April 23, 2014

What Makes an Enjoyable Stunt Scene?

Or perhaps I should call this article, “What makes a stunt scene work?” either way we are left with the question of what? What makes a good stunt fight? What makes us, and an audience, enjoy them? Well how would you define good? A quick paced pumping between two people, a long slow drawn out battle, big verses small, man verses woman, adult against child? The truth is I’ve seen it all work and fail. I think a good stunt can be done with any of the above techniques. But this still leaves the question, what makes it a good stunt fight?

Perhaps it’s to do with the camera techniques? I notice that when you watch an intense fight scene, the camera seems to jump around to different angles of the fight (check it out next time you watch a big fist brawl between two main characters like the scene between Rock and Vin in Fast 5). Yet then you have some of the absolute classics, like the Rocky fights, where the camera can stay still for quite some time as Rocky’s head flies back and forth. Could the camera work be what makes a fight, or is it just another element?

Sometimes you finish watching a stunt fight on the edge of your seat, begging the bad guy to get up, because you want to watch him spar with the hero for longer. Sometimes you smile, as the hero King hits that ass-hole who was talking himself up for half the movie. Other times you may roll your eyes thinking this like “There is no way he could have kicked him that hard” or “Really, so the other guy just stood there, didn’t think to block or anything?” And there’s always the case of, “So really, all those bullets just, missed?” A classic James Bond or Star Wars film comes to mind…

So where is the defining factor of a good fight? I believe it does not start with the fight itself, but rather the context that shaped it. Think about it, if the movie is building the main character up as someone who is huge, powerful, and fearless then you wouldn’t expect their big fight be spent hiding from the villain and/or planning a sneak attack, you expect them to launch into a battle of Strong fists and throwing heavy random obstacles at each other in a display of toughness.

To give a few examples of what I mean, let’s take two fist fights from different movies. If I take the finale of Warrior (2011) we can see the two brothers battling it out in an all-out fist (and legs) fight in a display of technique. We watch them both take huge hits, block others, stammer, and dodge. If we were to take BA Baracus from The A-Team (2010) and put him in as one of the fighters in Warrior, it wouldn’t make sense because BA is a big-ass solider who kicks people into the next room through a wall without a thought of the other guy hitting back; not someone actively blocking and dodging. Similarly if we were to switch BA with one of the brothers in his opening fight scene it wouldn’t make sense because they are not shown to make people fly across the room, but men who look for their place to hit and drop their opponent with a planned precise move.

Other examples can be seen by looking at similar fights in different movies. Take Aragorn from almost any fight from Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and compare his sword fight to that of Logan’s in The Wolverine (2013) just after gaining his healing power back. Whilst Aragorn actively ducks and avoids blades, moving both back and forward in a smooth and fluid show of technique, Logan only pushed forward not bothering about himself and making huge powerful swings, not caring for technique or smoothness. If we were to swap these techniques, and have Logan fearfully and skilfully dancing swords with his opponents, and Aragorn charging in fearlessly swinging without technique the scene’s wouldn’t work and they would not be considered great fights in their respective movies as it doesn’t suit the characters we’ve been shown.

And finally we have the shoot-outs. If we were to analyse a shoot-out from Casino Royale (2006) we would see Bond calmly waiting in cover and precisely shooting just a few bullets, taking his attackers down one by one in a well ordered manner. Now compare the scene to Chuck Norris casually strolling through the airport office in The Expendables 2 (2012) firing more bullets from his hip slung machine gun than an Apache helicopter could hold in a single clip. Both these scenes are seen as great additions to their respective films yet if you swapped them over, the audience would be rolling their eyes, throwing their popcorn at the screen, or walking out of the cinema (well, no one walks away from Chuck Norris…)

So the context which leads up to a stunt scene is what allows the audience to truly enjoy that stunt fight. The context which tells us that our hero has the strength to pick that guy up and throw him out of a plane, or that our hero is fast enough to punch the enemy three times in the head before they can hit back. But what about the fight itself, what goes into making that great? You’ll have to wait for me to write that article to find out!

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