Action films have a long tradition of its own. The genre often feels as though it was made for cinema, a medium designed to capture movement and momentum. And for some time, nothing really changed with how action movies were shot, until recently. Using director Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass’ Bourne Trilogy, we look at how action films have changed significantly over the years, for the worse. Following is a transcript of the video.
You’ve probably seen this countless times. The shaky camera, fast cuts and just plain overall mayhem. It’s sometimes so bad that you may ask yourself, “What am I watching?” So how did we exactly get to this? Let’s rewind a bit.
The one common denominator among older action films is clarity. And it makes sense, earlier action films, especially martial art pictures, focused on showing the physical feats of its stars. To achieve this, scenes were often shot in a wide angle, with most of the body visible in the frame. The camera also rarely moves and when it does, it follows the actions of its characters, accentuating speed and power.
But modern action movies aren’t shot this way. They lack that fundamental clarity that we’ve become so used to. They are choppy, chaotic and a lot of times just confusing. When you compare these movies side by side, the difference is unmistakable. But perhaps the real shock comes when you realise this is all intentional.
So how did we get to this point? It’s impossible to pinpoint a specific source, but one of the biggest influences was the original Bourne trilogy. These films were revolutionary in the action genre, not to mention both a commercial and critical success. And from jittery handheld cameras to rapidly firing cuts, you can trace all the problems in modern action films to this series.
An easy way to see how the Bourne trilogy changed action films forever is by looking at the average shot length, or ASL for short. It’s a cinematic statistic that measures the average length of a scene before a cut. In the first film, Bourne Identity, the ASL was at around 4 seconds which then became 2.4 seconds in its sequel, Bourne Supremacy. And in the final film, Bourne ultimatum, a total of about 3200 shots were squashed into a 105 minute running time, making the average shot about 2 seconds. That’s a cut happening almost every 2 seconds of the film.
Another change you can notice is in the camera work. Doug Liman, in Bourne Identity, shot his sequence more like the classic action cinema we’re used to. Wider angles and fewer cuts to capture the action as clearly as possible. But under Paul Greengrass’ direction, the camera shots are shakier and closer to the action. He prefers his audience to experience the film rather than to simply observe it. And that’s what Bourne really is, it’s an experience, and a successful one at that. The series is actually edited in a similar way our consciousness and sensory perception works. How we gather bits of information to create a larger whole.It’s especially evident in chase scenes like this, where we see everything from Bourne’s perspective and are given the chance to interpret different clues to track down a target.
There is an intensity to these films that we can’t quite place. And the secret lies in how Greengrass chooses to shoot an action sequence. Although every cut and angle seems choppy, chaotic and mostly random, once you take a closer look at it, you realise everything serves a purpose.
But not everyone dedicates the same amount of thought like Greengrass. And, sadly, it’s made for some pretty terrible action films in recent years. There’s a reason Hollywood was so quick to adopt Greengrass’s style: because fast-paced editing makes it easy to use visual trickery to turn anyone into an action star. All it requires is to put three different shots together: action, impact and reaction. This is why we often see a cut, right before the impact then cut to the moment after the impact takes place. They cut to hide the action, especially when the stars don’t possess the skills to pull off a difficult choreography. This not only makes the action look fake but kills the overall momentum of the scene as well.
But in Bourne, cut is a deliberate act to quicken the pace of the film, it’s never used to hide anything. Every hit, every impact is fully delivered in front of the camera. The camera doesn’t cut until the blow has been fully registered making the fight more authentic and engaging. The combination of ‘action’, ‘impact’ and ‘reaction’ still exists in this method of editing, it’s just not as obvious when replicated incorrectly.
And although Greengrass does sacrifice some level of clarity for the sake of adding intensity, it doesn’t mean he’s abandoned it completely. In fact, when you watch any of the action sequences from the Bourne series, you’d be surprised to notice that it isn’t as confusing as it first appears There are clever tricks at play here if you know where to look.
First, check out the frequent use of wide angle shot like these. They let the audience understand the space and the placement of each character. Sometimes in an obvious angle as this, from above as the fight moves on to a new location. Or how most of the blows, the impact and brief inserts whenever a new weapon is acquired, are all centered right on the frame, guiding our focus, gathering these hints of information more quickly.
Now, let’s look at a bad example. The biggest problem in films that try to imitate the Bourne style is that they take it too far – exaggerating everything. For instance, in this scene, you can see the fast cuts – ala Bourne style – but it’s paired with the same shot, repeated numerous times in rapid succession.We’ve seen repetitions in past action films hundreds of times, but not quite to this extreme. Let’s admit it:There’s no reason to watch Liam Neeson jumping over the same fence ten times. Bourne, on the other hand, has none of that. Even in car chase sequences where repetitions are bound to happen, one impact is enough if shot correctly.
Or even in music. Most recent films have a track that plays throughout entire action sequences, setting the pace and sometimes fading it out to accentuate key moments like this. But it’s the entirely opposite in Bourne. There is no music. What builds momentum and tension is the actual sound of the action itself. Every sound from the brutal impact to the various tools of combat, creates a rhythm, a beat without a single note. Turn down this sound, add a generic music behind it and you instantly see how ordinary the scene turns out.
All these small details and tricks make the action of Bourne more coherent and more intense than anything we’ve seen before, or since. It’s a beautiful combination of what was successful in traditional action films with a new innovative technique. Bourne can’t be blamed for how bad action films are these days, but the blame is on filmmakers who are trying to replicate its techniques and failing miserably. Audiences are smarter than what some directors believe. We can easily notice when we are being manipulated to see and feel in a way that’s not natural. And perhaps that’s what differentiates Bourne from so many of its predecessors. It knows that editing can be used to make anyone an action star but not necessarily a good action movie. And it’s aware what this genre of cinema is really about in the end: Action.
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