When John Wick was released in 2014, it was something of a surprise. The action film about an uber-assassin (Keanu Reeves) emerging from retirement to avenge the death of his dog turned out to not just be good — it was arguably one of the best action movies of the 21st century. A big reason for that wasn’t just the exquisite fight-scene choreography — a hybrid of martial arts and gun fighting, known as “Gun-Fu” — but how the fights were shot by cinematographer Jonathan Sela (with the guidance of director and former stuntman Chad Stahelski.)
John Wick: Chapter 2 (in theaters today) — with cinematographer Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak, Silent Hill) stepping in behind the camera — is both a worthy successor and another masterclass in fight-scene cinematography for any aspiring (action) filmmakers. With that spirit in mind, we spoke with Laustsen about what techniques can help create a memorable action sequence.
Hold the Camera Still
One of the pleasures of John Wick: Chapter 2 is seeing Reeves’ surprisingly lithe body smoothly move between punching and shooting — often seemingly in one motion. That’s possible thanks to one of Laustsen’s goals for shooting Chapter 2: “Don’t move the camera too much.” That’s a lesson worth pointing out, because many modern fight scenes don’t share that philosophy anymore, instead favoring shaky cameras and hyperkinetic editing, which comes with a risk.
“You see some sequences where you don’t know where you are because the camera is so unsteady,” Laustsen says. What’s more, it can hinder the audience’s ability to see — let alone appreciate — the fight. That’s why minimal camera movements during some scenes was preferred. “It’s powerful when you have a pretty steady camera,” the cinematographer says. “It works so well when you see what’s happening.” Shaky camera is one way to go, but if you want audiences to truly enjoy a fight sequence, calm the camera down and let them see the action.
If you want viewers to fully appreciate what’s happening in a fight scene, there’s another camera technique to try: wide shots. From the earliest stage of pre-production, that was a goal for John Wick: Chapter 2. “We wanted to shoot the action sequences as wide as possible, because we wanted to see the action, and [have the audience] feel that the actors actually did the stunts and fights themselves,” Laustsen says.
It’s worth remembering that filmmakers are magicians, looking to convince audiences their illusions are real, and that the best illusions are those where viewers are allowed to get a clear look, without being convinced it isn’t real. Realness matters in action scenes. “If you’re playing it wide, you just feel like it’s real,” Laustsen says, which adds to the story by drawing audiences in. For example, the cinematographer points to a moment in John Wick: Chapter 2 where, mid-fight, Reeves and rapper-turned-actor Common painfully fall down several flights of stairs. Shot wide (and with the camera steady), the result is that you almost feel every bruise, because you see every moment of the fall.
Tell a Secret Story with the Camera
Just because “hold the camera still” and “shoot wide” can be key components of shooting a good cinematic fisticuff, that doesn’t mean you should indifferently plunk a camera down and passively let it roll. Don’t forget that shot composition, color choice, and lighting all also add to the story being told on screen. “Lighting and camera angles are so important for these action sequences,” affirms Laustsen. The camera is your brush — don’t be afraid to paint with it.
In John Wick: Chapter 2, color and light are used to create some of the prettiest looking fight scenes in recent memory, with thematic intent as well. “We wanted to be sinking in light sources,” Laustsen says. “We wanted it to be colorful and very contrasting.” For example, blue LED lights were used to saturate the color scheme of a fight in dark catacombs beneath Rome. The result isn’t just a visually arresting scene, but a reflection of theme via the blue echoing John Wick’s melancholy over being sucked back into an assassin’s life. It illustrates the value of trying to elevate your action scene with secret storytelling that adds both visual and thematic flair.
To Get the Best Shot, Be Prepared
A fight sequence requires an immense amount of conceptualization, practice, and choreography. If you want well-shot action scenes, the cinematography has to follow suit. “It’s concurrent choreography between the operators, the stunt coordinator, and, of course, the actors,” explains Laustsen. Part of that is to ensure the safety of actors and operators, so they don’t collide as the camera moves around fights. But it’s also about getting the best shot. “We’re spending a lot of time rehearsing to see what’s going to happen and where, so that the camera is going to be in the right place at the right time.”
That planning ensures cinematography is prepared to navigate the shoot and get the best shot while doing so. It’s worth remembering that shooting a fight scene isn’t just about showing up after actors and stunt coordinators have done their hard work — it means working alongside of them. Those aspiring to make action films of their own would do well to follow that lead — not just with this lesson, but all of the above as well.
For more on John Wick: Chapter 2, visit the film’s official website.
Images courtesy of Entertainment One; Photo credit for all images: Niko Tavernise