Cinematography & directing tips - Filming shootouts

(An excerpt from my forthcoming film book, "Making Your First Blockbuster" coming 2019).

We’ve all seen gunfights and shootouts of some kind in a host of blockbusters over the years. Some are truly awe-inspiring sucking the audience in and making them feel they are right there among the bullets and ricochets. Other times, we feel we’re just watching characters we don’t care that much about, fire at each other without a hint of jeopardy.

Of course it all depends on what type of film you’re making as to how the shootout is treated and what the consequences of it are. Things will be played a lot differently if you’re making a screwball action comedy or a serious dramatic thriller. The style of the filming might vary; is it glossy and slick on dollies or ultra-real and gritty being filmed with a handheld camera? Directors might also choose to shoot some of the action in slow-motion for emphasis and to prolong any visually dynamic action. Whether you use slow-motion or not will be dictated by the style you’ve adopted. Slow-motion is normally chosen for the more fantasy/comedic/light-hearted action movie, whereas capturing things in real time helps portray the action in a more realistic tone. The fundamentals, however — action and re-action, establishing who is firing at whom, and where everyone is in relation to each other — will be the same. The 180º rule also comes into play to help maintain geography and screen direction to help establish which way the heroes and villains are firing. Like any action sequence, the cuts must be motivated by action. If someone fires, we need to see what they’re firing at and if they were successful in hitting it.

Director Kevin Costner in his western epic Open Range (2003) shot a lot of his shootout action in longer takes with a handheld camera adding that sense of realism, forgoing the slick and polished approach. He opted for a wider frame in order to see the ground more and therefore show the distance between characters. On some occasions, the camera operator looks like they themselves were taking cover from the bullets whizzing about by having objects in the foreground compromising the frame.

In order to increase the realism, the editing was also reduced to the minimum in some cases. As opposed to many modern action films showing a simple reaction in multiple cuts, Costner and his editors, Michael J. Duthie and Miklos Wright, chose to show things in single shots. Like when one of the hired assassins working for the town’s crocked boss gets blasted with a shotgun at close range. We see him get shot, fly through the air, and hit the wall of the next building and fall to the ground, all in one shot. To have cut this up into various angles would have lessened the intensity as its impact lies in seeing it all in one continuous shot. We feel that death. Having it cut up into three or four shots would undoubtedly diminish the emotion and the stunt.

Let’s look at Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) as an example of the power of the over-the-shoulder (OTS) shot during shootouts. In the five shots below you can see, Robert De Niro, during the famous shootout scene on the streets of LA. First, De Niro, is seen firing his machine gun in a medium shot (1), then we cut to an over-the-shoulder shot to see what he’s shooting at (2), then we can cut into the detail shots of car windows shattering and bullets ripping through the police cars (3 & 4), before coming full circle back to De Niro (5). The geography is established with the OTS shot anchoring De Niro to the action giving us his position and distance in regards to others in his environment, binding it all together. Once that’s been established we can then cut to whatever we want to. If we were to cut from De Niro firing in the medium shot to the close-ups on cars being ripped full of holes, we would tie the images together — but the impact would be lessened as we don’t know how far away the car is or have a wider idea of what’s going on. Subconsciously the audience would sense the lack of surroundings.

"Making Your First Blockbuster" is due to be released early 2019 from Michael Wiese Productions.

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