FILM EDITING. Action scenes: what to know. 5 tips from the film director and film editor Tetiana Khodakivska’s own experience.

FILM EDITING. Action scenes: what to know. 5 tips from the film director and film editor Tetiana Khodakivska’s own experience.

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After recent lectures on film editing, I received a lot of questions from colleagues, so for those who were interested in editing action scenes, I prepared some tips that are crystallized from my experience of editing action: 

  • “Angels of War” short TV series directed by me;
  • “3 Days Rising”, a feature film starring Mickey Rourke and Peter Green;
  • Ukrainian TV show about box;
  • American TV show about MMA; 
  • Crime TV series “Bedlam” based on the plays of William Shakespeare;
  • “Foxter and Max”, a feature film for the younger audience

Also, along with Oleksandr Chorny and Andriy Toloshny, I am currently editing Oles Sanin’s film “Dovbush” (produced by Pronto.Film)

"Dovbush", directed by Oles Sanin / Production and Copyright Pronto film.
  • Expose who? why? and how, exactly?

The audience consciously or subconsciously seeks answers and gets pleasure finding answers to these questions.

I need to know myself who, why, and how in order to find the most accurate and effective way to convey this to the audience.

The cause and effect: What slight movement led to what kick? Why and how? What story is being told by every fight element? Imagine that every hit, tilt, jump, or pose is like a word in a scene with dialogue. Once you understand the sentence and the subtext, you can start working on the form and rhythm based on the characters and genre of the film. You can add pauses or remove some words or emphasize important story-telling details because you already understand the scene’s meaning. 

Which of the three questions you pay more attention to will depend on the genre. For example, in an action movie or a disaster movie, people expect you to show how? The audience wants to see some terrific fight or chase choreography, inventive uses of objects as weapons or CGI-assisted sequences, so by hiding it behind rushed, fast-paced editing you may steal the pleasure from them. If it’s a drama, sometimes why? Is much more important. But whatever the genre, the viewer must understand who? What goal does a character have in a particular scene? Are we able to take sides as an audience? Without such identification, interest will be lost in a matter of seconds.

Atomic Blonde, 2017 / Copyright Focus Features.

Action scenes should be exciting, because it is not only about walking on the edge of life and death on a physical level, but also about extreme emotions. The bulk of emotions and gestures, again, depends on the genre and character. And for me, this is the beginning of the work: I’m trying to understand what genre or subgenre or mix of genres I am working with. In what style is it told by the authors? What kind of world is the director building?

IP MAN, 2008

In each genre we will look for truth, but not necessarily realism. What is true for one story will be perceived as fake for another genre. When the genre is clear, you can watch several films with a similar mood to calibrate your perception, noting what works and what doesn’t; what tools are used; what is a cliché and what is the law of the genre.

For example, “The Terminator” appears in our real world, but it’s a fairy tale, and artistic exaggeration characterizes fairy tales. 

Realism and brutality in a fight does not depend on your personal taste – it is a tool that we use depending on what exactly the story needs. 

Realism or pseudo-documentary style is often emphasized by the absence of music, and scenes with more artistically figurative action are decorated with music. Music, or the absence of music, is also an instrument and the decision to use it depends on the whole storytelling style of a particular film.

The genre and aesthetics of the story-telling, the universe you build, is a macrocosm. The action scene is a microcosm, a small reproduction of this world. 

  1. Don’t forget about the close ups and medium shots of your protagonists.

All directors and editors know about the power of reaction shots. By adding them, we help to understand what is happening with the protagonist, both externally and internally of the character. The action scene is no exception, but the opposite. 

Watching the hero’s pain on his face after being hit, or his/her fear in the chase-scene reminds us about the stakes and gives a sense of truth, even for a superhero who falls from the roof and survives.

Enter the Dragon, (1973) / Copyright Warner Bros

Do an experiment: in an action scene, do not show the main character or antagonist for 10 seconds and you will see how your own hand instinctively reaches for the phone to check on the Internet who is wrong there. Not computer effects, not stunt-choreography, not a cool click makes the scene emotional and true. It is about reminding us of the human emotions and stakes that we can understand. They reinforce the illusion of “truth” of the world and the heroes in it and allow us to forget that this is a fictional world and a fictional story. If we, as directors and editors, remember this and invest in emotional perception, it arouses interest and involves the audience. 

Watch a few action scenes without sound, paying attention to what gives the feeling of pain, loss, notice when you start to worry about the hero.

The action scene is exciting when we are not only surprised by the way it is realized, but when we are dragged into the course of events on an emotional level.


Each action scene is a miniature of the whole film, its mirror. Everything you know theoretically or intuitively about dramaturgy, you can use in practice in battle scenes, chases, fights, and disasters. 

One of the most important rules is a swing. To enjoy the hero’s victory, we must see that he can be defeated, we must be afraid for him, we must see that his opponent can win. Usually, the less chance the hero has of winning, the more interesting it is for us to watch what happens next.

Eastern Promises, 2007 / Copyright Focus Features.

Notice how the scene is structured in the scene of David Cronenberg’s film “Eastern Promises”. Also note the absence of music.

Careful! Nudity and cruelty. Age restrictions.

Many good action scenes are directed, staged, and edited to see how a hero loses, then wins again or vice versa. This is a simple three-act structure with a mini “EVERYTHING IS LOST” before the climax. Again, a reflection of the film’s drama: EMOTION – CONFLICT – OPPOSITION – SURPRISE.

In addition, each subsequent scene should be more exciting and inventive than the previous one. Each subsequent scene should be more emotional and with higher stakes than the previous one.

John Wick, 2014

But what if it doesn’t work out? Exhale and review the material again! Maybe you didn’t notice something. The more ideas you have of what is correct and what is not, the more you are afraid to do something wrong, the fewer opportunities you have. I also like to watch all the material again after the scene is edited. Yes, I know that we don’t have time, but the knowledge and feeling that you have used the full potential of the material as much as you can is worth it. It is also the basis of trust between the director and the editor. Because the director, the actors, and the whole film crew put in a lot of effort to shoot each shot, it’s also about respect for their work, to me.

Trust yourself, trust the editor, trust the footage – it may have everything you need. Trust the story. Allow yourself to fall in love with it, with this genre, with these heroes – and you will find the key, the nuances and details you need. The more freedom you have in your head, the more likely you are to find the key. 

4.Practical invisible tricks, 5.Poker face while editing – in the next article, until then watch some great fights for inspiration. And let us see wars and fights in the movies, not in life.

Don’t forget to write in the comments the professional observations you have about action games.

Tetiana Khodakivska - film director and film editor, whose filmography includes premieres at the Cannes Film Festival, and awards of class A festivals. Among the main awards - Chicago International Film Festival (Gold Plaque), “Best Editing” Golden Dzyga (Film Academy of Ukraine), Calcutta International Cult Film Festival (best director, best editing), US International Film and Video festival (Silver screen). Tetiana is a top editor with international projects planned for several years in advance. Among the projects that Tetiana is working on in the United States (New York) are films with such movie stars as Mickey Rourke (Wrestler, 9.5 Weeks), Peter Green (Mask, Criminal Reading), Vincent Young (Beverly Hills), Ice-T musicians and the Onyx band. Among the organizations - UN (United Nations). In 2021, Tatiana had the honor of becoming a voting member of the European Film Academy. Tetiana Khodakivska is often invited to give lectures on film editing in the USA (New York) and Ukraine (Kyiv).

Proofreading by Stephanie Ybarra /

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