In the world of actors there are people who are good at crying, people who are good at laughing and people who are good at vomiting when required to do so. They are usually also good at talking and moving and impersonating people who are not themselves. Sometimes they have to impersonate people who get into pretty serious situations such has having to cling to a rope underneath a helicopter whose pilot would like to shake them off, or dive into a shark-filled tank, or have a limb sliced off by a man with a sword. There is a lot of money at stake when the likes of Russel Crowe or Daniel Craig do their own dangerous stunts as they go about the business of saving the world from baddies, so this offers an opening in the glitz of film-making to the world of stuntmen and women - people who don’t have to say a word.
Production of the latest James Bond movie was held up when Daniel Craig injured an ankle while doing a running scene in Jamaica and had to be flown to the US for surgery. And Tom Cruise broke an ankle jumping off a roof when filming Mission: Impossible, which added about $80 million to the production costs. Cheaper not to use a star.
If you happen to be ultra-fit, a gymnast, quick on your feet, perhaps pretty good at martial arts and, possibly, fencing, have no fear of heights and you look a bit like Daniel Craig you stand a reasonably good chance of a job. And if you are good at jumping off the back of one horse onto the back of another it probably doesn’t matter who you look like. Before CGI and the insurance industry take over completely, you might be just in time to risk your life as stuntman in an action movie.
Sometimes life as stunt-person only looks risky. They learn to pull punches and learn to flinch or double over appropriately. They are are illusionists, helped by dummies and make-up people. But some illusions require a high level of risk. You could die on the job and quite a lot have done so but, according to to a Guardian article, July 26 2019, perhaps not as many as you might think. Just like as with aeroplane accidents, we mainly note the few accidents and not the millions of successful flights. We humans love watching people do life-risking things. It is possible to imitate cliffside slugfests with CGI but everyone knows that they are not the same. Like the audiences in the Colosseum in Rome, we want the chance of real lions and real blood. However, despite the skills of most and the power of illusion, there is growing concern about the safety of stuntmen which, generally, is an unregulated field.
Many of those who have not died look as though they should have done - they’ve got tossed off the sides of cliffs or tall buildings, have had fights with trained assassins on the roofs of moving trains or have lost gushes of blood from bullet wounds. And then they have gone home for dinner.
Cliff or building fallers often are sometimes equipped with bungyjumping equipment, edited out once they have bounced back to safety while the police gather over a dead, bleeding dummy on the ground. Editing out some bungy ropes is probably pretty easy compared with, say, Marion Cotillard’s horrific underwater accident in Rust and Bone that left her with both legs amputated. Miraculously they had grown back by the time she walked the carpet at Cannes.
Trains don’t move while fights are filmed but the scenery behind them does, and large fans keep the stuntmen’s and the interchangeable actors’ hair and clothes moving. And they carry pouches of fake blood to match a gunshot, activated from a distance or by a small switch hidden in a sleeve.
In conversational scenes in stunt-free sets a director may reshoot a number of times to get the lighting, the camera angles and the look on an actor’s face all just right. In a scene where a car is going to crash, whip up into the air, roll forwards, crash again and burst into flame, ejecting a driver covered in flames, the set-up is far too elaborate, expensive and risky for more than one take, and so everything has to work perfectly, once. Sometimes days go into the planning and dry-run rehearsing. (Part of the job description for stunt-people probably requires the ability to wait patiently for many hours while staying awake and staying sober.)
To make a car somersault forwards it is fitted with a pole that shoots out at a downwards angle at the first impact and virtually trips the vehicle, causing it to spin in the air. The guy behind the wheel at this moment is likely to be a dummy but, seconds later, a real person has to jump out of the wreck, covered in flames. What we don’t see is the fire-engine just off set, and the hovering helmeted experts, hoses in hand, in case the fire-proof suit is flawed or the flammable gel in which his suit is covered suddenly starts behaving as though it is petrol.
And maybe there is a tea-lady there, ready to hand him a restorative cuppa when he has stripped off the asbestos.
Yes Tom Cruise actually did both those stunts on the left - as did Buster Keaton way back then.
There are lots of 'best of' websites out there. Here are three you might like to check out:
25 Best Movie Stunts of All Time - Popular Mechanics
Greatest Movie Stunts of All Time - Indie Wire