Oct 2, 2009

Rule Of Thumb: Battle Fatigue

Oct 2, 2009
Back in 2002 when Peter Jackson was editing the climax of The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, he discovered this very useful rule of thumb.

No matter how many epic shots and awesome action he kept adding to the sequence it was never as exciting as the shorter, initial edit.

He worked out that he had passed a magical line at some point where the action stopped adding to the sequence and started diminishing it. Apparently we can only take so many explosions before we need a break or lose interest. I know! Impossible, right? Explosions are sweet! I mean, they explode. How could that ever get old?

So, desperate to avoid making this mistake myself, I decided to compile a list of possible solutions.

1) Less Is More

In the words of Nigel Powers: "It's not the size, mate, it's how you use it." Making an action sequence longer and larger doesn't make it better. In fact, usually the opposite is true.

Remember the Burly Brawl from The Matrix Reloaded? 100 super-powered Smiths verses Neo, The One. That thing went for over five minutes but it didn't hold a candle to the shorter and oh so sweeter Dojo Fight from it's predecessor which, funnily enough, only had two guys in it. It was more creative, more fun and it left you wanting more... in a good way.

The longer the action sequence goes for, the greater the risk of losing the viewer to boredom. The larger scale the action sequence is, the greater the risk of the viewer not investing in it's outcome.

2) Personality, Personality, Personality

Action = Good. Action + Character = Good... er... More Good.

While Brad Bird was working on The Incredibles he adopted the phrase Character-Driven Action. Basically, never take your character's personality for granted, especially during action sequences. Figure out what makes your characters and your whole universe unique and use it to make a unique action sequence!

The Sand Wall Sequence from The Mummy, the Mall/Aqueduct Chase from Terminator 2, the 100 Mile Dash from The Incredibles, all of them factored in the personalities of their characters and the unique qualities of their universes to create truly memorable sequences. They kept the viewer engaged.

3) Take A Break

Pfft, dealing with fatigue by taking a break? Like that'll work.

You see this one all the time. The hero and the villain are dueling to the death and it keeps cutting away to the damn comic relief character trying to complete some stupid secondary objective. In reality, this is not only providing the viewer with a much needed breather, but it's secretly helping the main fight seem more intense by comparison.

In The Two Towers PJ kept cutting, quite deliberately mind you, to the slowest and most boring characters imaginable during the battle of Helm's Deep. He also dotted the whole sequence with quick visual interludes. Geographical shots, spectacular extras fatalities, anything to mix it up and break up the action.


Also, it helps if the action sequence isn't completely pointless. Not that we'd target the Burly Brawl twice in one post... *cough*


  1. ive noticed that i always zone out during action sequence that last more than 3 minutes.
    i lose interest when theres many cars and explosions and cop sirens, im gone.

  2. I know how you feel. I prefer fight scenes to operate like chess games.

    Each participant has their respective pieces, that is, different abilities. Each move forces the other to move in an interesting, creative and logical way. It's like a dance, where not a single move in out of character and no generic punches are thrown.

    It's gotta be exciting, fast and unexpected.

  3. So in Terminator 2 how is the personality used in the aqueduct sequence? I'm guessing it's the one where he's chased by the t-1000 in a truck, and john connor is on a motor bike.

    Can you elaborate? : )

    I'm all about characters, and there's been so many movies where the action sequences are pointless, thus boring.

  4. G'Day Thomas!

    The Aquaduct sequence from Terminator 2 really took advantage of it's characters and universe. The T-1000's lack of concern about losing the top half of his truck, John's reactions to the whole thing, the T-800 waiting for the T-1000's re-appearance even after it explodes, all of it. It told us a lot about the characters and used it to make everything more exciting.

    A better example would have been the scene where the T-1000 walks through the metal bars. The gun gets caught! So awesome!


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