Chaos Cinema: How Do You Like Your Action?

Matthias Stork for Press Play has put together a two-part, twenty minute video essay taking a look at the current state of filmmaking and something he defines as "Chaos Cinema". His introduction gives his description of how he sees the first century of filmmaking:

Throughout the initial century of moviemaking, the default style of commercial cinema was classical; it was meticulous and patient. At least in theory, every composition and camera move had a meaning, a purpose. Movies did not cut without good reason, as it was considered sloppy, even amateurish. Mainstream films once prided themselves on keeping you the viewer well-oriented because they wanted to make sure you always knew where you were and what was happening.

He transitions from examples such as Bullitt, The Wild Bunch, John Woo's Hard Boiled and John McTiernan's Die Hard into shots of Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Christopher Nolan's Inception, Bay's Bad Boys 2 and Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace as he points out how in the first decade of the 21st century, film style changed profoundly:

Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It's a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits. Directors who work in this mode aren't interested in spatial clarity. It doesn’t matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what's happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones.

He goes on to note how visual clarity has been replaced by audio explanation and how sound plays a much larger role in films today, but goes on to say "sound and image should be complementary, and they should be communicative" rather than one making up for the mess of the other.

One exception is given to Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, saying the film offers the viewer a glimpse at a scene from the character's perspective, but at the same time detaches itself in an effort to give the audience some understanding of what's going on. It's a valid point and I also think the same could be said for Paul Greengrass' Bourne films, which are featured in the videos, but not commented on for reasons I'm not exactly clear on. I felt Greengrass was attempting to give the viewer a third person, real world approach with his Bourne features and the only real reason they are of note now is because filmmakers took audience love for that immersion and ran wild with it as "shaky cam" became a point of derision as the years went by.

Stork does include Battle: Los Angeles, which I believe could have been better used in a direct comparison with Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. The one was clearly trying to be the other in style and vision, but considering they were two different beasts I think his point of perspective would have been hammered home rather than passively commented on in the second video.

As he points out with The Hurt Locker (but not with the Bourne films or Black Hawk Down), this new way of filmmaking can be used to an action director's advantage and not always a bad thing. Personally, I would also say I've never had much of a problem following these action scenes in the way Stork seems to, but then again I've always enjoyed excellent sound design, which is one of the reasons I also love the opening car chase from Quantum of Solace, of which Stork rips apart. As a film that is meant to directly move from Casino Royale, I thought that sequence immediately thrust you back into the story at a breathless pace. Yes, you may be disoriented and weary afterward, but I was always under the impression that was the intention. Get your heart racing and your mind into the action, the exposition followed shortly thereafter to help you gain your bearings.

This isn't to say I'm a fan of this new style of filmmaking, it gives me a headache in a lot of cases just like everyone else and for the most part a lot of the glossy, commercial-style editing has turned most action scenes into non-starters. They all roll together and aren't necessarily hard to understand, but instead hard to care about. There are filmmakers, however, that are doing it right, but as Greengrass showed with Green Zone, even those with an understanding of the medium sometimes get it wrong and even Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight aren't free from exception as they too move in a little too close at times in an attempt to gain intimacy, but sometimes losing clarity.

Watch the two videos below, I would love to hear what you think.

Part One

Part Two

  • AJAY

    The video thing guy , he got a point, but there are always advantages and disadvantages of this chaos cinema. For me I like it, but too much shaky camera will get on my nerves :)

  • gripmonster

    I like my action to be frenetic and chaotic, but I wish directors would use less quick cuts and close-up shots. Frenetic and chaotic does not mean incomprehensable, it is possible to use this style of filmaking to create a coherent sequence in a coherent plotline. The bat-pod chase in The Dark Knight is the best example of this I can think of at the moment, but there are plenty of them out there.

  • m1

    Very interesting article. I think the keys to a good action sequence are the editing and the choreography. The action should be engaging enough to pay attention to, but it shouldn't be blotted out by too many quick cuts or a shaky camera. I also think that the camera should focus on more than just the main character during an action sequence.

  • AJ

    Honestly, I despite this "chaotic cinema". I get supremely annoyed at the action scenes in Transformers, The Bourne Films, and all of them... doubly so if it actually seems like something cool is going on in the scene, just off to the side of the wildly swinging camera frame.

    It's like watching some kind of porn filmed by a cameraman with an odd fetish. Yeah, the action being filmed might be something that would interest me, but as for what makes it onto the screen, that zoomed in close-up of an elbow just doesn't do much for me even if I can deduce what's going on.

  • Leandro Dubost

    There are films that make good use of it. Like the Bourne films, Quantum of Solace (I too love the opening car chase) and I had no problem whatsoever following the action of Christopher Nolan's movies. Inception may have the most confusing story ever, but the action if flawless.

    But I do have a serious problem with anything Michael Bay has done in the past 20 years. The Transformers movies, I have no idea what's happening most of the time. I know the robots are fighting, but usually I don't know which one is which, and I usually forget which is the good one.

    Same thing with low bugdet action movies like the Resident Evil frachise. The sequences are edited in a really sloppy way. Probably trying to hide the lame special effects.

    Once again, I think it's all up to the director. I see nothing chaotic in this more 'close and personal' style of editing/filming. And I don't think the action sequences of older movies are also as flawed edited and this guy thinks. A few movies are perfect, like Ben-Hur and Star Wars. But they're not the majority.

  • Leandro Dubost

    Just finished watching both pieces. I disagree with most of what he said. I think he was just playing nostalgic here (maybe he should watch 'Midnight in Paris'), saying how everything was perfect and brillant and beautiful in the past, and now everything is a mess without sense. This is a very unilateral thought. It's easy to say "before was better", my grandma do that all the time!

    Anyway, he made me realise something: I hate Tony Scott's style. I think his movies are even more incomprehensible than Michael Bay's!

  • Tyler Rosini

    Action scenes have become far to generic now. Every now and then you just have to let the camera sit back and watch the action.

  • Danny

    For me it really depends on the movie... I like the "Old Skool" chase scenes and overall action scenes... but I can adapt well and don't mind, or often, even like the super chaotic or hyper kinetic action scenes in past few years... I don't really have a problem with the docummentary AKA "Shakey" camera work... if it fits the story, like it did for Cloverfield and 28 Weeks Later... And as far the guy who posted up there that they don't like Tony Scott's style... I can understand that for his most recent movies, but check out his movies from early to mid 90's and mid to late 80's...

    Overall I really enjoyed this article and the two video essays, but I do feel the guy who made the videos came off a tad pretentious... but had very valid and well thought out points...

  • News Hit

    I am bewildered by the comments about 'The Wild Bunch'. Doesn't he realise that the Peckinpah film was criticised for many of the same reasons - fast cutting, for instance - that he criticises modern action films?

    I thought he was going to compare the two generations and contrast the way that filmmaking - and viewing habits - have changed.

  • C138

    I often get rather irritated when I see an action scene that just uses the shaky camera effect the entire time. It's fine that people use handheld and it shakes a bit in order to make things a little more intense, but I think it is way, way overused most of the time. It was refreshing to see the truck chase through Gotham in The Dark Knight, because Nolan knew to just sit back and watch the action unfold. It seems that people like Tony Scott and Paul Greengrass are obsessed with chaotic movements, constantly zooming in and out of shots and whatnot. They can't keep the camera still. The only time this worked for me with Greengrass was in United 93. The other exception that the shaky cam didn't bother me with was in The Hurt Locker.

  • maja

    Brad thanks for posting this video, really enjoyed it.

    As for the style, I think that there are three main culprits Greengrass, Tony Scott and Michael Bay. The majority of the films included in the videos cover those three directors. I agree with most of what was said in the videos, but I have to say that oldschool action is still out there and can be seen quite frequently when watching films outside of those three directors.

    For me what broke the camels back on this filmmaking style is Transformers 2, a film that simply made me sick and dizzy to watch.

  • Sean

    The best kind of action sequences are ones that make you actually feel like all bets are off. Even the leading man or woman could be killed off at any moment. I feel like the action sequences today rely on heavy sounds and quick cuts, therefore making them just glossy and well put together but never really give the audience a sense of danger for the characters. I truly think that Refn's film "Drive" is going to, hopefully, set the benchmark for well done action sequences. But then again, maybe I'm wrong. But that is the only example of action cinema today that actually will put us back to the days of Bullit, The French Connection, and To Live and Die in L.A.

    All we can do is hope, I guess.

  • 2face

    I will go with Kubrick, Woo and McTiernan. The fewer the cuts, the better. The more understandable the geography the better.

    The correct balance would be to keep it dynamic, yet still comprehensible enough to have a sense of geography.

    These would be my rules:
    Every action should have only one point of view and the framing should be big enough to contain the entire action inside one shot. It should be possible to do that and still keep the scene dynamic by choosing interesting angles and use a moving camera. Avoid inserts in the middle of an action. But use inserts extensively leading up to an action so the viewer understands what's going on and then can experience the action itself with a full comprehension of the geography. No shakycam, always steadicam.