Dip at the SP Forum posted this clip of Donnie Yen touring in the UK in 1990 promoting Tiger Cage and In the Line of Duty 4. Lots of him talking about how to get hired in the booming HK action film market of the 90s as well as showcasing his skills for the screen. Awesome video. A young Darren Shahlavi can be seen in there too, who was the villain in Ip Man 2. Bey Logan holds the pads for most of it.

Watch Lea Seydoux’s back fist magically turn into a hook punch at 0:31.

Maybe they chose to promote this fight because it’s two good looking women trading fists. Guys like that, but we also like stuff we can see, and we want time to focus on what the hell they’re doing. That’s why we liked the Total Recall cat fight. It’s slower, but damn, that’s hot.

Edit: I have to give mention to Joyce Godenzi and Aurelio for the ultimate Hong Kong-style cat fight. Godenzi fights like a freaking man. It’s awesome.

Alex Ng interviews Rise And Fail‘s co-producer and supporting actor Ed Kahana as he talks about Rise And Fail’s action style, specifically during the group fight at the end of the film.

Taking the best of the “Hong Kong way” and the “Korean way” of how action is shot and choreographed is something I’ve been stuck on for a while. Take a Hong Kong Shaw Brothers film like My Young Auntie. The choreography is complex, focusing more on martial art “ideas” than real moves. And it’s made shot-for-shot, since each angle has its own purpose. Fight scenes like this would fail miserably if shot for “coverage”. There’s so much subtlety, almost entirely so, that shooting for coverage would be a waste of time and basically break everything.

Then there’s the Korean film City of Violence, where the emphasis is on big moves, not subtlety. If I had a behind-the-scenes clip I’d put it here instead, but the DVD reveals that they shot this scene with long takes and cut them together. Like Ed says, it’s like a “play”. With a crowd of 50-something extras there aren’t many other options (just working with 15 in Rise And Fail was hard enough!), but the result is a frenetic pace that give off an effect of the heroes being overwhelmed. You’re not supposed to care what moves they do, they’re just in danger.

How best to utilize the two styles? How do you let the audience in on your martial art secrets like My Young Auntie while creating the high stakes drama of City of Violence?  Or is one style simply better than the other? I’ve always favored the Hong Kong style of shooting because it gets the audience’s head into the choreography rather than just their hearts, but with the more realistic ‘big’ moves from a Korean film you can still create a dangerous environment which can excite the viewer. Blending the two is what we’ve tried to do.

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Check out this Cinemetrics site, which has a database for Average Shot Lengths (ASLs). Here are the Die Hard films:

Film title: Date: ASL: MSL:
Die Hard 1988 4.8 3.3
Die Hard 2 1990 3.1 2.1
Die Hard: With a Vengeance 1995 1.8 1.7

No big surprise. Here’s a comprehensive chart of US feature films:

As film technology advanced, editing got quicker. But shot lengths during actual production didn’t seem to change much, especially while shooting fight sequences. Watching behind the scenes clips of action scenes, I’m surprised at the number of times they shoot an entire fight sequence from multiple angles, often upwards of 30 seconds in length, then cut it up into 1-2 second shots. Usually it’s shot just to cover everything. Dialog scenes are shot with more meticulous blocking and lighting, and each shot has its purpose. Close-ups are meant to be close-ups. But when it comes to fights, the cameraman won’t mix choreography with a close-up, but instead they’ll repeat choreography in a close-up. It’s like repeating dialog lines but muffling them because there wasn’t enough material to work with.

If the choreography isn’t important enough to tailor it for the close-up, then why do a close-up? It becomes filler, like background characters batting around, “I’m good, how are you? What is it you do? Oh that’s interesting” while more important things happen elsewhere. So the fight’s just a gag, an effect. The editor has to then look for the shot segments in fight scenes that “work”, and those last for 1-2 seconds. In dialog, since the production team has already given him ten takes that “work”, he can focus on finding the amazing ones and letting them play out.

Fights can be shot in any way, whether it’s using coverage or not, or a mix of the two, but if the shots aren’t specific to parts of the choreography then there will be a natural dip in the shot quality. Audiences won’t be able to put their fingers on it, but every time a cheap fight comes into their brains, they’ll switch from narrative mode into MTV mode, where they don’t process shots for their narrative value since no narrative value can be found. The moves turn into psychological effects meant to stimulate, like taking a caffeine pill over enjoying a good coffee. Shooting an action take with the intended angle gives it purpose, and people can read that, even if it’s 1 second long.