Action movies have come a long way since the birth of CGI, but better visuals haven't always been a friend when it comes to creating seamless, iconic action sequences. Are modern blockbusters guilty of using technology as a crutch? We've been seeing progressively lazier action scenes in cinema, and while it's easy to blame special effects, the root of the problem lies in the fact that #action scenes have a vital list of ingredients, just like any other part of a story. When you don't include every ingredient, nothing tastes right.
Is there a way to fix this without losing our tech?
Sometimes it's hard to find action scenes that are made of raw, honest storytelling materials, but there's a movie that set the gold standard for locking us in our theater seats. How long has it been since the name Indiana Jones crossed your ears? Too long, surely. Though there hasn't been much recent news from Steven Spielberg's cult-classic franchise, there's still a lot to be enjoyed, and in the case of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a lot to be learned. Here's how the ingredients of the famous opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark can help modern action movies save the day once again.
Setting The Stage
First, let's gives action scenes the same set of rules that every story must follow. Setup always comes before a payoff, and a common trap action scenes fall into is building a sequence with no setup. Raiders of the Lost Ark proves that action scenes don't need an hour of character development to make everything stick together — action scenes just need an anchor.
This is how the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark checks off all the right boxes in under four minutes.
- Location — From the very first shot, we're given a spectacular view of jungle scenery. Even though nothing exciting has happened, we have a better grasp on the story world, and therefore a better grasp on the situation.
- Character — Indiana Jones is a mystery. He spends most of his time with his back to the camera. He says little. He acts with no clear motivations. At this point, Indiana Jones might not be someone we care about, but he's definitely someone we'd like to keep seeing onscreen.
- Tone — With a brooding score from John Williams and the telltale signs of hostile forces along the path, Raiders of the Lost Ark tells you flat out that danger lies ahead.
It takes very little to set up an action scene, but it makes the difference between a frenetic collection of film cuts and a memorable piece of a story.
Staying In Line
The biggest struggle when creating an action scene is building a sequence of events that stays connected, clear and engaging. Clarity in action scenes often depends on cinematography, but the structure is more important than you might think.
When it comes to action, bigger isn't always better. It's hard to stay focused when there are characters scattered across the map, new dangers around every corner, and plot lines struggling to stay connected. The key to keeping a scene coherent is to create a logical sequence of events. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the best examples in the film industry.
In the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a young Harrison Ford is on a quest to retrieve an idol from an ancient temple. The temple is, essentially, a long hallway. Indiana Jones and his guide travel in a straight line, avoiding booby traps and facing each new challenge as it comes. When Indiana takes the idol and things get messy, it's a straight line back to the entrance.
The opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark is simple but highly effective. By keeping each element of the scene on a concrete visual and spatial line, the action is clear. It's not possible for every movie to take advantage of this simplicity, of course, but creating even small lines of sight makes for a better viewing experience.
Raising The Stakes
If you make a cake, you need flour. If you paint a picture, you need a subject. If you film an action scene, you need to raise the stakes. This is the most important ingredient on the list.
The opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark might be built in a straight line, but the tension is anything but level. There are three unique ways Raiders of the Lost Ark raises the stakes in the opening scene.
- Intense Physical Danger — As Indiana Jones explores the temple, the booby traps escalate from a collection of furry tarantulas to vicious darts shooting from the walls. Once he takes the idol, things go downhill — most notably, a boulder goes downhill. Within minutes, Indiana Jones goes from brushing away tarantulas to scrambling to escape death. Step by step, the physical danger grow more threatening.
- Betrayal — While we're hyped up on the adrenaline of the escape, Indiana faces another problem. His companion, Satipo, asks him to hand over the idol in exchange for the whip Indiana needs to swing across a bottomless crevice. When the gold touches Satipo's hand, he drops the whip and says, "Adios, Señor Jones." This is tension born from a newly developing character that ropes us into caring whether Indiana lives or dies.
- Narrow Misses — With the idol gone, Indiana leaps across the crevice. He barely makes it to the other side, but eventually pulls himself to safety. Further down the path, he finds Satipo impaled by a particularly high-stakes trap. This kind of tension is unique from the rest of the scene, which relies on escalating danger. How is it different? The film teases death when Indiana is abandoned, but Raiders of the Lost Ark doesn't let this potential go to waste. By allowing Indiana Jones to escape the crevice and find that death has fallen on Satipo's head (and his entire body), the scene forms a pattern of tension that allows us to breathe while it winds up for a harder punch.
Raising the stakes is the most important ingredient when it comes to creating action sequences, and Raiders of the Lost Ark pulls it off in one of the simplest ways: Every step of the scene is a step that takes us higher.
Have we forgotten how to make engaging, memorable action scenes? Of course not, but adding CGI to our toolbox has made it easier to forget about the roots of storytelling. Action scenes behave differently than other parts of a movie, but they still need structure; they need meaning. Raiders of the Lost Ark may not be the most visually stunning action sequence to grace theaters, but it ties our throats in knots, and that's what action scenes are all about.
Which recent action movie let you down? Has a recent movie exceeded your expectations?