Action Filmmaking 101

Most short action movies are actually pretty dull. Here are some tips for creating a film that will keep your audience engaged.
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Creating a compelling short film is easy, with a little planning and a willingness to stop what you’re doing and position the camera and the action properly. Most motion clips of weekend activities are boring because they’re shot from one vantage point with one focal length so the viewer never gets a feel for visual variety. In this article, we’ll show you how to mix things up to build a film that will entice your audience instead of putting them to sleep. The art of an action film lies in making it look easy to do. In reality, it’s not difficult, but it does take some planning. Have athletes, hikers or skiers, or as in our example, mountain bikers, who are up for doing some stops and starts during the course of your day of shooting.

1 Establishing Shots. These are shots of the big open environment where your action is taking place. An establishing shot sets the stage. For too many would-be filmmakers, the establishing shot becomes the sole perspective. Don’t let that happen to you. When you’re shooting your establishing shot, try some slow pans or tilts to give you something to work with during your edit later. Depending on your establishing shot, it can look like a still frame, and in that case, having a pan across the scene is especially nice.

2 Moving Through The Landscape. Get yourself to a vantage point where you can shoot your main subject moving through the landscape. This serves as a way to transition from your establishing shot to tighter details. You’ve set the stage, now it’s time to bring your players onto it.

3 Dramatic Up-Close Action. Here’s where your audience will really begin to sit up and take notice. Position yourself where you can get dramatic up-close shots, preferably with a wide-angle lens. Many would-be filmmakers rely on longer focal lengths so they can shoot from a distance. Unfortunately, these kinds of shots always look like just that—a little standoffish. When you get in close with a wide-angle, it really shows. Of course, you also need to protect yourself and your camera when doing this kind of shot. Here’s where you can’t just be shooting off the cuff. Stop and discuss the shot with the subjects (bike riders, in our example). Do a couple of dry runs so that everyone is on the same page as to where they will be when you’re actually shooting.

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4 Coming & Going. Tight, wide-angle action shots work particularly well when you can get shots coming and going. Don’t try to do both at the same time! Shoot a few takes with the action coming, then have your athletes do the same thing while you position yourself to get the “going” shot. You’ll edit them together when you’re back at the computer. Having both angles, coming and going, makes for a dramatic effect. It will take you several takes of the same action to get both, but it’s well worth it.

5 Mix In Some POV. Point-of-view shots have become dead-easy thanks to the proliferation of first-person action cameras like the GoPro HEROs and the Sony Action Cam. These small, fixed-focal-length cameras are capable of recording very high-quality images and they’re incredibly robust. There’s no shortage of mounting options, which makes it possible to use them everywhere, from a helmet to your wrist to handlebars or a bike frame. When you’re using a POV cam, set it up such that you have some of what it’s mounted to in the frame. If you’re placing it on a helmet, have some of the helmet in the frame; if it’s on handlebars, have them in the frame. Because any action will be bouncy, having something in the frame that moves in lockstep with the camera helps keep your viewers from getting motion sick. Also, don’t get too crazy with the POV footage. Save it for spectacular action or impressive displays of speed. If you watch auto racing on TV, think of how the coverage constantly cuts back and forth from the POV in-car footage to action shots from around the track.

6 Show The Passage Of Time. Using some time-lapse to show the passage of time is a great transitional element to put into any motion project. Get some action shots with the sun low on the horizon to insert after your time-lapse footage, and you’ll get a great sense of moving through the day.

7 Closing Shots. One thing a lot of people have trouble with is ending their film. It’s okay to leave it all hanging at the end, but with a little planning, you can easily get a shot that gives a sense of ending. In our example of a mountain biker, showing the athlete off the bike silhouetted against the setting sun is perfect. For any action film, showing your athletes out of their gear—skis, surfboard, bike, etc.—will add a sense of finality. And, of course, a sunset always makes it feel like you’ve come to the end of the day.