paintballs fired from a special gun that either emits dust or sparks. They won't dent any surfaces, but they'll get the job done quite effectively. I like to use a lot of Zerk hits in conjunction with muzzle flashes because they still successfully emulate mayhem and debris. Shooting on a wider lens works well with spark hits, but don't linger too long in the edit. As for dust, I find that shooting tight is the better method especially because you don't want people to spot the lack of actual bullet holes. The plumes of smoke also sell more effectively when they take up the majority of your frame. Keep in mind, though, that the actual surface needs to make sense for the corresponding hit. Don't shoot a spark hit at a wooden table or a dust hit on dry wall; it’ll just look silly.
We used what I call the '24' effect, and it delivers in spades if you can't afford a squib at all.
Muzzle flashes and hard falls are your friends.
Blood and body hits also tend to be cherished, especially when you have a shootout. On Gridlocked I wanted every character that got shot to have a blood squib effect when they went down. Why wouldn't I? I really wanted it to sell. Problem is, I could only afford a small handful of actual squibs. So, just like the popcorn moments, we decided to rig up only the pivotal deaths. This usually involves your villain or any supporting lead that gets shot. As for the rest? We used what I call the "24" effect, and it delivers in spades if you can't afford a squib at all. Remember that obscure little show starring Kiefer Sutherland that once aired on Fox? For the majority of action scenes you couldn't find a single henchman that went down with an effect other than a muzzle flash and hard fall. Usually, you'd see a shot of Kiefer firing blanks, then the edit would cut to a quick in-camera zoom of a stuntman wiping out.
Another very effective method is to fire Zerk hits at the surface closest to the stuntman. This way, the audience sees some form of debris—whether it be spark or dust—in addition to the bad guy going down. It's a great alternative to blood and you don't need to do any CGI.
Think about a second camera.
I'd also like to recommend exploring a second camera for your “popcorn moments” if you are able to. It will prove far more valuable especially if you only get one take to pull a gag off.
5. Maximizing your investment
We don't make these movies to get rich. Sure, that's the end goal, but when doing these projects you must make sure every effect and every penny gets spent on screen. I always try to picture my poster and trailer ahead of time knowing full well that the action components are a big sell. Therefore, I make sure that they're as good as I can possibly make them. Stretch your budget and be as creative as possible to ensure that you get the most bang for your buck.
It all comes down to maximizing production value, even if you have to make compromises in other areas to ensure that the action doesn't suffer. Ask yourself if your action scenes will be an integral part of selling your movie. If yes, then it's okay to compromise other departments so long as—and this is super important—the narrative and quality of the film do no not suffer. Perhaps you might have to remove an establishing crane shot you badly want or limit the coverage on that simple walk and talk scene. Sit with the line producer and department heads to discuss your options.
Make sure you also find ways to shoot your scene in an intelligible way. Shaky cam and over-cutting have become a staple of modern action films and one that most audiences are growing tired of. Make sure that the scenes are spatially coherent and that the geography is comprehensible. Keep things fun and kinetic. Look no further than any Michael Mann film.
Now, ask me anything
As an aspiring filmmaker, advice is always an invaluable asset. It's one of your currencies. When I was a student trying to break into movies, it was really hard to find action tips from indie directors out there. So if you've made it through this blog unscathed, feel free to ask me any questions below. There's still a lot that I didn't include and hopefully I can add a few more tidbits through our discussions.