Friday, August 24, 2007

Movie Production Part 7 Stunts & Pyrotechnics

"It can't be dangerous, otherwise they would have filmed more of the movie." - HARRISON FORD (actor, on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark)

Harrison Ford, the actor who portrays Indiana Jones, jokingly says the above quote just before getting ready for a stunt for the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. He is needed only for a few brief close-ups during a scene where Indiana Jones climbs under the front of a moving truck, traveling along the underside and then climbing up the back of the truck. The majority of the stunt work for that shot was not done by Harrison Ford himself. The stunt is far too dangerous for him. Instead, he films only the close-ups where the camera catches a good view of his face.

The other shots are done with a stunt double. A stunt double is a professional stunt man who also has a similar physical appearance to the actor he/she is doubling for. If Harrison Ford actually performed the stunt and was injured, it could have put the entire film project in jeopardy. If any number of things went wrong, he could have been crippled or even died.

Stunt work is a dirty job. A stunt double is hired under the knowledge that he might get seriously hurt. But some people live for that danger. Modern technology has made stunt work safer for the stuntman and more believable to the viewer.

Stuntman jumping off a building.
Photo Courtesy of VCV Stunts. Used by Permission.

Even more dangerous is pyrotechnics. Pyrotechnics refers to any film effect that requires fireworks or explosions. Pyrotechnic work is the most dangerous type of film effect and therefore is closely regulated by the government. An individual who wishes to work in the field must obtain a special pyrotechnic license.

Pyrotechnic work may be dangerous, but it is also interesting. Pyrotechnic artists are responsible for many film effects such as bullets hitting walls, buildings or vehicles exploding, fires, and more. A pyrotechnic artist has a huge arsenol of tools to work with to achieve the director's vision of some film effect. For example, for bullets hitting and affecting a car's side, small holes are drilled into the car side where the bullets are to hit. A small exploding device called a squib, which is electronically detonated, is placed into the hole. Clay, colored to match the car's color, is filled over the squib and hole. On cue, a pyrotechnic official can detonate each squib individually to simulate bullets hitting a car door, one at a time.

(Squib detonator device)
Squib detonator device.
Photo Courtesy of Pyromate.

To create large firey explosions, such as a house exploding into shreds, pyrotechnic artists turn to mortars, prima chord and other goodies. A mortar is like a canon. It holds explosive substances, firing them out and exploding them on cue. For an exploding house, they are usually placed inside the house behind the windows so when the house explodes, fire bursts out of the windows exploding shards of glass outward.

Prima chord is like a long explosive string. When detonated, anything it is touching gets ripped apart. The explosion travels through the prima chord at several times faster than the speed of sound, creating an instant explosion. In an exploding house, prima chord is taped to the walls so that the house will break into small pieces upon explosion. Put mortars and prima chord together and the results are a massively and frighteningly realistic explosion.

A stunt man's worst nightmare is when stunts and pyrotechnics are combined. Such effects include the stunt men being close to an explosion. If the script calls for a character to be next to a car when it explodes, the filmmakers will do just that. The stunt man would be specially suited up with protective clothing and a flame retardant gel smeared over his skin. But say the director wants that character to catch on fire. Flammable clothing is placed on top of the protective clothing. And if someone were really standing next to an exploding car, that person would be thrown by the force. So to make it more realistic, the director might call for rigging and wire work on the actor so that at the moment of detonation, the actor is flung into the air and backwards.

Between the noise and brightness of the explosion, the catching on fire, and being whirled violently through the air, one can easily see how stunt work can become quite a dangerous line of work.


Yoga Gal said...

Ah, the unsung heros and heroines of the film world the stunt people! Often in my ashtanga class I get stunt women and men due the that style of yoga develops great muscle tone. I been asked if I ever considered being a stunt woman for I very small and strong but say; "No way!" It's just too dangerous!

Paper Fan Club said...

I think stunt workers are really some unsung heroes of the industry. Where would Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer be without people willing to step in and do borderline crazy things in place of their big "stars."

Monday Morning Power said...

The stunt men and women are the ones that really make the action movies fun. They are the real heroes.