Let’s looks at the cinematography and editing of two very different style of movie fight scenes. The first clip is from Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (featuring Matt Damon). The second clip is from Zhang Yimou’s Hero (the sword vs spear fight between Jet Li and Donnie Yen). We won’t be looking at the differences in fighting style; instead we will be concentrating solely on camera techniques (especially the kinds of shots used) and editing (in these two excerpts, only cuts are used, so the focus here will be on the rhythm of editing and not on types of edits).
Video, analysis, commentary and music by longzijun:
In this clip from the Bourne Identity, the rapid-fire editing of hand-held close-up shots creates a frantic, chaotic and exciting feel–almost as if you are one of the combatants taking part in the fight. This feeling is reinforced through the occasional use of shots in which the fighters are out of focus and through POV shots like this one. Here you are, with Jason Bourne trying to stomp on your head. In the Bourne Identity clip, everything is moving fast and you are not always clear what is going on.
The clip from Hero, in contrast, features far fewer edits, longer shots and a much greater use of the wide shot, in which you can see the entire body of each actor.The use of long and wide shots makes it easy to appreciate the martial arts skills of the actors. Even though there is some wire work in this scene, it is clear that the actors, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, are highly skilled. The camera work is this scene is generally very smooth and makes use of stationary shots without any camera movement and other shots that feature pans, tilts, zooms and tracking shots, quite often in combination.
You may also notice that, except for a few frames, Jet Li is always on the right and Donnie Yen, wielding a spear, is always on the left. Even when their weapons are shown in close up, the sword is coming from the right and the spear from the left. This regular positioning of the actors, combined with a more extensive use of longer and wider shots, helps to make it very clear who is doing what to whom at any given time.
One thing the two excerpts have in common is that they both have a similar rhythm to the editing. While the editing rhythm in Hero is much slower, both films take brief breaks in the action. In the Bourne Identity, this is done with the use of slightly longer shots during short breaks in action, while in Hero this is done with the use of a series of still close ups as the characters prepare for the next move.
To sum up, the camera work and editing in the Bourne identity creates a sense of realism–as if you are right there with the characters, whereas the cinematography and editing in Hero, as with many Chinese martial arts movies, is better at revealing the real skills and techniques of the actors and in allowing viewers to clearly see and understand what is happening.
Both films are striving for a sense of realism but are focusing on entirely different aspects–the Bourne Identity on the real feeling of being in a fight and Hero on the real abilities and skills of the actors.