Camera Direction in Action: CASINO ROYALE and THE MASK OF ZORRO
Martin Campbell's CASINO ROYALE has one of the best action scenes of all time. In my opinion, it has yet to be topped in the 13 years since it came out (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD came close).
You can study any part of this sequence and be consistently floored at everything. Aside from the incredible stunts and music, the editing is top-notch. Stuart Baird is a legendary craftsmen and one of the best in the business. He knows exactly how long to hold each shot and how to build suspense.
This sequence is also amazing on a conceptual level. Instead of a generic gunfight, this is a multi-location foot chase based around the geography of a construction site, which slowly raises (and then lowers) in elevation. Included within are are multiple character beats that establish Daniel Craig's Bond –– rough around the edges, unconcerned for safety, and willing to risk his own life.
Those elements aside, I'd like to focus specifically on Campbell's use of camera direction. Notice how he establishes the geography between the villain, field agent, and Bond all in one shot with a focus rack/whip pan combo at :14. This could be three separate shots, but combining it into one establishes the space so we know where everybody is. Campbell does it again at :45.
Once the action starts, the camera continues to deliver important geographical information –– first at :56 with a small crane down, then at 1:14 with a pan up. (This scene has literally every element you can think of: reframing, camera movement, motivated handheld, you name it). Campbell also sticks to wider lenses and shot sizes. I'd guess most of this scene was shot between 16mm and 24mm, except the longer-lens helicopter shots on the crane at 4:33, which helps create background parallax. The whip pan at 5:35 is another good example of how Campbell unifies the screen space between Bond and the villain.
2:00 - 2:54 is one of my favorite beats. Slow-motion is used sparingly –– you'll notice that good directors prefer to show action in real-time. Why? Slow-motion makes stuff look "cool," but it kills the momentum of the scene by ruining the pacing you've established up to that point.
Here, it's used just the right amount. I'd guess they shot at 48fps on the shots at 2:03 and 2:08, which accentuates the tractor's weight rather than show off how "cool" it is. (Slow-motion always makes things feel heavier, which is why it's used for old-school special effects and model shots.)
Here's a different example from Campbell's THE MASK OF ZORRO. The fight starts at :50.
This movie is a bit older and was shot with a more classical style, partly to emulate the old swashbucklers of Hollywood's silent era. Consequently, you'll notice that the camera moves less here but still sticks to wide shots so we can see the choreography. 1:57 is a good example of motivated camera movement, while 2:06 is an impressive longer take.
Nowadays, very few action films do this. Sticking to longer shot lengths and wide frames puts lots of pressure on the performers, since you can't hide any missteps with a cut (adding more cuts is usually a crutch used by the editor to mask how poorly the scene was shot). Also, producers and directors are usually too nervous to hold a shot for longer than a couple seconds for fear of audiences losing interest. This is why many modern action scenes are plagued by too many edits, which creates a disorienting effect on the audience.
QUANTUM OF SOLACE –– the next Bond film in the series after CASINO ROYALE –– is a good example of this. Can anyone tell what the hell is happening in this clip from :48 on?
That just gave me a headache. Nobody wants to watch a scene where they have to piece together a bunch of micro-cuts in their head as they watch. It makes the scene feel like a mental jigsaw puzzle instead of entertainment. Fortunately, that's not the case with Campbell's work.