Action Setups

Action sequences shouldn’t be about random flashes of light on the screen.

When an action sequence is done effectively, it succeeds in eliciting a response in the viewer. That, is good art or storytelling. In fact, you know when an action sequence is done wrong: you simply feel ‘blah’ about watching it.

So, why not treat an action sequence like a self-contained story? A sequence with a beginning, middle and end. A sequence with a conflict. A sequence that’s about goals. And finally, a sequence with a consequence to the characters that produces an emotional impact for the audience.

Quick, how do you increase the impact of an action scene where ONE person is in the ocean with a hungry shark?
a) drop ONE HUNDRED MORE people into the water to act as more victims; or,
b) add ONE more person to the scene to act as a witness.

Tension in an action sequence is increased by adding subjective points-of-view.

Hitchcock summarized this with the terms OBJECTIVE and SUBJECTIVE points-of-view.

Objective POV puts action shots on the screen. They may be interesting, loud and explosive; but, they lack emotional ties to the audience. You find these sequences in shock-shots during horror movies.

Subjective POV puts an establishing shot of a witness on the screen… then follows it with an action shot that shows you what the witness is seeing… then finalizes the sequence with a shot that reveals the reaction of the witness. If the witness shows shock and horror, we feel connected to the action.

Hitchcock was proud of his movie, “Rear Window” because he felt that it was one of his only movies to be shot almost entirely in Subjective POV.

A good action sequence, like a good short movie, will incorporate more than just subjective POV’s.

I. Gradual reveals build tension. Sure, Spielberg could have simply shown the War of the Worlds’ Tripod in an immediate establishing shot. Instead, he chose to show you the Tripod’s foot first; then, it’s leg; then, it’s head; then, it’s full body…

Gradual reveals act as a mystery for audience members to solve. Mysteries are enjoyed by audiences because it gives us an opportunity to participate in the scene; we guess about the subject and wait with anticipation to see if we were right.

II. Goal-oriented scenes provide satisfaction in an action sequence. Nothing is more boring than watching things explode randomly around characters. BUT, make those explosions prevent characters from achieving specific tasks and now you’ve increased interest.

Every punch that Indiana Jones recieved during the Flying-Wing action sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark made the scene more suspensful because each punch prevented Indiana from getting Marion out of the cockpit.

Suspence is increased whenever an action sequence prevents a character from acquiring a goal-item. Hitchcock used this device so often to build suspence that he invented a term for these goal-items: a McGuffin.

III. Cause-and-effect is prefered over random. Action causes a reaction: Marion’s actions halt the truck of German soldiers in Raiders… BUT, her actions cause the fuel truck to explode.

It’s odd how so many modern action sequences forget to create any ‘action-and-effect’. EVERY single action sequence from Spielberg uses cause-and-effect. In fact, his best scenes involve his heroes winning at one action… only to cause a more dire and unwanted consequence for the hero.

If we breakdown a typical Spielberg action sequence into its smallest building blocks, we will find subjective POV’s, small reveals, goal-items and other key ingredients.

Interestingly, Spielberg’s breakdown is very similar whether it’s an action sequence from War of the Worlds or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here is an excel spreadsheet (written in shorthand) that analyzes every single shot in the Tripod-Rise action sequence from War of the Worlds:

The spreadsheet is labeled with COA’s… those are Circles of Action. If you draw a circle around a character and the character’s object of interest, you end up with a Circle of Action (COA).

Place the camera inside the Circle of Action, and you have a Subjective Point-of-View; place the camera outside the Circle of Action, and you have an Objective Point-of-View.
(to be continued)