5 Reasons Doing Movie Stunts Is Harder Than You Think
As CGI becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous, it's easy to assume that every action sequence we see in a movie was done with a computer, a green screen, and some tennis balls. But as we've shown time and time again, even now the best way to make sure the stuff you're putting on screen looks real is to have actual human beings jumping away from real explosions. And no, it's usually not the stars doing the jumping.
We're talking about the stunt performers who put on the harnesses and take the beatings, protected by nothing but some pads and years of painful training. We talked with an anonymous stunt-woman about it on the day she quit her day job to switch over to doing stunt work full time (seriously). And she says ...
(Disclaimer: this article is based on an interview Cracked carried out with an actual stunt-woman. An editorial decision was made to frame the article in her voice.)
Stunt Work Is Tougher for Women (But Not for the Reasons You'd Think)
It's not just that female stunt performers like me get paid less than men, or get respected less -- it's that stunt work is more difficult for women for the simple reason that doing a stunt in a tank top and miniskirt is shitty. Think about it: When you see a man on screen doing something ridiculously dangerous, he's usually wearing a Starfleet uniform, or a flak jacket, or a tuxedo.
They're fully dressed, is what we're saying.
The perk there for the stunt double (or even the actor, if he's doing his own stunts) is that there's plenty of room to hide padding. You can slip a pair of knee pads or a back brace under your pants, and nobody in the audience is going to notice due to the horrible societal double standard that says men are allowed to have swollen, bulky knees and still be considered attractive.
Now compare those outfits to what most female action heroes are wearing, and you'll see what we have to put up with:
Boobs don't count as protective padding, unfortunately.
The reality of the industry is that directors don't want to cover up Scarlett Johansson's tits. They want those puppies out there, even when her character is diving away from a fireball and into a window. Naturally, this subjects those tits to all kinds of stuff that you normally want to keep tits safe from, like fire and broken glass. So on top of the normal difficulty that comes with doing maneuvers in costume (I may have to make a big jump in dress shoes, or do a cartwheel in a wedding dress), we have this to deal with.
Did you see the Jennifer Aniston movie We're the Millers? There's a big scene featured in the trailer with Aniston in a bra and panties running from a burning building. Well, in the dangerous parts, that's not Aniston -- that's Michele Waitman, and she did the stunt work dressed like this:
It's cool, those panties are 40 percent Kevlar.
So maybe it's no surprise that female stunt performers wind up with more injuries, specifically bruises, cuts, and scrapes. As Leigh Bianco (who did stunt work in the X-Men movies, The Day After Tomorrow, and dozens more) said, "I've done stair falls in lingerie ... You know before you do the stunt you're going to come up bleeding."
You Never Know What You'll Be Told to Do
This is me, getting decapitated on The Walking Dead:
How many of you who saw that episode even gave a second thought to the person playing the zombie, or how they went about getting that shot? Probably none of you -- that's the idea. If you notice the stunt performer, we've failed. But every such scene on that show requires somebody performing dangerous evasive maneuvers in full zombie makeup -- including contact lenses that obscure your vision. Even fairly simple moves are dangerous if you can't see, let alone trying to catch a wire around your neck without accidentally cutting your own throat.
"OK, now jump all three alligators."
Of course, everyone involved is highly trained and everything is carefully choreographed (note: attempting the above in your backyard is almost certain to end in disaster, whether you use a friend or an actual zombie), but here's the thing: The plan is constantly changing, often at the last minute.
In film, timing is the enemy -- everything's on a simultaneously tight and fluid schedule where everything is subject to change, but at the same time, delays are unacceptable. So, we have to be constantly prepared to do our stunt, because we never know when they're going to be ready for it. So 80 percent of my job is spent waiting for people to tell me they're set. Obviously, the human body doesn't work that way -- these are athletic tasks. Muscles need to warm up, and your brain needs time to regulate adrenaline and your nervous system to make sure you don't actually punch yourself in the throat or trip over your own feet as you run down the side of that building.
It's easy for tigers -- they evolved in jungles full of flaming hoops.
After all, the reason we're performing the stunt is because it's not a thing that a normal person (or even *gasp* an actor) could pull off. We're experts, we've practiced this stuff, and we have a repertoire of moves -- but those probably aren't the moves they're going to want you to use that day, because movie making is less about careful planning and execution and more about the deranged whims of madmen.
For a fight scene in the upcoming Anchorman 2 (which we can't show you, because it isn't out yet at the time this is being written), I spent months training in hand-to-hand combat -- only to find out on the shoot that I'd have to do a bunch of scenes in a harness for rappelling instead. Luckily, I'd done that kind of thing before -- I say "luckily" because there was no way in hell I could've known until I was already on set, and I would've had to do it either way or risk not getting hired back.
Hollywood is a harsh mistress if you can't pull off a jauntily colored suit.
If you're saying, "But that's the kind of chaotic danger people like you thrive on!" keep in mind ...
It's Not a Profession for Risk Takers
There's no question that professional stunt work is a dangerous business. On any given day, you're going to have to jump from a moving car, throw yourself off a building, or take a punch to the face from the star. (Note: Actors' fists don't always stop in time to avoid breaking the stunt performer's nose.) So it's natural that the job would attract adrenaline junkies, right? It's just the grown-up version of that attention-starved crazy kid from school who'd demand that everybody watch while he ramped his skateboard over Steve's Camaro, right?
We could add "while drunk," but would it really be necessary?
Wrong. Don't confuse stunt performers with daredevils -- we're always quick to point out the difference. The reason is simple: If I get hurt, I can't work. And it's not the same as an actor, where production will stop until I recover. Our job is to be interchangeable -- the film is going to great expense to make sure you don't know it was a stunt performer who crashed through the skylight and not Channing Tatum. So if I can't work, I get replaced. Being careful and meticulous is how we stay employed.
And yes, even within the industry, I have to listen to people tell me about how they've been "stunt performers all their lives" because they used to get drunk and jump off roofs into swimming pools. Nope, you're just someone who let a need for attention override your self-preservation instincts. Stunt work means spending years developing skills that remove the risk. We're not showing off, we're doing a job, and we have to get ready to get up and do it day after day.
Have fun on unemployment, you rugged badass.
Stunt Performers Do More Than You Think
So far, stunt work is sounding like a nonstop adrenaline-fueled action-packed thrill ride. You wake up, dive through a bus windshield, grab some coffee, get shot out of an airplane, eat lunch, flip a hot rod over a playground, eat dinner, and go to bed.
Crash into bed all like blaaaoooww.
Actually, no -- a lot of stunt shots are just doing things the actor would find too unpleasant, tedious, or annoying. One of my early jobs on The Walking Dead simply involved chasing rats on skateboards around a dusty warehouse (eh, you just need to watch it). No explosions, no breaking glass, just lots of shuffling and zombified snarls.
Go ahead, just try to describe that on your resume.
And that's not just because it was an early job: Tammie Baird is a highly accomplished stuntwoman, and her highlight reel of stunt clips includes scenes of her having a tray of drinks knocked out of her hands by Steve Carell and getting a cake shoved in her face on Days of Our Lives. Stunts aren't just the things that are too dangerous for the actors -- sometimes you're filling in for people who just hate dust, rats, and cake.
There's Pretty Much No Recognition
Obviously it goes with the job that the badass fall you just took is, in the minds of the audience, going to get credited to the famous face on the poster. But what is less excusable is that the work also tends to go unacknowledged by the very people in the industry who should know better. You might have noticed (since we brought it up) that the Oscars don't have a category for best stunts, despite decades of campaigning and support from big names like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He'll keep right on supporting stunt work until he eliminates it via robot.
It would be easy to think that this is because elaborate stunts are the stuff of ridiculous action movies, and you don't expect Fast and Furious 6 to get showered with gold statuettes either way. But even in award-winning movies, it's often the stunt performers that make the whole thing work. Look at last year's Oscar winners: The Artist credited 16 stunt performers, and Life of Pi had nine. Even a movie like Moneyball had seven people on its stunt crew.
You think Jonah Hill stares his own incredulous stare?
If you want to see how much the stunt work matters even to a "serious" film, look at a movie like the Denzel Washington drunken pilot drama Flight, which was showered with awards. But the stunt work received almost no recognition, despite the entire movie being built on it. The scene that kicks off the movie's story, where Denzel Washington prevents a plane from crashing, involves an interior scene of a plane that's flying upside down. It's the scene that was in every trailer and TV spot. Putting that together required 50 people to hang upside down from mock airplane chairs for hours without losing feeling or hurting themselves or anyone else.
Now think about what that movie loses if that scene -- the event that drives the rest of the plot and that the characters spend the rest of the runtime referring to -- isn't authentic. If the stewardess bouncing her head off the wall had been less convincing, it would come off as comical, ruining the tone right out of the gate. There's an incredible level of skill and dedication (and actual, physical pain) required to make that scene work, but you never even thought about it specifically because they did their job so well.
Contusions are the signpost of quality.
Of course, none of this is a complaint -- you'd have to be crazy to complain about a job where people tie you up in wires, launch you into the sky, and then pay you money for it. It's like being a professional amusement park ride. But everyone goes nuts lavishing praise on Tom Cruise for doing his own stunts, as if it's unthinkable that any mere human could do such a thing. So why not throw some recognition to the people who do it every day? I promise you, movies would not look the same without them.
J.F. Sargent's stunt work can't be seen anywhere because he's afraid to leave his office without a helmet, but you can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
Related Reading: For ANOTHER look inside the film industry, check out these behind the scenes details our Dick Joke Journalists dug up. We've also got the inside scoops on legal prostitution and modern espionage. Oh, and if you've got a flight soon it's probably best to read this expert's perspective on why the TSA sucks so hard.
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