The London Action Fest’s weekend events kicked off on Saturday at Picturehouse Central with a screening of Chia-Liang Liu’s phenomenal The Legend of Drunken Master (AKA Drunken Master 2), a highly sought action classic that’s overdue a remastered Blu ray release.
Following this was the first panel event: The World in Action- Celebrating Asian Action Cinema with Joey Ansah (actor, director and martial artist), Mike Fury (journalist and author) and Jude Poyer (2nd unit director, action designer, and stunt coordinator).
The guests talked about what drew them to Asian cinema, citing early exposure to ninja films on VHS, a martial artist PE teacher, and sneaking into late night screenings of Hong Kong films, in Soho.
A sequence from Sammo Hung’s Dragons Forever, starring Jackie Chan, was then presented, and the panel discussed why the film is so special, citing hand-to-hand combat and frenetic editing. They also talked about how Hong Kong cinema was better than American action films of the time, as US fight scenes were mostly choreographed in sterile environments before being transferred to a set or location.
A sequence from James Glickenhaus’ The Protector was then played, followed by an alternative version re-edited by Jackie Chan for its Asian release. Jackie Chan’s version is superior to Glickenhaus’ due to faster pacing and tighter shots making attack impacts more powerful while Glickenhaus’ version is slower with “negative space”.
Clips from Police Story 2 and Armour of God were shown, prompting discussions about fight rhythm and the artistry of sound. “It doesn’t have to be realistic, more like a dance with the percussive nature of sound informing the combat”.
The panel talked about how martial arts comics and novels inspired Hong Kong film-makers as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd did Jackie Chan. Also, how Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead influenced Siu-Tung Ching’s A Chinese Ghost Story, which inspired Renny Harlin on A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.
The talk concluded with Joey Ansah discussing a fight sequence he worked on with Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity. Ansah rose to demonstrate some moves then went on to discuss how “chaotic combat” is more authentic as it shows the reality of violence, before stating how story, character and objective should also inform the fighting.
Punch Above Your Weight – How to make your first action masterpiece featured film producer Rupert Whitaker and director Paul Katis, joined by Naomi Joseph and Natalie Tandoh, representatives from ScreenSkills, an industry led body and event sponsor, acting as an entry point for people wishing to find work within the industry.
The panel discussed budget management: what can and can’t be achieved, how low budget action-set pieces need to be enhanced by character and jeopardy over spectacle stemming within, preferably, single location set scripts.
Using government tax incentive schemes to help fund productions was also discussed along with how to form production companies in ways to specifically receive funding and avoid liquidation. Targeting a film’s subject to a specific group of investors was also suggested as a way to secure funding.
Guidance was provided on how to issue production company memorandums and writing business propositions which include distribution details, to reassure investors the film will enter the marketplace. Crowdfunding was also suggested as a good source to create an online community of people willing to help promote the film.
The day continued with a session called The Car Chasers during which stunt drivers Steph Carey, Lloyd Bass and Rick English discussed what inspired them to work in this field, with a father’s love for motorcycles, learning to drive at too young an young age and The Fall Guy being key influences.
A sequence from Mad Max: Fury Road was then played, followed by a panel discussion. The team talked about the importance of timing, how tight shots during scenes in wide open spaces are pivotal to making everything look grander, along with how the manner in which a stunt is shot can increase the risk of danger.
Rehearsals need to be carefully structured and vehicle modifications made. Different types of driving styles need to be consistent with the character and incorporated into planning. The shots also need to tell a story and include geography where required. Context, character, music and point of story also need to be taken into consideration.
Constant communication with the director is also key but these are often conducted via the second unit director in charge of the stunt department.
The panel briefly discussed the creation/use of POD cars in modern action films. These are roof driven vehicles with a pod on top containing all the main controls. They have been around since 2007 with one panel member recalling first seeing them on the set of National Treasure, but they have become more common.
Steph, Lloyd and Rick then went on to discuss car chases in 1970s films like Bullet and The French Connection, and how these stemmed from a golden age of guerrilla stunt work when there were more tracking vehicles and fixed cameras in cars, more actors did their own driving and happy accidents occurred.
Rick thought 70s and 80s film stunts were cooler due to the greater element of risk involved, which is what he believed gripped viewers and made the screen action greater. He considered The French Connection chase to be one of the greatest and gritty but not very fast as the crew had no official lock-offs or SAs (safe areas). The sequence featured close ups, POVs and crashes which made it seem faster.
A clip from the car chase in Ronin was then played. The panel found this particularly interesting as it featured set-pieces within the main chase, with vehicles that had a lot of prep and blind driving (inside the car, under the seat). With this method the calibration must be mastered to factor in margins of safety.
Rick concluded by saying, ultimately, skill and expertise save the day. If one person loses concentration and end up in the wrong place, it could lead to major problems.
Rick and Lloyd remained part of the panel for the next discussion called Don’t try this at home – How to become a stunt professional, presented in association with the British Stunt Register. They were joined by stuntperson colleague Gary Powell
Gary comes from a family of stunt professionals and recalled his first stunt working on the 1970s Carry On TV series. He later went on to work as a stunt driver on Spectre and spoke of how crashing custom-built Jaguars and Aston Martins which cost £1-£1.2 million was a highpoint of his career.
Gary also spoke about how Spectre was also the most stressful production to work on. Despite so much planning, he was unusually nervous while filming the helicopter sequence in the film’s opening due to the number of people in the crowd below.
Rick, Gary and Lloyd talked about how it is down to the individual to undertake necessary training for the specific type of stunt work they want to specialise in, whether it be swimming, horse riding, fighting, jumping or driving.
They discussed the importance of adapting stunts for specific locations and how settings contribute to what you can and can’t do.
“It’s not just about whether or not the stunt-person can do it, but whether the character they are playing can do it too” Rick stated before citing Martin Campbell as one of the best directors to work with from a stuntperson’s perspective.
Lloyd added that he gets more nervous through fear of getting the stunt wrong than hurting himself.
Further advice given to those wishing to get into the field included; gaining as much experience on film sets as possible (whether as an extra or guest), carefully observing what is going on while there, and becoming an asset to the crew by paying attention to what they need.
A stunt professional career progression plan was detailed revealing how a stunt-person can become a coordinator then 2nd unit director, and eventually director.
After the stunt professionals left, Academy Award winning composer Stephen Price (Gravity) and music editor Bradley Farmer (Baby Driver) took to the stage to talk through the process of creating music for an action sequence, as part of a panel event called What’s the Score?
Music should help tell the story by providing rhythmic shapes to reflect and compliment what’s happening on screen. The two also discussed more technical tasks like marking time cuts and utilising cinema speakers creatively in the dub.
Stephen and Brad then talked the audience through the “disarticulation of sound” during a sequence from Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho and how dialogue can be used as a percussive element permeating the various noise layers.
They also dissected a section of Alan Silvestri’s score during the climactic action sequence of Back to the Future; how it is beautifully structured and leads to a peak in melodic orchestral action. Stephen and Bradley consider it a masterclass in action scoring that works well with the sound design.
The two then spoke about how great ’80s cinema scores are, and how you can tell the composers back then were working to an already locked cut. Modern film music is more modular, so cuts can be made easily if required.
After playing the classic ski attack sequence from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Stephen and Brad commended John Barry on how his beautifully simple mood synth music bows to let the bullets fly and has a life way beyond the screen. Today there is much more marking of sound effects in action films/scoring.
In The Bourne Identity, music is built into a busy environment with an unsettling, low-end sub bass to make action sequences resonate.
Stephen talked about how he has previously used clanking tank parts for the percussion section.
When composing the score for Gravity, Stephen needed an organic, physical, analogue quality. He was instructed to make the music sound more like noise, turning metal crashes into musical elements. Twisting old NASA radar and static recordings within a 3D environment to suggest the characters were cut off from contact.
For Stephen’s latest project, Beast, starring Idris Elba, a scene was shot in South Africa featuring an angry lion attacking a car with a family inside. Stephen played a clip from his film and analysed is gritty, organic score with a natural percussion. The sound crew achieved this by travelling to South Africa and recording lions in their natural environment.
Saturday 30th concluded with exclusive preview of Gangs of London season 2, followed by a Q&A with director Corin Hardy, and The Great Action Quiz.