Action Design and the Action DP (Reprinted from MovieMaker Magazine)

Lawrence Ribeiro is an action cinematographer who specializes in combining stunts, movement, and aesthetics. Having shot over 100 action sequences, from car chases and motorcycle stunts to fight scenes, Ribeiro is at the forefront of a movement that’s changing the role of the action DP in 21st century filmmaking.

 

A relatively unknown concept called “action design” has arisen in the second unit world that makes working with stunt people easier and more engaging.


An “action DP” is a cinematographer who is specifically in charge of action sequences. Each action DP brings his or her own unique perspective and experiences to the creative process. When I shoot, I bring to the table my own experiences of having been in conflict zones, street racing, and other extreme situations. Increasing your confidence in risky situations has a lot to do with your preparation and the people with whom you are working. You are only as good as your weakest link. Shooting stunts and action, you can’t let your emotions get the best of you. Otherwise, you won’t see the possibilities for new and interesting images. You have to keep your cool.


From 2008 through 2010, there were roughly 15,000 camera operators and DPs in Hollywood. Many of us were out of work. It was grim. Some of us were the best of the best. I found myself vying for jobs with operators and DPs who had 20-30 years of experience. The only good thing about it was that I had access to the best camera people in the business who a couple of years prior were too busy to collaborate with me. To secure a niche and get more work, I started doing risky shoots in extreme situations and environments. I started by approaching veterans about how to assess and shoot certain scenarios. I cannot begin to tell you how many mistakes and close calls I had, but I did gain experience that is extremely valuable now.


I approached a stunt coordinator, which eventually led to opportunities in the stunt world that allowed me to see how the professionals were doing it. This was my introduction to the second unit world of stunt work, comprised of an amazingly talented group of individuals. They are ex-athletes, Olympians and World Champions who risk their lives daily.


In the last few years, the technology used by action/second unit crews has changed drastically. Recent major technological innovations, driven by decreasing costs, include the use of drones (UAVs), Movis/stabilization systems, compact cameras and action DPs. Film industry professionals are aware of these trends, thanks to the constant barrage from the marketing brain trusts of the studios and equipment manufacturers.


This recent change is thanks to the decreasing costs of high-end cameras. Stunt people, now with access to cameras, stunt equipment and resources, have begun experimenting and shooting their own work. And, to be honest, another motivating factor is simply that they got sick of seeing their stunt work morph compromised due to editing choices and other influences. You’ll likely find few stunt coordinators that are very happy with the final product. This dissatisfaction has driven stunt performers to pick up the camera and start shooting and directing their own work.


In the indie world, action DPs have an advantage because there’s much less to lose and more freedom to experiment. As an indie filmmaker, once you start seeing how these things are put together, you realize that it can be done very simply. For example, a mini-trampoline can be used as an air ramp; you can shoot from the back of an SUV, to simulate a car chase; or you can use rubber cement for fire burns, and so on. All these scenarios have their risks, but things become straightforward when researched and practiced, and these simple additions can make the image more exciting.


Editing is also evolving in the second unit world. In Fast and Furious 6, what you see in the final film are the second unit edits. For all intents and purposes, it’s a second unit movie. For Fast and Furious 7, the second unit has a 300-person crew with 16 cameras and on-site edits. It’s a machine. The second unit is supplying most of the pipeline, so to speak.


When the Bourne series came out, it changed everything. Recently, stunt performers have educated themselves on the art of cinematography and have become DPs that bring that unique stunt perspective to the table. Now is the golden age of the action genre; you have folks like Roberto Schaeffer (DP on Quantum of Solace), Mitchell Amundsen (DP on the Transporter series and second unit on the Mission Impossible series), Paul Cameron (DP on most of Tony Scott’s films), and the affable Shane Hurlbut (DP on Act of Valor and the recent Need for Speed). Stunt people surround these fellows onset; for example, Scott Waugh is a stuntman-turned-director (Need for Speed) and brings a different perspective to the game. Each action DP has their own style and creative process. Hurlbut, for example, has a very thorough approach to choosing the right camera(s) for his projects. I myself am more concerned with content over image, which means my priority is to get the audience on the edge of their seats!


The Raid 2 brings yet another major change to the action/second unit profession. My hat goes off to the filmmakers, as they did it their own way. If you were to say to a Hollywood exec that an action movie in Indonesia with unknown actors, with nothing but action, would be a huge hit, they would have laughed. But who’s laughing now? MM