The dying art of movie choreography

By employing directors with backgrounds in drama, the studios hope action-heavy films will be infused with greater depth. The catch, however, is that drama directors are usually inexperienced at, and thus incapable of, properly handling their material that is the film's main selling point, or one of them. 

The outcome isn't pretty: action that gets the point across but lacks coherence, as well as the unique personality that the director was supposedly hired to provide.

That's Nick Schager in a great piece over at titled Why Most Modern Action Films Are Terrible. He points to many recent examples including Wolverine, Skyfall, Thor, Red, and The Avengers, all examples of what Matthias Stork has termed Chaos Cinema.

 [It's very useful to read and watch Stork's text and video essay on Chaos Cinema]

It's difficult to imagine this trend of shooting and editing diminishing over time. First of all, it's very difficult to learn to choreograph actors, action, and camera in a sophisticated manner to establish spatial coherence and clean continuity. It's much easier on set just to set up a ton of cameras and then just edit it together in a montage with rapid cuts and have the whole thing land as chaos.

Second, with the cost of filming coming down with the advent of digital cameras (the cost of shooting and storing a frame of film digitally is moving ever downwards, but with film the cost is now increasing as fewer and fewer places both manufacture and process physical film), the temptation to shoot a lot and sort it out in post processing will only become more and more enticing. 

It's not just action films that have suffered, though. One of the things that independent film doesn't get dinged for enough is shoddy or simplistic cinematography. It's great that more voices can afford to shoot a movie on the cheap these days, but it also means that many people without any training in cinematography or visual grammar are pumping out indie films with some of the most uninspired framing and blocking you can imagine.

I grew up watching a lot of Hong Kong action films, and one of the underappreciated elements of early work by John Woo or the movies of Johnny To is their rich action choreography. No matter what you think of his movies, Steven Spielberg is a master of this skill; consider the assault on Normandy at the start of Saving Private Ryan as just one example of keeping the viewer spatially oriented at all times while still conveying the utter chaos the soldiers were experiencing.

Some directors today still do wonders with actors, space, and the camera. Paul Thomas Anderson and his cinematographers have pulled off some amazing shots. Not all of them have to be as showy as the single shot that opens Boogie Nights, too. Take David Bordwell's dissection of one static single shot in There Will Be Blood. So much is conveyed simply through blocking of the actors and careful positioning of the camera.

In The Master, even with the burden of shooting in 65mm, with the massive cameras that large format calls for, Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. pulled off some wonderful shots, including one gorgeous shot in which an actress strolls languorously through a department store, a vision of retail desire.

In the past here, I've analyzed one particular sequence in Birth that plays out like a waltz, complete with a waltz in the accompanying score from Alexandre Desplat. In To The Wonder, the camera seems to be engaged in a dance with Olga Kurylenko, the two of them circling each other as Kurylenko literally dances through fields.

It takes a director and cinematographer working together, bound by trust, to pull off such shots.  When it happens, it elevates a movie to a subconscious power and clarity that burrows into your memory.

One reason I suspect this is an area that gets little attention from viewers is that the vast majority of movie critics never bother to comment on this aspect of the movies. The technical aspects of filmmaking are considered secondary to the story or the acting. It's also difficult to pull stills from movies into a review to illustrate one's points. Even if you know how to do it technically, the legality of using such images is questionable, especially for a professional critic.

It's a shame. Only with more dialogue can people come to appreciate just how skilled some of the cinematographers working in the movies today really are. If you think lighting a single still subject for an Instagram photo is complicated, try lighting an actor moving through space while being shot with a camera that's also in motion.