If anyone says that they don’t like action sequences in movies or TV, then they are lying. There is no way that someone couldn’t be in awe of a person running at superhuman speed or Tokyo drifting. One of the many perks of filmmaking is the ability to recreate or reinvent some of the best action shots in TV and film.
A great place to start is by learning the most common stunt tricks used in Hollywood. Although they are common, they are reliable, easy, and sometimes practical for your shot. Many of these stunt tricks are performed with the intent to tell a dynamic story or to keep the pacing of the story without having to worry about the safety of your crew.
It’s a simple switch that we’ve seen (or haven’t seen) over and over again in film.
During the action, the actor and the double switch places behind an object to make it look as if the actor was the one doing the stunt. To make the switch look believable, the stunt crew, camera crew, and director need to work closely together to disguise where the actor is hiding.
A great example of an easy Texas switch would be when Buddy (Will Ferrell) walks out of the frame and then jumps onto the Christmas tree in Elf.The stunt double takes Ferrell’s place when he walks out of frame.
Hiding the actor behind objects like a large rock or a pillar in a parking garage are also two practical and natural ways to hide the switch. This stunt has also become a comedic staple for action comedies like The Naked Gun: from the Files of Police Squad! There are so many ways to play with the Texas switch to make it fit your film.
The Texas SwitchCredit: Insider
In films where the characters are flying, a tuning fork is used to control and safely suspend the actors or stunt doubles in the air. Two prongs are attached to both sides of the performer’s body. The rig is then controlled by a steering wheel that is driven by stunt people in blue or green suits. The steering wheel allows for 360 degree turns to make it look as if the character was flying.
You can see the tuning fork at work in films like the live-action Mulanwhen Mulan (Liu Yifel) performs full spins in the air during her fight scenes. The tuning fork isn’t a complete replacement for wires. The tuning fork can help direct where the legs should go while the wires lift the performer. This allows for the performer to move their upper bodies and make flying look as natural as walking.
The tuning forkCredit: Insider
Ratchet Pull and Dead Man
To achieve the violent motion of a performer being pushed 20 feet into a wall, many stunt coordinators use a ratchet pull.
During a ratchet pull, a double is tied to cables that are powered by an air pressured cylinder. These cables can move forward or backward and, depending on how much air pressure is in the cylinder, can launch the performer as far as they need to go.
In The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Monique Ganderton was launched 20 feet forward after a CG wolf attacked her.
When a simpler option is needed, a dead man is the stunt trick to use. Instead of tying a performer to a complex rigging system off-camera, the performer is hooked up by a wire to a stationary object in the frame. When the performer fully commits, they run, jump, and hit the end of the line. The dead man is also used to pull a performer off a horse. The effect is an effective and violent-looking stunt as the performer’s body is whipped to the ground.
The ratchet pullCredit: Insider
Have you ever broken your hand on glass? The little shards are so sharp that they cut up your hand pretty badly.
To create a safe and not-so-bloody scene that involves two performers breaking through a window, many stunt crews will use tempered glass hooked up with pressure plates. When the tempered glass breaks, the shards are tiny and harmless. To break the glass, pressure plates are connected to the corners of the glass and a timer goes off right when the performers are directed to hit the glass.
Stunt coordinators have been updating this trick as well. The computerized pressure plates can be set up an ⅛ of an inch away from the glass, so the glass will crack when the body hits it. It’s a great way to not rely solely on perfect timing.
Exploding glassCredit: Insider
Camera Lock off
Some stunts are just too dangerous to do without someone getting hurt. To prevent injury, two actions are shot separately by the same camera that has been locked into place. Then the two shots are stitched together using visual effects.
In Atomic Blonde, James Gascoigne (Sam Hargrave) looked as if he was hit by a car; instead, he was pulled into a van by a ratchet pull to make it look as if he was hit by a car and another shot of a car driving up Hargave’s mark was stitched to the previous shot.
Camera lock offCredit: Insider
A great practical effect to make a character look as if they are running at a superhuman speed is the magic carpet. A magic carpet is a large tarp attached to a vehicle. The performer then runs on the smooth surface to make it look as if they are running at 30 mph.
The downside to a magic carpet is that it only works on flat surfaces like asphalt. If working on rougher terrain, actors and doubles are attached to a weight wire system attached to a winch. This can physically lift and propel the double. This is how Black Panther (Chadwich Boseman) and Captain America (Chris Evans) can run at superhuman speeds during the fight of Wakanda in Avengers: Infinity War.
Magic carpetCredit: Insider
Biscuit Rigs or Car Rigs
Most car stunts need trained professionals to perform those stunts, but what do you do if you want to make it look as if the actor is the one driving?
A dynamic way to capture car chases is by using a biscuit rig. It’s a vehicle that you can put other vehicles on. While the actors appear to be driving, the stunt driver is in a pod just out of frame. These rigs allow for more dynamic camera angles that capture up-close shots of the actors driving. A recent example of a biscuit rig is A Quiet Place: Part II. In the opening scene, Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) drives backward as an out-of-control bus drives towards her and her family. Blunt is not driving in the shot, but a stunt man in a pod above the car is in full control of the car’s movements.
Biscuit or car rigCredit: Insider
Full Fire Burn
CGI can be used to create big, safe fires, but fire is one of the hardest elements to make look real with visual effects. Another option is to set a stunt person on fire. To do this without causing harm, the stunt person wears three layers of fireproof suits, then is soaked in a flame-retardant gel known as zel jel. Three more layers are added on—a rain suit, a fire suit, and a cotton suit—and drenched with even more zel jel.
A stunt person cannot be engulfed in flames for more than 15 seconds, so timing is everything. For large sets like Game of Thrones, multiple performers were set on fire at once. Making sure that all of these performers are safe and extinguished before the 15 seconds are finished is a challenge in itself. Another big challenge that comes from the performers who are set ablaze is that they must hold their breath so they don’t breathe in any of the fire.
We definitely wouldn't recommend working with any of these more dangerous stunts on an indie production unless you have emergency personnel and trained stunt performers on set (and good insurance).
What stunts are you excited to try for your next project? Let us know in the comments below!