July 28, 2016

The Evolution of Fight Scenes is Revealed in this 'Bourne' Supercut

It's not every day that you get to see a filmmaking convention change before your very eyes.

Over the years, action films have evolved in many different ways, but perhaps the most noticeable change can be seen in how action sequences and fight scenes are shot and edited. To highlight this, video essayist Kevin B. Lee juxtaposes three different fight scenes from the 'Bourne' films, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum, in order to compare how drastically different action and violence is represented on screen in the span of just 5 years.

There's no doubt that action sequences have changed over the years. In the past, filmmakers wanted to ensure that their audiences could follow what was going on in the scene by carefully choreographing fights and camera movement, shooting on wider lenses to capture more of the action, and using longer edits so viewers could follow. You can see this clearly in the first fight scene from The Bourne Identity.

Filmmakers today try to overload the audience's senses with a ton of rapid-fire action, resulting in an intense adrenaline rush that fans love and want more of. 

However, things are different now—so, so different. Filmmakers today actually try to do the opposite: they try to overload the audience's senses with a ton of rapid-fire action, resulting in an intense adrenaline rush that fans love and want more of. This brand of filmmaking is what video essayist and scholar Mattias Stork calls chaos cinema, which relies on rapid editing (or what film theorist David Bordwell calls "intensified continuity"), tight shots, and disorienting camera movement. 

There are advantages and disadvantages with both styles: one is clear and easy to follow, while the other is disorienting. One might be a little boring to today's standards, while the other is super exciting but potentially more confusing. Regardless of your tastes, though, it's incredible to see how something can change so much in so little time. It makes you wonder what fight scenes will look like in 2021!     

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4 Comments

I had to watch the video twice because the first time I was just paying attention to the fights, they are just so magnetic, and didn't even see the letters from the author of the video.

July 28, 2016 at 6:53PM

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I think the third is much easier to follow than the second. The third is using the annoying shaky cam technique, but if you imagine the scene minus that you'd see a well paced and shot action scene.

The second film is an excellent example of chaos cinema, i.e., of rubbish.

July 29, 2016 at 10:49AM

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Personally I think they should speed it up even more, say, at 3x the speed. This way you can just listen to the madness and not even bother with the visuals. Fun.

July 29, 2016 at 3:59PM

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Is it Chaos Cinema or simply a case of filmmakers not knowing what they are doing?

From my personal experience it is usually the latter. Let me explain: In Hollywood, Actors sell tickets... in Asia, Action sells tickets.

How many times does it happen in a Hollywood movie that action sequences are rehearsed for weeks on end and when the action is to be filmed on set they completely change the action at the last minute. Also Action Directors are hardly ever present during rehearsals and only see the action for the first time on the day of principal photography.

There is however, a new breed of stunt performers and coordinators coming to the surface who make amazing Previs that sometimes look better than the actual movie. Unfortunately, those Previs get pushed aside sometimes by the second unit (action) director as their ego gets the better of them and they don’t want to be seen as the person who didn’t came up with all the cool shots done in the Previs. They also need to justify their $20,000/week wages to the producers even though they are well behind the times. Consequently, when it comes to shooting the action no thought or planning has gone into the filming. In such cases shaking the camera, or what we refer to as The Monkey Cam, is the better option as time is money. It also makes the lives of the camera operators so much easier as they don’t have to worry about their timing in getting the action right which is a skill on it’s own. Labeling their work as Chaos Cinema also justifies their exuberant wages for being mediocre at their job. From a producers point of view they absolutely love shooting action with The Monkey Cam as it is a much faster way of shooting and let's be honest... in the long run money is what dictates the outcome of many Hollywood action sequences. Why do it in three days if you can do it in one day or less.

Asia has a completely different approach and philosophy when it comes to shooting action films. First of all, a huge amount of time gets put into rehearsals and those rehearsals usually entail rehearsing the action with an action director and his team of camera operators who then shoot the same action as per rehearsals for principal photography.
Due to the fact that a lot of time was spent in rehearsals with the camera no time is wasted figuring out where to put the camera or wondering what the choreography should look like.

It wasn't always like this though. Action and dialogue would be made up on the spot. Nevertheless, they would still have the knack of coming up with some really cool action sequences. The reason being is that they have done it so many times in training and on set that coming up with a cool action sequence becomes second nature. Also in Asia they are not bound to strict rules and regulations that limit any progress in making films in general. It is more of a collaborative effort and that’s why Jackie Chan could be directing one shot and operating the camera in the next shot. Good luck trying that on a Hollywood set.

I almost feel like the Art of Action is dying here in the West. It is definitely not taught in many film schools and students have absolutely no idea what to do when it comes to shooting action. All you have to do is look at their scripts when it comes to an action part. It will usually say… ‘fight scene’ or ‘action sequence’ with no more detail. They will get a stunt coordinator to work on their project and expect them to come up with something amazing like on a Jackie Chan film with no prep whatsoever. With the lack of planning or the will to learn young filmmakers will simply revert to The Monkey Cam because that is what Hollywood does. What hope is there for action if they are the future frontline filmmakers? There are however a few Western (Action) Directors such as Brad Allan and Isaac Florentine who still keeping the dream alive for avid action fans like myself. There are also some Hollywood Directors such as Simon West who cleverly employ Asian Action Directors in their films such as Corey Yuen who know how to make cool action for their films. Let us not forget Sammo Hung, Andy Cheng, Tony Ching Siu Tung, JC, Donnie Yen to name but a few. There are many more I could mention but let's just keep it at that.

I will leave you with one final thought from the amazingly talented Vincent Paterson... "In the long run it's all about politics and you have to realise what your place is and learn how to weasel your way in to get your voice heard and your art seen." This is a skill I am still trying to master.

August 24, 2016 at 6:48AM, Edited August 24, 6:48AM

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Philippe Deseck
Filmmaker/Assistant Stunt Coordinator
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