Aquaman Action Design Breakdown

2019.04.15
Aquaman Action Design Breakdown
Column
Peps Goh
by Peps Goh
Aquaman Action Design Breakdown

Jason Momoa kicking ass in Aquaman is one of the best things to happen on the silver screen in the recent years. From the intricate action design to the flawless execution, James Wan had certainly pushed the boundary for action film making, giving birth to several really memorable action set pieces.

Aquaman

Scene: Finale Trident Fight

The first scene to highlight will definitely have to be the glorious finale.

Aquaman being set underwater bestows upon it a distinctive look, both in its colour palette and physicality. But the sheer visual spectacle of watching these vast armies clashing is without a doubt a magnificent visual we wouldn't be seeing anywhere else. Which leads us to the final showdown between Arthur Curry (played by Jason Momoa) and Ocean Master (portrayed by Patrick Wilson).

I love how they take the extra effort of making these epic heroic moments.

Massive CGI battles are one thing, but this trident deathmatch takes the spectacle of DCEU cinematic franchise’s typical big climatic piece, and making it absolutely dazzling while staying relatable, using the movie's measured writing, and drawing in these two character's tension, building it to a breaking point and unleashing it into this moment.

Now looking at the intricacies of the spear twirling techniques that they had adapted into this film’s style of trident wielding, you can tell that they had put a lot of thought into it. Taking into account the iconic forked tips and tail of a trident that can be used for trapping and grappling the opponent and his weapon.

And making deliberate use of the extra weight on that end, loading momentum and swinging it as a blunt-force mace.

And most of all, they made wielding a trident cool as heck.

 

Scene: Sicily Fight and Chase

The second scene I want to discuss is the Sicily chase.

I will go ahead and say that this is by far my favourite sequence in this movie. Yes yes, I like it even more than the awesome epic finale, wait let me explain.

What was the X-factor that endeared it to me so much?

Effort.

Yes, effort. For a pursuit and escape to environmental destruction mayhem, a lesser director and creative team would easily fall into the trap of making yet another clichéd roof chase.

But nooooo, a classic chase isn't nearly enough for James Wan and his action design team. They had to go waaaay above and beyond to craft a multi-levelled, with dynamic camera movement and super-geometrically-comprehensive chase scene. What was the end result?

This never-before-seen blow-your-minds-out extravaganza.

This sequence is without doubt an iconic set piece of cinema that will be remembered. It will do for the orange-tiled roofs of Sicily Italy what this Casino Royal scene did for Madagascar construction site cranes.

And what Kingsman scene did for churches.

No one else can film on orange roofs henceforth, and not be reminded of this action set piece.

Action geometry is a technical term that people in my line throw around frequently, but few movies have gone as far as this scene had to excel in this.

What it means simply put, is the movements of each character within an action sequence and how they relate to each other's position. And the art of translating that information to the audience visually within the limited confines of a 16:9 flat plane.

And especially when there is more than one group of action happening at the same time.

Here's an example of a scene of action geometry done not so well from The Bourne Supremacy.

Hmm what's happening? Where are they? How far are they from each other? I'm not sure.

 

Now take a look at this.

See the difference? You know exactly where they are from each other even as their positions are radically changing.

And they did this by connecting the ends of one sequence, to the start of another via long extended takes. Without cutting, our brains are able to register the geometry clear as day. And in order to cover the vast distance of the long take, they used cranes and spider cams pulled along by wires, coordinated with the actions of the actors and stunt performers. Effort.

 

MVP effort shots highlight:

Camera descending with stunt performer and then insanely out the window to reveal Mera (performed by Amber Heard).

Double jump while camera simultaneously dollies and pans.

Shoutout to this stunt performer's extra gnarly stunt fall, yikes!

How they did this was instead of having her just on a wire attached to her harness, they looped the wire under her crotch and then over her shoulder before clipping it to the anchor point presumably between her shoulder blades. This way when they yanked, the wire will uncoil, and in the process lift her hip up and over, sending her head over heels in that epic nauseating arc. Kudos.

The double levelled chase was a fresh, creative and non-straightforward touch too.

 

Easter Egg and Conclusions

Bonus points for being reminiscent to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets' fun wall-bashing scene too.

The one-shot opening to this whole sequence is worth giving a tip of the hat to. They really pulled no punches in shooting these sequences is extra challenging ways. The difficulty of shooting a 360 one shot like this compared to having it filmed in the typical way with cuts is at least 3 times harder. For one thing, the actors and stunt people would have to perform the sequence in its entirety without the cuts to help them bridge over tougher transitions. That paired with having the camera move in sync with the choreography further complicates the execution. Shout out to another action set piece, the Queen Atlanta one-shot that executed the same challenging method.

All in all, Aquaman had really impressed, and I'm excited to see what fresh and amazing action set pieces the following DC movie may bring next to the table with SHAZAM!. There will no doubt be more ambitious comic to live-action spectacle brought to life, how will they attempt to top what James Wan pulled off in Aquaman?