His name might not be familiar to you, but you've undoubtedly seen Christopher Cowan Clark's work if you're a fan of live-action comic book movie adaptations and sci-fi films. As a full-time action designer /director, Cowan has worked on films such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Wonder Woman.
Growing up in Cincinnati, Cowan discovered his love of action and fight scenes at an early age. With his younger sister Courtney serving as his first collaborator, Chris has been behind the camera since the age of 7, attempting to reproduce the hyperkinetic action sequences that had captured his imagination. He refined his skills at Ohio State University before moving out to Los Angeles.
Like the rest of us, Cowan is a huge My Hero Academia fan. In fact, when he found some downtime between shoots, he decided to produce his own fan film to pay homage to the ultra-popular anime series. UA:LA (which features an L.A. branch of the fictional high school from the show) showcased all the skills he brings to his "day job" plus a gift for guerrilla filmmaking. SYFY WIRE recently caught up with Cowan to talk about his path toward becoming an action designer, where this unique career path has taken him, and how a few days off led to a viral video sensation.
What is the role of an "action designer" on set?
Christopher Cowan Clark: I conceptualize and design the flow of action sequences, not only in terms of choreography but also from a camera and editing standpoint.
When did it dawn on you that this was the career path you'd want to pursue?
I was inspired to pick up my home video camera when I was little. Cowboy Bebop got me hooked and Naruto took my fandom to a whole new level. I'm a huge fan of Cyber Connect, a game developer that made the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm game. The action design and their approach to camera angles and edits within their games are so inspiring.
So how did you get to work on such an impressive list of feature films?
I made my own live-action adaptations of action sequences from Street Fighter and Tekken shorts for my YouTube channel. Those blew up online, and after that I decided to put out a series of short films showcasing my work. Five years of hard work got me seen by an action director named Brad Allan, who's worked on films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the original Kingsman. He then asked me to design some action sequences for him. It's been a blessing thus far; I've been working in the industry nonstop since 2015.
What are some of your favorite high-profile assignments you've gotten?
My first big project was pre-viz prep work for the Wonder Woman movie a few years ago, which was a really cool experience. From there, I worked on Kingsman II: The Golden Circle. After that, I was fortunate enough to do Solo: A Star Wars Story. The King's Man is the next project that I worked on that will be out soon. In between, I was fortunate enough to also work on The Witcher for Netflix. That was my first opportunity to action direct professionally. It was a real honor.
Can you talk us through the scene you worked on for The Witcher?
It was for Episode 4, the scene where the Geralt fought with Duny in the throne room. I flew out to Budapest, and it was a fantastic experience. Once I got the script, I worked with the director about what they wanted to get out of the scene. It's essential to craft the action to flow with the story. From there, I met with the fight coordinator, choreographers, stunt coordinators, and performers to collaborate.
The pre-visualization stage comes next, which is essentially a blueprint or rough blocking out of precisely what the shots and the edits will be on shoot day. This typically takes place in an empty gym, but I was fortunate, the castle was not in use when I arrived, so I was able to do the pre-vis on set. Being on the real set and really being able to map the fight was super beneficial. The stunt team out there was extremely talented, which made for a great experience.
Considering how hard you work at your day job, where did you find the time to work on a fan film?
I've been lucky enough to work consistently since getting into the industry. After working on four feature films, I hit a lull. Last summer when I got back to L.A., my friend Gui DaSilva (a stunt actor whose credits include Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War) came over to hang out. We were talking and he says, "Man, we should shoot something while we have a few months off." I agreed, and we started brainstorming. We eventually decided to do a little nod to My Hero Academia. We quickly settled on filming a scene with original characters with new Quirks and just having them fight. Gui starred in the short as well.
What was it about the show that got you two so inspired?
It's really such a brilliant take on exploring what it means to really be a hero. I feel that's what's lacking in American comic books right now. Plus, it's incredible storytelling. One minute the show is all heart-pumping action, and the next they'll give you an emotional scene that has me tearing up as a grown man.
How quickly did the project come together?
Once we had the concept, Gui was all over it. He called his friend and fellow stuntman Nathan People and asked if he was available for a shoot the next day. As soon as Nate said yes, Gui asked, "So what are you doing RIGHT NOW? Can you come over so we can choreograph this?"
For the next three days, we shot outside in the park. I would edit and shoot the same day. Every day I'd come home and cut, and the next day we'd go out and shoot again. As soon as we were done, it was online. Our approach was to really have fun with it, and we did. But it came out so much better than we intended, and the response to it has been insane.
Was there anyone you were surprised you got feedback from on the short?
I won't name names, but I've had heads at Marvel message me saying, "Wait, you made this?" They've even asked if it's going to be released soon. I had to let them know that it was all just for fun.
What tips can you give to someone looking to get into your field?
Just start shooting. You don't even need to go out and buy an expensive camera. The cell phone in your pocket is enough to get started. The 4K footage and slow-motion capabilities these phones have now, you have everything that you need to jump-start your career! And YouTube is full of tutorials for editing applications. It's all free and all online.
Filmmaking is 100 percent trial and error, so don't get discouraged by your first project. Shoot it, learn from it, figure out what didn't work, and once you move onto your next project, you'll be in much better shape. You will improve. Stay consistent, don't give up, and the sky's the limit!