– By Katherine Sanderson –
With the popularity of genres such as superhero and sci-fi fantasy, along with classic actions films, stunt work is a crucial element to Hollywood blockbusters. A stunt performer/ stunt artist (stuntman or stuntwoman) is a trained professional who performs stunts, often as a career. Many big stars have specific stunt artists who resemble themselves, who are their stunt doubles.
But nowadays, stunt artists must also be versed in motion-capture technology, in addition to being paid daredevils. Which begs the question: Are practical stunts are on their way out, and is motion-capture the way of the future? Or do films like Mission Impossible: Fallout make the argument that practical real-life stunt work still has great value to both the filmmaker and to their audiences?
Practical Stunts + Mission: Impossible – Fallout
The Mission: Impossible franchise is synonymous with stunts. Mission: Impossible – Fallout marks the sixth of the franchise, and has been praised by reviewers already, being compared to Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight in terms of quality. But the film also truly outdoes any of its predecessors in terms of practical stunts. And what are ‘practical stunts’? Any stunts performed without the assistance of CGI visual effects.
Tom Cruise has become famous for this, as he performs all of his stunts himself, without even the help of a stunt double. Director Doug Liman, who worked with Cruise on American Made (and previously directed Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith), commented on Tom’s preference to do all his own stunts, saying in Digital Spy “This is not one of those things where you’re indulging him because he wants to do his own stunts. He’s better at it than your traditional stunt person because he really understands how a stunt will work with the camera.” And his work pays off, as his star vehicle, the Mission: Impossible franchise, is the 20th highest grossing film series of all time with a worldwide gross of $2.7 billion.
In Cruise’s latest film, his six stunts include: a long-line helicopter jump, flying a plane himself in 360 degree downward spiral, a motorcycle chase, a rooftop jump, and a HALO jump (making him the first actor to do a HALO jump ever). Watch a featurette covering the making of all these stunts in the video below.
Edgar Wright (director of Baby Driver, writer of Ant-Man) took to twitter last week to praise the recent efforts of Mission: Impossible team to avoid the now-common practice of using CGI and green screens to create action sequences. In his post, Wright wrote “As many film franchises blur into a big bland CGI soup, it’s thrilling to see one still putting an insane effort into thrilling practical stunts and incredible location work. So please be upstanding for ‘Mission Impossible: Fallout,’ truly making summer movies exciting again.”
As many film franchises blur into a big bland CGI soup, it’s thrilling to see one still putting an insane effort into thrilling practical stunts & incredible location work. So please be upstanding for ‘Mission Impossible: Fallout’, truly making summer movies exciting again.
— edgarwright (@edgarwright) July 20, 2018
Christopher Nolan is also known for utilizing stunt artists in his films. In regards to the opening scene of his 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises, he used actual aerial stuntmen to jump onto a actual plane. Nolan said of this scene “It was sort of an incredible coming together of lots and lots of planning by a lot of members of the team who worked for months rehearsing all these parachute jumps…I was amazed at what the team achieved using various old-fashioned methods…I was very proud of how that came together.” As far as how this played with audiences, The Dark Knight Rises alone brought in more that $1 billion dollars worldwide, so it seems the risk paid off. (Watch the stunt in the opening scene below:)
Motion-Capture Stunts + Marvel
On the other hand, there is Marvel… who loves their motion-capture stunts. Like much of Hollywood, they jumped on the bandwagon once motion-capture technology became feasible. Motion capture refers to the recording of actions of human actors, and using that information to animate digital character models in 2D or 3D computer animation. A big reason for that Marvel loves ‘mo-cap’ is that the world in which their films are made usually require CG backgrounds, so with green screens already present for much of the filming, It is also a safer choice for high-profile actors doing their own stunts, as more safety equipment can be used because it can easily be edited out, and also makes stunt performers less of a liability. It is for these reasons why motion-capture has quickly become a separate business for many stunt professionals, just over the last decade.
But it isn’t enough to just use motion-capture. In recent films, motion-capture for action sequences was used in collaboration with animation for facial movements, to create fully-CG characters.
In the latest Marvel film Avengers: Infinity War, Josh Brolin’s performance as villain Thanos was filmed using entirely motion-capture. Even Spider-Man actor Tom Holland, who is a trained gymnast and usually performs his own stunts utilized motion-capture for Infinity War given the amount of green screen used. You can see how much motion-capture, as well as blue and green screen, were used in Avengers: Infinity War in the clip below.
Dangers for Stunt Artists
For the risks they take, stunts often are considered a thankless profession, as naive audience members will credit their work to the film stars which they stand in for, or just take their background work for granted. Although practical stunts may look better on screens, events in the last few years have made people question whether they are the safest option. In 2017, two different stuntmen died on the job while working on feature films or television series (which were the first on-set deaths for the stunt community since 2002). In July, John Bernecker died on the set of The Walking Dead when he fell 20 feet, but missed his safety net by a few inches. In August, Joi Harris died in a motorcycle accident on the set of Deadpool 2. Even Tom Cruise broke his leg while performing the rooftop jump in Mission: Impossible: Fallout.
Animatronic Stunt Performers + Disney Theme Parks
As feature films continue to push the limits in terms of actions and visual effects, their corresponding theme park rides need to match the level of action. With properties like Marvel and Star Wars, Disney is especially conscious of this. That is why Disney Imagineers have engineered a new technology called ‘Stuntronics’. A month ago, they revealed their new technology via video clip, which shows their “autonomous, self-correcting aerial performers that make on-the-go corrections to nail high-flying stunts every time.”
We are left to wonder whether these stunt ‘droids’ may someday be used in place of real-life stunt artists on film sets, or if they will just be confined to theme parks? It seems that their use may be best used in theme park rides and in live shows, where audiences are in the venue, and would be able to see safety rigs or strings. But could these animatronics be the future of film and television stunts?
Looking at the current landscape, it seems that both practical stunts and motion capture stunts have their place in modern filmmaking, dependent on budget and needs of a production. And with the new technology Disney has developed, someday we may very well see these animatronics on film and tv sets someday in the future. Mission Impossible: Fallout had the best opening weekend of any film in the franchise, with $61.5 million at the box office this past weekend, so it seems practical stunts still draw a crowd. But with Marvel’s box office success this year with Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp, with the films bringing in over $3.5 billion worldwide, it seems audiences are just as likely to accept digitally-enhanced stunts.
About the Author
Katherine Sanderson currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. Originally from Colorado, she graduated with a BA in English from Santa Clara University in 2014, and is an alumna of the JPCatholic MBA program (Class of 2016). Her professional aspirations are in children/family entertainment, especially animation.
For more articles by Katherine, click here.