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). I won’t be looking at the differences in fighting style; instead I will be concentrating solely on camera techniques (especially the kinds of shots used) and editing.
In these two excerpts, only cuts are used in the editing (i.e., there are no fancy edits like dissolves or wipes or anything like that—each shot just cuts straight to the next shot), so the focus here will be on the rhythm of editing and not on types of edits.
I did a kind of quantitative analysis, selecting one minute from a fight scene from each movie and counting the number of shots (basically the number of edits) and calculating the average shot length as well as identifying the shortest and longest shot. I also counted the number of each type of shot:
- Wide shot (the whole body can be seen)
- Mid-shots (most of the body can be seen)
- Close-ups and extreme close-ups.
I also roughly observed the kinds of camera movement used and noted any point-of-view shots (a POV shot is when the camera seems to be taking the physical—and psychological—position of one of the actors/characters).
These following table refer sto the two 60-second excerpts shown in the video.
|Shots and Camera Movement||The Bourne Identity||Hero|
|Total number of shots (60 sec.)||63||23|
|Longest shot||3.6 sec||8.2|
|Shortest shot||0.4 sec||0.8 sec.|
|Average length of shot||1.0 sec.||2.6 sec.|
|No. of wide shots (whole body onscreen)||2||7|
|No. of mid shots (most of the body onscreen)||14.5||5|
|No. of close ups (incl. medium|
and extreme close ups)
|Type of camera movement||All shots are hand-held |
and all are moving
|Combination of stationary |
shots and pans, tilts, dolly
shots and zooms (with some oblique angle shots)
|No. of obvious POV (Point of View) shots||4||None|
2.1 Shot length
There is far more editing going on in the Bourne Identity scene, with 63 shots in one minute compared to 23 shots in the Hero scene. The average shot length in the Borne identity scene over two-and-half times longer than the average shot length in the Hero scene.
The shortest and longest shots in the Bourne Identity scene were at least half the length of their counterparts in the Hero scene.
2.2 Type of shots
Around 30% of the shots in the Hero scene are wide shots (in which you can see the entire body of the actor). In contrast only 3% of the shots in the Bourne Identity are wide shots.
The Bourne Identity scene features far more close-ups (74% of the shots are close-ups) than the Hero scene (in which 47% of the shots are close-ups).
The proportion of mid-range shots in both scenes are quite similar (just over 20% for each film), so the difference is found in the use of wide-shots and close-ups.
2.3 Type of camera movement
In the Bourne Identity scene the camera is handheld and is always moving. In contrast, in the Hero scene, the camera is either still or smoothly moving with and pans (left to right and vice versa), tilts (up and down), dolly shots (the camera is moving along on a track) and zooms. There are also some very noticeable oblique angle (which are used to show the scene is (spoiler alert)
not actually real and is only taking place in the mind of one of the protagonists
(end of spoiler).
2.4 Use of POV shots
Only the Bourne identity scene features point-of-view shots (there were 4 POV shots).
3. Editing & shot choices in the Bourne Identity
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. There are 63 separate shots in one minute. This frantic feeling is reinforced through the occasional use of shots in which the fighters are out of focus and through POV shots. In the Bourne Identity clip, everything is moving fast and you are not always clear what is going on.
4. Editing & shot choices in Hero
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.
If you are wondering about the use of black and white in the Hero clip, these scenes represent the fight as it takes place inside the swordsman’s mind as he envisions will happen in the coming battle.
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 relatively still close-ups as the characters prepare for the next move.
6. Different Approaches to Realism
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.
This is a video I put together to show how film techniques can be used in different ways and for different purposes for a similar kind of scene—in this case, a fight scene.
This is the first video in my film analysis series. You can view the second one here:
Film Scene Analysis: Cinematography and Mise-en-scène in American Beauty
This features an analysis of the how filmmakers use cinematic techniques to show meaning and visually express moods and themes.
Return to Videos
Return to Writing