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How to Direct Action in Filmmaking

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Good action sequences are among the most memorable moments in filmmaking. However, as we all can imagine, they are also one of the hardest things to get right. Below, we break down some of the keys to effectively direct action for film.

How to Direct Action in Filmmaking

1. Build up to the moment

As with all parts of a film, an action sequence can only reach its potential if the rest of the film is all equally solid. In that sense, directors need to make sure the build-up to the action is both coherent and exciting. All the elements leading up to the moment need to make sense, as well as those that result from it and follow it. At that point, characters involved should have been introduced, as well as the motives for their involvement and the weapons or equipment they use.

2. Use breaks in the action to pace the sequence

Fast-paced, non-stop action can be fun and effective in small doses, but your goal as a filmmaker is to make sure the audience is able to follow the story. A fight or action sequence benefits from smart breaks to avoid an otherwise frantic punchfest that no moviegoer would be able to follow. These breaks can also be used as style markers if they are set to music or used as cues for other elements in the scene.

3. Break the sequence into small acts

Much like the overall film itself, it is best to work on your sequences in small chunks. Action sequences are no different, and if you wrote your story or know the script well enough, you can probably even pinpoint the points where action rises, climaxes, and ends. Working with acts can help you locate or establish breaks in your sequence more easily as well.

4. Double up to intensify action

Once you got all the footage you need to build your action sequence in the editing room, one technique that is particularly helpful to keep the audience with you and properly establish the action is to double up on specific action shots. For instance, when there’s a kick or a punch and you cut to a shot that shows the impact on the person who receives it, you can leave the impact itself in both shots with just one sound cue for a more effective visual reception. 

5. Be resourceful with what you got

Running, jumping, fighting, and performing other coordinated action moves are some of the things that the magic of cinema can make happen without having actors do them literally. Making use of editing, camera angles, transitions, practical effects, and more can save you a lot of trouble and effort while directing action sequences. 

After all, why have an actor get hit with excessive force to make the impact appear more realistic? You can hire a stunt double to play the role instead so he knows how to fake the impact, or you can cut out frames of the impact shot in post to make the hit look more genuinely powerful. It’s all about being resourceful.

If you have any questions or comments, let me know in the comment section below!

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