Action Hero Vs. Stunt Man
With a slate of action hero titles being released this month, FilmInk was invited to take part in an Action Trilogy VFX Training Day to see how the magic’s made.
Standing on the edge of a New York skyscraper; wind billowing, heart pounding, adrenaline pumping I take a step back to my start point, as stunt pros, Ben and Blake, have taught me.
Eight stories up, I imagine the strides through to my launch point and remember to take off with my left foot. All this has to go right if I want to make the jump to the next building.
I take a breath, make my run up, hit the mark and leap, the fulcrum takes effect as they pull a winch and I jump to the opposite building.
I land it, and exhale.
"Excellent jump," proclaims Grant the stunt co-coordinator. "Best one yet," I grin toward my fellow media members standing offstage. Our usual scepticism reserved for reviewing movies has been redirected as rivalry, in competing on a set at The Australian Film Television and Radio School next to Fox Studios.
"The only problem, you jumped too high and went out of shot," Grant berates. Try telling that to Sam Worthington, whose scene from Man on a Ledge we're emulating. "Again."
And so my day as an action hero goes, in conjunction with the release of Universal Sony's action hero month, which sees them serve up Man on a Ledge, Contraband, and Safe House on DVD and Blu-ray.
In between jumping from one ledge to another, fighting on a crane, and waiting around, Grant Page, 73, a stunt coordinator of more than fifty years' experience, regales us with explanations on how it all works befitting a physics teacher, probably because he was one.
"In the old days we were just working with Newtonian physics; action, reaction, friction, breaking screen, inertia. They've been around as long as the earth has existed and they don't change. The same systems of mechanics in physics are in play in stunting," he explains.
With the backdrop a green screen, the howling wind just strong air conditioning, standing in a harness on a ledge no more than eight feet off the floor, one can't help but wonder if it's all just smoke and mirrors?
"Through the technical support that's come in now, wire work, blue screen and computers, we can do bigger things with the wow factor," Grant says. "But you also want to do things that you can really believe. You don't want someone coming out of the cinema saying ‘What a great stunt', instead of ‘I hate the way the hero died'. We're after that element of realism. Sometimes when things are exaggerated too much, they become too cartoon like. And the audience isn't going to feel it in their guts."
Grant is a proponent of the willing suspension of disbelief. Just to put it into perspective, he explains the old school tricks of the trade from the set of Mad Max.
"Do you remember when the bike rides over Mel Gibson's arm when he's reaching out for the shot gun? That was actually my arm, we double actors quite often," he reveals.
The following sounds like madness (appropriate for Mad Max) to the layperson.
Using a concrete saw, Grant cut into the roadway, removed the top, and dug down underneath it. Placing a piece of foam at the bottom, he replaced the bitumen and put his arm with the elbow facing down on top of that (don't try this at home, or on the street).
"So when the stuntie rode over my arm, it bent at the elbow and went right in to the ground. Now an audience watching that doesn't expect the road to give way, they expect the arm to give way. In actual fact the arm just rebounds. The hardest part of that stunt was trying to keep my face away from the exhaust pipe. The part you have to worry about is the last thing the average person would think of," Grant laughs.
"It's funny that people say ‘they were running risks back in those days' but we never used to hurt anyone... It's gotten so complex now that there's so much more to go wrong. Back in the old days we were just using basic physics."
As the day progresses and everyone takes their turn, it becomes apparent that the enviable job isn't the movie star, but the stunt men who are the real action heroes. The Man on Wire is braver than the Man on a Ledge.
Though that might be the wrong way of looking at it according to stunt man, Ben Toyer, 21.
"Stunts isn't Jackass jumping off things; ‘look how crazy I can do this'," he explains. "Stunts is risk assessment - taking something dangerous, doing it with a calculated risk and knowing the outcomes, and controlling the outcome every time."
Blake Lindsell, 20, agrees. "To be a good stuntie you've got to be skilled all round. You wouldn't say yes to something that you didn't feel you were capable of, because that's risky. The whole job is making something risky safe, and then making it look risky again."
To the myth of ‘leading men' doing all their own stunts, the men behind the scenes laugh.
"We don't argue against that too much," says Grant. "If we want the audience to really believe in the character ,then we don't want them to think there was a stunt double, doubling that actor playing that character. We want them to believe in that character all the way through, so the more seamless we can make a stunt, the better the shot is."
Revealing another industry trick, Grant explains how this works. "In a stunt there might be five set-ups to put it together. We will always put the actor's face into one of those cuts. If the audience, even for a quick moment, sees the actor's face, they believe he's done it all. It's our job to help them believe that. We don't want them to recognise what we do. If they do, then they lose faith in the film. We don't mind the fact that we don't get the publicity or that actors claim to do it all because in a way, it helps the films sell better."
In having that industry insight, Blake and Ben say their friends hate watching movies with them, as they're always deconstructing how stunts are done.
Finally FilmInk asks if they ever feel pressured to be able to say yes to what a director wants, expecting Superman feats, just because they might have once been his double?
"Something stunties have got to watch out for is that they don't try ego trips that push beyond your limits," Blake offers. "One thing that you've got to be very careful of is enthusiastic directors, because they want the best shot they can get so they'll always try to ask you for the ultimate, but you're the only one who can say what point you can take it to."
But Grant is firm in saying they're not superheroes, in fact far from it.
"Stunt men are normal, everyone else is under-developed," he chuckles, "and that's because we live in such an over-protective society. To be as skilled as a stunt man you'd have to go back three hundred years; everyone would have been just as skilled physically. But now we never learn the skills of survival, which has left stunt men as the most normal people around."
Man on a Ledge, Contraband, and Safe House are all available on Blu-ray and DVD now.
Check out some further pics from the Training Day.