How to Become a Stunt Person
The Role of Stunt Persons
Stunt persons are the people who stand in for an actor or actress in a movie when the script calls for a scene that is fraught with physical danger.
Movies are all about living out our fantasies and, speaking for most of us, watching a great action film is usually sufficient to fulfill our need for living on the edge.
However, to push us to that edge, movies have to be as realistic as possible and that requires things like James Bond crashing into a bridge while clinging to a rope dangling from a blimp in flight, or Jason Bourne (in The Bourne Ultimatum) escaping his perusers by driving the car he has just stolen, off the top of a multi-story parking garage.
Unlike a book, where a good writer can create the scene in our minds, movies require that we actually see, or believe we see, the dangerous incident happening.
Professional Stunt persons serve two purposes in movies. First, the lead or star actor or actress in a movie are critical to the success or failure of a production. Lose any of the main characters and production comes to a halt causing the investors to lose everything they had invested. Producers attempt to limit losses by purchasing multi-million dollar insurance policies on the stars and others critical to the success of the production.
However, investors invest in movies to make a profit, not simply break even with a check from the insurance company while insurance companies, for their part, hate to lose money by paying out on a claim. As a result, not only do the insurance companies insist that the lead actors not be exposed to unnecessary danger but investors also have a strong interest in keeping the stars safe.
Second, even with simple, low risk stunts, such as fencing or sky diving, it is often faster and cheaper to hire a stunt double for this rather than investing the time and money in training the lead actor to do this well. The leads in films are hired for their well developed acting talents but that doesn't mean that they are equally talented in every skill the script requires.
Stuntmen in Action - The Chariot Race in 1959 Movie "Ben-Hur"
In the 1959 movie Ben Hur, Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd as his rival, the Roman General Messala settle a personal score in a chariot race.
Despite stories to the contrary, the stunt double for Boyd in the final scene of the race suffered no injuries, let alone death, when the chariot crashed.
In fact, despite the numerous violent crashes in the entire race sequence, there was only one injury and that was sustained by Heston's double, Joe Canutt, who earlier in the race was unexpectedly (it was NOT in the script) thrown over the front of the chariot. He saved himself by grabbing the center hitch and then pulling himself back into the chariot. The incident was included in the final film and Canutt suffered only a cut on his chin that required a mere 4 stitches.
Buster Keaton - Actor and Stuntman
In the video clip belownote falling wall scene which required Keaton to be at a specific spot at a specific time. A few seconds late or a few inches off his mark and he would have been crushed by the wall. In addition to doing all of his own stunts, Keaton also did stunts for many of his supporting cast.
Silent Film Star & Actor/Stuntman Buster Keaton
Neither Thrill Seekers nor Faint of Heart Need Apply
Strange as it may sound, stunt work is not a profession for thrill seekers and daredevils. Despite the obvious danger, and, yes this is a profession in which injury and death are ever present, the job of stunt person requires meticulous attention to detail and extreme caution.
A good example of the difference between reckless daredevils and skilled professionals are some of the early reality TV shows that had videos depicting people who had gotten themselves into a very dangerous situation through some stupid act and the rescue workers who managed to rescue them. The show always started after the person had gotten themselves into a perilous situation and help had been called. We then watched as rescue workers quickly and carefully studied every aspect the situation and devised a carefully thought out plan to reach the trapped victim and bring both the victim and rescuer back safely.
While there are some professional stunt person organizations, such as the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures and the United Stuntmen's Association there don't seem to be many schools or training courses designed to train Stunt persons. The United Stuntmens' Association primary focus seems to be the offering training through its International Stunt School, although the school's offerings appear to be mainly 3 week workshops designed to to introduce actors and others into the the stunt profession and for those in the profession to improve their skills. However, this and similar programs seem to assume that the people attending these training workshops already have extensive training in a related field.
Related fields being ones that require a high level of physical conditioning, considerable physical danger and demand extreme attention to detail and planning. Daredevils and thrill seekers need not apply and neither should the fainthearted. While thrill seekers and daredevils are interested only in the adrenalin rush but can't be bothered with detail, the faint of heart are prone to hesitation and, where split second timing is critical, this too can be fatal.
Douglas Fairbanks Sr. doing own stunts in 1920 silent film "The Mark of Zorro"
Getting into the Stunt Profession
The best way to prepare for a career in stunt work is to train and excel in an area that requires strong physical conditioning, has an element of physical danger and insists on meticulous attention to detail and planning.
Martial arts training, sky diving, scuba diving, outdoor rescue work, military special forces, test pilots, astronauts, etc. are all activities/professions which require extreme physical conditioning, involve danger, and stress close attention to detail and planning. Other areas like accounting, proof reading, commodity or currency trading, etc. also emphasize attention to detail and planning and, in the case of commodity and currency trading, involve risk taking (although usually emotional rather than physical risk) but lack the physical fitness and physical danger characteristics which are crucial parts of the equation.
Former Governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura - Navy SEAL to Stuntman to Governor
A good example of acquiring and combining the skills needed for success in this field is former Minnesota Governor Jesse The Body Ventura who moved from military special forces work to stunt work (in his case it was professional wrestling which is basically acting and stunt work combined) and then to politics.
Graduating from high school at the height of the Vietnam War (a period when young men had no choice but to either volunteer for military duty or be drafted), he joined the Navy and became part of the Navy's elite SEAL (acronym for the U.S. Navy's special forces unit in which the letters stand for SEa Air and Land) team.
In addition to the skills he acquired as a SEAL, Ventura also proved to be good at both showmanship and self promotion, characteristics also necessary for putting on a good show for the viewing audience. Wrestlers are in front of an audience for the entire performance and have to be both actors and Stunt persons,
Stunt persons in movies are usually visible to the audience for only a few seconds to a few minutes so acting skills are usually not as important as in wrestling. However, there have been actors who started as or worked as stuntmen early in their careers before transitioning to full actors.
Because of the danger and physical demands of stunt work, people in this profession should probably have a backup plan for an alternative career. Jesse Ventura used his SEAL skills to move into stunt work and acting as a wrestler and then used his networking and acting skills to move first into radio talk show work and then into politics where networking, speaking and showmanship skills are essential for success.
However, just as a degree in acting is no guarantee of a career in films, neither is a good technical background in skills required for stunt work usually sufficient to work in the field. Most people in the profession seem to have made it there by connecting up with someone in the profession, especially a stunt director or coordinator and training and working their way up under that person.
Good networking skills should probably be high on the list of skills needed to become a stunt person. One way to connect with people in the profession would be to get work on movie sets that use the services of Stunt persons.
Developing acting skills and using them to get bit parts in movies would be one way, while finding and applying for other on location support positions (camera crews, lighting, sound, set construction and take down, animal handlers, etc.) would be another way to meet the right people and gain exposure as a member of the movie community.
Good News and Bad News for Those Seeking a Career in Stunt Work
Like other professions, advancing technology is having an effect on the stunt profession as well. This is a bad news / good news situation.
The bad news is that the new digital imaging technology has the ability to film against a blue screen to isolate a person or object and then replicate the person or object many times over.
In the recent film The 300 (which is about the victory of the Spartan Army of 300 troops who defeated a massive Persian invasion force at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.) a team of 44 Stunt persons were repeatedly filmed in fighting stances and the pictures multiplied and inserted into the movie to create a Spartan army of 300 and Persian army of thousands.
This digital cloning was good for the movie's bottom line as the studio only had to write paychecks for 44 Stunt persons while giving the illusion of thousands of soldiers.
The good news is that, with thousands of cable TV channels, DVDs, the Internet and traditional cinema all trying to feed the growing appetite of a world wide audience for entertainment, the demand for good stunt people will continue to grow.
However, ones job search will have to extend beyond Hollywood to the world as this is now a global job market for movie professionals. While technology may serve to slow down the growth in demand for Stunt persons, it has also spawned a whole new series of related jobs which have not previously existed, thereby giving people more choices and opportunities to apply their talents in this industry in many related capacities other than simply as stunt persons.
Links for Further Reading
- Stunts Canada
Canadian Stunt organization. Check out their FAQ page for info on careers in the industry.
- Niki Cammaert - Stunt Woman
Trick Rider and Professional Stunt Woman Niki Cammaert performs at rodeos across North America including the National Finals Rodeo, the Canadian Finals Rodeo, Houston, Fort Worth, Denver and San Antonio.
- Professional Stunt Training Centre
- United Stuntmens Association - International Stunt School
The United Stuntmen's Association INTERNATIONAL STUNT SCHOOL is regarded by many in the industry as the most thorough and all-encompassing stunt training facility in North America, with a number of the participants now coming from the international c
- Stuntmen's Association Association of Motion Pictures.
Professional Stuntmen's Association. A good place to learn more about the profession.