Some days, you feel like the stuff you’ve produced is utter crap. Maybe it’s a comment someone made, or a bad review, or something unrelated like the weather. So if you’re like me and your genre is action, you owe it to yourself to watch an action classic during these times. You’ll find they made all kinds of mistakes, probably some of the same ones you’re beating yourself up about. But ultimately the drive to finish and release a unique film product turned out to be all these filmmakers needed, and usually they went on to do better things afterward.

Case in point: finish your script, film, or edit, and be timely about it, whether it’s to meet deadlines for film markets, festivals, contract requirements, or release dates. I’ve worked on too many projects over these 11 years, including two feature films, that were never released because the filmmaker wouldn’t settle for less than the original vision.

In low budget filmmaking, less-than-perfection can still mean a release, albeit with some bad reviews. Perfection usually means no release, followed by a change in career.

Expendables 2 trailer shows some faces that I’m happy to see return to the screen.

But let me explain my inclination not to bother spending eleven bucks + parking + gas + meal to go see this. Expendables 1 was hyped up as our generation’s Commando, or supposedly a return to the 80s action film. So I went and saw it, and I’m not sure which broken translation software was used to come up with that comparison but basically the movie sucked from beginning to finish. The finale was bad enough, with laughable undercranking (in-camera speed-ups) and frame-cutting. When you have an all-star cast of 10 people and shove them all in a narrow hallway for 4 minutes and try to wrap things up, you end up with this:

Film a bunch of fights, shoot tons of coverage, and let the editor go to town…? This method is a far cry from “80s” or “Commando”. But far worse is what they did with Jet Li and Dolph, two competent fighters in their own right. I can’t really understand what happened. Here’s the video: Careful, it hurts.

Junk, and arguably the worst Jet Li fight of all time. My patience is so strained with films like this now that it costs me more than the lost time and cash: it costs me faith. I’m angry that a team of action scientists like Stallone, Daniels, Li, and Lundgren, who made all our childhoods happy and full, could not come together and make something as simple as a coherent fist fight. It boggles my mind, and I have no recourse but to turn to religion since obviously Satan was at work here.

I think people like Expendables because they like seeing their childhood action heroes return. That’s cool. But nobody can look at these fight scenes and say they were remotely as good as anything any of them had done before. I hope E2 is better, but I won’t see it until the DVD or Blu Ray can come to my house where I have an exorcist on stand-by.

Quintin Tarantino argues you shouldn’t hate films:

Never, under any circumstances, hate a movie. It won’t help you and it’s a waste of time.

… There’s plenty of reasons to not to like a movie. But if you hate them? Meaning if let them bother you? Then they’ll do nothing but bother you. Who wants to be bothered? There’s so many better things to do with movies. It’s like my fucking Top Gun rant, okay? Bad things can be so much more interesting than just bad.

… Even the bombs, man, heck, especially the bombs man. And I mean if you want to do this for a fucking living and you’re absolutely serious, then never hate a movie. You can learn so much about the craft from bad movies. I man you can’t like fucking look at Kurosawa and be all “Oooh just do what Kurosawa did. You know, it’s easy!” Fuck no! Bad movies teach you what not to do and what to correct in your process and that’s way more helpful. You know how many feet of film I burned on this thing [MEANING KILL BILL] when I was trying to be like something else that was great? Like fucking Pole Fighter, like what you said? No, all the best stuff came out of me just trying to avoid mistakes.

… And fuck man, hating movies closes you off to stuff that seems like whatever you hate. Or stuff by the same guy. And who knows? That other stuff could be awesome. Some of my favorite filmmakers made bad movies. It won’t help you. It just won’t. It stops your development right in its tracks, okay? I mean like everything and I ain’t trying to get you to be like fucking me or anything. I’m just saying I think it’s better for you. And it makes me way, way happier. Never hate a movie. They’re gifts. Every fucking one of em.

Alexis Van Hurkman argues why 3D isn’t the plague everyone claims it is:

While I have no great love of stereoscopy for its own sake, I must say that there’s a consistent criticism I read that makes no sense to me, either as a writer or as a postproduction professional. That criticism is that stereoscopy adds nothing to narrative, the implication being that it should be abandoned if it does not.

Roger Ebert articulated this when he wrote “It adds nothing to the experience. Recall the greatest moviegoing experiences of your lifetime. Did they “need” 3-D? A great film completely engages our imaginations. What would Fargo gain in 3-D? Precious? Casablanca?”

Okay, fair enough. But here’s a question in response: What exactly does widescreen add to narrative? Did Casablanca suffer due to a lack of widescreen? Citizen Kane? Sunset Boulevard?

Hating on things is fun and I do it regularly, but since I make movies and experienced first-hand what an incredible amount of bloodsweatandtears it takes to make a film I’ve stopped hating on them. After making sets, choreographing action scenes, and attempting to act convincingly for months on end, you can’t help but earn some level of appreciation for just about anything that goes into a film.

Frankly, I didn’t feel this way until I made a film which put my livelihood, health, and relationships all at stake.

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.

I came across the end fight for Star Wars Episode 1 today and remembered something I thought of a few years back. American films treat fencing and swordplay differently than empty handed arts, especially non-boxing arts. Fencing and swordplay seem to have always received the royal treatment with wide shots, long takes, and long fight scenes in general.This has been the case since the early days of American films with Zorro, The Three Musketeers, and any other film with sword-fighting heroes. fencing

Mark of Zorro (1940):

I don’t know anything about fencing, but doing a quick search on Youtube reveals that the average fencing match seems to last roughly five seconds, and for good reason: that’s when someone gets speared in the face. The match is over! Granted that’s how point sparring typically goes in empty handed martial arts, but you’ll probably live if someone lands a punch on you.

Fencing compilation:

Fencing is still treated the same today.

Rob Roy – Liam Neeson duels Tim Roth

The Princess Bride – The Chatty Duel

Darth Maul’s (Ray Park) fight from Star Wars Episode 1:

Despite the short length of any real fencing match, American films love to dramatize fencing matches by making them extremely long and complex, complete with dialog and plenty of good gags. They’re almost always spectacular, and anyone with or without a lick of fencing knowledge can enjoy them immensely. The opposite logic seems to apply to empty handed fight scenes. Shaky camera, short takes, and short fights in general (always remember the truncated finale from Shanghai Knights) are supposed to do justice to the non-swordfighters, but nobody ever actually buys that. The worst is the notion that Americans don’t “understand” Asian martial arts and get impatient with longer fight scenes. So why do empty handed martial art scenes in American films suck so badly by comparison?

Is fencing somehow “easier” for actors to master than empty handed martial arts, and that allows the cameraman to pull back further and the editor to avoid rapid-fire editing? Are these swordfight scenes actually very simplistic and amateur and I just can’t tell? Do studios/directors just put more effort into them because they’re more “western” and need less biased coverage than martial arts?

My guess is that America’s “dueling” history is much more engrained with the sword than with the hands or feet, and that has laid the foundation for a more swordplay-based action system in American film. Despite the overwhelming popularity of mixed martial arts in the past decade, sword trainers for film still have 30-50 years MORE experience in the industry than empty-handed trainers. Empty-handed martial arts still relatively new, but give it a generation and we’ll probably see American fight scenes like these but with kicks, punches, and throws.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In response to a forum post about UFC 101, I just watched Anderson Silva vs. Forrest Griffin. If you don’t want to know the result of the fight, stop reading here and don’t watch the video clip.

In what you could call an “utter massacre”, Silva used some martial arts straight out of Flash Point and made the case that real martial arts can be flashy and real all at the same time. Don’t believe the elitists when they tell you, “In a real fight, there’s no flash.”

Now that I’ve made the case that even in this economy filmmakers are still incredibly well off, I thought I’d go a bit further… no, more like jump off a cliff, and make the case that because it’s so easy to make films, it’s possible to make money (hopefully profit) at the cost of the Hollywood studio system.

A lot of us are done with Hollywood when it comes to action films. Occasionally there’s something ground-breaking like uh, well you know, that one action movie that came out. I can’t think of the name, probably because I’ve been inundated with explosions from 50 angles, badly wired fights, generic kung fu poses by Angelina Jolie, and any other characteristic of the typical blockbuster action film. Most of you in the indie action community look at these and think, “I can do better than that.” And you can. You prove it daily. Maybe you can’t make an explosion as big, or as big a car chase, but you can use raw talent in ways Hollywood can’t. Here’s why:

Hollywood is so big that it’s become efficient only at making profits, and inefficient at making quality action (or insert your favorite complaint here).

Hollywood is like AIG and GM. They read charts and predict future profitability based on statistics and make crummy deals with huge groups of people, resulting in poor action films. The only difference is that Hollywood’s still profitable, and it still earns an audience because most believe there’s not much else out there competing with it.

Here’s an example from Heatseeker (1995) with Gary Daniels and Keith Cooke, two of the most talented screenfighters in American cinema history, going head to head:

Bad. Boring, lots of bad fog, bad editing, bad choreography, bad camerawork, bad everything. The cameraman wants to shoot multiple angles of the fight so he can’t be blamed by the editor for not getting enough coverage (which could destroy a cameraman’s reputation), so he consults with the director, who has Keith and Gary perform the fight repeatedly. While the two go at it all night, the cameraman is 300 feet away getting a master shot (just in case any closeups don’t look good), then he puts on the 105mm telephoto and shoots a few more takes, then comes the 50mm, etc. Gary and Keith have to run through the same, long sequence (hopefully broken up somewhat), over and over so the cameraman can get his shots. Any intricate handwork or subtle moves are impossible in this situation. The cameraman could care less if a move connects or looks bad because he’s just getting his coverage. He’s not there to critique martial arts. They fill the scene with fog because keeping the audience around this whole time would be torture. Shooting “around” the audience isn’t an option because the cameraman insists he needs full freedom to get coverage, thus fog is used. Plus fog was cool in the ’90s.

The choreographer has no say in any of this except where the 2 guys’ hands and feet go. When the cameraman moves to an angle where a certain kick suddenly doesn’t look so good, the choreographer’s hands are tied. Keith Cooke’s amazing high kick goes to hell from this angle, and Keith’s the one who looks like a fool. The choreographer (and Keith) let it go and hope the editor doesn’t use that bit. Then the editor makes coleslaw out of it. Case in point: even if you’re as gifted as Keith Cooke or Gary Daniels, a studio system can still make your fight suck.

Here’s a counter-example. Gary Daniels in Gedo – Fatal Blade (2001):

Gary Daniels six years later, but working with a crew that has full control over not only the choreography, but also the camera placement and length of shots, which in effect gives them control over editing. Limit the editor’s options and he has to cut the action the way you shoot it. The ability to just shoot what the shot requires means they don’t have to repeat the same 60 moves all night. Instead they focus on 1-8 moves per setup, and the energy is obviously better because of it.

The difference between these two clips is that the fight from Heatseeker employs Division of Labor to accomplish the goal. Definition by Adam Smith:

Smith saw the main cause of prosperity as increasing division of labor. Using the famous example of pins, Smith asserted that ten workers could produce 48,000 pins per day if each of eighteen specialized tasks was assigned to particular workers. Average productivity: 4,800 pins per worker per day. But absent the division of labor, a worker would be lucky to produce even one pin per day….

Don’t get me wrong: division of labor has brought about wonderul economic wealth. I love it because it makes laptops cheap and pencils magically appear in abundance almost everywhere for next to nothing. The exception is with filmmaking, especially action filmmaking. The clip from Fatal Blade integrates all the necessary elements without so much division of labor, and instead uses a unified vision to accomplish the goal. The modest action set-piece ends up being far more energetic, and probably cost a lot less to film.

An indie filmmaker can see the problems, and he’s able to use his small crew to make something that easily outshines the best martial arts scene Hollywood has to offer.

Maybe the problem you see with the studio system is with their storytelling, or their cinematography, or lack of a certain racial makeup. Whatever it is, if you’re identifying the problem, odds are a million other people are too. That’s your audience, and they’re waiting for something good to come out. It’s no hard task to convince them to buy your energetic, raw-talent film on DVD for $15 instead of paying $20+ to sit through action drivel that leaves even the most catatonic person feeling somewhat lost after two hours.

Recently my post celebrating the 10 Year Anniversary of KWOON sparked some discussion on the forum about the state we’re in today compared to 10 years ago. Not in general, but as filmmakers.

For those who have been hiding from the news (for good reason), we’re in a recession that’s probably the worst since 1929. Unemployment is hovering around the 10% mark, consumer confidence is low, and the stock market is worth about half of what it was during the housing bubble-era. Economic indicators aside, what does it mean to a filmmaker? Perhaps there are some metrics that the talking heads on FOX and CNN are missing.

Here are some comparisons between our situation now versus 1999:

  1999 2009
Low-Budget Camera $700 (Sony Hi-8 TRV95) $700 (Sony 3-chip TRV900)
High-Budget Camera $100,000+ (35mm camera + stock + developing costs) $3,750 (Scarlet)
Web Hosting ( $10/Month (50MB / 1500MB transfer) $5/Month (10,000MB / 300,000MB transfer)
8GB Harddrive $200 (HDD) $5 (thumbdrive)
1,000GB Harddrive $18,000 (50 x 20GB HDD) $100
Dell Inspiron 1150 Laptop
(for editing DV footage)
$1,000 (2004) $74.00
HD Limited to industry Everywhere
Youtube, Wikipedia, Facebook No Yes

All these technological advances were driven by profit-seeking. Obtain profits by creating products that consumers want and competing with other companies for market share. Without the legal means to make a profit, companies would not pioneer the technology that allow us to produce films so much more efficiently today vs. 1999.

As filmmakers, we are much better off now than we were 10 years ago. While the supply of films continues to grow, the barriers to entry into the film market shrink, making it easier and cheaper to make a moderate return on a small feature film investment. I was listening to a podcast on EconTalk recently (I recommend) where they talked about startup companies and how now it’s so much cheaper and easier to build a startup company than it was 10 years ago. Programming languages are more abstract and have bigger building blocks, cheap computers can handle all the software a startup requires, and information is free.

Today we’re able to grow more efficiently than we could in 1999. $100 today is worth so much more than $100 in 1999, even adjusted for inflation. The amount of productivity we can enjoy thanks to online social networking and the low cost of producing feature films means our $100 takes us today to where only $5,000 could take us in 1999. Wealth is not created by simply moving money from point A to point B. The pie stays the same size in that case. Wealth is created by the increased efficiency and productivity that improves our standard of living, thereby making the pie bigger, meaning bigger slices for everyone.