I bought my GoPro Hero3 Black Edition from Best Buy along with chest and head straps for the sole purpose of doing first-person action scenes. The FPS movie (“found footage”) genre is one of my favorites, and I think it’s criminally underused, especially in the action cross-genre, so my hopes have been to create solid action content for the FPS and found footage fans out there with our special brand. With it we shot a Star Wars fan video that went viral, a videogame-like weapon fight in the vein of Super Spy, and a Redneck’s guide to fighting a zombie without a weapon. As an action filmmaker who’s used the GoPro for almost two months non-stop, here’s what I’ve got to share.

GoPro-HERO3-Black-Edition

Design
The GoPro is dainty and can fit in your pocket along with the head strap and some extra batteries, so in terms of picking it up and going it’s a hell of a piece of equipment. The on-board buttons are tough to push, and pushing them might move your GoPro from whatever position it’s in. Often we found it easier for someone other than the wearer to push the buttons. The remote control, included with the Black version, solves this problem, though you’ll then have to deal with the Wi-Fi issue (below). As with any equipment that prides itself on being compact and easy to pick up and shoot, the side effect is that it’s a pain to change batteries and eject the memory card. Small and compact, but a pain to swap out accessories.

Video
The Hero3 Black has a wide range of resolutions and frame rates, from standard definition widescreen at 240 frames per second, to 4k @ 12fps. My favorite resolutions have been the SD 240fps for doing super slomo, 1440×1920 24fps for HD (giving you 360 pixels of vertical buffer) and 2.7k cine just to show off. 4K caps at 12fps, so from an action perspective it’s pointless using this resolution. Hero3 Silver does SD @ 120fps, so if you want the best in terms of slomo, get the Black, though the amount of noise in the slomo mucks up the footage to the point where it’s best used as a novelty. Otherwise the Silver will suffice, though you’ll lose out on the 1440 resolution option.

The lens is super wide, around 170 degrees, with the option to narrow significantly to something resembling a 45mm lens. So keep your crew completely behind the camera when filming because it sees everything. Since it’s so wide, your action will look comically fast, so whoever’s moving toward the lens needs to move at about 75% speed. The person behind the lens will have to move at normal speed.

Low light capability is very good, almost as bright as night vision, without the annoying green glow. Shutter speed gets blurry automatically with low light, since manual image controls are largely nonexistent, and the video compression gets pretty crazy when you’ve got any haze or UV light sources. Lots of shooting modes and great low light, but mid-grade compression in low light that won’t please videphiles. Action filmmakers probably won’t mind.

Sound
The sound is better than you’d expect from a tiny mic located on the side of the GoPro. Surprisingly good, but get an external mic for dialog. The main issue is the sound is usually out of sync with the video. A quick slide in your video editor can fix this.

Monitoring and Reviewing
The primary issue using the GoPro is figuring out how to monitor what you’re shooting. The GoPro transmits video and audio over its own Wi-Fi network to an Android, iPhone, or iPad using the GoPro app, which can then monitor what’s being shot. There’s a delay of about 2-4 seconds, but the app is invaluable. You absolutely MUST use it.

I tend to monitor with an iPad 2. My experience has been that the Wi-Fi signal is very weak, and it’ll often just cut out for no apparent reason. If you reset the camera, switch into review mode, or do anything besides just leaving the GoPro in camera mode, you risk losing your monitoring capability for who-knows-how-long. You’ll need to restart the GoPro AND its Wi-Fi (two entirely different functions), then reconnect to the Wi-Fi using your monitoring device, restart the program, and by then you’ve wasted five minutes. In an eight-hour span of time, we ran into this issue no fewer than ten times, so for a delay that happens more than once an hour, the GoPro just becomes annoying. By the end of the day we’re wondering why we didn’t just duct tape DSLRs onto our foreheads. (Okay that’s harsh, but those are raw thoughts for you.) I’ve used the Android app, but not extensively enough to determine if it’s more stable than using an iPad.

The other major issue with the monitoring software is that it has no option to review footage that you’ve already shot. To do that you need the LCD backpack (below), or you’ll need to connect the cam to a computer to review what’s on the SD card. Having to remove the GoPro from someone’s head or chest just to review footage makes it yet another annoying hangup in the production.

Glitches
Heads up – the GoPro glitches pretty regularly. The LCD backpack seems to add more reasons for the GoPro to crash, perhaps due to its added heat. Usually we have to pull the battery, open the box and lay all the tiny pieces about. After a firmware update, crashes are less common, but still happen at about 20% of the original crash rate. Random Wi-Fi disconnection happens at almost the same frequency.

I’ve had a few frames glitch due to fast movement, but if you can get away with cutting those frames it’s nothing too problematic. So far, no ruined shots.

Accessories

  • LCD Touchscreen Backpack – You’ll want to fork over eighty bucks for the tiny LCD screen to watch what you’re shooting live and review footage. The LCD for the Hero3 is a touchscreen, but the edges rarely register and I find myself just using the camera buttons to navigate it. If you’re hanging the GoPro in front of your face your nose will probably inadvertently push a button too. The LCD also seemed to display a lower quality image than the iPad did, giving us an inaccurate display of our footage. It’s best used for framing purposes. Get the footage onto a computer to see how it actually looks.
  • Extra Batteries – Battery life is around 2 hours (with the LCD), but charging time is nearly double that, so your workflow will suffer if you don’t have enough batteries to power through the day. The Wasabi battery pack is a good deal at $25 for 2 batteries and a charger. Get three of em if you plan on doing long days with the GoPro.
  • Head Strap – If you’re doing a fight scene, this is the strap to use. You can adjust for different head positions so it always captures the moves. Fast head movements might knock it off your head so get a chin strap and secure it that way. The screws don’t hold the GoPro as tightly as I’d like, so you’ll have to constantly readjust them.
  • Chest Strap – Not as useful as the head strap because any body movement will move the GoPro, but better for acrobatics.

Bottom Line
I like my GoPro. It’s a unique way to make action (or genre) films, and the end result always seems to entertain. Glitches and annoyances aside, you can sidestep all this by just getting two of everything. I have two GoPros now, which came in handy when the Wi-Fi for one of them randomly cut out and wouldn’t come back, so we just swapped everything over to the second GoPro and made it through the day.

I give this thing a B+ until they fix the heating issue and release one that’s got a better wireless transmission mechanism. Bluetooth maybe?

These are just awesome. If you’re a filmmaker on a budget but want to achieve some slick camera angles, check out these kickstarter projects, which are looking for funds to complete their projects, and will reward donors with the equipment after the projects are complete.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/461078637/the-aviator-travel-jib?ref=category – A steal. I had no idea how valuable a jib would be until we shot Death Grip, and we ended up using it for almost everything. Think of it like a tripod that’s more flexible, with the option of moving it while rolling camera.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tedbrock/aircam-gp?ref=categor – Cool for events and sports. I could imagine an Eric the Redneck Guide to Sports episode.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1519897687/zip-shootertm-portable-camera-dolly-system?ref=category

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/midasmount/snapfocus-follow-focus-system?ref=category – Critically needed, as many filmmakers who rely on the focus rings on their DSLR cameras tend shift focus, move past the focal point, and then dial back. Better focus is a better viewing experience, that is, if you want people to follow what you’re shooting.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1918868829/the-kick-a-pocket-sized-lighting-studio-for-photo?ref=category

There are more, too. If you find more, put em in the comments. I’m half-tempted to buy into all these myself! Maybe once I’m out of credit card debt.

In my last post I used Cannes and AFM to take a snapshot of the action industry and predict what the climate will be like in a couple years. Impossible? Maybe, but using some basic principles I think we can be pretty accurate, within fifty percent. So how does it relate to us as indie genre filmmakers? And what’s to be done?

We have two big walls to scale, but don’t worry. We’re spry enough to have notable advantages on both:

1. The indie (drama) film market has been unsuited to genre films since by nature genre films cost more to make. But with decreasing costs of technology, and provided you can round up affordable talent that specializes in the genre (vfx people for sci-fi, stunt people for action, makeup people for horror, etc.), it’s entirely possible to short-circuit this.

2. The studio (genre) film market is locked off to low budget films because funding usually comes from risk averse investors, who see your low budget film as a waste of change. But innovation is easier for a small player, who can target systemic inefficiencies in the studio system and make the case to an investor that a new idea could be marketable. This can lead the way to funding, which leads to casting, etc.

And not to mention:

3. Government funding in Europe is never guaranteed, especially considering the possibility of a Euro crisis. Film funds would be cut long before pensions. Low-budget genre films might then be an opportunity in Euro Zone countries, since the genre itself is more marketable by nature (ask Luc Besson), and the risk at a low budget is, of course, low.

So that’s the good news. As an indie genre filmmaker, you’re positioned between two slow-moving goliaths. Get lured into the subsidized art film industry via the University, and you lose your genre edge. Get lured into the high-grossing studio system via trade unions, lose your autonomy. The road between the two is wide but barely travelled. Do you have enough trail mix?

Of course, if this was all good news I’d be a millionaire by now. We have to come down to earth and realize what we’re up against. Indie genre filmmakers have to realize that the market is rapidly stratifying. To the left, Hunger Games, stardom, theatrical distribution of multi-billion dollar franchises. To the right, self-distribution, autonomy, micro-budget films and lifelong starvation, maybe living in mom’s basement. The rapidly diminishing middle road, the one we’ve been aiming for, is home video, with low to middle budget films that one could once make a living off. When video-on-demand and piracy came around, this middle road, well traveled and smooth as it is, became so narrow it’s now got construction signs every fifteen feet and is home to sinkholes and wild, hairy mammals that will eat you alive and leave you with less than you started with. Is it worth it? Do you still have that other job that paid bills?

This stratification isn’t the work of an evil overlord or the dumb masses, but a natural result of an industry that has more technology than it knows what to do with. To say the market is in flux is like saying the dodo bird just needed some tender care until it could grow fangs. We’ve created the beast of technology, and we’re stuck with its wild swings until we start outlawing it or it crashes into a rock. How will we make a living? Will we make a living? Or will filmmaking, like shoe repair or Pascal programming, become better suited as a hobby?

I’m actually not worried. There is only one big competitor for film, and that’s video games. And video games are genre to the bone. People hunger for hard conflict, anything to feed the beast inside that’s being tranquilized by civilization. We turn to video games for firsthand access and pay a lot of money for it. The market for action is still alive and well, and it’s arguably the reason boys stay home from the movies. They killed the arcade. Will they kill cinema? To prevent this awful fate, we need to show them how well we can do it, since nobody else seems to give a crap about doing this.

As micro budget filmmakers, how do we prove ourselves to the world if we can’t even get our masterpiece off the ground? If my own experience can serve as a pithy example, I would do this in three stages, one film per stage.

First stage: shoot an ultra-low budget feature film for as little cash as possible. Maybe portion out $5k from your college tuition and tell your parents (or yourself, or the government, or whoever is providing it) that it’s part of a work-study program that’ll teach you more than any class could. Write, direct, produce, and star in it if you have to, edit it, and stick it on a DVD or release it online. You should be able to get some willing and able college kids to help you out, since they probably won’t have anything better to do. Making a feature-length action film is cool. Prove that you can just get something done without demanding millions of dollars, or anything for that matter, except for some time from your friends. You prove yourself as a director to your cast and crew, and you prove yourself to the market as someone competent enough to make decent entertainment. The bar is low already. If you can make your $5k back, even better, but getting $0 back in exchange for a huge audience and more dedicated crew isn’t a bad deal. Most important thing: finish it.

Second stage: save some money, fix whatever needs fixing (for me, it was everything except the action, hopefully you’ll be further along than this), and shoot on a micro budget of $20,000 to $100,000. This sounds like a lot, but $20,000 is roughly the credit line equivalent of seven credit cards, the max one should have before their credit rating begins plummeting, so it’s feasible. I don’t recommend this option since it’s the worst option outside of gambling or theft, but the barrier to entry isn’t prohibitive. Feed everyone in the production, and pay anyone who’s not an extra, even if it’s just a little. Make it feel official. Get one celebrity of some kind, which may require visiting a trade show in LA and handing out free copies of your first film to willing participants (it’s how we got Johnny Yong Bosch). Finish this second movie on a schedule and make it kick ass. Release it officially however you can, either at a festival or via a distributor. Prove you’re not only able to make stuff, but you can sell it too. Again, you’ve asked for no favors. So nobody hates you yet, except for your competition in the industry. And your competition makes bad action.

Third stage, which is the rocky territory: people need to bet on you. You’ve proven you can make stuff, and you can sell stuff. Now, someone’s gotta take a risk. If you have to ask for this, you may want to milk your previous two projects, and then put the word out that you’re looking to collaborate on your next project. Farm out your weaknesses to more talented people, since you’ll know what you’re good at by now.

From here, it’s into the blue. Maybe the next step will have to be theatrical, or straight to VOD, or maybe a police state will eliminate piracy and home video will make a resurgence! (*crickets*) Regardless, the most important lesson to take away from this or any other plan you might devise is don’t try to make a million bucks on your first film. That’s instant suicide. Filmmaking is a career, not the lottery. Even on a steady shoot, hour-by-hour you’ll be paid less than a UAW member from GM. A good work ethic is absolutely essential, as is some tough bark for all the times when locations, people, or funds will fall through. Sometimes all in the same day.

So as indie genre filmmakers, we have an entirely new road to cut, pave, and travel to see if it leads anywhere. If I didn’t believe it went somewhere great, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be in France.

Good luck, and always feel free to leave comments!

Day 4 – Saturday May 19
Today was much more relaxed. I slept in until 7:10am for a change and spent the first two hours writing. Rebecca and I ate some of the fine, bagged 2€ madelines from the supermarket and set off to catch all the booths we may have missed.

What we found was that Asian countries are all represented at booths and they’re looking for more action content than any other region other than America. Europe just doesn’t seem to care, and Latin America and Africa are basically the same as Europe in terms of their film funds and what genres they direct funding to (dramas, documentaries, and more dramas). Canada is also Europe, so that leaves Asia.

Big-time South Korean studio Showbox showed off some of their new trailers, and A Company Man looks to be one of the best Korean action films to date. Trailers are deceptive, and it could easily turn out for the worse, but it was a talking point for us to go talk to a Showbox representative about doing a coproduction in South Korea. We showed off our knife fight from Death Grip, got some emails, and went over to CJ Entertainment, the other big-time Korean studio, and asked the same thing. Got some emails, and moved on.

Thailand, same deal. Got emails, moved on. Indonesia, same thing. They’re all releasing mainstream action films that are festival-friendly. Good action, good (err… sometimes good anyway) scripts, so we made the case that these are ideal relationships with a movement like ours, which unites solid action choreography with good screenplays. We didn’t bother talking to China. They have too much money and there’s no reason to deal with us. Plus their stringent guidelines on how Chinese characters are to be portrayed isn’t something we feel like dealing with right now.

All in all, if action filmmakers want to coproduce with a foreign country, Asia’s where it’s at, not Europe. We couldn’t have known this without coming here.

Shot some footage, played with our host’s cat, found 50€ in the gutter, and treated ourselves to a killer dinner of veal and duck with some wine that I couldn’t pronounce (Rebecca could pronounce it and she took every chance she could to rub it in my face. The pronunciation, not the wine). Saturday night on the Croissete was busier than I had seen thus far. It was basically Long Beach. Same decor, same style as back home. And same music. Globalism has taken this place, whether you like that kind of thing or not, yet American action films are strangely faux pas here, even of the independent sort. But then again, action films, indie or not, have a way of kneading themselves into themes of good and evil that don’t fit a global world of greying morality. Action requires that people fight to the death, and shades of grey appear less often than among the suits of celebrities walking the riviera. That’s not the world here, even though the music and costumes would make you think otherwise. Whether the Euro Zone crisis changes this phenomenon is yet to be seen.

Here’s a little video of the halls of Cannes.

That’s our last day at Cannes. Tomorrow it’s Italy, and I will become fat.

If you’re reading this blog, “action fan” doesn’t adequately describe you. You’re an “action junkie.” You like your action scene unprocessed and unrefined, no sugar added, preferably in a powdery form whose purity is demonstrated by its rapid solubility in a drink. When taken by the average film-goer, its potency separates his frontal lobe from his skull cap before it even hits his liver. But being action junkies, this is the stuff we live for.

This adrenaline-laced, high-potency jet fuel has become elusive, however. Producers cut the product with 9 parts baby powder, and it stopped giving a high. Now it gives more of an itch. Maintaining this addiction to cheap action with none of the benefits of the hard stuff was only sustainable because the dealers cornered the market, though by no sheer force of will. If we were in the crude oil industry and not film, we could just drop a pickaxe in the ground, but the media market relied on expensive equipment, narrow broadcasting pathways, and a prohibitive labor force, forming a natural oligopoly of large, slow-moving conglomerates. Though they still managed to deliver some amazing products, when production became this streamlined things fell through the cracks, and the action scene was one of them. We look back fondly on the good days of action, and The Action Kickback Movement is a movement to bring it back through renewed market demand and independent film production.

First a disclaimer: if you like seeing the camera close and shaky to the action, then there’s plenty to see right now in mainstream Hollywood. But I belong to the backward-thinking school of “Everything has gone to hell, and I don’t like it.” There’s some great action content that’s come out in the past decade, but my experience of modern action is largely colored by a feeling of increasing disparity that has put my expectations at an all-time low. Check out this Salon article, which makes this same case with some flair:

How Hollywood killed the movie stunt
Computers and editing tricks have obliterated one of cinema’s great pleasures: Seeing real people in real danger

A still from "Death Proof"

A still from “Death Proof”

On Nov. 12, 1910, a hundred years ago today, a man jumped out of a burning-hot air balloon into the Hudson River while a movie camera rolled. The vast majority of silent films are lost to history — vanished, destroyed or somehow rendered invisible — and this, it would seem, is one of them; I’ve seen the burning balloon gag cited as the first movie stunt on a number of sites, some quite thorough and authoritative, yet none list the film’s title or the name of the stuntman. Photographic evidence of the balloon man’s deed lives on in the Topps bubblegum card pictured here, and his legacy can be seen on any screen that shows moving images.

But what happens when movies change, and stunts become devalued?

I ask because in looking at that image of the stuntman diving into the Hudson, and running through a mental checklist of my favorite movie stunts, I realized that almost none of them occurred in films released during the last 10 years.

What’s the significance of that time frame? Well, for one thing, it’s the approximate start of the Digital Era of cinema — the point where video started to replace film and practical effects (meaning effects that were created in order to be photographed just like any other physical object) started being subsumed by computer-generated effects. And for another (and this is surely related) the late ’90s/early aughts marks the point when classical or “old-fashioned” editing — which dictated that every cut should be dramatically and aesthetically justified — was supplanted by what the film theorist David Bordwell calls the “intensified continuity” or “run and gun” style. The latter seeks to excite viewers by keeping them perpetually unsettled with computer-enhanced images, fast cutting and a camera that never stands still.

Intensified continuity is about denying the viewer a fixed vantage point on what’s happening to the characters — especially in action scenes. It’s about “using brief shots to maintain the audience’s interest but also making each shot yield a single point, a bit of information,” Bordwell writes. “Got it? On to the next shot.”

One side effect of intensified continuity is that it doesn’t let audiences see action in context — and is, in fact, the enemy of context. If the 1910 balloon stunt appeared in a film made today, we probably wouldn’t see it in a sustained wide shot that showed the diver in relation to the balloon and the Hudson River as he jumped from the basket and dropped into the water (the preferred framing of truly spectacular film stunts from the silent era through the end of the 20th century). We’d more likely see a flurry of shots, only one of which showed us the big picture. Most of those would very likely be anxious hand-held close-ups — say, a hand grasping the lip of the basket, the man’s feet leaving the floor of the basket, a brief point-of-view shot revealing what the man saw as he jumped from the basket and so forth. Intensified continuity, Bordwell writes, “doesn’t demand that you develop an ongoing sense of the figures within a spatial whole. The bodies, fragmented and smeared across the frame, don’t dwell within these locales. They exist in an architectural vacuum.”

That might seem like a minor difference, but for stunt performers, it’s major. An “architectural vacuum” can sustain excitement on-screen — I enjoyed the Bourne trilogy, for example, and defend its often derided rat-a-tat visual style as a subjective expression of its hero’s warrior intuition, an approach that gives viewers a sense of what it might be like to live in the head of a beleaguered assassin who knows he could be killed at any second and has to keep scanning his surroundings for information and signs of danger. At the same time, though, I can’t deny that the run-and-gun style has dampened the impact of stunts. As astounding as that car chase in the second “Bourne” film was, I might have appreciated it more — perhaps savored it as a display of choreography and cutting and physical daring in the way that I did the truck chase at the end of “The Road Warrior” and other ambitious chase scenes — if the camera had pulled back more and if the director, Paul Greengrass, had been willing to hold shots for longer than a second or two.

The decline of classical filmmaking, coupled with cinema’s increased reliance on computer-generated or computer-burnished imagery, has pretty much destroyed the specialness — the magic — of movie stunts. You can’t appreciate what you can’t see. And it’s harder to appreciate the unusual nature of a physical achievement when the entire movie strives to make every moment seem thrilling, astonishing and intense — a phenomenon I wrote about in a 2009 Salon piece about the director Michael Bay, who seems to believe there is no such thing as a small moment, and whose hyperactive action pictures suggest what Nike ads would look like if they were directed by killer cyborgs on cocaine.

I thought this summer’s Angelina Jolie action thriller “Salt” split the difference between classical and contemporary filmmaking quite well, giving viewers the now industry-standard editing razzle-dazzle while also holding shots somewhat longer than the norm and putting the heroine’s feats of strength and endurance in physical context. My favorite stunt in the film is photographed with what is, by contemporary filmmaking standards, unusual patience and calm: Salt ducking out of an apartment window to elude pursuers and clambering from window ledge to window ledge like a cat, carefully and with concentration. Jolie did this stunt herself with the insurance of a wire harness that was later erased digitally. It’s a meat-and-potatoes stunt, not too fancy, yet it’s very effective. Why? Because it sustains the illusion that we’re watching an actual person do something dangerous in circumstances we recognize from life. I get mild vertigo just thinking about that scene — much more so than I do recalling a far more visually spectacular stunt in the same film in which Jolie’s character escapes CIA agents and cops by jumping off an overpass bridge and landing on the roof of a moving truck. The latter is far less exciting than the window ledge stunt partly because of how it’s edited (cut-cut-cut) and partly because a key shot in the sequence, which follows Salt as she tumbles down off the bridge, is obviously (and rather awkwardly) computer-assisted — and thus no more real-seeming than the airborne house in “Up.”

Yes, of course, stunts are still being performed. And stunt performers are no less daring and inventive than they were in the ’80s, the ’60s or the ’20s, when Harold Lloyd hung from a clock face in “Safety Last” and Buster Keaton risked getting crushed by the falling facade of a house in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” But stunts don’t register (for this viewer at least) the way they once did, because the current language of movies devalues and diminishes them. Real stunt performers clambered across the tops of the train in the current “Unstoppable,” but director Tony Scott cuts so often that it’s harder to appreciate the bravery of the characters and the athleticism of the stuntpeople; the stunt becomes another piece of data in the cinema of information overload.

Great stunts are arresting in large part because they occur in reality, or “reality” — the reality established by the movie; i.e., the wider (visual) context that Bordwell writes about. In retrospect, I think the last great flowering of movie stunt work happened in the early ’80s and ’90s, when Hollywood was churning out an unusually high number of well-constructed crash-and-burn action thrillers such as “Aliens,” “Die Hard,” “Terminator 2,” “Under Siege,” “The Fugitive” and “Speed,” and Hong Kong action cinema was showcasing work by actors who also happened to be astonishingly gifted stunt performers, and situating their work in films that made sure you knew where you were spatially and what the dramatic and physical stakes were. Think of Jackie Chan leaping from escalator to escalator and getting his face smashed into window glass in the shopping mall finale of “Police Story,” or the incomparable Michelle Yeoh, aka Claudette Colbert plus Buster Keaton, riding a motorcycle onto the roof of a moving freight train at the end of “Police Story III: Supercop.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that on those occasions when a recent stunt makes a strong impression, it’s because the filmmaker has made a point of setting it up in a plainspoken manner, often showing the stunt performer’s entire feat in a comparatively long (for the action genre) take that views the performer from far back. Think of Roger Moore’s double Rick Sylvester diving off a cliff at the end of the ski chase in “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Or Harrison Ford’s regular stunt double Vic Armstrong sliding underneath a moving truck in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — or the legendary Hollywood stuntman Yakima Canutt performing a gag in “Zorro’s Fighting Legion” that directly inspired the one in “Raiders.” Or Thai kickboxer Tony Jaa showing off his superhuman agility in the low-fi martial arts thriller “Ong Bak.” Or stuntwoman Zoe Bell hanging on the hood of a Dodge Charger in the climactic chase sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.”

It’s probably also no coincidence that Bell and Jaa’s achievements were described in pre-release publicity for the movies — an extra-cinematic means of letting the audience know that what they’re seeing is both a great movie moment and a documentary record of an extraordinary athlete doing his or her thing. We’ve gotten to the point where audiences assume everything on-screen is conjured with pixels unless filmmakers strenuously insist otherwise. The low-fi aesthetic showcased in “Ong Bak” and “Death Proof” is the best antidote to audience skepticism, because when a movie is clearly made by people who didn’t have two nickels to rub together, that means the stunt work isn’t just an ingredient in the meal, it’s the main course.

I wonder if we’ll see a resurgence of low-tech, stunt-driven action as an antidote to high-tech sorcery. I hope so; with the right context and the right attitude, a wide shot of a man jumping out of a burning balloon could be more exciting than 300 computer-generated avatars charging across a battlefield made of ones and zeros while the director runs and guns and cuts, cuts, cuts.

While the article focuses on stuntwork, the implication is that the quality of action as a whole diminished with technology. The ability to edit digitally in the 1990s meant editors could make rapid edits, something that was almost impossible when they had to edit physical film. When digital video took the place of film stock in 2000, cinematographers and directors shot more angles to feed the editor even more to work with. Soon it became standard to shoot action from 10 angles rather than one, correct angle.

So Eric, you ask, you’re saying technology killed the action scene? This puts me in the awkward position of seeing amazing technological developments like non-linear editing and cheap solid-state HD SLR cameras as bad things. Must we dispense with the industrial-technological system altogether to bring our action scenes back?! To restore the old order, as it was? Definitely not. I might be crazy, but I’m no Unibomber. Destroying critical media innovations would effectively eliminate any chance we have at fixing the problem. While Teddy may be right about technology acting like a steamroller and taking on a mind of its own, he failed to realize that technological globalism is really a two-sided goat.

In 2001, while the search for good action films was leaving the taste of chalk in my mouth, editing software suddenly became affordable; digital camcorders were introduced at the low hundreds; hard drives kept following Moore’s Law, giving us twice as much space every 18 months… or more; and everyone had internet. I formed The Stunt People and jumped on it. By 2005, with YouTube and improved camcorder technology, making a feature-length action film was doable for $5,000, as my film Contour demonstrated. This cheap video technology and means to edit it opened the floodgates for the independent film world. It’s a wonder all those corporations and politicians didn’t prevent our grimy hands from getting hold of it, but there it was.

Great. We can produce action films for cheap. But that’s only half of the equation. Where’s the demand? If Hollywood is making action scenes with shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing, and Hollywood is profitable, isn’t it safe to say that that’s the most profitable way to do it? In short, it once was. Martial arts in the US always felt ‘foreign’ to audiences. We didn’t expect Bruce Willis to do roundhouse kicks because that’s not what white cops did. In my home town of Redding, CA, locals had no idea what a roundhouse kick was in 2001.

But today 2012, the USA has an extremely profitable mixed martial arts industry. Those same Redding locals can now tell the difference between a triangle choke and an arm bar, and many can demonstrate one if you’d like. It’s almost expected that, if you’re a Hollywood badass, you have a couple Judo throws in your arsenal, and probably a kick or two. And mixed martial arts isn’t just popular in Redding: it’s everywhere. From podunk towns to gigantic cities, every casino, bar, and night club has an HDTV that gathers crowds when showing the latest MMA match. They’re not just drawn to the violence, but to the character dramas, long fight scenes, solid technique, and camerawork that lets them see everything. They can see themselves in the ring, and MMA schools have capitalized on this by opening gyms across the country. Maybe this is just an extension of the WWF and WCW craze of the 90s, but as a martial arts filmmaker and film fan, you can’t help but think this paradigm shift, which happened just over the last decade, is utterly incredible. To say there’s no demand for action films with good characters and well-shot action scenes would be like saying the MMA craze is some passing fad, like Crystal Pepsi.

Technology itself is shaping demand too. With the help of YouTube and cheap DVD online stores, finding the old, good stuff that expired off the video shelves decades ago now only demands a search query. How many people saw one of the best fights ever, from Wheels on Meals, in 1982? I bet none. 1998? A few, but only if you lived near a Chinatown. Within the past few years? Probably most. Seeing films like these after their short-lived heydays was near impossible until technology brought them to YouTube and made purchasing them on DVD simpler than ever. If you haven’t seen that fight, click the link already.

We’ve tasted the forbidden fruit of the past, that guerrilla-grade nitroglycerine that will make it all the more difficult to sit through the next Bourne film without asking, “Couldn’t they have done this action better?” Consider this ailment as an addiction not easily cured with the current slew of Hollywood fluff. You’re better off spending a night on YouTube watching obscure Hong Kong action scenes.

From all this we see that the means to produce content is readily available, and audience demand for well-shot action with good stories is waiting to be fulfilled. Hollywood, the slow-moving Goliath that it is, is still hell-bent on using shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing, even for MMA-related action films. This is faster, cheaper, and more in line with its method of separating choreographers from the cinematographers from the editors. Everything is compartmentalized and divided. In the end, there’s no vein that runs through the production that gives the action film its unique flare. As Action Kickback producers, our task is to fill this void and bring back the good stuff.

For more reasons than just the obvious, the Unibomber was wrong: power has not been wrested by the few to subjugate the many. The ugly truth is that power is fragmented and precious, held by producers and execs who are incapable of making a coherent and enjoyable action scene. And they lose sleep knowing that the masses can save their pennies, get a good script, and make marketable genre films. Power then ultimately rests with those who are capable and courageous enough to pick up a camera and transform their unfiltered, raw talent into pure, high-grade media that millions of action fans across the world will flock to. After that, there’s no going back.

You can check out more info about Action Kickback at actionkickback.wordpress.com.

We’re shooting some pickups this weekend for Rise And Fail, including an entirely new fight scene in the beginning, and it occurred to me that this would be a good opportunity to set up any jokes or action that didn’t “sell” later in the film. Now I can turn a random prop or martial arts move into something that actually has meaning by making it significant in this first fight. It’s tempting to do it with a bunch of things (“let’s reference the pitcher of water in the background at the end of the film!”) and make it hoaky, but if I stick to one or two things, I can come off as “witty.”

That is of course provided the new footage looks exactly the same as the rest of the film, which means renting about $600 worth of equipment for the next two days and hiring 7 people, a cost of over $1000. Continuity isn’t cheap, but the last thing I want is for the film to become disjointed at the 8-minute mark.

And also provided you forget about this blog post when you see the film.