Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Jackie Chan - How to Do Action Comedy

The following is a transcription of Tony Zhou's Every Frame a Painting episode "Jackie Chan - How to do Action Comedy"
"Hallo, yes, this is Jackie speaking." said Jackie Chan.
Hi, my name is Tony, and this is Every Frame a Painting. Some filmmakers can do action, others can do comedy. But for 40 years, the master of combining them has been Jackie Chan. These days, there's a lot of movies that combine funny scenes ... with fight scenes. But even when the movie's good, the comedy and action seems to be two different directors and two different styles. And that's why Jackie's so interesting. In his style, action is comedy. And his work shows that the same filmmaking principles apply whether you're trying to be funny or kick ass. So let's dive in. Ready? Let's go.

So, how does Jackie create action that is also funny? First off, he gives himself a disadvantage. No matter what film, Jackie always starts beneath his opponents. He has no shoes. He's handcuffed. He has a bomb in his mouth. From this point, he has to fight his way back to the top. Each action creates a logical reaction. And by following the logic, we get a joke. In movies, this comedic style goes back to the silent clowns like Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton. But I think Jackie has distilled it down to one line of dialogue: "Please! I said I don't want trouble!" said Jackie.

Because he's the underdog, Jackie has to get creative, which brings us to point number Two: he uses anything around him. This is the most famous aspect of his style. Take something familiar, do something unfamiliar. I've seen him fight with chairs, dresses, chopsticks, keyboards, legos, refrigerators, and of  course: ladders. Not only does this make each fight organic and grounded, it also gives us jokes that couldn't happen anywhere else.

Number Three: Jackie likes clarity. He doesn't do dark scenes where everything is color corrected blue. If his opponent wears black, he wears white. And if his opponent's in white, then he's stylin'. His framing is so clear, that in each shot he's setting up the next bit of action. Here, even though we're watching the stuntman, two thirds of the frame, is the staircase. A few seconds later, we see why. He keeps things clear by rarely using handheld or dolly moves.
"Like American movies, there's a lotta movement. When the camera angle moves, that means the actors, they don't know how to fight." said Jackie.
In slow-motion, you can see how the camera operator swings around to make the hits seem more violent. But since Jackie can fight,...
"I never move my camera. Always steady. Wide-angle. Let him see I jumping down, I do the flip, I do the fall." adds Jackie.
When you shoot this way, everything looks more impressive because action and reaction are in the same frame. Notice how you can always see Jackie, the car, and the wall at the same time. But a similar stunt, from Rush Hour 3 never includes all the elements in the same shot, and it doesn't work. The same principle applies to comedy. This shot directed by Sammo Hung, shows us the punch, the bad guy's face, and Jackie's face all in one. Now check out the same gag in Shanghai Noon. Here, action and reaction are separate shots. It kinda works, but not nearly as well. Why don't more directors do this?

Because of number Five: they don't have enough time. Jackie is a perfectionist willing to do as many takes as necessary to get it right. And in Hong Kong, he's supported by the studio, which gives him months to shoot a fight.
"And the most difficult thing is when I throw the fan and it comes back. More than 120 takes. Those kind of scenes, you say "Oh, Jackie's good. It's not 'good.' You can do it. Except do you have the patience or not?" said Jackie.
When I rewatch his work, these little things are the ones I'm most impressed by. He doesn't need to do them, and they eat into his budget. But he still does them because he wants to. And it's that "going above and beyond" that I respect and admire.
"But in America, they don't allow you to do that. You know, because money." adds Jackie
And his American work is missing something else:
"And there's a rhythm also, to the way that the shots are performed and also the way they're edited, and Jackie said something very interesting that, you know, that the audience don't know the rhythm's there until it's not there."
Jackie's fight scenes have a distinct musical rhythm. A timing he works out on set with the performers.
"Ready? Action! Stay where you are. Stay where you are! Don't chase me. Boom boom, Boom! See? Everybody looks good." said Jackie
Even experienced martial artists have trouble with it. In his earliest films, you see him learning the timing from Yuan He Ping and it's very much like Chinese opera. By the mid 80s, working with his own stunt team he had something totally unique. In America, many directors and editors don't understand this timing, and they ruin it by cutting on every single hit. But in Hong Kong, directors hold their shot long enough for the audience to feel the rhythm.
"The most important part is the editing. Most directors, they don't know how to edit. Even the stunt coordinators, they don't know how to edit." said Jackie.
Hong Kong directors like Jackie and Sammo cut a particular way. In the first shot, you hit your opponent in the wide. In the second shot, you get a nice close up. But when you cut the shots together, you don't  match continuity. At the end of shot one, the elbow is here. At the beginning of shot two, it's all the way back here. These 3 frames, are for the audience's eyes to register the new shot. And they make all the difference.
"I start from here, then here, but two shots combined. That's power." said Jackie
 In other words, show it twice and the audience's mind will make it one hit that's stronger. By contrast, modern American editing doesn't show the hit at all. At the end of shot 1 the leg is here, at the beginning of shot two, it's in the same place, going backwards. But because they cut at the exact frame of the hit, it doesn't feel like a hit. A lot of people think this is because of the PG13 rating, but even R rated films do this now. It looks like a bunch of people flailing around instead of a bunch of people getting hurt.

Which brings us to number Eight: Pain. Unlike a lot of action stars, who try to look invincible, Jackie gets hurt. A lot. Half the fun of his work is that not only are the stunts impressive, there's always room for a joke. Pain humanizes him. Because no matter how skilled he is, he still gets smacked in the face. In fact, Jackie's face may actually be his greatest asset. Many times, the look he gives is all it takes to sell a joke. Like when he does an entire fight holding a chicken, or dressed as Chun-Li.

And last, Jackie's style always ends with a real payoff for the audience. By fighting his way from the bottom, he earns the right to a spectacular finish. He doesn't win because he's a better fighter. He wins because he doesn't give up. This relentlessness makes his finales really impressive and really funny. And it's in direct contrast to a lot of his American work where bad guys are defeated because someone shoots them. Come on.

But most of all, I think Jackie's style proves something: action and comedy aren't that different. In both genres, we want to see our best performers, and I think a lot of modern action directors are failing completely. These actors are skilled artists, some of the best in the world. Why are the directors so unskilled? Why am I paying money to not see the action?
"Whatever you do, do the best you can because the film lives forever. No, because that day it was raining and the actor don't have time. I said, would you go to every theater to tell the audience? No.  The audience sits in the theater: good movie, bad movie that's all."said Jackie
Exactly. This work will last. And on that note, I leave you with the greatest death scene in film history.

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