Ramp It Up (and Down)

Link and Video-heavy. Scroll down if you want to skip the exposition/explanation of terms.

Filmmaking blog site Story & Heart had a little piece on Speed-Ramping that reminded me of a post I’ve been meaning to write for a few months now. It’s a popular gimmick in screen action these days – a rebirth of the early kung-fu cinema fascination with slo-mo, kickstarted by the Matrix’s “Bullet Time”, now with the added flow of speed ramping (perhaps first seen by most Americans in 300, but now near ubiquitous) and enhanced by modern computer graphics.

Skip to about 3:45 to see the speed ramping really start.

My first time doing choreography or performance specifically for slo-mo was probably this trailer Marty Martin did for the TV reality show On The Lot a while back, where I was a ninja and the ninja wrangler (yes, I claimed that title).

He was the first one to point out to me personally that if it was being cranked down in post, we didn’t necessarily have to shoot at full speed either. That allows for near-misses and safe fights even with less rehearsal time (as he had on this shoot), but as the ninja lowering himself into frame, I discovered that doing a bunch of takes of that is a lot harder on your abs done slowly than it would have been if we’d been going full speed.

Obviously you have to match speeds when there’s more than one of you on screen, and there are some things that just don’t work that way, such as anything involving gravity, since you can’t slow that down (without wires or other cheats). I’ve had the pleasure of assisting and playing with (i.e. workshop, not paid professional gigs) SAFD Fight Master and professional fight coordinator Richard Ryan a few times now, including once between his work on Sherlock and his starting Vikings, and he pulled me aside to test a few things with speed ramping – which meant I got a few tips as well. For example, walking, at least in a wide shot, tends to look a little Keystone Cops; again with the gravity problem… you can still shoot slow-mo, but at that point you need to be performing it full speed.

Skip to 1:40 for the excellent use of speed-ramping:

I guarantee you if this had been common practice when Richard did Troy, Achilles’ trademark leaping thrust (Brad/Buster – not sure if that was star or stuntman half the time) would have been done that way.

All of this has been facilitated by both newer ultra-high speed cameras like the Phantom line (which can shoot in the tens of thousands of frames per second, or over a million if you drop resolution) and even amateur consumer options like that built into the new iPhones.

I think it’s worth clarifying a bit a distinction between shooting for slo-mo just to visually accent a moment and those shots actually performed at a different speed, and then either sped up or slowed down further in post. The former needn’t matter to the performer except to really give it your all in that moment… but might to the choreographer it should (for pacing/rhythm, aesthetic style, and more) and definitely does to the cinematographer, as it needs to be shot at a high frame rate. The art department people (including props and costumes) also need to know, as there are things you can get away with at speed that you can’t in slo-mo, like stunt doubles’ faces, sloppy cast rubber prop doubles, the green scored plastic or crimps on blank rounds being ejected, or pads ‘printing’ through your costume a bit. It’s another example of the higher standards demanded by ultra-HD and high frame rate in general, as written up well in a recent post about props on Bloomberg.

For the former, just know it can make things more epic, and the more you have things flying through the air usually the better (not just the performer(s), but also atmospherics like water or fire or birds flying or wood shattering, etc.).

I had a broadsword class practice session last semester where none of my actors showed up, not too long after I’d upgraded to the iPhone 6, so I decided while waiting around bored to play with the slo-mo function on my phone. This is just an out-of-shape old guy dicking around; most of what I do in it would look distinctly unimpressive at full speed, but crank it down enough, add some color correction and music and other effects (just free stuff I have on my phone – this was all shot and processed on my phone in a half hour or so), and it begins to look more epic:

What I didn’t do, as it can only be done for one part per original video on the iPhone, is much actual speed-ramping; the slo-mo feature lets you pick a start and stop point for slo-mo, but only one per video, so this is just consistently slo-mo.

Obviously when you’re not performing full speed, you have a couple valid options: Either speed it up or slow it down. If you try to speed it up to normal speed, you do need to be careful – if it’s not supposed to look distorted, the human eye spots things that don’t fit… you get into a sort of Uncanny Valley of time. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. Temporally-distorted footage (either sped up or slowed down) is easier to sell even if it’s a tad off.

Safety-wise, shooting slower lets you do two things different in a fight scene; contact hits and near-misses. Obviously a near-miss with a sword or something is much easier to do safety in slow-motion than at full speed. You just need to really sell both the effort of the attacker and the reaction of the avoider, because feeling easy and safe can sometimes read on the performer’s face and body, and that’s probably not the story we’re trying to tell.

Contact hits are a bit trickier. What we, the audience, want to see is displacement of flesh. We want to see one thing press into another, maybe produce some ripples even. The Sherlock Holmes example above is great for that.

There are two parts to a contact hit; the speed of initial impact, and the follow-through displacement, where you punch into or even through the target. Either one of these by itself won’t do much damage – one will make a sound but little effect, while the other will move you but not really hurt. When trying to do damage, you put them together… you don’t punch someone’s skin, you punch their internal organs, and you do it at speed.

Yes, as a stunt performer or stage combatant you can do contact hits at speed if you’re really good at managing penetration without looking like you’re pulling your hits (so it’s a shallow slapping impact more than a jarring displacement of internal organs and bone). Any follow-through has to be either not done or separated, so it’s a fast shallow hit followed by a push, rather than a fast hit that pushes through. It’s tricky to do both convincingly and safely.

Stuntman and SAFD CT Mike Yahn probably holds the prize for person who’s hit me the hardest without hurting, sadly not on set but just following a smart-ass comment I made outside a movie theatre where we’d seen something he worked on. It got the automatic “OW” reaction and a great sympathetic flinch from the others with us, but followed immediately by a realization of “Actually, that doesn’t hurt. Well done!” Then again, this is the friend who taught me the adage that in movie stunts, you need to hate your partner just 25% – enough you are willing to cause a little pain, but not so much you actually want to damage them. It’s a harder-edged version of Richard Ryan’s “be a good partner, not a nice partner”, which in generalized form I take into all my acting classes as well.

Slow down your performance and it becomes a bit easier to do (and take) contact hits, but different; You can’t put that pause between the two parts of the punch or it’ll show – instead, you just have to make sure you have a consistent speed, one that’s slow enough that it won’t really hurt, but no slower… and you really have to act it all. The ‘victim’ should be as relaxed as possible; as with all acting, we want to see you be effected by the actions of the other. Here’s a clip from when this topic came up during a film-fighting class at the UWYO Stage Combat Workshop last Spring – and no, the volunteer punching me wasn’t really acting it, but that wasn’t really the point. Again, this was a quickie iPhone video, both the shooting and the editing.

As you can see, he’s punching just hard enough to make a little ripple in the opposite cheek on impact, but slow enough it doesn’t actually hurt me at all. That’s what we want – although for a SAG stunt shoot, I’d probably tell him to go ahead and hit a bit faster and harder than I did for this volunteer workshop gig. I hadn’t realized before doing this that my habitual go-to reaction to a cross punch in stage combat would look like a strange duck-face in slo-mo. Might need to work on that.

Really, this post ought to exist in pure video podcast form I suppose. Some day, when I have more free time… I’d love to hear any of your experiences with slo-mo or speed ramping, or your questions.

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