The transcript below is from the video “Jackie Chan – How to Do Action Comedy” by Every Frame a Painting.

Every Frame a Painting (Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou, YouTube Channel, series of video essays about film form):

Some filmmakers can do action. Others can do comedy. But for 40 years, the master of combining them has been Jackie Chan. Let’s see how he does it. (Note: to see the names of the films, press the CC button!)

Jackie Chan (Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director, producer, stuntman, and singer):

“Hello, yes. This is Jackie speaking.”

Tony Zhou:

Hi, my name is Tony and this is Every Frame a Painting. Some filmmakers can do action. Others can do comedy. But for 40 years, the master of combining them has been Jackie Chan. These days, there’s a lot of movies that combine funny scenes with fight scenes. But even when the movie’s good, the comedy and action seem to be two directors and two different styles, and that’s why Jackie’s so interesting.

Tony Zhou:

In his style, action is comedy and his work shows that the same filmmaking principles apply whether you’re trying to be funny or kickass. So let’s dive in. If you’d like to see the names of the films as I’m talking, press the CC button below. Ready? Let’s go! So, how does Jackie create action that is also funny? First off, he gives himself a disadvantage. No matter what film, Jackie always starts beneath his opponents.

Tony Zhou:

He has no shoes. He’s handcuffed. He has a bomb in his mouth. From this point, he has to fight his way back to the top. Each action creates a logical reaction… and by following the logic, we get a joke. In movies, this comedic style goes back to the silent clowns like Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton. But I think Jackie has distilled it down to one line of dialogue:

Jackie Chan (Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director, producer, stuntman, and singer):

“Please! I said I don’t want trouble!”

Tony Zhou:

Because he’s the underdog, Jackie has to get creative, which brings us to point number two – he uses anything around him. This is the most famous aspect of his style. Take something familiar, do something unfamiliar. I’ve seen him fight with chairs, dresses, chopsticks, keyboards, Legos, refrigerators, and of course ladders. Not only does this make each fight organic and grounded, it also gives us jokes that couldn’t happen anywhere else.

Tony Zhou:

Number three, Jackie likes clarity. He doesn’t do dark scenes where everything is color corrected blue. If his opponent wears black, he wears white and if his opponent’s in white, then he’s stylin’. His framing is so clear that in each shot, he’s setting up the next bit of action. Here, even though we’re watching the stuntman, two-thirds of frame is the staircase. A few seconds later, we see why. He keeps things clear by rarely using handheld or dolly moves.

Jackie Chan (Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director, producer, stuntman, and singer):

“Like American movies, you can see there’s a lot of movement. When the camera angle movement, that means the actor, they do not know how to fight.”

Tony Zhou:

In slow motion, you can see how the camera operator swings around to make the hits seem more violent, but since Jackie can fight…

Jackie Chan (Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director, producer, stuntman, and singer):

“I never move my camera, always steady, wide angle. Let them see I’m jumping down. I do the flip. I do the fall.”

Tony Zhou:

When you shoot this way, everything looks more impressive because action and reaction are in the same frame. Notice how you can always see Jackie, the car, and the wall at the same time. But a similar stunt from Rush Hour 3 never includes all the elements in the same shot, and it doesn’t work. The same principle applies to comedy. This shot directed by Sammo Hung, shows us the punch, the bad guy’s face and Jackie’s face all in one.

Tony Zhou:

Now, check out the same gag in Shanghai Noon. Here, action and reaction are separate shots. It kind of works, but not nearly as well. Why don’t more directors do this? Because of number five, they don’t have enough time. Jackie’s a perfectionist willing to do as many takes as necessary to get it right and in Hong Kong, he’s supported by the studio which gives him months to shoot a fight.”

Jackie Chan (Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director, producer, stuntman, and singer):

“The most difficult thing is when I throw the fan and it coming back… more than 120 takes. Those kinds of scenes, “Oh, Jackie’s good.” It’s not good. You can do it. Accept, do you have the patience or not?”

Tony Zhou:

When I re-watch his work, these little things are the ones I’m most impressed by. He doesn’t need to do them and they eat into his budget, but he still does them because he wants to. It’s that “going above and beyond” that I respect and admire.

Jackie Chan (Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director, producer, stuntman, and singer):

“But in America, they don’t allow you to do that… you know because of money. Poo, poo, poo…”

Tony Zhou:

And his American work is missing something else, but there’s a rhythm also into the way that the shots are performed but also the way they’re edited. Jackie said something very interesting that you know that the audience don’t know the rhythm’s there until it’s not there.” Jackie’s fight scenes have a distinct musical rhythm, a timing he works out on set with the performers.

Jackie Chan (Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director, producer, stuntman, and singer):

“Ready! Action! Stay where you are! Stay where you are. Don’t chase me. See? Everybody looks good.”

Tony Zhou:

Even experienced martial artists have trouble with it. In his earliest films, you see him learning the timing from Chu Yen-ping and it’s very much like Chinese opera. By the mid-1980s, working with his own stunt team, he had something totally unique. In America, many directors and editors don’t understand this timing, and they ruin it by cutting on every single hit. But in Hong Kong, directors hold their shots long enough for the audience to feel the rhythm.

Jackie Chan (Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director, producer, stuntman, and singer):

“The most important part is the editing and most directors, they don’t know how to edit. Even the stunt coordinators, they don’t know how to do editing.”

Tony Zhou:

Hong Kong directors like Jackie and Sammo cut a particular way. In the first shot, you hit your opponent in the wide. In the second shot, you get a nice close-up. But when you cut the shots together, you don’t match continuity. At the end of shot one, the elbow is here. At the beginning of shot two, it’s all the way back here. These three frames are for the audience’s eyes to register the new shot, and they make all the difference.

Jackie Chan (Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director, producer, stuntman, and singer):

“I start from here to there, but two shots combined. That’s power.”

Tony Zhou:

In other words, show it twice and the audience’s mind will make it one hit that’s stronger. By contrast, modern American editing doesn’t show the hit at all. At the end of shot one, the leg is here. At the beginning of shot two, it’s in the same place going backwards. But because they cut at the exact frame of the hit, it doesn’t feel like a hit. A lot of people think this is because of the PG-13 rating, but even R-rated films do this now.

Tony Zhou:

It looks like a bunch of people flailing around instead of a bunch of people getting hurt. Ouch! Which brings us to number eight, pain. Unlike a lot of action stars who try to look invincible, Jackie gets hurt… a lot. Half the fun of his work is that not only are the stunts impressive, there’s always room for a joke. Pain humanizes him, because no matter how skilled he is… he still gets smacked in the face. In fact, Jackie’s face may actually be his greatest asset.

Tony Zhou:

Many times the look he gives is all it takes to sell a joke. Like when he does an entire fight holding a chicken, or dressed as Chun Li. And last, Jackie’s style always ends with a real payoff for the audience. By fighting his way from the bottom, he earns the right to a spectacular finish. He doesn’t win because he’s a better fighter. He wins because he doesn’t give up. This relentlessness makes his finales really impressive and really funny.

Tony Zhou:

Many times the look he gives is all it takes to sell a joke. Like when he does an entire fight holding a chicken, or dressed as Chun Li. And last, Jackie’s style always ends with a real payoff for the audience. By fighting his way from the bottom, he earns the right to a spectacular finish. He doesn’t win because he’s a better fighter. He wins because he doesn’t give up. This relentlessness makes his finales really impressive and really funny.

Tony Zhou:

It’s in direct contrast to a lot of his American work where bad guys are defeated because someone shoots them. Come on! But most of all, I think Jackie’s style proves something – action and comedy aren’t that different. In both genres, we want to see our best performers and I think a lot of modern action directors are failing completely. These actors are skilled artists, some of the best in the world. Why are the directors so unskilled? Why am I paying money to not see the action?

Jackie Chan (Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director, producer, stuntman, and singer):

“Whatever you do, do the best you can because the film lives forever. No, because that day it was raining and the actor don’t have time. I said, “Would you go to every theater to tell the audience? No, the audience sees it in the theater – good movie, bad movie, that’s all.”

Tony Zhou:

Exactly, this work will last. On that note, I leave you with the greatest death scene in film history.




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