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How Stunt Artists Survive Dangerous Movie Scenes

Derek Tokarz Certified in Safety Management Group's Training in Fall Protection

Categories: Work Safety

It’s dangerous work – pretty much like going to war, as one expert stunt coordinator describes it. Yet thousands of stunt artists continue to put their lives on the line to deliver increasingly realistic action scenes on the big screen. As directors go for those dramatic shots, the stunt work is becoming even more complex and hazardous, according to industry experts.

Think about Mad Max: Fury Road, the film that nabbed six Oscar trophies during the 2016 Academy Awards. Behind the scenes and the big name celebrities, a “small army” of stunt people were responsible for creating those over-the-top action shots which included fires, explosions, and fight scenes from speeding vehicles, said Mad Max stunt coordinator Guy Norris.

“It was literally like going to war,” Norris told Rolling Stone magazine. At times, he said, up to 150 stunt people were involved in creating the realistic battle scenes, largely limiting the use of CGI animation. “We wanted to make it real. Real vehicles, real locations, real movement and real stunts,” Norris says.

Not surprisingly, stunt performers make the list of the Top 25 Most Dangerous Jobs in the World by List25.com. And, according to the “Dangerous Jobs Guide,” they go into the job with the expectation of enduring injuries caused by falls, vehicle crashes, fires and other choreographed scenes.

So, how do they do it? It’s complex but it boils down to extensive training, and careful, strategic planning with attention to safety equipment and procedures. That CGI animation in Mad Max mainly was used to erase the safety equipment, such as cables and safety rigs that allowed the stunt people to perform their scenes.

Here are several essential components of the stunt work involved in high-profile movies.

Stunt coordinator

This is the person with the experience to ensure the execution of explosions, vehicle crashes, free falls and other action scenes by pulling together the right combination of equipment, stunt performers, and choreography to make them look realistic. Safety is at the top of the list of the coordinator’s objectives.

Stunt rigger

Working as part of the stunt crew, the stunt rigger works on erecting the equipment necessary to perform various stunts. Again, safety is a priority in constructing these sets.

Stunt equipment

Visit a set for an action movie and you’ll likely see an extensive assortment of equipment, some familiar, like commercial ladders that are used to help set up equipment, as well as less familiar specialized equipment that includes air ramps, air ratchets, hoist systems, winches, descenders and decelerators (which allow a stunt person to drop from high heights safely at varying speeds), pipe ramps, and fly-by-wires.

Stunt bag

Borrowing from that reference of preparing for war, a stunt bag provides the gear that keeps a stunt performer safe. Sort of a survival kit. It’s usually a bag filled with the basics needed during stunt work, including jerk vests, protective fire layers, bite guards, elbow pads, knee pads, first aid and pain killers, according to the author of “Action Actors: The Tactical Performing Artist.”

With stunt work being so extensive and elaborate, it’s no wonder that the set-up and execution requires that small army of behind-the-scenes stunt specialists.