He’s one of the best directors of action cinema of the last few decades: we’ve been digging into the preparation and work that goes into a John Woo sequence.

It’d be remiss not to start a piece of this ilk by up front declaring that if you want to see the best work of Chinese movie director John Woo, you should zero straight in on the astonishing double bill of Hard Boiled and The Killer. They, for me and many, are the two standouts of a superb action movie career. I lean towards The Killer as my favourite, others pick Hard Boiled. You can’t go wrong with either.

Such was his success then that Woo was eventually lured to Hollywood in the 1990s, and managed, on the whole, to shoot his films on his terms. Sure, he had his studio battles on the likes of Hard Target, but few would suggest he was diluted too much with 1997’s Face/Off. And that, in turn, earned him the gig of directing Mission: Impossible II (after Oliver Stone had briefly flirted with the project). He became Tom Cruise’s choice for the sequel, and the pair got to work.

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I remember growing up reading articles about just how Woo shot his action sequences, with his ultra-stylised approach feeling really quite radical at the time. Appreciating we’re in an era now where a director such as Zack Snyder will, for better or worse, utilise slow motion just as a matter of course, the balletic styling of Woo’s action sequences remains really quite something, even in his weaker films.

Those making-of articles fascinated me, and I rediscovered one going through a pile of old magazine back issues. In this case, I settled on the US edition of Premiere magazine, that conducted an extensive interview with Woo for the release of the aforementioned Mission: Impossible II. Now it’s a film that I don’t think is prime Woo, but it certainly has plenty of trademark moments. And here are a few things I learned.

Storyboarding

Woo has an approach to his work that involves storyboarding his action scenes. Nothing unusual there. But where Woo differs is he shoots his action oftentimes at different frame rates. This isn’t therefore something he finds in the editing room: he knows before he shoots his action not just what’s going to be in the frame, but the eventual speed at which he’ll run the footage.

“When I’m working on a scene”, he explained, “I have the whole thing in my mind: the action, the tempo. When I’m shooting I know exactly what I need for every shot, every setup, and also about the speed of the camera – which angles use double speed, which ones use slow motion. I also listen to music – the music tells me the time”.

John Woo directing Mission Impossible II (2)

Woo uses several cameras for his action sequences – coming to that in a moment – and thus has to prepare in advance the frame rate he requires from each. Appreciating this is slightly different in the digital age, back in the days where 35mm was commonplace, the logistics of it all hurt my head just thinking about it.

Frames

Furthermore, preparation is such that he knows just how many frames he needs for a certain moment. A second of film runs for 24 frames per second, and Woo will plan his action down to fractions of one. He does give himself the flexibility in the editing room though, noting “I usually shoot every angle at every speed to get whatever we get”. As such…

Cameras

Action directors in particular have been using multiple cameras to capture key sequences for a long, long time of course. In the case of John Woo, he admits in the interview that for moments involving a car chase or explosion, he runs nine or ten cameras at the same time. That, obviously, gives the editors a lot of footage to watch, but also he’s willing to go quite surgical to get his sequence. Wrap your head around this…

“There’s a shot in Mission: Impossible II”, he explains, “in which Tom [Cruise] leaps up in the air to kick Dougray Scott’s chest. When he leaps and jumps, he twists his body upside down and kicks. I put a Steadicam at a low angle to see him jump up into the air high. And I put one camera above, looking down from the high up, to see Tom flip in the air in slow motion, so that the camera would see his face. And I put a low-angle camera over Dougray Scott to see Tom jump and kick his chest, another at normal speed to shoot Tom running very fast, and another that pans with him as he jumps and kicks”. And for the same few seconds of film, he also says “another camera angle is a close-up on Dougray Scott’s chest as Tom kicks him”.

The camera count is always as high of course, but multiple angles are constants: for instance, on Face/Off, director of photography Oliver Wood confirmed that on set “it seemed like hundreds of Panavision cameras, too; we were doing four- and five-camera setups. John’s films are about movement, movement, and more movement within the anamorphic frame, including some of the quieter domestic scenes”.

The frame rates of his starsJohn Woo directing Mission Impossible II (2)

Woo has worked with some terrific action performers: Chow Yun-Fat, John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage. And the thing is, he knows how many frames per second each can accommodate. “Some actors are good for 120 frames in slow motion [per second]”, he says, “some are good at 96 frames, some for 60 frames”.

In the league table then, Tom Cruise’s action work can accommodate 120 frames per second, Chow Yun-Fat the same (“he’s good at any speed”, muses Woo). John Travolta action moments run at up to 96 frames per second in Woo movies meanwhile, and Cage seems a little shabby at 60, until you consider just how slow even that is. On the other side of things, Woo admits he’d never really consider slow motion anyway with someone like Jackie Chan. “Some actors are good in slow motion, some not. Some you want to see them, like Jackie Chan. Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! That’s his real character. He’s just like a tiger. There’s no reason to use slow motion”.

In the case of Mission: Impossible II, Woo utilised a mixture of styles for a film that gave Cruise one of the biggest hits of his career. You can get a flavour of it from its trailer, here…

Woo’s Hollywood career spluttered after its success, with neither of his next efforts – Windtalkers nor Paycheck – catching fire, and neither feeling like entirely John Woo movies. By the end of the 2000s’ first decade, he thus upped sticks from Hollywood and went back to Hong Kong, to make the two-part Red Cliff films. He’s now said to be going back to that for a web project, ahead of a return to Hollywood.

And it’s that project that’s raised eyebrows: a dialogue-free action thriller called Silent Night where the visuals are going to have to do the heavy lifting. That’s music to Woo’s ears of course – and it means that Panavision is going to be getting an order for a whole lot of cameras very soon…

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