Editing Action: 5 Tips to Keep the Audience on Edge and Engaged
Cinema is blessed with no lack of action sequences that nudge us to the edge of our seats every year as superheroes, secret agents, robots, and more all careen across our screens in moments designed to thrill us.
But while we may be privy to many good action sequences, great ones that become classics are rarer.
In addition to all those involved in creating memorable action sequences (screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, stunt coordinators, second units, stunt choreographers) an editor is especially well positioned to elevate a good sequence to a great one.
If they use the right technique.
Editing a classic action scene may be a mix of skill, experience, and alchemy, but there are reliable techniques that the best sequences use, and that editors can use to leave their own mark on the genre. We’ve laid out five of those techniques and provided case studies for each to highlight the practice and theory.
1. Cut to actors’ faces to remind us of the human factor
Characters, and the actors portraying them, are the (not so) secret glue that keep any great action sequence together. Pull up a classic action sequence in your head – whether it be the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, or the tilting room fight in Inception. Imagine re-editing it without any cuts or angles to show us the character’s faces. You’d still have the action, but something would be missing: the feeling that any of it matters.
No editor needs to be told the value of a reaction shot and that cutting to faces of actors reacting and looking, guides viewers to understand what’s happening where, to whom, and from what perspective. But using mid- or close-up shots during action has a more significant purpose when done right.
Seeing an actor express pain after being punched, or anxiety when skidding a car around a tight corner, reminds us of the human stakes – no matter how superhuman the action may be.
It’s not CGI or practical effects that make an action scene truly believable. It’s being reminded of the relatable human and emotional stakes in order to cement the illusion that these are people to suspend our disbelief over and worry about. And when an editor remembers that, it allows us as an audience to invest in the emotions (if not situations) we can recognize.
Case Study: Mission: Impossible – Fallout:
Based solely on the kicks, punches and tackles dispensed in a bathroom fight in the latest Mission: Impossible, it would qualify as a good action scene. What makes it great, is the anxiety and anger that we’re shown when the camera focuses on the actor’s faces.
It starts from the moment when Lark (Liang Yang) wakes up in the bathroom stall, and editor, Eddie Hamilton, cuts to a worried Ethan Hunt noticing it with a “This is bad” expression. It establishes the emotional stakes through Ethan Hunt’s concern, which invests us with the question: “What will happen next?”
[Related: Read how Eddie’s editorial team of 30+ people helped bring this film to life and win Critics Choice for “Best Action” film]
During the remaining sequence, Hamilton continues to use the technique as Lark dismantles Hunt and August Walker (Henry Cavill) as they attempt to fight him off. When Cavill gets punched in the throat, we see his face in wide-eyed pain, which gives us an almost palpable “Oof!” reflex (emotion), but also invests us in the sequence further by selling the idea that if his hulking body can be hurt, our heroes really are in trouble (stakes).
Image from “Mission: Impossible—Fallout” © Paramount Pictures
When Lark has a struggling Hunt by the throat and faces an angry incoming Walker with a calm but determined face (emotion) it conveys further bad news (stakes). When Walker gets knocked out moments later, we cut to Hunt looking exhausted and beaten on his knees (emotion), showing us not just how physically exhausted he is, but conveys an escalation from “This is bad” to “Can we win?”
The result of those cuts is that the sequence isn’t just something we marvel at for its action execution, but something we’ve become invested in on a more human level that immerses us much more meaningfully in the events.
2. Cut on the movement to add energy and momentum.
Action shouldn’t just be seen, it should be felt. And not just in the human emotional way we’ve laid out above. There’s a reason many great action scenes are referred to as kinetic: they can possess an energy that leaps off screen.
Usually, that energy comes from the movement of objects on screen, especially with action: fists flying, cars skidding around corners, bodies dodging explosions. But editors can accentuate the energy of an action sequence to significant effect by cutting on movement.
Once a swinging first connects with a face during a brawl, cut. When an arm whips out to aim a gun in a Mexican standoff, cut. Once a steering wheel is being wrenched to the left during a pursuit, cut. Follow those cuts with another one on movement, and a sequence then develops a kinetic momentum. The action takes on a tempo, like the beat of a catchy pop song, which makes it feel more visceral and real and turns action into a feeling.
Case Study: Haywire
There’s no music during Gina Carano’s fight against Michael Fassbender in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, but because of how it’s cut it nonetheless feels like it has a visceral rhythm. The inherent momentum of the part tango, part sex, part MMA fight choreography is amplified by Soderbergh (editing his own film) selectively wielding the technique of cutting on movement. Among shots lasting as long as ten seconds, we get one second cuts of punches and kicks which enhance our impression of the speed and violence of the ruthless fighting.
Image from “Haywire” © Relativity Media
But Soderbergh demonstrates another benefit of technique: not just adding momentum to a fight scene but reflecting the fight itself. These are meant to be two highly qualified professionals fisticuffing, and the crispness given their movement by the quick cuts help reflect that.
For example, when Carano throws Fassbender over a couch, the speed of his recovery is enhanced by dropped frames and cuts that boost our sense of his abilities. There’s also moments where the editing technique tells us something about the progress of the fight, like when Carano recovers from being dragged through some glass shelves. Afterwards, we get very quick cuts of her punching her way back up, which help indicate how quickly she can regain the upper hand.
Image from “Haywire” © Relativity Media
What all this demonstrates, on a master class level, is that cutting on movement can create a symbiotic relationship between form and content that some of the best action sequences have or should have.
3. Establish and preserve the geography of the space
An editor’s job, in many ways, is to present visual information for audiences to process. How those images are edited creates not just meaning, but how or whether that meaning will be understood. The better audiences understand what they’re shown, the more they can be immersed in it. That’s something that succeeds in great action sequences in large part because of geography.
It’s important to ensure that audiences are clearly oriented in the space where the action will happen to properly root them in a place. Early cuts should map out the geography of a sequence, then cautiously preserve an audience’s clear sense of space. Because if the audience loses that, there’s the risk of disorientation and then detachment as they try to figure out what is happening to who and where.
It forces them to orient themselves, which means they’re not able to sit back and pay as much attention to the story and action. But if you incorporate into your workflow a priority to establish and orient the geography of a scene, that can easily be avoided.
Case Study: John Wick Chapter 2
Overall, the John Wick movies are masterworks of editorial establishment and preservation of geography, but an early fight in John Wick: Chapter 2 is especially representative.
From the moment that editor Evan Schiff gives us a defacto establishing wide shot at the 0:07 mark of the taxi garage where the fight takes place, we become situated in the scene’s landscape.
Image from “John Wick: Chapter 2” © Summit Entertainment
From there, no cut leads us to lose our orientation regarding where Wick is positioned in the space, or where his opponents are coming from. A testament to how well Schiff preserves our orientation happens at the 0:20 mark when we hear the squealing tires of an incoming car off-screen, and we know exactly where it will come from because we know the geography of the space so well: we’ve been shown shot after shot that have subtly ensured that we know there’s no room on the right for a car to arrive.
The sequence’s dedication to preservation is made clear even when it throws it off. At 0:58 we get a rare close up of Wick and a reverse cut to show a car barrelling in from an unexpected direction. But almost immediately, Schiff cuts to ensure we’re reoriented.
Why that’s so impactful is because it not only ensures we understand everything we’re seeing, but by becoming familiar and immersed enough in the space as an audience that we can innately know the space, we can devote all our attention to the fight instead.
4. Every cut should serve the narrative mini-arc of an action sequence
A memorable action sequence isn’t just a series of physical or ballistic, well, action. The genre’s best scenes are all in service of the larger story of a film. However, the best also function as standalone mini-stories with a beginning, middle, and end that you could extract from the film and they’d still make narrative sense. They’re propelled by how a story is often defined: a character wanting something and needing to overcome one or more obstacles to get it.
(The Nerdwriter’s video essay about Helm’s Deep does an excellent job illustrating the importance of an action scene being a mini-story arc on its own.)
A technique to ensure that happens is cutting so that no shot fails to serve progressing that mini-story.
Editors aren’t just organizers of footage, they’re storytellers. And as such, every shot in an action scene should be scrutinized for how it advances the story. Because by telling an action sequence this way, it creates a narrative that will allow the action to resonate more richly with a viewer and create a more filling narrative feat that doesn’t feel aimless or meaningless. Action should be entertainment, but it should also mean something in the scope of the film.
Case Study: Wonder Woman
According to the above definition of story, the mini-story within the Battle of Veld sequence in Wonder Woman is that Diana wants to save a small village and needs to overcome the German forces occupying it. Editor Martin Walsh makes certain that every cut serves the beginning, middle, and end of the arc that sees her accomplish that.
Image from “Wonder Woman” © Warner Bros.
Consider how the first section of the sequence begins: Wonder Woman needing to first move from Point A to Point B (the town square) to even be in a position to complete her overall goal. The obstacle of the beginning section of this mini-story is introduced immediately with German bullets, and every subsequent cut Walsh makes serves the purpose of showing her advancing the story by either eliminating or being in the process of eliminating a German soldier in order to inch her way towards her goal.
Image from “Wonder Woman” © Warner Bros.
The same happens in the middle of the mini-story (the clearing of the town square) and the end (taking out the sniper). Each section begins with an obstacle being introduced followed by shots of her overcoming them.
Throughout that four-minute arc, a lot of action happens, but every cut serves the sequence of the mini-story’s arc. That’s why at the end you can feel a sense of completion and fulfillment because you’ve not just experienced an action sequence, but a full narrative arc.
5. Allow for full actions in a shot
A common complaint about modern action movies can be that many have become indecipherable. A mix of shaky camera work and overediting (cutting too quick, too often) strains an audience’s ability to properly process what they’re seeing. It can beg the question: what’s the point of an action sequence if you can’t actually see the action that took months for a production to put together?
There isn’t anything wrong with quick cutting, of course. The earlier mentioned technique of cutting on movement often results in that. But what many of the best action sequences make sure to do – including all those in this article – is allow for a shot to show a complete action and movement.
A good example of the opposite of this is an often-ridiculed moment in Taken 3 where the single action of Liam Neeson hopping a fence is torn apart into 14 different cuts. If you ensure that any shot shows a complete action, you have a much better chance to allow for audience’s appreciation and immersion.
Case Study: Atomic Blonde
The impressive apartment fight in Atomic Blonde isn’t shy on 1 to 2 second shots, but it illustrates the value of cutting to show a complete movement. Consider, for example, the moment at the 0:50 mark where Lorraine (Charlize Theron) is in the process of dispatching two German police officers.
Image from “Atomic Blonde” © Focus Features
It’s only a few seconds, but within that shot we’re shown three fully expressed actions: 1) Lorraine pointing the gun of the police officer she’s taken hostage at his colleague, 2) using a rope to disarm that colleague, and 3) using the rope again to disarm her hostage.
The moment doesn’t cut on each action, giving us three one-second shots where her quick movements would be harder to discern. The result is that we are allowed the chance to see how bad-ass Lorraine (and Theron) are. The best action movies give us “That was so cool, I can’t believe I just saw that” moments.
Atomic Blonde editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir does this throughout the apartment fight, especially during a five second moment at the 1:38 mark where Lorraine has to hit a couple of officers several times before they go down, or the leap off the balcony near the end of the sequence. The jump is intercut and split up, but notice how the jump is still given three full actions: 1) the leap off the balcony, 2) the moment gravity and the rope snap to start to pendulum Lorraine, and 3) the full landing.
All of it produces a thrilling technical “I can’t believe someone did that” appreciation that any great action sequence has.
These five different techniques have commonalities. Chief among them is that they produce the immersive effect that the best of cinema – action or otherwise – can give us. We go to the movies to see the impossible made believable, to see the fictional made to feel real. Each of these editorial techniques contributes to the alchemical effect of that, ensuring that what’s created becomes something that draws us in deeper, and reminds us why we go to the movies.