December 2, 2014

Jackie Chan's 9 Principles of Action Comedy

Who doesn't love a good action comedy? Men in BlackCharlie's Angels. Bad Boys. Rush Hour. TMNT of 1990. Come on -- they're classics. They pair perfectly with pizza and a dragging Sunday afternoon. 

However, there's a lot more to these high-octane chucklefests than explosions and perfectly timed one-liners. Beneath the thin layer of what seems like a whole lot of simplistic entertainment lies carefully crafted choreography, dynamic editing, and engrossing character development.

In fact, if you want a lesson on how to construct your own action comedy, who better to learn from than Jackie Chan, a master in the best action comedy subgenre -- martial arts. Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting breaks down several aspects of filmmaking that Chan has spoken about over the years, compiling them into a bit of a checklist for filmmakers to follow if they should ever get the urge to send 20 henchmen flying over an unfinished bridge in a van full of exploding illegal fireworks -- in a funny way.

Zhou broke down the principles thusly on Twitter:

  1. Start with a disadvantage
  2. Use the environment
  3. Be clear in your shots
  4. Action and Reaction in the same frame
  5. Do as many takes as necessary
  6. Let the audience feel the rhythm
  7. In editing, two good hits = one great hit
  8. Pain is humanizing
  9. Earn your finish

There's a lot of good advice in there -- stuff you can use in pretty much any film project you try to tackle regardless of genre (though a few are genre-specific). One point I couldn't agree more with is the idea of lingering on shots a little longer. I mean, I love the seizure-inducing editing of chaos cinema as much as the next adrenaline junkie, but there's something beautiful and nostalgic and honest and good about hitting the breaks a little bit, slowing things down, and letting action unfold rather than explode.

Seriously, are you less awestruck watching Bruce Lee spar with a gang of villains just because there's less editing -- and zero death metal track? No, dare I say you're more awestruck, because of his incredible physical prowess. Does your heart flutter every time Jackie Chan pulls off some incredibly intricate and creative stunt? Does it really matter that it happened in 20 edits instead of 7 trillion? 

I think I've made my point -- don't do away with chaos editing, but make sure the choice to use it is intentional, so it's not getting in the way of your story.

Also, I do have to disagree with Tony Zhou (and probably a huge number of you) on one thing and say that this is the best death scene ever.

Your Comment

10 Comments

I feel like these principles don't make a good action comedy, it makes a good Jackie Chan movie XD I do admire his perfectionist mentality which is something filmmakers should always have in themselves. For Jackie, you haven't taken enough takes unless you've broken a few bones in your body.... quite literally.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZGdOA-dn08

December 2, 2014 at 9:43PM, Edited December 2, 9:43PM

0
Reply

December 2, 2014 at 9:44PM

0
Reply

Jackie Chan is truly one of a kind, I don't think anyone can come close with how much of a dedication he puts in some of his work, life threatening dedication at times.

December 3, 2014 at 4:38AM

0
Reply
Gvickie Xiong
Editor/Cinematographer/Director
775

That was a total nostalgia bomb for me - there is nothing like a Jackie Chan fight scene. While a Jackie Chan movie is rarely inspired in all of it's elements (the writing often relies on overly familiar beats and the acting is inconsistent) the sheer ingenuity and exhilaration of those action sequences, wether fights or stunts, is second to none. He is simply the best there has ever been (for my money, better than his own Idol Buster Keaton).

I think Renée's takeaway from this, to simply slow down the editing, is a little too general a conclusion, sidestepping the point a bit, which is: make the audience belief the action is real by not creating it with editing (wide angle, no cuts) and by orienting the viewer within the space (same, as well as using the location).

And that's not specific to martial arts fights - take, for instance, those intense cat-and-mouse chase sequences/shoot-outs from No Country For Old Men. The Coen brothers make us feel completely the layout of the space, the plan of attack, where the people are in relation to one another, etc. with very measured camera work and modest editing. Same principle.

One thing I found fascinating in the video was Jackie's editing tip of repeating a blow to accent it, instead of the by now common practice of dropping a few frames out to speed up the moment of impact (a tip I've seen in many online tutorials, Film Riot for instance). I guess the difference is that when you have full contact fighting (like Jackie does), you don't have to "fake" your way past a slow feint.

And the american scenes singled out in the video were really illustrative of how inert Hollywood fight scenes can sometimes get. This is NOT just good advice on how to make a Jackie Chan movie, it's good advice on how to make stellar action.

December 3, 2014 at 7:08AM

0
Reply

I think you have misunderstood the filmriot-tip there. If it's the same tip I'm thinking of then the method is more of a hidden jump-cut rather than a cut to another angle. As in, when swinging a punch you cut out a couple of frames just before the hit. But still holding the same shot. And its a trick that even Jackie himself has freely admitted to using to make punches and kicks seem more powerful together with slight undercranked cameras.

But yes, I do agree about repeating the action slightly just to give us a chance to reorient our eyes. And Jackie has also been extremely non-shy about this. Sometimes showing the same stunt from several angles after each other. But we don't mind the extra instant replay. It's totally worth it. :D

December 8, 2014 at 11:42AM

0
Reply

A really good companion piece to this video is David Bordwell's shot by shot analysis of the fight in Police Story. What you find is that what makes the style work is not so much a lack of editing (there are some extremely short cutaway shots in that fight), as it is a lack of camera movement, clear framing, and continuity of motion from shot to shot.

December 3, 2014 at 4:34PM

0
Reply
avatar
Peter Lipay
Director/Producer/Writer
182

December 3, 2014 at 4:34PM

0
Reply
avatar
Peter Lipay
Director/Producer/Writer
182

December 3, 2014 at 4:35PM, Edited December 3, 4:35PM

0
Reply
avatar
Peter Lipay
Director/Producer/Writer
182

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
........
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

I meant, Chakie is gold.

December 3, 2014 at 9:37PM, Edited December 3, 9:37PM

4
Reply
avatar
Edgar More
All
1149

Or, as I've said for some time now: "Americans cut to hide things, Asians cut to show things"

And one other reason why almost noone in Hollywood shoots action like Jackie is his complete disregard for his own personal safety. Noone in their right mind would insure a Jackie-Chan film. Getting his film-schooling in an era long before effective digital wire and rig-removal and most of the time doing spectacular death-defying stunts on (in American standards) indie-budgets. Resulting in often very real and dangerous feats for the cameras to pick up.

You need a shot of Jackie flipping over a spinning saw-blade? Then Jackie flips over a spinning saw-blade.

You need a shot where Jackie skates under a rushing truck? Then Jackie skates under a rushing truck.

You need a shot where Jackie falls through 3-5 stories of curtains onto the ground? Then he does it... TWICE! Because he'a perfectionist and wasn't happy with the first one where he almost crushed his back.

You need to show Jackie eat blazing hot peppers, spit them out on his knuckles and punch his opponents with secondary pain inducers then.... ok, he could have probably easily faked that one... but he's a method actor. And he budgets his movies with expected visits to medical infirmaries.

This is a guy who shot a good portion of Rumble in the Bronx with a broken foot.

Which brings me to my favorite quote as he's recounting his meating with his idol, Stephen Spielberg. Having heard how they made the dinosaurs jump after the actors using computers. Spielberg then asked him how he made the shot in Rumble in the Bronx where he jumpet across an alley from one ceiling to a balcony on the other side. And Jackie just beamed happily:

"I said, No no no, Stephen, much more easy! 'ACTION! ROLLING! JUMP! CUT! HOSPITAL!' "

December 8, 2014 at 12:15PM

2
Reply