Sports in Movies Always Look Fake. How “I, Tonya” and “Battle of the Sexes” Got It Right.

Sports in Movies Always Look Fake. How “I, Tonya” and “Battle of the Sexes” Got It Right.


The pain, the grit, the suspence… It’s no wonder that the movies love sports. But when it comes to actually portraying the match or performance on screen, movies often get it wrong. So what separates a great dramatized display of athleticism from a terrible one? Two things separate realistic sports scenes from ridiculous ones. One: No glaring camera trickery. and two: Appropriate casting. Let’s start with No. 1. Any tennis aficionado will tell you it’s a notoriously difficult sport to get right on the screen. And one movie that got it very wrong is Wimbledon, the 2004 romantic comedy starring Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany. Bettany, in real life, is obviously not a pro tennis player. But that’s not the real issue. The movie’s depiction of the famed grass tournament is so bad, because the director and editor rely on tacky tricks to manufacture suspense and excitement for the games. The extreme slow-motion shots of the ball hitting the net, the blurred camera swipes following the ball as it’s volleyed back and forth, the close-ups and quick cuts… These all serve to mask that the actors are not top-level players, and completely obscure the beauty of the game. Tennis is best experienced as it is in real life: in wide shot, with an uninterrupted view of most of the court and the players. Other sports can also benefit from a view that’s more similar to real life spectatorship. This isn’t to say that highly stylized camerawork and editing are inherently intrusive. Consider the boxing in Raging Bull. Robert De Niro isn’t a professional boxer either, of course. But boxing is an up-close-and-personal sport, and the extreme close-ups and point-of-view shots here work to provide that blunt intimacy. The stylization doesn’t try to hide the sport. It deepens our experience of it. That brings us to No.2, appropriate casting. Hiring an actor who can’t hit a baseball is forgivable if the athlete being portrayed is a famous historical figure. Say, having Chadwick Boseman play Jackie Robinson, whose life off the field is important to understanding the man. But when you have a fictional sports movie filled with fictional characters, the actors you cast had better be at least a little bit convincing at whatever they’re supposed to be an expert at. This is not the case with the movie often considered the greatest sports movie of all time, Bull Durham. Even an infrequent baseball watcher can tell something’s off with Tim Robbins’ technique His limbs are loosey-goosey and his throwing motion is like a kid’s – yet he winds up a pro ballplayer? Add to that list Freddie Prinze, Jr. in Summer Catch, Rob Lowe in Youngblood, and Common in Just Wright. But many movies do manage to get it right. 2017’s Battle of the Sexes bucks the trend of subpar tennis recreations by hiring professional body doubles for Emma Stone and Steve Carell and using them often. The historic showdown between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is filmed primarily in wide shots from a distance, allowing the body doubles to do most of the work. The doubles are actual tennis players able to mimic the styles of their real-life counterparts quite well, and it shows. Another recent film, I, Tonya, also offers a model for how to make an athletic performance by an actor work. In addition to convincing casting and skilled editing, the film makes use of top-notch CGI. In scenes where she’s merely gliding on the ice, Margot Robbie looks comfortable on her feet, if not totally natural. But when it comes to portraying Tonya Harding’s Olympian skills, however, the use of a body double with Robbie’s face digitally swapped onto it as she spins and axels is practically seamless. We know Robbie’s not actually doing those tricks, And that it’s not her performing in front of a packed auditorium, but in the context of the film’s overall aesthetic and tone — playful, dark, toying with the concept of fact vs. fiction—it works. And above all else, that’s the way great athletic scenes should be – aligned with the film’s look and tone, free of misguided tricks, and true to the experience of the sport.

46 Replies to “Sports in Movies Always Look Fake. How “I, Tonya” and “Battle of the Sexes” Got It Right.”

  1. Another "women are better than men" in disguise. Look at this tennis movie starring a woman and a man but the man definitely isn't a pro tennis player both look at this baseball movie. The actor doesn't look like a pro ball player. But wait look at this female ice skater. She does it perfectly

  2. Watch wrestling scenes from Bollywood movie 'Dangal'..one of the best in recent sport genre..
    Sometimes look beyond Hollywood..

  3. Are you kidding, you used I Tonya as an example of good sports portrayal, and as 'good CGI'? Obviously the way they used the body doubles is mostly good, but the programs itself are nothing like the real programs of Tonya, and before you say 'That's natural, it's a movie, it's different', true, but they for example switched moves and music in her programs, so they look nothing like the real programs, and the triple Axel absolutely sucked! Watch the 1991 FS by Harding to see how her triple Axel really looked like.

  4. The experience of attending a sporting event live is much different than the experience of watching the same event on TV. Filmmaking should be different than watching the sport live or on TV. I agree that in the choreography films often fail to play out the scene very well. However, film must make the most out of its unique strengths. Such as the example of tighter close up shots in the ring of boxing movies. The viewer doesn't want to imagine watching the action from the nose bleed section or even up close looking up to the ring with their view blocked by the ropes.Today fans are asking that sports b played differently and broadcast differently to better match how they are played on video games. Which is just bizarre to me. This year MLB introduced the no pitch walk. A pitcher only needs to motion to the umpire that it is an intentional walk instead of throwing four pitches out of the strike zone. The ball never leaves their hands. They save their arms and the base runners don't have an opportunity to steal.

  5. In what universe is Bull Durham considered the best sports movie? Raging Bull stomps all over it. And the ACTUAL best sports movie ever is Hoosiers, which gets a flash at the beginning, but no comments. Maybe Slate doesn't know basketball.

  6. I've never seen 'Wimbledon' so maybe they correct it, but the ball at 1:17 is clearly in but the line judge called out.

  7. Should have included 'A League of Their Own' – every woman hired to be a ball player had to actually be able to play ball, period. They had a bunch of actual ball players, and the leads actually went trained to play and ended up being kick-ass players. None of that stuff is faked – even the huge, horrible bruise on Renée Coleman's thigh (from sliding) was 100 percent real.

  8. I, Tonya is not a great example of seamless face swap CGI. Captain America is seamless face swap CGI. Heck, Little Man has better face swap CGI!

  9. Lmao I, Tonya did not get figure skating right. Tell me why “Tonya” lines up for a Lutz and then suddenly switches to a forward axel take off. That’s not how that works. Thought y’all were gonna call them out on that but I guess y’all ain’t as smart of watchers as I thought 🤷🏼‍♀️

  10. I liked the way the first movie showed it. Sure, it's obviously fake, but that works in a comedy. It fit to me, at least, in the clips chosen.

  11. As for I, Tonya, it seems that he movie did indeed do a really good job, or else people wouldn't be commenting on smaller things that would never come up in a normal sports movie. It's all about how they picked the wrong routine or music for a specific thing, rather than it looking like the character can't actually skate.

  12. I remember this old movie about a Russian gymnast called "Nadia", ohmygod it was so good, the last scene, when she's doing a onehanded handstand with a bleeding arm- lol stayed with me for life, whenever I need to tell myself to "toughen up"

  13. idk… I, Tonya just seemed too uncanny valley… maybe one day CGI will be seamless, but it's not there yet.

  14. This is the most idiotic video I’ve ever seen. They are actors not professional players. It looks “fake” because it’s supposed to be a fucking movie not a game. If you want to watch a tennis game go ahead and watch it. This is a damn movie.

  15. Also both Margot Robbie and Emma Stone trained a lot at their respective sports (even if the doubles do most of it)

  16. While I agree with your argument and agree with the example in Battle of the Sexes. I disagree about "I, Tonya", I found the CGI to be distracting.

  17. Miracle is glaringly absent, easily one of the best portrayals of a real-life sporting event, and possibly the best. Getting good athletes who can act is much better than getting actors who can somewhat play sports. Watching Major League is painful in the sense that nobody on that team looked like they could play a lick of baseball except for Charlie Sheen and a few of the team members who aren't part of the storyline. The baseball advisors on that movie were horrible, or the director didn't make the actors pay any attention to one.

  18. I read somewhere that deniro actually did practice boxing to the extent that he could be considered a "boxer." Yet the claim is more or less true for Raging Bull and boxing.

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