Why Mad Max Fury Road’s kinetic action scenes are more than just the sum of their practical effects

mad max fury road war rig sand

Mad Max Fury Road has received a ton of accolades, all of them deserved.  The consensus is that Mad Max is a seminal action film, something that will set the tone for the genre over the next decade.  So, if you haven’t seen it yet – do so now.  If you’ve seen it but don’t believe some of its more outrageous set pieces are almost 100% practical – watch footage of its stunts as they happened.  And if you want to see how to use CGI to enhance, not replace, said practical effects – read and watch an in-depth look at the subtle (and not so subtle) changes they made.

But it’s not just practical effects and restrained CGI that make Mad Max a great action film.  Michael Bay’s universally maligned Bad Boys II features car chases full of practical effects, and while its CGI is more obvious, that’s partly due to Bay’s . . . style, as well as the limitations of 2003-era CGI.  (Say what you will about Bay, but he’s no hack.  Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting mounts the most honest “defense” of Bay I’ve seen, and I have a soft spot for early Michael Bay, no doubt due to too many college viewings of the original Bad Boys and The Rock.)

But comparing two scenes – the first half of the second chase from Mad Max, and the first half of the car chase/shootout/freeway chase from Bad Boys II – shows a stark difference.  Miller has stated that his preferred version of Mad Max (and presumably this car chase) is a silent, black and white edit with only music, and he’s quoted Hitchcock’s famous desire to have his films understood in Japan without subtitles.  Bay, on the other hand, tries to capture the freneticism and chaos of the car chase (here, I’m indebted to Matthias Stork and his great series of video essays on “chaos cinema”).

Miller is a classicist; he centers the shot on either the action or the characters.  In addition, any information that the viewer needs to know is in focus and in frame.  We know the bikers are menacing Furiosa and Max because we see both of them watching the bikers approaching as they load their guns.

mad max fury road bikers out windows
Important details, such as the bikers threatening Furiosa and Max, are in focus and centered in a multi-layer establishing shot.
Bay, on the other hand, ditches establishing shots and leans heavily on the much-despised shaky cam in order to make the audience feel the same adrenaline the characters do.  Few of his action shots are centered, and those that are are rarely held for more than a second or two.  In fact, the only centered shots and long(er) takes are of Marcus and Mike, and those are marred by the aforementioned shaky cam.

Another less obvious but important difference between the two is the sound design.  Mad Max is mostly silent: there’s very little dialogue and every sound effect has a corresponding visual cue.

mad max fury road sand plow visual
Even with no dialogue, it’s clear exactly what is happening in this scene. (No one speaks until 1:57 when Furiosa says “Reload the clip.”)
The sand plow scene – my favorite in the entire film – doesn’t even end with an engine roar (as one would expect), but rather the perfect image of the supercharger’s butterflies opening.  That’s not to denigrate the sound design of Mad Max – in a great interview, sound designer Mark Mangini describes how they mixed whale calls with engine noise (which you can clearly hear as the plow hits the sand at 1:13).

On the other hand, Bad Boys II has very consistent sound design which, as Stork says, is the key to making the confusing images of chaos cinema coherent.  While the audience may not be able to see what’s going on, the fact that they can hear it allows them to understand the action, much like the way one can read text even with all the vowels removed.  Bad Boys II also features more dialogue, usually filling in more gaps.  You never actually see the Ferrari mount the sidewalk; you hear Marcus shout “Sidewalk!  Sidewalk!”, the wheels spin, Mike grimaces, there’s a POV of people diving out of the way, then a shot of the Ferrari through some columns that COULD be a sidewalk.

bad boys II car chase sidewalk

Thank god Mad Max doesn’t feature Max shouting “Put out the fire!” and Furiosa saying “Maybe we could try sand.  I can put down the plow!”

But Mad Max’s greatest strength by far is its shot transitions.  In numerous scenes, cuts both reference the preceding shot and set up the following.  When Furiosa starts sniping bikers from the roof of the cab at 1:35, almost every cut in the sequence flows directly into the next one.  Not only are cause and effect shown together (we see Furiosa shoot and the biker fall backwards off his bike in the same shot), but second and third order effects as well (she ducks to avoid the in frame bike in the following shot, then the in frame bike tumbles off the hood in the following following shot).

mad max fury road action reaction second order effects
In this incredible sequence, not only are Furiosa’s shot and the biker’s fall in the same shot, but the following two (!) shots show the bike coming across the War Rig’s roof and hood.
Classic continuity editing helps produce this effect as well.  Despite this scene’s relatively short average shot length (ASL) of 1.5 seconds, several of the sequences still make use of a master.  When Furiosa shoots the first biker in midair, his jump at 0:58 and fall at 1:00 are clearly from the same master.  Likewise, the sand plow scene uses the 3/4 view seen at 1:10, 1:15, and 1:21 as its master, with several cuts, including a slightly pushed in match cut, as intermediate shots.

Bad Boys II is the opposite.  There is a jarring lack of flow to the scenes, with intersections appearing out of no where, backup vehicles suddenly materializing behind the Ferrari (although this is set up through dialogue, not visuals, with Marcus calling for them earlier in the chase, seemingly reinforcing Stork’s point about sound replacing visual).  Compare the sudden arrival of backup to Immortan Joe’s progress in Mad Max: he’s initially shown alone, then well behind the bikers, then behind and finally alongside the War Rig – that’s visual storytelling.

Since there’s no flow to the sequence in Bad Boys II, shots of Marcus and Mike or of the Ferrari spinning its wheels could take place at any time during the chase.  There’s also very little cause and effect; as a result, the action feels disjointed and doesn’t look as real.  The most egregious choice is when Marcus shoots the bad guy’s tire at 0:53.  Rather than show Marcus hanging out of the Ferrari’s window, shooting the tire, the tire going flat and the car losing control, and then the crash in the same shot (or at least from the same master), the sequence is cobbled together from five separate shots (and the last two are clearly coverage of the same crash).

bad boys II car chase flat tire
Although it’s easy to miss due to the editing, there is a flow to the sequence. Marcus’ gun shot is briefly visible in shot 2 (image 2) before the tire goes flat (image 3), and he’s still holding the gun outside the car in shots 4 and 5 (images 5 and 6). It’s almost impossible to notice this as it happens.
The irony is that there clearly IS a master lurking somewhere, as the second shot shows both the muzzle flash and the flat tire in the same frame, and the fourth and fifth shots show Marcus’ arm and gun (or, more likely, the stuntman’s arm and gun) hanging out the window.  Usually editing hides bad stuntwork or effects.  In this case, however, these are talented stuntmen and practical effects, but the editing doesn’t showcase the care that clearly went into planning and executing this scene.

bad-boys-II-car-chase-alternative
Why not film the entire sequence from a wide or medium (either of the above would work), showing both action and reaction in the same shot? No need to cut to closeup of Marcus as his dialogue lets the audience know what he’s doing, and no need for the reverse shot of the tire going flat or the car crashing from the rear.
The second chase shown here – and every other scene in Mad Max – is simply more kinetic than its counterpart in Bad Boys II.  It’s not the practical effects (as those are clearly real cars in Bad Boys II), it’s not the ASL, and it’s not even the sound design.  Real care was taken to give Mad Max’s action a sense of momentum and to highlight the incredible stunts and practical effects through simple but effective shot composition and smart editing, highlighting the flow of the action in each sequence.

In the end, the difference is that Miller wants Mad Max to LOOK like a car chase, while Bay wants Bad Boys II to FEEL like a car chase.  And when I watch an action movie, I want to see action, not have it suggested.

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7 thoughts on “Why Mad Max Fury Road’s kinetic action scenes are more than just the sum of their practical effects

  1. While I do love that car chase in Bad Boys II – the way the filmed the cars being thrown out the truck is pure genius – i have to agree with you about the look of a scene often being more important than the feel. I love that Max doesn’t comment on the fire. In fact, I love that no comment is ever made on Furiousa kicking ass even though she’s female but that’s a discussion for a later time. I read that when Miller developed the film it consisted more of story boards than an actual written script and that’s why Fury Road is so wonderfully devoid of copious amounts of dialogue. You can watch Fury Road with the audio off and still have a sense of the plot and what’s driving everyone. Each scene builds to the next and this makes for fantastic action.

    I’m not the biggest fan of shaky cam because I feel you can capture that frenetic action and create the desired disorientation whilst still maintaining a steady shot. Showing me everything creates more anticipation and fear in my heart than having scenes missing in order to make me feel confused. I think Michael Bay gets a bad rep sometimes – he often deserves it but he’s done good work. His Transformers films are easy to target because of their crass scripts and over the top explosions but underneath that he creates films with stellar CGI and exciting action. I do feel he needs to take a page out of Miller’s book at times.

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    1. Yeah, maybe Bay and Bad Boys II were easy targets. I wanted to pick something that had practical effects, and – despite his flaws – Bay at least does some nice old-fashioned stunts. If only he’d shoot them in a slightly more old-fashioned style.

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