Film Junkyard: Shooting action

By Fred Fernando


Action cinema is pure entertainment and drives plenty of audiences to theatres, at least it used to before the pandemic. Still, statistics-wise the action genre manages to draw in the most income for movies worldwide. Part of its appeal may perhaps be the cathartic nature of stylised violence, the beauty of choreographed action, or simply the adrenaline-fuelled thrill of a car chase. 

While action sequences last a mere few minutes or maybe even seconds on screen, the effort it takes to pull some of these stunts is herculean and requires loads of planning and time to shoot. A film is only as good as the sum of its parts and stunts play a big part in any action-laden flick. Yet, why stunt performers are not recognised by The Academy is a big question in itself. Stunt legend Jackie Chan was presented with an honorary Oscar but that’s as far as it went. Perhaps this will change in the future with more stunts being used more frequently in films now than ever.

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has had a vacancy in terms of action cinema. It’s perhaps the laborious task of putting together action or the lack of expertise. According to High School Junkies Founder Akash Sunethkumara and cinematographer Kasun Rathnasiri, pulling off decent action does not require massive budgets. Here are a few tips on how to create better action sequences:


Use the story to guide the action


The more the action is driven by the story, the more it tends to be in place rather than sticking out like a sore thumb. Utilise the script and decide how the action can drive the story. According to filmmaker David Worth, good action always reveals more information about a character or the story. It has to contribute to revealing something that the audience did not know before. 


Pre-visualise it


According to Akash, pre-visualising an action scene shot for shot in one’s mind helps to materialise it better in front of the camera. “When you know how the scene plays out in your mind as an edited version, it becomes easier to pull it off in real life.” Akash suggested that having a written guide to an action scene helps them break it down into smaller manageable chunks when choreographing.


Rehearse and rehearse; oh and then rehearse some more


Once the scene has been envisioned, getting the performers to rehearse as much as possible is paramount. According to Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dan Laustsen, the action scenes in the John Wick movies look great due to the amount of sheer work the stuntmen and actors put in during the pre-production stage. 


Block with cinematographer


The Junkies always block out their action scenes with the cinematographer long before they get on the film set. According to Kasun, blocking a scene with the Director of Photography (DP) and shooting it in advance helps the filmmakers decide which angles work best and whether the pacing of the scene is tight enough. If something does not add up, this gives ample time to figure out a better approach. Involving the cinematographer as early on in the planning stage helps him or her decide on the technical aspects needed to shoot the scene as well. 
Kasun also prefers to keep the camera moving to create parallax within a shot. “The combination of camera movements together with an actor’s movement makes the scene more dynamic and makes it look more energetic than it is.”



On-set safety


Having had many injuries and mishaps on set during their preliminary shoots from back in the day, Akash implied that safety comes first. “It helps to be ready for the worst. No matter how much you’ve rehearsed, injuries are common because there’s a lot of time spent in between takes which causes actors’ bodies to warm down and this results in injuries. So, if you are shooting a fight or chase sequence, try to warm up before a take. And have a first-aid kit in hand.”  
He also suggested planning out more time to shoot an action scene as compared to a more dialogue-driven one. 

Post-processing does the heavy lifting


The edit is where all the action scenes come to life. Combined with sound effects, speed ramping, and frame manipulation, a seasoned editor can bring amazing flair to the footage that has been shot. Kasun recommended shooting action at a higher framerate, which Akash agreed with, stating that it helps a lot in case they need to slow down and amplify moments. They collectively agreed on the fact that action sequences can be pushed to a more polished state given that you spend ample time editing and getting feedback from people. 

Junkyard Theory will be going live with veteran stunt choreographer and actor Richard Norton on 4 April at 3 p.m. Sri Lanka time. Richard has served as Fight Co-ordinator on Mad Max Fury Road, X-Men Dark Phoenix, and the upcoming James Gunn film, The Suicide Squad.

In 2015, filmmaking collective High School Junkies started creating short films out of passion and soon gained momentum as a film production house that championed frugal filmmaking. Their second short, EIDETIC, became the first-ever Sri Lankan film to be screened at the San Diego Comic-Con, and has subsequently been screened all over the world. They host guests from Hollywood on their webinar, Junkyard Theory.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.