Shooting Action Scenes

“Every (action) shoot brings elements of uncertainty. For me, there are things I can do to increase certainty. And in the case of a rappel shoot, it was scouting. Going to the location a couple of times and looking at it with different light afforded me a strategy to approach the cliff.”

Los Angeles-based action DP/camera operator Lawrence Ribeiro talks about shooting action, and about changes in the film industry. In a particularly challenging shoot, Ribeiro rappelled down a cliff to shoot rock climbers.

Lawrence Ribeiro shooting a a cliff face
Lawrence Ribeiro shooting on a cliff face

Ribeiro did not have stunt riggers for this cliff shoot. “I had rock climbers working with me. Obviously, safety is key. Riggers understand elements of motion as well as the idea of what I’m trying to achieve on camera. Further, with riggers I could have had them control the speed, per my instructions, as I descended.

“In rock climbing, the belayer (the person on the ground doing safety) has those capabilities too, but they are not aware of the minute details required for the overall process we call filmmaking. You can liken this to someone who fights professionally – they have the skills, but fighting for the camera is a whole other thing. Fighters onscreen have to sell the fight to the audience.

“Because I was not dealing here with stunt professionals, the equipment varied. I wanted to run across the side of the cliff, but traditional ropes and the equipment being used changed what I wanted to do originally.”

Balance is Key

“My best option was to shoot while rappelling. This was no easy feat. And I had to factor in the camera I was using. When I’m in these awkward positions I don’t want to fight the camera. Balance is key. When you actually go off the side of the cliff, that’s when things get tricky – you’re going from a vertical to a horizontal position. There are different ideologies and theories out there, but I researched my own way. I talked it over with a friend of mine who worked for NASA, which has been a tremendous resource for me. He helped me with the physics of it.

“There was another more aesthetic and interesting location that we were exploring, but because of the distance between the person at the bottom and the person at the top, I couldn’t hear them, which posed a real problem. Since my hands were full, carrying a walkie-talkie wasn’t an option. And being really low budget, the headsets I wanted weren’t available.

shooting a scene on a cliff face
Shooting on a cliff face

Real-World Experience

“Sometimes theory is needed and sometimes you need real-world experience, which then I will get from the stunt coordinator. Let me stress, there is no substitution for experience.

“All in all the shots were fine and we even ended up with a couple of gems. Sometimes bad situations bring out some elements that wouldn’t have been gotten unless you go down that path.”

Framing Judgement

I asked Ribeiro how, in the middle of an action shoot, he balances keeping up with the action while ensuring his “framing judgement” is effective, even innovative.

“Ultimately,” he says, “my responsibility is to make the image interesting while forwarding the story. Shooting action can vary between DPs, hence the changes of the last few years in our field. The sensibilities have changed, especially since the Bourne movies.

“For me, shooting action is kind of easy, as my eyes are trained to see the potential of each shot with speed. I have an idea of how it should look when I’m in prep and while I am shooting. However, the editor may not see it the same way, which sometimes can be unfortunate, but that’s the way it goes, and I do my part.”

Shooting Comedy Stunts

“I recently did a 2nd unit previs shoot for a comedy. We were shooting stunts, but it was the first time I did it for comedy and the framing is much different because you are trying to make it funny. For action, generally, it’s to put the audience on the edge of their seat, but with comedy, you are always trying to make the audience laugh.

“Garrett Warren was the director (Avatar, Lincoln, Divergent) and he has a mind like Quentin Tarantino, which means, he can just pull shots out of movies and bring that to the table. This was a Disney production,” he says, “so unfortunately, we cannot show photos until the movie is released.

“In this case, it’s very unique working with Garrett, as he is a stunt coordinator/2nd unit director who knows action and is a performer. Some directors don’t always know what they want, so I may ask the stunt coordinator his thoughts. The stunt coordinator is an integral part of the action design so it’s good to get input from him or her to make the most out of the framing and such.”

Supporting the Film’s Story

I asked: How do you ensure your camera work maintains or even enhances the film’s story or a character’s growth?

“In 2nd unit/action,” Ribeiro says, “I may not have the freedom to work the characters’ growth through camera movement or such. That is mainly for the 1st unit. Their job is to make the actors look good and encompass all these other factors too.

“However, I can employ techniques for the vehicles, stunt people, etc. to enhance the character. For smaller budgets I may have to wear both hats, and, as a result, the camera movement could have more range.

Shooting a Fight

“In a fight, for an example, there may be character development in the process of the fight. For example, in the cliché fighting action movie, the lead character beats up everyone in the movie, then at the very end, he meets his match. During that fight he will make discoveries because he cannot do what he did in earlier fights. In this case you will see a lot of character development and it can occur in a matter of seconds.”

The action DP must coordinate how much to use the stunt performer versus the actor. “The actor,” says Ribeiro, “has to react accordingly with emotions, where the stunt person has to react physically. You have to capture both so that editor has the footage to put it together.

“You’ll find that in 1st unit they are masters of movement – in a slower fashion, for example, to push in with a dolly or zoom. The timing and distance is an art itself. With 2nd unit, the camera may be locked off. Then it’s all about the stunt – the performer – and if I’m right in there with the camera, it can be a little erratic showing all the confusion or there’s so much going on that I become a human piñata!

“This is what I meant when the Bourne movies came out. Before, the imagery was a little slower and the audience could keep up. In other words, if it’s too fast, the audience may miss it, especially with quick edits.”

Making It Exciting

Lawrence Ribeiro
Lawrence Ribeiro

Ribeiro is a global traveler who logged 50,000 miles before he reached twenty-one.

“My background is little different from other DPs. I lived and experienced a lot of extreme environments and situations, and as a result I can sometimes bring more culture into the imagery. My job is to make it exciting, not pretty. Further, the truth of the matter is that most 2nd action shots are less than three seconds. That is a fact.

“I recently saw Deadfall, a thriller shot by Shane Hurlbut. There are some scenes in the movie that could potentially be quite static but he was very clever on how he shot those scenes. The shaky cam is over used usually, but his shots were fitting, in my opinion.

“Times are a-changing. What’s happening here is that 2nd unit people, directors namely, are getting their edits into the movie. With Fast and Furious 7, that’s a 2nd unit movie. The 2nd unit crew alone is over 300 people! Further they have sixteen cameras, just on 2nd unit. It’s a massive production.

“Obviously, Fast and Furious 7 is an extreme case, but 2nd unit directors are now becoming more savvy in the contract negotiation process, which means they get their edits in the final picture. You’ll find that very few stunt coordinators are very proud of their work, because sometimes their vision gets lost by bringing in the actors or editors who just miss the mark.

“We generally have our own people who are trained for action from the stunt players to the editor…the entire workflow. And you are only as a good as your weakest link..

See Lawrence Ribeiro’s reel.

 

The Heart of a Good Story

A Writer’s Passion

“The heart of an engaging story resides in the heart and mind of the person writing the story. It is passion and where that passion takes you as a writer.”

Writer Don Vasicek
Writer Don Vasicek

So says Don Vasicek, the founder and owner of Olympus Films+, LLC, a global writing and filmmaking company. “This passion is reflected through the writer’s characters and the story. Each character, each location in the story, and each occurrence that takes place in, with and between the characters and in the story, should reflect that passion.

The Crown, the first screenplay I wrote,” says Vasicek, “is a coming-of-age story about a boy who sets out to win $25,000 in a car race to use for an operation to save his Gramps from dying. The heart of the story emerged from within my heart and mind. I possessed a desire to show how vital love is.”

Driven by a Will to Succeed

“This desire was exacerbated by my will to succeed because I grew up in an environment that rejected my efforts to love and to be loved. The Crown shows how love elevates a boy to success and happiness. That passion still burns very deeply inside of me. It is like a roaring fire and it has been reflected in the heart of every engaging story I have written. Love is my passion. It always results as the heart of the engaging stories that I write.”

Indeed, Vasicek’s passion has lead him to teach, mentor, and consult on scripts for over 400 writers, directors, producers, actors and production companies.

The Crown went on to win several screenplay competitions,” he says, “snared me a WGA agent, opened other writing doors for me, received a stage reading, and was purchased and produced by Incline Productions Inc. and aired on cable.”

Story: Beyond the Mere Telling to Magic

Vasicek believes all writers should be aware of the difference between showing and telling when writing a story. “The key here,” he says, “is the use of verbs. Write a sentence with a passive verb. For example, ‘The sky is blue.’ Well, that is something all of us know. But, where is the magic? It is absent because the sentence shows no action. The sentence shows no action because the verb in the sentence, ‘is’, is passive. So, what if, instead, the sentence was written with an action verb: ‘Space constitutes a vault over the earth that is blue in color.’ Here, the action verb, ‘constitutes’, imparts information about the sky that goes beyond blue.

“Look at the usage of verbs in a screenplay or story that you’ve written. What do you see?” Vasicek asks. “I would be willing to bet that those sentences that contain action verbs give you far more confidence that your writing is going where you want it to go than with sentences that contain passive verbs.

“For practice, if you want to improve your writing, take sentences you have written using passive verbs and change those verbs to action verbs. You will find that doing this is hard work. It causes you to think through what you are wanting to accomplish in the sentence.

“The resultant effect is that you will improve the sentence, which embellishes and dimensionalises your story, and you have grown as a writer. This, to me, is taking your writing beyond telling and making it magic because you’re adding heart/passion to what you have written by expanding upon what you have written. Making your writing magic through the use of action verbs deepens your ability to take your writing to the next level.”

Don Vasicek conducting an interview
Don Vasicek Interviewing

Story Elements That Transcend All Media

I asked Vasicek if there are elements of story that transcend all media, even non-fiction and personal branding. “If you watch television commercials (how can we not these days?), you will notice that the good ones eclipse failures non-fiction and personal branding media exhibit because they have a beginning, a middle, and an end to a story.

“Effective TV commercials sustain a theme that holds the story, characters and action together. They contain a main character and they have an antagonist.” Vasicek clarifies that television commercials can have a person or persons or an inanimate or animate object opposing the main character, but unlike in fiction, not a villain because no one wants to involve evil in their TV ads. “Both the main character and the antagonist are seeking the same goal, but the main character is going about achieving it via positive means while the antagonist is doing what he/she can do to succeed via negative means.”

Saving Animals With Detergent

“Dawn soap’s ‘Saving Animals from Oil Spills’ is an example of a cogent commercial. It contains a story, animals and oil spills. The story is oil spills. It has characters. The bad guy is oil spills. The good guy is the animals. The theme is oil spills. The goal of both the main character and the bad guy is to utilize the environment, the good guy for survival, the bad guy for survival (by getting rid of harmful oils into the environment).

“Elements of story that transcend all media, including non-fiction and personal branding, require a story, a main character with a goal, a bad guy with the same goal, a theme that holds everything together, a literal mixing of oil and water, e.g., ‘Saving Animals from Oil Spills’, which creates conflict, and without conflict, there is no drama, and without drama, everything you write falls flat and will not evolve. So, a mixing of dualities, the mingling of opposites, or a dichotomy seals together the story, the character and the action to take your writing to a level that exceeds what media, even non-fiction and personal branding, spend thousands of dollars striving to achieve.”

Unsung Hero Come to Life

Upcoming film for Sand Creek massacre
Upcoming film

Vasicek’s current passion is a feature film, titled The Captain, about Silas Soule, a US Army captain who refused to participate in the slaughter of native Americans at Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1864. When a treacherous massacre was ordered against Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribe members camped near a Colorado fort, Silas held his unit back from the killing. He became a symbol of heroism for his bravery in bringing the truth about the massacre to light. Later he paid the price as the victim of an assassination at the hand of one of the soldiers involved in the massacre.

Marcinho Savant, the executive producer on the project, says of Vasicek, “His passion has become my own. I’m honored to play some small role in telling the truth for the benefit of the Cheyenne and Arapaho victims of this horrendous slaughter.”

See more on the Sand Creek Massacre film.

About Don Vasicek

Don Vasicek serves on the board of directors of the American Indian Genocide Museum in Houston. He is presently raising money for Ghost of Sand Creek, a mini-series/documentary.

Vasicek studied producing, directing and line producing at the Hollywood Film Institute under Dov Simens and at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. He studied screenwriting at The Complete Screenplay, Inc., with Sally Merlin (White Squall), daughter of the famed Hollywood Merlin family of screenwriters and writers, as his mentor.

Vasicek has written and published over 500 books, short stories and articles. His books include How To Write, Sell, And Get Your Screenplays Produced and The Write Focus.

For more see Don Vasicek’s website.