Die Hard Analysis

Die Hard is one of my favorite movies. It is an old 1988 movie, but it is still a great action thriller to watch to this day. I watched the PC Bomb Elevator scene from that movie to analyze the different filmmaking techniques used, such as the visuals and sounds. I based my observations of this clip on an article by Roger Ebert. I also needed to figure out the best wording to describe camera shots, which I referenced wolfcrow’s 15 Essential Camera Shots, Angles, and Movements.

First, I watched the clip without audio, then I watched it a second time with audio but not looking at it, then I watched it with both. If you want to follow along with me, below is the scene I analyzed.

Camera Techniques

First, I watched the scene with the sound muted so that I could observe the camera techniques. The clip starts focused on the main character, John McClane (played by Bruce Willis). Right off the bat, the camera uses moving shots, lots of cuts, and zoom ins on key items and actions. Scenes switch rapidly between different characters and different locations. This rapid change in scene provides a sense of action, and each scene displays each of the main characters effected by the events that are happening.

The main villain, Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman), is shown close-up and lighted through window blinds, which creates a mysterious and ominous feeling. Then it cuts to a large gun being fired. An explosion is shown right after to show the impact of the gun.

Interesting angles are shown to provide the perspective of McClane’s environment being high up in a large tower. The upward angled long shot from the elevator shaft looking up at McClane looking down from the elevator door he is opening shows distance and offers a clue of what will happen next. As McClane props open the elevator door with a fire axe – something he got from an earlier scene, an over-the-shoulder camera angle pointed downward into the elevator shaft reveals a very long, scary drop.

The clip cuts quickly between locations around the tower – outside to the police and wounded officers, inside to the bad guys, to McClane, and to McClane’s wife. The first scene of the police includes a three person shot with the jerk detective in the “dominant positive” position (closest to the camera or the front of the shot and on the right). Then the action cuts to the blaze from the gun firing from before, then whip pans to injured police nearby. The bad guys that shot the gun are shown in silhouette, hurrying around to get ammunition.

Meanwhile, McClane is still setting up his makeshift bomb. Soon after he finishes, another upward shot from the elevator shaft shows McClane’s expression of resolve. The camera angles switch to another over the shoulder view of McClane to show the PC bomb being shoved down the shaft and watching the bomb as it descends.

Suddenly, there is a flash seen in the shaft. Once again, there are many cuts to numerous scenes from the different locations to show the many explosions caused by the bomb (windows blown out, destruction of portions of the building, etc.) and the reactions of all the characters. Then there is a close-up of McClane as he reacts, panicked, seeing the explosion coming up the elevator shaft at him. The camera cuts and zooms out to show the room McClane is in as he leaps and rolls away from the flames.

The remaining scenes show the aftermath of the explosions. Hans Gruber reacts, and sits down disappointed. A long shot from parking lot to shows the results, and a cut to a close-up to the police for their reaction. A crane shot is used to show the billowing smoke moving up the building. The last shot cuts to a close-up of the incredulous reporter. 

Audio techniques

After I watched the video clip with no sound, it was time to re-watch it. This time with sound but not looking at the video, so that I could listen for the audio techniques used. I immediately noticed the background music provides tension. One can also hear glass shattering noises. An actor grunted, another said “Fire” and then there were sounds of a blast. The music intensified using repetitive blares from brass instruments.

Then some expletives were used (this is an R-rated film), then panicked voices, followed by cries of wounded people with fire crackling noises in the background. The background music rises again to create feeling of increased energy. Excited voices provides a sense of urgency, as well as destruction in the background.

McClane said: “Take this under advisement jerkweed,” then “Geronimo, MF!” The music faded out right after and all was silent for a second. Suddenly, lots of loud successive explosions followed by glass shattering and building splintering sounds. I heard what sounded almost like wind rushing just before McClane uttered another expletive and then the roaring of flames.

The explosive sounds become muffled as if far away and the music fades. The bad guys say that police are using artillery, but Hans Gruber says “It’s not the police. It’s him.” Suspenseful music resumes as I hear more crashing sounds and reactions from the police and reporter. The clip ends with a police car siren.

All together

I replayed the clip once more, this time watching the video with the sound turned on. I looked for things I missed from just the video or audio alone. In restrospect, it makes sense to me that the background music escalates right after the gun is fired, but it is not something you can tell when you only see the clip. It also really helps to have the audio connected with the action, especially for the dialog (for example when McClane says an expletive as he looked down the long elevator shaft to indicate his emotions at that moment).

It is also interesting to note that the sound effects and background sounds are audible based on the context of the camera shot at that moment. For example, when the police are reacting to the explosion from the explosive round fired early on, and the flames are shown and the noise of the flames is dominant. Another example, when the camera shot pans over to the wounded officers, the primary thing you hear is them crying out in pain while the flame noise is not as loud but still audible in the background.

McClane said “Take this under advisement jerkweed” as he was completing the PC bomb. I could not have known that when I just listened to the clip. The camera shots provide the context and order of events, and it accentuates the emotion of the characters by showing their expressions and reactions. However, I feel that the sense of excitement is primarily produced from the soundtrack, though the rapid scene changes assist in providing energy within the clip.

Overall, this movie clip was meant to have both the visual and audio aspects to really appreciate the scene as a whole. Without one or the other, one can’t get a full sense of what is happening or how impactful it truly is. Together, the audio and visuals combine to create a very action-packed and intense scene.

Final Comments

This was a very enlightening experience to me. I have seen the Die Hard movie before, but I haven’t analyzed it this thoroughly before. This was a pretty fun exercise, which I feel I should apply to more movie scenes in the future. If you have any observations you have that I did not include here, feel free to leave a comment and tell me about it.

More posts…

3 responses to “Die Hard Analysis”

  1. Die Hard is one of my most favorite movies too! I haven’t noticed any of the things you’ve mentioned above before. Learning new things and going back and looking at them in a movie is definitely something I should do more often. The different camera angles and sound effects you’ve noticed is incredible!

  2. Absolutely love the in-depth analysis of the filmmaking techniques in “Die Hard”. Personally audio is one of the main factors in what can make or break a scene, The sectioning of audio based on what the camera is pointing at is pretty normal for movies but Die Hard is always going to be a 10/10.

  3. Great analysis of Diehard, it is such a classic that I watched and re-watched as a kid. My only constructive criticism is that you referenced this movie as an action thriller… which isn’t wrong. However, you left out the old debate about Diehard being a Christmas movie. Bwahahahaha… sorry I saw that no one had commented about that yet and I couldn’t resist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.