Stunt performance is as old as the silver screen itself, but in the era of VFX, defying death still requires a human touch
Logan Dillon // Contributor
Alison Johnstone // Illustrator
They live amongst us, their work watched by millions but very few know their names. They are stunt doubles, and they are crucial in all of the adrenaline—inducing action that fuels the films we adore. The stunt industry is part of the creation of such awe-inspiring scenes, while still allowing for a level of safety and precaution to be taken, using highly-trained individuals. Yet it took quite a while to realize the dangers and harms of performing untrained stunts; the first stunt performers were just as insane as the feats they were performing.
The use of stunt doubles began in 1903, the first recorded stunt person being Frank Hanaway in the film The Great Train Robbery. Stunt work actually began in comedy with performers from the fringe. Clowns, acrobats and vaudevillians found work in The Keystone Kops film series, paving the way for many famous stunt performers such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Many of these early stunts lacked any training and were mostly based on trial and error, but as the stunt performing industry began its early years, new technologies and safety features were slowly developed as actors were recognized as both a value and a liability of the film studios. The first film to incorporate these features was Safety Last, which included a stunt that required actor to hang from a clock tower. This stunt introduced the use of protective padding under the actor’s suit with a safety wire attached to the structure and mattresses laid down on platforms out of the camera’s view. Technologies like safety harnesses and wires are now a commonplace for the stunt industry. Andrea Ross, a local stunt performer who has worked on shows such as DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and Man in the High Castle described a scene she worked on using such devices. “I was hired to do a 7-person wire ratchet out of an explosion, I got to dive through a pane of glass and then do a 50-ft wire assisted free fall.”
Having come a long way from its early days of haphazard falls and gags, modern stunts may appear more extravagant on screen, but are nowhere near as dangerous as those from the early twentieth century. The technology and training that comes with this development has created an industry that thrives on well trained and educated professionals. A minimum of six months of recognized general stunt training is a requirement before starting a career as a stunt performer. This kind of stunt training can be attained by attending any stunt school, where lessons in areas such as body control, heights, vehicles, animal riding and water can be taken. These training sessions are important as they are the cornerstone of the stunt industry, and a must for any aspiring stunt performer. “Gymnastics and parkour have taught me spatial and aerial awareness which I use every time I get pulled on a wire, take a big fall or learn a choreographed fight sequence,” Ross said. Stunt school is costly but it is a requirement for anyone wishing to pursue this line of work, and with good reason, the work can be dangerous if the utmost precaution is not taken.
Yet it is not just the ability to perform these stunts that is important, it is also the knowledge of how to perform them in an exciting yet safe manner. A stunt performer with a greater amount of experience can leave the stunts to others and work as a stunt coordinator, a profession that comes with time as well as connections. A stunt coordinator is in charge of all the stunt performers, organizing the stunts, and the most important feature, safety. Daniel Beavis, a local stunt performer who is known for his work in films like Just Friends and Chained offered his insights on the industry. When discussing many of the dangers that come with the industry, Beavis stated: “You need to be creative and always thinking because you are helping create a vision that a director or writer has in their mind, but you always need to do it with safety in mind.”
The range of performances in stunt work varies but most stunts are more menial rather than death defying. Falling from a chair or being slapped in the face are the bread and butter basics, but these stunts actually have a higher risk of injury. “You are more likely to get hurt doing a fight scene or small gag,” Beavis said. He argues that it comes down to repetition, “you need to often do it over and over again, where during the bigger stunts you might only have to do them once.”
However, there are still more dangerous stunts that can be performed. One in particular is being set on fire. Seen in many films and shows, the stunt itself requires a large amount of preparation. Several layers of a cold gel are applied to flame retardant clothing that the performer wears on their body and face, along with a burn layer on the outside of their protective gear. A specialized accelerant is put on the places that are to be burned. While the stunt is being performed, the performer holds their breath, as to not breath in any of the toxic fumes. “Being on fire is the easy part,” Beavis said. For Beavis, the hard part is keeping someone safe after they’ve been engulfed in flames.
Stunts like full-body immolation require a vast amount of skill and can be quite dangerous. Visual effects allow for physically impossible stunts to be performed, without any possibility of danger or injury, while also keeping the budget lower than it would be if it were all to be shot using practical effects. There is speculation around this emerging frontier of stunt work, and the declining need for human performers. VFX labs like Disney’s Imagineering push the boundaries of the spectacle with stuntronics, a set of animatronic stunt robots able to perfectly perform a stunt every single time. These animatronics are being developed with the intention of being utilized in Disney’s theme parks, the newly announced Marvel world in particular. Yet the debut of these animatronics could mark the beginning of automation for the historic art form.
Even in the face of his robotic double, Beavis doesn’t blink. “I’ve seen clips of a stunt robot being shot out of a cannon and it makes a cool headline.” At the end of the day, Beavis explains that stunt animatronics are still always lacking a proverbial human element. “That robot can’t get a drink thrown in its face and pushed off a bar stool, and that is the type of stunt the industry is built on.”