How Stuntmen Work


Stuntmen take very dangerous risks in order to give movies an added sense of realism. Learn about stuntmen and find out how stuntmen train for their stunts.
Stuntmen take very dangerous risks in order to give movies an added sense of realism. Learn about stuntmen and find out how stuntmen train for their stunts.
©2007 Twentieth Century Fox/ Photographer Frank Masi

The action hero leaps from the roof of a building and grabs onto a hovering helicopter. Then he drops to the seat of a convertible, fires the engine and takes off on a high-speed car chase. He spins, hits a parked car and flips the convertible as fiery explosions burst into the air around him. Tumbling to safety, he pulls a gun and ducks for cover as enemy agents fire hundreds of bullets at him. He returns fire and the bad guys fling themselves to the ground as bullet holes pierce their shirts and soak them with blood.

A lot of this is accomplished with "movie magic:" special effects, clever editing and carefully constructed props. But much of what you see on screen can only be depicted by daring performers who take on very real risks to bring these spectacular scenes to life. Stunt men and women spend years honing their skills so they can convincingly (and safely) perform stunts from a simple fist fight to elaborate car chases and explosions.

Advertisement

One of the most famous early stunts was one performed by Buster Keaton in which the front of a house falls on him, but the window falls around him so he is left standing unharmed. This risky stunt was accomplished simply by measuring very carefully.

Carey Loftin was a well-renowned stuntman who went on to perform and coordinate several great car chases, including “The Duel” and the legendary car chase in “Bullitt.”

The 1959 version of “Ben-Hur” features a lengthy and intense chariot race with dozens of horses and the top stunt performers in the film industry at the time. Joe Canutt doubled for Charlton Heston and was nearly killed in a thrilling sequence in which he was accidentally thrown from a chariot and almost crushed beneath it, before he grabbed onto the frame and pulled himself back into the chariot. The scene was edited into the final cut [Source: Baxter].

In this article, we'll learn how stunt people learn their craft, how certain stunts are done, and look at the safe, and not so safe, parts of the job.

Stuntmen are Performers, Not Daredevils

Stuntmen are often called in to perform stunts like swordfights, instead of teaching the actors how to do it.
Stuntmen are often called in to perform stunts like swordfights, instead of teaching the actors how to do it.
Photo courtesy of stock.xchng

While many things can be referred to as stunts, including those performed by daredevils or the feats of extreme sports enthusiasts, movie stunts are undertaken by trained professional performers known as stuntmen and stuntwomen. Their goal isn't to accomplish the highest jump, biggest explosion or craziest stunt; their purpose is to create a realistic visual effect on film by performing a carefully choreographed and planned sequence.

Stunt work is dangerous -- injuries are common and deaths happen far too often. While a stuntman isn't going out of his way to do something dangerous, creating a realistic stunt often requires high-risk action. Training and technology help make stunts a lot safer than they were in decades past, but if all stunt sequences were perfectly safe, stunt people wouldn't be needed at all.

Advertisement

A stuntman is called in to a movie or TV set when the scene requires skills or risks beyond what the actual actor is capable of, or willing to do. For example, if the script calls for a sword fight, it's safer and often cheaper to use a stuntman with training in stage combat than to spend weeks or even months training the actor to fight. If the main character in a movie falls from a building, stunt people not only have the training to fall safely, but if they're injured their absence won't derail the entire production. Thus, it makes financial sense for directors to use stunt people.

Despite every safety precaution, every stunt carries some risk. California state laws and Hollywood union rules have added regulations to protect stunt people and film crews over the years, but injuries and sometimes death are always possible. In the early days of film, deaths were almost common. The Howard Hughes air combat film “Hell’s Angels” suffered from numerous crashes and three (or four, depending on who you ask) fatalities. Three extras drowned during the flood scene in the 1928 film “Noah’s Ark."

Modern film shoots have been the scenes of some horrific stunt tragedies as well. Several high-profile deaths have captured media attention, such as the decapitation and crushing by a crashing helicopter of actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children during the filming of “The Twilight Zone,” and the accidental (and fatal) shooting of actor Brandon Lee with a "dummy" bullet while filming “The Crow.” Many more are the nearly anonymous stunt actors who have been killed or seriously injured creating the high-action entertainment that film-goers love. It’s a risky business and always will be.

The Hours and Pay of Stuntmen

Days for stuntmen are long because stunts, especially involving fire, take hours to set up.
Days for stuntmen are long because stunts, especially involving fire, take hours to set up.
Photo courtesy stock.xchng

Life on a film set for a stuntman isn't especially glamorous. The days are long, sometimes lasting 14 hours or more. A shoot can often take place in uncomfortable situations -- they might spend hours partially submerged in water or have to do a location shoot on an icy mountain or a hot desert. Pay for a stuntman can vary widely based on their experience and the specific stunt they'll be performing on a given film. Only a very few top tier stunt people make six figure annual incomes.

The reason for the long hours is that a stunt requires planning, preparation, rehearsal and probably several retakes. It takes hours just to set up the pyrotechnic charges for a scene with explosions. Most stunts involving cars will require measurements and the setting up of ramps and crash barriers. All stunts should be rehearsed as closely as possible to the actual stunt, without any of the risk factors. For example, a car chase could be run through at low speed or a sword fight practiced with plastic swords. Once the actual stunt is filmed, it should be very predictable for everyone involved.

Advertisement

Some stunts may need to be filmed multiple times to catch additional camera angles or because something wasn't quite right the first time through. However, with many stunts, it isn't practical to re-shoot the scene. If the chase culminates with an explosion and a car crash, it becomes prohibitively expensive to destroy multiple cars for the sake of capturing the perfect shot. Plus, every time you ask a stunt person to repeat a stunt, the risk factor multiplies. This is another reason that a huge amount of planning and rehearsal goes into stunts -- the crew has to make sure the shot is captured right the first time to avoid costly and dangerous second takes.

Stuntmen and the Second-unit Director

Bruce Willis during a "close-up" scene in "Live Free or Die Hard."
Bruce Willis during a "close-up" scene in "Live Free or Die Hard."
Photo courtesy ©2007 Twentieth Century Fox

While the director is in charge of his or her movie set, chances are he or she doesn't have a background in stunt work. When stunts are planned, practiced and filmed, the stunt coordinator is in control. The coordinator hires the stunt people he feels are best suited for the job, plans out the stunts, makes sure all safety protocols are followed and keeps the stunt crew working smoothly.

On many films, stunt sequences are directed by a second-unit director. Because stunt scenes rarely involve the actual actors in the film, the second unit can shoot those scenes while the director is shooting scenes with the movie's big stars. For example, in a car chase, the second-unit director shoots the cars themselves and all the exterior action as they careen through the streets. Meanwhile the director is in another location shooting close-ups of the actors inside the cars (or mock-ups of cars), talking, acting like they're driving at high-speed and reacting to the chase. Later, the two shots are edited together to make it look as if Harrison Ford is the one actually driving a car at 90 mph through a subway tunnel.

Advertisement

Second-unit directors often have a background in stunt work, and many of them were stunt coordinators at one time. However, the second-unit director's focus is on shooting the scene -- the stunt coordinator remains in charge of the stunts themselves.

Stunts Without Fire

Stuntmen are trained to hit without causing any damage.
Stuntmen are trained to hit without causing any damage.
Photo courtesy stock.xchng

There are countless stunts and variations of stunts, but most of them are made from combinations of a few basic stunts. Here are some of the most popular that don't typically include fire.

Fights and punches

When a fight is filmed, the actors and stunt people aren't actually hitting each other; or they're hitting each other in a way that looks impressive but doesn't do any damage. This is similar to the way pro wrestlers punch. Experienced Hollywood fighters know how to use camera angles to make their fake punches look like they really connected. Both the puncher and the punchee have to know how to "sell" each punch, performing movements that show the punch landed with serious impact, leading to an appropriate reaction from the victim [Source: Manny Siverio].

Advertisement

 

Gun shots and bullet holes

Live ammunition is never used on a film site. Guns are either props or loaded with blanks, ammunition that makes a loud noise but doesn't shoot a bullet. It should be noted that blanks can fire compressed gasses or bits of metal, so they're still dangerous, especially at close range. The impact of a bullet on a human is produced by using squibs. A squib is a small explosive charge (today a pneumatic charge is often used) taped to the victim's body in the appropriate place, with a small bag of theater blood on top of it. The whole rig is backed with a metal plate, protecting the actor from the charge and projecting it outward. The charges are set off remotely, or by the actor himself, via a button hidden in his sleeve, timed to the firing of a gun in the scene. When the charges go off, it rips through clothing and spurts the fake blood in a convincing facsimile of a gunshot wound [Source: Baxter]. Bullet hits on other surfaces can be faked by drilling the proper holes, covering them with painted putty or paper, then setting off charges to blow away the cover and reveal the hole.

High falls

A fall from a great height was once the bread and butter of stunt people. Today, these stunts are often accomplished with editing and green-screen, or digital special effects. When a true high fall is done, stunt people rely on one basic idea -- make sure the falling stuntman doesn't hit anything hard. For anything high, large airbags are the ideal choice. They're light and easy to transport, then inflated with air on location. An additional air bag is placed inside the first one for added protection. In the past, or for shorter falls, cardboard boxes with the corners cut off were used [Source: Emmens]. Modern high falls often use a bungee cord device that allows the stunt person to fall almost to the ground before bouncing back up unharmed.

Stunts With Fire

Being set on fire is one of the most dangerous things a stuntman can do.
Being set on fire is one of the most dangerous things a stuntman can do.
Photo courtesy of Dreamstime

Any scene where fire is involved is a dangerous one.  Let's take a look at some of the most common stunts that include fire.

Burn scenes 

Scenes in which someone is actually set on fire are among the most dangerous ever filmed. The stuntman wears several layers of protective clothing, including fire-resistant materials like asbestos. Special gloves and a hood cover the hands and head. In most burn scenes, the hood is clearly evident, though its appearance can be minimized by good editing. Inside the hood is a small breathing apparatus connected to a small oxygen tank. The performer is then coated in a specially prepared flammable gel. They are not simply doused in gasoline -- that would be suicidal. Before the burn is lit, multiple extinguishers and paramedics must be at the scene. The burn itself is carefully timed.

Advertisement

Explosions

Pyrotechnic crews set up explosions, which are built to produce spectacular fireballs. The detonations are timed to go along with the rest of the action in the scene, and can be made to look closer to the action than they are by forced perspective. They can also be filmed separately and inserted into the show via green-screen, digital or other special effects technology. If someone is flung into the air by the explosion, a pneumatic air ram is used to propel them. The air pressure can be dialed in to create the exact amount of force needed for the scene.

Car chases and crashes

Stunt driving is a very specialized skill. Cars used in stunt scenes aren't "off the showroom floor" stock models. They're modified with added safety equipment such as a roll cage and on-board fire extinguishers, rigs for placing cameras and any gear needed to accomplish the stunt itself. If the car needs to flip or jump, a large pneumatic air ram is bolted into the car. If the ram points down, it can be triggered by the driver to fire a pole at the ground, propelling the car into a flip. An air ram pointing backward can launch a car into an impressive jump.  While not all car chases and crashes involve fire, many will end with the car crashing and causing a huge explosion or catching on fire. 

How to Become a Stuntman

Learning to ride a motorcycle is a good idea for someone looking to get into stunt work.
Learning to ride a motorcycle is a good idea for someone looking to get into stunt work.
Photo courtesy stock.xchng

There's no easy way to become a stuntman -- there's no "stunt degree" you can go to school for, then show up in Hollywood and get stunt work. All stunt people learn their craft through a long apprenticeship with an experienced stunt person. But here again, there's no clear way to get such an apprenticeship; no formal method of approaching it.

To work as a stuntman at all, you must become a member of the union that governs all on-screen performers in film and some television -- the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Getting your SAG card requires you do some work on-camera as an extra, a challenge all by itself. Working frequently as an extra is a good way to become familiar with film sets and stunt coordinators. Experienced stunt people recommend speaking briefly with a stunt coordinator when he isn't busy (a very rare event) and giving him your resume and headshot along with an offer to assist him with any stunts. If you have the right look and skills for a stunt, you might get a phone call at some point in the future.

Advertisement

How do you develop the right skills? Most people in the industry recommend developing a range of skills, rather than specializing in one area. A class in stage combat is a must. Experience in rock climbing, skiing, sky diving, scuba diving and martial arts can all come in handy. There's an International Stunt School run by the United Stuntmens Association that gives seminars and classes on various aspects of stunt work. Having that on a resume certainly won't hurt. Additional experience in high-performance driving, horseback riding or firearm use will also come in handy.

Once a stuntman has a foot in the door, they will gradually work their way up from acting as a gopher for the second-unit director to minor stunts like punches, until they finally get to work on a big stunt. Even at this level, it can be a tough business -- the work isn't steady and there's a lot of competition for just a few jobs. Very rarely will a stunt person get a contract to perform stunts regularly over a long term. A notable exception is stunt woman Sophia Crawford, the stunt double for Sarah Michelle Gellar in the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" series. Because she had the right look and skills she was given the contract to double Gellar throughout the series.

The History of Stunts

Although wires can be removed with computers, they can't recreate real-life stunts such as this.
Although wires can be removed with computers, they can't recreate real-life stunts such as this.
Photo courtesy stock.xchng

In the early days of the film industry, no thought was given to professional stunt performance. If something risky needed to be done for a scene, the producers would hire anyone crazy or desperate enough to do it. The first professional stuntmen were comedians like the Keystone Kops and Buster Keaton. They still weren't trained to perform stunts, but instead learned through trial and error. If they needed a scene where a man hung from a steel girder hundreds of feet above the ground, they didn't make a fake steel girder a few feet above a padded mat -- they found an actor willing to hang from an actual steel girder. The modern action movie didn't exist yet, so most stunt work was done for slapstick comedies.

Beginning around 1910, audiences developed a taste for serial action movies. This called for riskier stunts and the first use of dedicated stunt people doubling for actors in dangerous scenes. The rise of the western in the silent and early sound era of film gave rise to a host of rodeo stars turned movie stars and stunt people. Tom Mix and Yakima Canutt were among the most famous.

Advertisement

The 1960s and 70s saw the development of most modern stunt technology, like air rams, air bags and bullet squibs. That technology has continued to evolve into the present. However, the biggest thing in stunt technology is something some stunt people fear could put them out of a job -- computer generated images (CGI). As computer graphics improve, it's possible to create very life-like CGI scenes. This allows directors to shoot stunts that would be very expensive, dangerous or simply impossible to perform with real stunt people. CGI has been used to create elaborate fight scenes, falls, car crashes, explosions and more. However, there will always be a demand for the realism of an actual stunt, and CGI has costs and difficulties of its own, so the Hollywood stunt industry is probably in no danger of dying off.

There is no Oscar awarded for stunt work, although the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences does award an Emmy for stunt coordinators (not individual stunt people). The reasons given for not awarding an Oscar range from not wanting to remove the anonymity and illusion from stunt work to the academy’s desire to trim awards and shorten the Oscar ceremonies rather than adding more [Source: Opinion Journal]. However, in 1967, Yakima Canutt was awarded an honorary Oscar for his stunt career.

The Taurus World Stunt Awards Foundation not only gives stunt people their own awards at an annual show, but offers financial support to stunt people worldwide who have been injured while on the job [Source: Taurus World Stunt Awards]. In 2007, Gary Powell won the Taurus award for best stunt coordination/2nd unit direction for his work on “Casino Royale,” the latest in the James Bond series.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Baxter, John. Stunt; the story of the great movie stunt men. DoubleDay; [1st ed. in U.S.A.] edition (1974). 978-0385065207.
  • Emmens, Carol A. Stunt Work and Stunt People. Franklin Watts, Inc. (1982).
  • HBO Interactive. “Special Effects and Stunts in the Production of Band of Brothers.” http://usmilitary.about.com/library/milinfo/bandofbrothers/blbbspecial.htm
  • Siverio, Manny. “How To Throw a Movie Punch.” CURIO Magazine, Spring 1998. http://www.mannysiverio.com/filmbizarticle_howtothrowmoviepunch.htm
  • Siverio, Manny. “How to Get Into Stunts.” http://www.mannysiverio.com/filmbizartilce_howtogetintostunts.htm
  • Sullivan, George & Tim. Stunt People. Beaufort Books; 1st ed edition (1983). 978-0825301292.
  • The Taurus World Stunt Awards Foundation. “Foundation.” http://www.taurusworldstuntawards.com/index.php?cmd=cmdAboutFoundation
  • Yost, Mark. “Oscar Snubs the Fall Guys.” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 25, 2006. http://www.opinionjournal.com/la/?id=110007865