It’s time to conclude my three part look at how Hollywood could learn a thing or two from the Uncharted series on the Playstation 3. We have looked at the importance of strong characters, a sturdy plot and the foundations of rousing set pieces. Now we look at the fundamentals of making action set pieces work.
A FEW IMPORTANT RULES
The Uncharted series obey some of the core tenets of the action genre, ones I am very particular about, and you will see how everything I have mentioned before comes back to these three basic rules. All good action movies follow these rules.
I’m obviously not referring to your ability to point out Belgium off a map, action geography is the comprehension of setting. Understanding where the individual pieces are, in relation to each other. You can enjoy an action sequence that is a blur of noise and colourful explosions but you won’t understand it.
The use of geography is what separates a Walter Hill car chase from a Michael Bay car chase. Compare Hill’s work in The Driver to Bay’s work in Bad Boys 2 or the Transformers movies. Sure, the Bay movies are bigger in scale and louder but that’s just imitation thrills, you have no real comprehension of what is happening or where it is happening in the broader context of the scene. Hill takes his time, he allows every possible angle to be conveyed. A simple chase scene, one runaway car and a handful of police cars, where every player is clearly established through selective camera angles and precise editing can be ten times more thrilling and rewarding than the biggest car pile up ever witnessed.
To successfully communicate the geography of a scene you need to establish:
- The location.
Where are we? How much space does it cover? Are there any notable landmarks to help us follow the characters profession through the set? Is there an inexplicably large cache of explodable barrels here? If so, we need to know these things straight away, don’t bring it up when the scene is in mid-flow because it will immediately feel contrived and you will lose control of the scene.
The more we know about the set, the less backtracking and second-guessing we will need to follow the action. If you need to watch an action sequence more than twice to understand it, it’s a bad sequence. Ideally you should only need one, but nobody’s perfect.
- The heroes within the scene.
This is basic stuff. These are the characters we have followed through the entire story, we need to continue following them. If we lose track of where they are within a scene, we have no idea how much progress they are making. When our comprehension of a scene suffers, the momentum begins to stagger and that can be the kiss of death to the film as a whole. Momentum, as you will see later, is another crucial part of action films.
- The obstacles.
Villains or escalating disaster. Whatever the obstacle, show us where they are within the scene. Is it coming in from the front, the back, the sides? There is no drama if we do not understand where the threat is coming from, only confusion. Clarity is paramount in action, noise and chaos can overload the senses in the moment, but it doesn’t last.
- Establish the objective within the scene.
If the heroes and villains are both pursuing some random MacGuffin or other assorted goal, we need to know where, and the progression of both sides towards it.
For a recent example of an action movie abusing using geography: Pick any action scene from the Transformers movies and you will be bombarded with multiple events taking place in unrelated parts of the same location (the same location if you’re lucky). The movies then drop elements and/or characters into scenes, such as throwing the protagonist’s idiot parents into the middle of the second movie’s climax, seemingly at random and only obscures an already exceedingly obscure grasp of the when/where/why of the scenes.
It’s probably asking too much of the Transformers movie to have clear and concise action, when they fail to construct dialogue scenes without becoming a head pummelling ordeal.
A good, recent example of geography in film: Kick-Ass, surprisingly. You can hate on the story, the characters, the basic tone of Kick-Ass all you like but I would shout you down if you tried to tell me it failed as an action movie.
It may lack the scale (and budget, I imagine the catering for Transformers 3 cost more than Kick-Ass in total) but it nails the core concepts of action cinema in a low-key way.
Something Kick-Ass wisely did was establish the geography for its key action scene early on in the movie, through character-driven scenes, we follow a character as he passes through Mark Strong’s gangster pad – moving from the elevator and spanning the entire layout of the apartment, through the long corridor towards a kitchen area, and branching off into an office.
Each location playing a crucial part in the finales action and it is mapped out for us in advance, in absolute calm, making it easy to commit these beats to memory, so when Chloe Moretz’s Hit Girl finally arrives to take on the bad guys in the third act, we now know the exact progression of action through the scene.
Uncharted 3 gets geography, thanks to its linear, objective based gaming style and a clear grasp of perspective (see part 2). We are always aware of where Drake is in relation to his objectives and his obstacles. It even makes use of editing to help establish locations, cutting away to a horde of villains entering the scene or an important landmark, before panning/cutting back to our hero.
It would be a terrible video game if you had no idea where you were going or where the next group of cannon fodder were coming from, so this is something that needs to done to ensure a fluid gaming experience. The same principle should apply to watching a movie. Just because we are not participating in the experience does not mean we should be ignored. Take the time to construct the scene properly, don’t worry about doing it quickly, the audience will appreciate the effort.
This is just a basic necessity of any drama and good action should be dramatic to watch. You cannot invest in a scene if there is nothing at stake, if there is no perceived risk.
Die Hard understood this, not only were there hostages in danger, including John McClane’s estranged wife, but there was a constant sense of danger around McClane himself. From running barefoot across broken glass, to hobbling away from knock down, drag out brawls with enormous Germans, McClane showed the cost of his action. We saw him bleed, we saw him lose is breath, we saw him tire. There’s a physical toll and that adds weight to the increasingly dangerous (and ludicrous) things he does.
Aliens is another great example of giving consequence to an action movie; we are introduced to a wide selection of cool badasses with cool badass names. Then James Cameron proceeded to kill lots of them in as nasty a fashion as possible. The hardest of hard cases, torn to pieces like they were made of wet toilet paper. The danger is made to feel real and unstoppable, from there on anyone could die at any time. The tension was pitched high and then stayed that way.
As a video game, Uncharted doesn’t quite carry the same weight because your death can be undone by resuming play. While there is a gut reaction to failure in a video game, the drama within the story itself is reserved for the supporting cast.
The Uncharted series has built a roster of likeable and engaging characters, ones whose lives cannot be restored by loading up an old save game, as the game progresses the likelihood of a beloved sidekick dying compels the player to push forward in hopes that you can save them (or, if necessary, avenge them) and it makes the preceding shoot outs and foot chases all the more tense.
Of course, not all action scenes need to be an intense or emotionally charged experience. There is plenty of room for big, audacious action scenes such as the cadaver hurling car chase in Bad Boys 2 or any number of moments from the Crank movies, and they will entertain and delight, but they won’t be the action scenes you’re talking about 20 years later. The best action scenes must function as legitimate drama.
A scene cannot stay in one gear and coast at that speed for the duration, even the loudest and bloodiest gun fight will wear out its welcome if there is no sense of momentum.
In the Uncharted 3 videos (seen in part two) you can see a clear escalation throughout these set pieces, an easy to follow sequence of events that gets bigger and more daring with each beat. The full potential of the location and scenario is utilised, with it all building to a logical conclusion.
With concise plotting the most outrageous developments can feel natural; you can have your hero chase down a cargo plane, board it, unhook a truck to kill an unstoppable thug and then destroy the entire plane.
It all revolves around that single scenario or concept; there is no deus ex machina to shoe horn a plane crash where it didn’t belong, it all develops naturally through the interaction between character and setting. Think of it like a game of domino rally where someone might die at the end; the best kind of domino rally. The way the character impacts the location, and vice versa, is a crucial part of a good set piece.
A good, recent example of this would be Fast Five. Watching our heroes stealing sports cars from a moving train is an exciting sequence, but leaving it at that would be dull and unmemorable. Soon we have fist fights taking place both inside the train and on a truck moving parallel to the train. That’s one part of the escalation. Due to the fighting the truck crashes into the side of the train. The truck explodes. The scene is already escalating swiftly and it’s not even close to finished.
A train cutting through the desert would naturally run by obstacles, so we throw in a bridge. Vin Diesel then commandeers a car and drives it through the side of the moving train, Pau Walker leaps off the exploding truck onto the car. Bridges traditionally only serve one purpose, bridging things, so it stands to reason there would be some form of drop ahead. There is! The car, with our two heroes on board, leaps off the side of a cliff towards a bed of water below.
It’s almost exhausting trying to keep up but it sticks in the memory long after. A good action sequence can sustain excitement, great ones build on it.
Of course, movies have one valuable tool than most video games cannot use; editing. The fixed camera of video game can rob them of a wider variety of perspectives and the ability to dictate the pace of a scene to build some tension. As tense as, say, a quick draw can be in a game of Red Dead Redemption, it has nothing on the sublime manipulation of Sergio Leone’s three-way stand-off in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.
When you begin to break down an action scene into its composite parts, you begin to see how dependent on each other they become, and the difference between great set pieces and merely decent ones is the way these elements interact.
Filmmakers have all the tools that video game developers have at their disposal and more, so when we see budgets edging over $200 million to make uninspired nonsense like the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels or Transformers, there is no excuse for a video game to out-do them in terms of spectacle and scale.
The difference seems to be resources are being used on productions with no grasp on the fundamentals, whereas Uncharted developers Naughty Dog care about what they are doing and want to give their audience the best experience possible for their money. The world of mega-budget blockbusters could do with more people with Naughty Dog’s work ethic.
There are directors out there trying to produce great action movie experiences but budgetary constraints prevent them from reaching the best examples of the video game world. The budgets necessary to recreate movie moments on the scale of the Uncharted set pieces are reserved for a precious view A-listers, with Christopher Nolan striving to give audiences something they could never see anywhere else, in films such as Inception, whereas Michael Bay concentrates on bigger and louder explosions.
What Naughty Dog achieved with the Uncharted series is a true interactive movie experience; not the awkward, cheap looking FMV efforts of the early Mega CD era, such as Night Trap or Ground Zero Texas. The level of storytelling, production design, performance and scene construction are so high that a casual observer could sit and watch a friend play these games and experience blockbuster entertainment of equal to or better than the product Hollywood is peddling these days.
The video game once struggled to gain pop culture relevance, desperately trying to keep up with Hollywood’s best and brightest. The goal to become more cinematic was far from their grasp. That time is long over and it may be time for more of Hollywood to start aspiring to be a little like the best and brightest of the video game world.
This does not include Angry Birds, by the way.