While prepping an animated genre feature film like Lester, it’s a good idea to to study how these kinds of projects come and go.
Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise was an anime colossus released during the Manga Video heyday with amazing art and zero (almost) story. It was a movie made entirely by animators who prioritized world-building and created dozens of crazy set pieces, who then wrote the script as they went to make sense of it all. It would be like if 8711 made John Wick by shooting 5 action scenes without mentioning the dog. There’s a John Wick 2, 3, 4, and 5. There’s no Royal Space Force 2.
Royal Space Force is gorgeous. For ¥800M (~$8M USD) it better be. Apparently they raised the cash in a coordinated non-stop bullsh*t campaign at Bandai-Namco, who were probably impressed by the proof of concept. But in the end it nearly bankrupted the animation studio. Case in point: story first!
Rock & Rule (1983) was another massive film made by animators with incredible animation, great musical numbers and perfect casting.
The memorable set-pieces are connected with a story that can hardly be called that. The story involves the villain luring the heroes from their small hometown to his castle, kidnapping the girl, and taking her back to their small hometown. Story first!
The second and much bigger problem for Rock & Rule was MGM not knowing how to market an R-rated animation in the early 80s. It would’ve done okay today, but back then it grossed $35,000 of its $8M budget. You can watch it for free now.
And finally there are the ~$70M megatons like Titan A.E. (2000) with its studio issues and plot problems, resulting in only grossing half of its budget. But look at it.
One of the greatest flops in history was Iron Giant (1999), another $70M megaton which had a solid story but probably was just too damned expensive.
Higher budgets mean more intrusive oversight by studios, who will panic and make funny decisions to cut losses, like they did with Food Fight.
If you need to pay an army of people to animate for two years, then you need $70M to tell your story. If you only need to pay a small team of animators for a stylistic take on your project, you could do it for a tenth of that or less. The investors might not even care much about your story, and you’ll probably recoup their losses.
If your story is solid, and you have a cost-effective pipeline, there’s no endin sight.
EDIT: I’m also broadcasting on Telegram at t.me/ericjacobus where I dump more thoughts in smaller bites.
I like action films. I like them so much that I make them. My career started out mostly making action comedies. Then I turned 30, had to pay bills, etc, so I made a depressing one called Death Grip. Comments about the film were usually along the lines of, “I wanted more toilet humor.” I was a a typical California State art graduate when I made Death Grip: a combination of depressed, narcissistic, nihilistic, coffee, and a paleo diet. Film school did teach me not to make typical Hollywood genre trash, so Death Grip was that.
Later on in 2014 my mentor Clayton Barber helped me find my stride again and we made the action comedy series Rope A Dope together, and later he directed Blindsided: The Game. It was obvious that I was an action comedy guy, so I was gonna stick to what I knew. I resigned from making angry action hero movies, leaving that to the pros.
This was also when I met my wife, started a family, joined a men’s group, renewed my faith, got over a handful of addictions, and grew a big beard. I did cool jobs around the world, and I’d bring my bags to the last day of the shoot and hop on a plane after our martini shot. I’d stick around and see the sights, but I had a family at home to get back to.
Naturally an optimistic, homeward guy seeks optimistic, homeward action heroes, the kinds who fight to defend things like sacredness of old treasure or saving a family. Finding these usually ends up with a trip to the 80s watering hole. Because damned if the market isn’t flooded with miserable action heroes starting from the 2000s.
Today’s action heroes aren’t funny. There seems to be a thick wall between comedy and action.
I’ll admit it. Watching an action hero level an entire building of villains satisfies a base itch within all of us. That itch burns like a mother when mindless mobs on the news and social media loom over your own home and family. When you have the best action team on the planet designing the set pieces, they deliver. They’ve perfected it.
Now, everyone wants to write the next Bourne or Wick. So they write a purely reactive hero, cast a big name, train him to hold a rifle like a T-rex, and you’ve got yet another miserable action film.
The pissed off hero formula is pure reaction. Reaction to evil is fun and satisfying. It gets the job done. But just how many reactionheroes do we need? Two or three? How about 25 per year ever since 9/11? Somebody, or something, has been busily churning out reaction heroes, which are usually just byproducts of evil villains. The formula is simple:
I. Catalyst: Villain destroys hero’s family (or eliminates what remains of it, i.e. a cute dog, photo, etc.) II. Setup: Hero has nothing to live for III. Fun & Games: Hero reacts and breaks skulls (note: hire a creative action team to find interesting way to break skulls) IV. Closing Image: Family is restored… just kidding! Actually it’s: hero comes to terms to his new awful existence, meets other miserable characters, etc. (Netflix series!)
After IV it’ll be tough to do a series or trilogy if the hero’s back with a family again. The Taken sequels were good examples of how to resolve this in theory, but for some reason they didn’t get the same love as the original. Scripts where the hero’s family is wiped out seem to acquire better creative talent.
You’re really beating this family thing over the head, Eric. Yeah… Nothing screams “30-45 male demo” like retired serviceman protects family. But family is just a symbol in this case. The real prize is “something good”. And “good” can’t just be “revenge”. The villain is blocking the good. Kill him, move him, turn him into a monk, whatever it takes to get the “good thing”.
Jean Paul Belmondo is one of the greatest action comedy stars of all time. He’s the French Jackie Chan, the pinnacle of our optimistic action hero: witty, cool moves, and has a plan. He wants “something good”. The villain is in the way.
While working through Belmondo’s filmography, three that come to are That Man from Rio, Le Magnifique, and Le Marginal. These action comedies rival anything Canon put out in the 80s. How this guy didn’t cross our yankee radars is still beyond me. I guess Criterion does has a pretty thick filter.
Belmondo is an action hero with agency. An agentic hero has a plan before the villain enters scene, and the villain is just a barrier. He’s got momentum that the reactive hero seems to be missing.
When the credits roll after our reactive hero finishes the job, we still hope something comes of him. Maybe his dog will learn to get him a beer, or he can build that shed in his back yard. Netflix series!
When we watch Belmondo, we’re on the edge of our seats, not because of the interesting ways he kills his enemies, but because he’s got a plan that started long ago. We’re just trying to catch up with him.
Again, I must stress: pissed off, vengeful action heroes are cool! If there’s a problem, he fixes it. Or she! She might be a raging alcoholic but she can kill nazis with the best of em. Our reactive heroes have cool moves and weapons, and they popularized facial hair. Yay for these guys and ladies.
But that’s not my genre. I’m here to talk about action comedy.
Comedy – An Ancient Institution
But isn’t comedy reactive? Isn’t it funny when someone reacts in a funny way to something?
What is comedy? The simplest joke is the combination of two ideas, never combined before, that result in a logical connection. Writing a good joke requires getting out of the cultural gutter and surveying everything at face value. When you’re at your most misanthropic, the best jokes (and most logical connections) come like a torrent.
Who were the most misanthropic characters in history? Maybe they were the court jesters. Their job looked easy, because being a comedian always looks easy. But being a court jester required getting killed every day, and waking up to do it again.
C’mon, Eric. We don’t kill comedians.
This is not a victimary blog. I will not be caught on record saying that we got a kick out of Chris Farley’s self-destructive behavior. That’s not the purpose here. We can admit that people are funny, and they were victims of the system. He was outrageously funny, and drugs are bad. The audience loves their drug-addicted stars no matter whether they’re comedians or thespians. Untimely death is bad no matter what.
But the comedian is different in one crucial way. The very nature of the role requires that the comedian sets himself to be the fall guy. Laughter expels.
Scapegoating is as old as dirt, and today it’s no less so than it was then. Target our common enemy, throw him off the cliff. Cancel him! Democracy wins! Enjoy the unity of getting rid of the problematic guy.
When humans sacrifice a goat, the catharsis of unity might last weeks or months. When the sacrifice is human, an entire generation. The closer the sacrifice, the bigger the area of effect. Admittedly, this kept the Mayans pretty peaceful (and advanced!), but these time spans are a blink of the eye in the grand scheme of things. How do you keep the scapegoat machine running for centuries, or millennia?
Back in the day you’d just round up some witches. We still can. Just don’t call em witches.
But dead bodies still tell stories, especially with science. Did our god really turn into a falcon and take away our sins? Or did you guys just push a guy off a cliff? The scapegoat mechanism hangs by a thread these days.
And yet we’re humans, so we need sacrifice. Everyone in your dusty anthropology books agrees with me. So a better question is: how do you sacrifice and hide the bodies?
Turns out some guy figured it out. He put on a funny hat, bore the brunt of the jokes, and promised to come back the next day to do it again. He enjoyed lifelong employment in the kingdom because everyone could unify around this dope every day.
A comedian is a sustainable scapegoat. Comedy requires fewer bodies. Fewer.
Being a court jester was still risky. One day the crowd might gang up on the guy and cut his head off. Time to hire another court jester, and tell him the last one retired with a nice severance package.
So further down the line, we entrusted a straight man to deal regular blows for us. The double act was a more sustainable innovation because it removed the mob from the equation. We could sit back and just be one with the straight man.
Finally, solo comedians came around and eliminated the bloody footprint entirely. The likes of Seinfeld, Larry David, Charlie Chaplin, and Jackie Chan seemed to know this intuitively. As the audience, we think they’re the butt of the joke. And then they turn the mirror on us and show us the innocent human behind the scapegoat. It could be you someday. So you cheer for Chaplin because it sucks being a scapegoat.
Comedy is Non-reactive
Comedic geniuses don’t react. They judge how you will react, and then they do something that’s not as cliche as your run-of-the-mill reaction. They anticipated your reaction a long time ago.
This is why agentic action heroes are funny by nature. They see the forest from the trees, and our dumb asses just try to keep up. An agentic action hero is the star of an action comedy.
Making action comedy is not easy. You need someone physically gifted and funny, and finding both is like finding where the north and south poles meet.
Studios once knew how to make action comedies, but that was then. We’re in a different era now.
Action is hard. Comedy is harder. But action-comedy isn’t even really an option in the live action world anymore unless you’re Dwayne Johnson. It requires a vertically integrated production that the likes of Jackie, Chaplin, Seinfeld, and The Rock can shift around in order to ensure a continuity of vision. A horizontal, “assembly line”-style production can’t make a good action comedy. It can do a sitcom, and it can make a revenge thriller, but not an action comedy.
This is an issue of scale. When a studio grows, they hire specialists, who help produce the product in bulk. This usually helps. Let’s take Buster Keaton as an example. Specialists at the studio ensure that schedules are kept, the army’s wardrobe is accurate, and the catering is warm. He shouldn’t have to worry about these things.
But Keaton had a particular brand. Behind most Keaton gags was some feat of engineering. Keaton’s brand required very innovative set design.
Then one day, Don’t worry Mr. Keaton, we have hired somebody to build your sets for you now. Just do you.
The Pink Panther remakes are crap because the the directing, editing, soundtrack, and everything else are all contract jobs masked as employment. Getting these departments all on the same page with the comedy requires a dictator, and dictatorships don’t scale at studios, unless it’s his own studio. Without this vertical integration of departments, comedy stops being a key offering, though it can sometimes become a byproduct.
Traditional studios can’t make action comedies. Comedians make comedy, and action heroes destroy. The two departments don’t communicate much. Unless you’re The Rock.
New studios like Pixar do understand action comedies. In 3D, this stuff is second nature. Animators understand action and comedy because their job is making characters with agency.
The animation process is also well attuned for making action comedy. In animation you can be designing a set, animating your hero, adding particle effects and doing sound design and music all at the same time. It’s vertically integrated, happening simultaneously like an old theater production.
How to Make an Action Comedy (Today)
A little background. Back in 2018 I bought a cost-effective motion capture system and used it to do motion capture stunts for game companies. To make our demo reel, I make some animated shorts in Unreal and Unity on zero budget. My buddy Pete Lee noticed and said, “You could make a John Wick with Jeff Goldblum if you did that.”
Imagine that! A comedic John Wick!
I had learned how to make motion capture movies through osmosis during my stint on God of War. The motion capture actors in God of War don’t do their own fight scenes because you’re not allowed to even sneeze when doing performance capture (“p-cap”) with a facial rig.
The process of shooting a p-cap action scene is therefore: 1. Record your actors doing voice over (and optionally facial capture). 2. Edit the audio into a “radio play”. 3. Hire stunt performers to “dub” the action over the radio play. 4. Put the face, voice, and body together.
On the day, they send us stunt performers a script, we suit up and choreograph a scene based on the script, and then we perform the scene to the “radio play” which they broadcast over the speakers. It’s the reverse of traditional film dubbing.
All this is to say: The lead actor in an animated film never has to throw a single punch, and you don’t have to compromise your visual style to hide a stunt double.
So I made some shortfilms to test the process out. We didn’t have the capability to do facial capture, or even finger capture at the time, but I knew that layering these things together should be a simple process once we got that tech sorted out. The important part was testing whether we could make a narrative for zero budget, and the results weren’t half-bad. As I write this I’m finishing up a much more polished Unreal short we shot with Matt Workman. More on that in a later post.
A Better Hero
Our action hero plays head games and tilts the scales in his favor. He’s the Rocky Balboa, the Conor McGregor who always has a comeback line. He’s assertive and pushes the conversation where he needs it to go, rather than just answering questions. He fights evil and restores order in a fallen world. He’s optimistic and energetic because he has a plan. And he’s funny, because nobody else knows how to crack a joke when shit falls apart.
Written by Eric Jacobus, star, writer, co-director, and editor of the Rope A Dope series.
On January 12, 2015, we released Rope A Dope 2 to the world to commemorate 14 years of The Stunt People. Be sure to check it out below. I promise you’ll enjoy it.
RAD2 comes after almost a year of development, writing, production, editing, reshoots, more editing, more reshoots, a LOT more editing, test screenings, and press blasts. 2014 was an absolutely mental year because, aside from doing Beard Off, getting married, and attending to other important matters, the year was almost solely dedicated to making this 18-minute short film. It feels like a blur and all the knocks to the head seem to have made my memory a bit fuzzy, but thanks to my patented Trusty Dusty Analog TimeKeeper System® I can dig into the ether and put together a little production diary for everyone who wants to get a behind-the-scenes view at how this action-adventure-comedy-martial arts film came together.
Eric’s patented Trusty Dusty Analog TimeKeeper System® grants us the magical ability to reverse time all the way back to prehistoric 2006!
It all started with Rope A Dope 1 (please watch it if you haven’t here, all this nonsense will be slightly less nonsensical after a solitary viewing). RAD1 was produced by veteran stuntman and Olympic Taekwondo champ Clayton Barber, whose long list of credits spans from Robin’s stuntman in Batman & Robin in the 90s to acting as stunt coordinator for You’re Next and The Guest, and recently he’s been head of action in the latest entry in the Rocky Balboa franchise Creed. It made sense for me and Clayton to create the Rope A Dope series because we’re action guys making action. That’s the philosophy I’ve always followed and I intend to take it to my grave.
Clayton had received a script that involved the Groundhog Day “guy restarts his day” concept mixed with an action film, except it was a bit muddled, so he came to me and said, “Eric, why don’t we make a Groundhog Day martial arts movie?” The concept was brilliant. I wrote a script based on “Guy gets knocked out, day starts over” in two weeks, Pete Lee co-directed it with me, and it was a hit.
Eric showing Rope A Dope 1 at Ric Meyers’ Superhero Kung Fu Extravaganza in 2013 and 2014
Since I wrote villain and long-time Stunt People collaborator Dennis Ruel waking up at the end of RAD1 having the same abilities as The Dope, a sequel was inevitable. I had it in my head how this would work, but explaining it on paper was a challenge all in itself. The script took a month or so, which Clayton, Pete Lee, and I batted back and forth. Pete said the film needed to be about more than just revenge, so he came up with the awards ceremony idea, which served as the McGuffin. I also wanted to write as many gags as possible into the end fight. Much as audiences enjoyed the finale in Rope A Dope 1, they always seemed to want to laugh during the final action set piece, but never really got the satisfaction.
Clayton and I, along with the whole stunt group, teamed up with Pete’s company We Are Scandinavia based in Emeryville and brought on several key personnel including Drew Daniels as DP. We had to film our first scene in May, which was a training scene featuring the boxing coach and his sons from RAD1. They were leaving town until August, so even though we weren’t ready to film anything else until July, we needed to get their stuff out of the way first. That created a predicament I’ll get into later.
For the next two months we prepped for a 4-day stretch where we’d bang out 95% of the rest of the film. All the props, art, casting, and locations needed to be sorted out, so we brought on local line producer Vicki De Mey to handle the nitty gritty while Clayton dealt with the business end and Pete and I prepped our shot lists.
Thomas Tan created the newspapers for both Rope A Dope films.
I also took to the gym to pre-viz both the montage fight scenes and the final fight. This was a step we didn’t take in RAD1 and it cost us a lot of time. This time we also had 9 “loops” to film versus 6 in the original, so we opted to do single-take long shots for each day of fighting. We used maybe 30% of the pre-vizzed choreography, but the important stuff, like which weapons were to be used and what tone we wanted to strike, largely stayed the same. The finale pre-viz was the same.
July 10th came around and we began filming in the Victory Warehouse, the same warehouse that we used in Death Grip. Clayton Barber and Freddie Poole flew in from Texas to oversee the shoot. We had production designer Margaux Rust watch Rumble in the Bronx and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original film) to get inspiration as to how to decorate the set. We plugged in the arcade cabinets, hung some tarps, and Drew lit the hell out of the place and we had our “Bad Guys’ Lair”. The first day was dedicated solely to getting all the non-action Lair shots out of the way. This was also the only day we had Ken Quitugua, who played “Kimo” the gang leader. Margaux was also tasked with re-creating Den’s room from RAD1 in the back room of Victory. She nailed it.
Filming was complicated by the fact that so many “loops” had to be covered, and “Den”‘s loops were odd-numbered. This was all clear in my head because I had spent months developing the script, but everyone else would get lost. So I’d say “We’re on day 3” but nobody knew whether it was Den’s day 3 or Dope’s day 3 or the MOVIE’s day 3… it was a mess. So we created a chain of command – I kept the numbers straight and outlined the motivations (“Den, it’s the second loop, prep for the kick this time” or “Den, it’s the fifth loop, be cocky”). This way Drew could focus on his camerawork and Pete could focus on directing.
Day 2 was “the end fight.” It might sound crazy, but at first we shot the entire end fight in a single day, with a different finale between me and Dennis. Dennis couldn’t arrive until 4pm, which gave us about 8 hours to get through everything up to his fight. Shaun did his fall through the table, Eric Nguyen bounced me off the corner three times, and we went into the back room to do the pan fight.
The pan fight was the most painful part of the shoot, and you’d never know it from the final cut because all the painful stuff was cut out. There’s a scene where I hold the pan over my head and they start smashing their sticks on top of it, trying to get through. Tiger Claw lent us a bunch of weapons for this shoot, and I gave the guys various sticks and whatnot, and sometimes one would sneak through and hit my face, or my head or my knuckle. The Dope goes through a dizzy spell like in RAD1 where he hears ringing in his head and almost wakes up, but it’s an egg timer that’s ringing. I back everyone away and smash the egg timer and return back to normal. Sounds funnier than it was. You cut stuff like that.
People ask me how I still managed to flip the egg at the end of the pan fight. Call it movie magic. Pete created the bottle gag on the fly, which we wrestled with in the editing room but ultimately kept because audience responses were always so positive. Throwing the pool ball to the back of Thomas’s head required about 30 takes. During lunch, Ed Kahana and I threw together three sets of choreography for the pool cue fight, and I thought it’d be funny if chalk were still on the tip of the stick and that’s how I beat him. We tried to use real chalk but we couldn’t get it to stay on the top of the cue, so we uttered the four bad words of indie filmmaking – “Fix it in post.” Fortunately VFX artist Alan Cecil did it perfectly.
We looked at the clock and realized we only had 90 minutes to shoot this entire fight with Dennis in the boxing ring. We fell back on a pre-viz video we had shot a few weeks earlier, rushed through it, and finished before a band came in and took over the space. We walked away feeling we hadn’t accomplished what we wanted, but we had managed to shoot a 6-minute action scene in one day.
Day 3 was all of the alleyway scenes, which took place in West Oakland. Most of the day comprised of “loops” 1-5, which were more complex setups involving closeups, dolly shots, and all that. It got hot too, which is why I take off my jacket on Day 6 when I have the golf club. This was actually the time when we decided to do single takes for the fight scenes to give them a more video game-like feel. Plus it was the only way we’d finish on time. The weapons we had were real too, because as indie filmmakers we thrive on authenticity (lies – we couldn’t afford prop weapons), and it turns out that pulling hits so they looked real without clocking anyone in the face with a metal golf club or a frying pan is really hard. This was also a time when we could experiment with the weapons since we hadn’t filmed all of the montage yet, and based on which weapons we chose we could sculpt the rest of the unshot scenes around those. This became key later on.
We also shot a fight using an umbrella, which broke, so we couldn’t use all the footage. You’re not missing much though, since that choreography became the pan choreography. By then my forearm was shot and I could barely hold the pan straight, let alone pull hits. We did about 20 takes of the final bit when the pan drops on my head, which meant 20 welts on my head on top of whatever head trauma I had gotten the previous day. And the day didn’t end there – Jaunt came by with an Oculus 3D camera and filmed a short 360 degree fight scene with us as the sun set. Hopefully Oculus owners will be able to see it some day.
Day 4 was the last day of a harrowing 4-day stretch of filming, and it was the easiest. This was the day when the Dope wakes up, the Skateboarder knocks him down (played by my cousin Danny DeGregorio who we realized mid-day could skate and therefore do justice to the character, and my wife provided his helmet), and the town celebration committee, headed by the Mayor played by Boots Riley (creator of Magic Clap from RAD1), waits in anticipation for the Dope’s arrival. We shot in Boots’ house again, just like in RAD1, and filmed 8 “loops” of the Dope waking up, some of which we didn’t even use in the final cut. We did one where the newspaper hits a fake version of the Dope, which is revealed as an Escape from Alcatraz gag, the Dope beats up the newspaper and runs out half-naked again like in RAD1, but it never quite played right. So we cut that too.
We did our skateboard gag, and normally being a terrible aim I nailed Danny upside the head with the newspaper on take #2. Also in this scene, I’m wearing solid black slacks which magically become blue and black workout pants in the next scene. Movie magic! The awards ceremony was shot at the library park in Oakland. I came up with an alternate opening to the film where the Dope dreams of the awards ceremony, only to be slapped by Mayor Boots with a newspaper, waking the Dope up as he’s beaned in the head with the newspaper flying through the window. It was cute, but ultimately too confusing in the edit. Viewers didn’t know if it was real or not, which was understandable given the context of the Rope A Dope universe. Finishing up here meant most of the film was wrapped, and all we had to do was shoot the second half of the Dope’s training montage… or so we thought.
We took a much-needed break from the intense 4-day shoot. I did a rough assembly of the film, and everything was good except for two things – the end fight in the ring wasn’t good enough, and the training montage we had shot with Jacob, Josh, and Sergio 2 months earlier had a major continuity error – my hair. Look at it, it’s like HALF the length it was in the other scenes! I looked nothing like the Dope I played through the rest of the movie, so that needed to be re-shot. This seemed like a blessing in disguise, since the training footage just wasn’t as good as we wanted and didn’t really relate to the action we had already shot anyway.
We regrouped on August 21st for Day 5 of shooting, which would prove to be something of a fateful day in Stunt People history. The plan was to spent the first half of the day in front of Boots’ house in Oakland, the same exterior as in RAD1, shooting the training montage with the weapons master, a bag lady played by veteran Chinese Wushu teacher Xena Xu, and then head to Treasure Island to reshoot the training scene with the Munoz family. The shoot was going swimmingly, with 12 of us taking up the street in front of Boots’ place. All of a sudden, two 20-somethings wearing hoodies and blue jeans walked straight through our shoot, obviously up to no good. We tried to placate them with some free food from our craft services, and they accepted it, but they kept coming back to ask what we were filming. I tried to coax them away from our shoot, and it worked for a little while. Then about 3 hours into the shoot, I heard one of them say, “Don’t move.” I turned around and he was aiming a pistol at me. I did what any good martial artist would do – I did nothing. The other guy ran in, grabbed the $60,000 Red camera and tripod, and they ran off down the street. The whole ordeal was over in 5 seconds, maybe even less. The police took our statements but there was no way we were getting that camera back. The day was a wash, we all felt like crap. There was nothing we could do. Everyone on Facebook was very supportive, which is what we needed.
We didn’t let a little thing like that stop us, though. On September 16th, Day 6, we picked up shooting again on Treasure Island, CA, this time with Christopher Villa, a professional weapons choreographer out of Santa Cruz, as our training master. We brought Stunt People member Jamerson Johnson for security, which we ended up really needing. Just like Oakland, there were people driving around Treasure Island casing the place for equipment they could steal. Turns out this is a pretty popular thing for thugs to do. A car pulled up and watched us while we filmed, and JJ stood guard while we hurried through the scene. We ended up utilizing a lot of the gags from the end fight that we had already shot, like the “samurai” pan hit on Jason’s face and the “cloud sweep” with the broom that I do in the alley. That’s how good montages are made anyway – film your end fight first with plenty of gags that seem to come out of nowhere, and then shoot your montage so the gags pay off. We left the waterfront and filmed some training footage with the Munoz family for 90 minutes before it got too dark, and called it a day.
With all the training footage shot, we assembled an edit and, following Clayton’s demands to bump up the pace of the action, decided to re-shoot the finale in the boxing ring with Dennis. He and I got together with Pete Lee for two nights at our gym and rehearsed our fight scene, prepped Victory Warehouse, and we were ready to shoot this bad boy.
We filmed the final fight scene on October 13, Day 7. Clayton and Freddie flew in again to supervise the action. As Drew and Margaux were prepping Victory Warehouse, returning it to its previous state, Dennis and I warmed up in the back, when Dennis felt something pull in his leg. When we did a nod to No Retreat No Surrender by having him do the splits on the ropes, he felt it pull even more, and when he started kicking and it was giving him a lot of pain, we knew it was bad, but Dennis toughed it out and you’d never know how bad it was by looking at the performance he pulled off. We spent about 10 hours in the ring re-shooting the entire end fight, and the final product speaks for itself.
Editing Rope A Dope 2 was a major effort. We went through about 20 drafts of the thing, starting from a 25 minute cut with an extra “loop” and extended gags to the trimmed down 16 minutes + credits version that we eventually released. Pete and I screened the film to multiple audiences and took notes on which jokes worked and which didn’t. Clayton passed it off to multiple established comedians, writers, producers and stuntmen for feedback. We took every note to heart.
We made some painful decisions, one of them being cutting the Munoz family from the edit, and a lot of gags were discarded as I listed earlier. Coloring, sound, and visual effects (mostly removing dirt and fibers from the footage from Treasure Island) took up the majority of December’s post production timeline. We sent Rope A Dope 1 to multiple festivals before posting it on YouTube, but we decided that you, the audience, should see Rope A Dope 2 first.
Thanks for all the support. I’m so stoked for what’s going to come from this. More updates as I get them. Until then…
I’m making action filmmaking tutorials now for indie action filmmakers, martial artists, and stuntmen and stuntwomen, a series I’m calling “Indie Action Essentials”. The first skill I’m tackling is the Hong Kong spin, or the “HK”. The video includes all the steps plus what padding I recommend when doing the stunt on hard surfaces.
If you have any requests for tutorials you’d like, comment below or at the video’s YouTube page. I’m always listening!
Yesterday I shot the first fight scene I’ve done since finishing Death Grip. It’s a videogame parody where I play a Karate man taking on two other players played by fellow Stunt People and Death Grip actors Shaun Finney and Yun Lujhei Yang.
Stunt practices have paid off: I could still kick and punch pretty quick, and my bones took a decent amount of damage whenever hitting my forearm or shin against an elbow, but the lagging part was the later choreography, which came slowly once we hit the 4-hour point. In the past, I’ve usually muscled through these moments. The choreography gets more experimental, efficiency plummets, and suddenly one shot takes 45 minutes to accomplish. By the third shot I’m mentally drained and often cranky.
Instead, we played it safe. Rather than draining ourselves on two or three extra shots, trying to make weird choreography look good, we just did something fun and character-related, which ended the shoot on a good note. Now rather than dwelling on the frustration of a little test shoot, I get to remember how fun choreography can be. This makes me wanna jump back into doing short videos again, which will allow me to exercise that choreography muscle again in time for the next big project.
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!
In the latest episode of Love Triangle City, filmmaker Quentin realizes that if he wants to shoot an action film, he needs to stop spying on unsuspecting “reality actors” and actually hire some stunt guys, which leads him to The Stunt People. Chelsea Steffensen and Nathan Hoskins jump to the task, and they get together to make something rivaling Turkish Star Wars.