Themed Playlist: Seeing Stuntwork
In this list, Lauren Steimer takes us behind the scenes of stunts– which carry with them all the illusion produced through physical prowess, cinematographic and editing skills, and promotional materials– to see the work, the stunts, and the actual players.
It would be very easy to create a playlist of films, television shows, and video games with excellent stuntwork or one for media stuntwork of great historical import. However, it is very difficult for most people to see stuntwork because we have been indoctrinated by media publicity engines to focus on the more well-known actors’ faces. This problem is compounded by the fact that we are continually lied to by actors who claim to “do their own stunts,” a claim that is either outright fabrication or pitiful self-delusion on the actor’s part. Even now, there is someone reading this and questioning that last sentence. We want it to be true that they do their own stunts. The “behind-the-scenes” featurettes accompanying the movies we watch even prove it to us, right? Who is this Steimer lady anyway to make such a claim? How dare she suggest that [fill in the blank] actor does not do his/her own stunts. For a number of years, I have been doing ethnographic research on stunt industry professionals working in a variety of national and transnational media contexts. No matter the location, two conditions of their labor are constant: 1) the actors for whom they double may take credit for the stunt professional’s work and 2) the stuntworkers are not allowed to talk about it publicly if they want to keep working.
So, if we want to see stuntworkers, our first of two tasks is to stop looking for famous actors and to shift our focus to the work of stunt production. The second task we need to master to see stuntwork is to shift focus from the entire film/show/game as object of analysis to a more careful consideration of the instance, the gesture, and the sequence of movement. This transition should be a natural step forward for the progressive media scholar because we have learned to pay much closer attention to the precarious labor of below-the-line media laborers and to recognize films as complex and contradictory staging grounds for communal work within the confines of industry power structures, and not self-contained monoliths of meaning-making.
In order to learn to see stuntwork and stuntworkers, we have to look to their work products (such as personal on set recordings of stuntwork in-progress and “previz” choreography videos), documentaries on their working conditions, their self-marketing materials (stunt reels), and comparative visualizations of their contributions to the finished product.
Behind the Scenes on ER Season Finale – DROPOUT!
Stunt sequences take years of training, weeks to craft, and may appear for only seconds on screen. In a 2005 episode from the medical drama ER titled “The Show Must Go On,” a building collapses during a holiday party and the injured are rushed to the medical attention of the capable Emergency Room doctors of Country General Hospital. The building collapse transpires on screen in the episode in seconds, though it took extensive planning to execute. This video is provided by one of the stuntworkers, Chrissy Weathersby Ball (who can be seen at 0:54). She and the other stuntworkers were placed in rigged harnesses with bungie systems that were activated when the floor dropped out below them. Stuntwork occurs in the instant and our recognition of that labor necessitates that we alter our viewing practices.
BUFFY-THE WISH-fight scene home movies of Buffy Stunt Coordinator Jeff Pruitt
This second video is part of a larger collection that I hope you investigate on your own. Jeff Pruitt was the stunt coordinator for the first four seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He recorded what he calls “home movies” of the stuntwork and fight choreography for the series. If you search Pruitt’s videos for “Buffy home movie,” you can craft you own playlist of action delights. One of the more frustrating aspects of these videos is the number of fans who, in their comments, request more videos with Sarah Michelle Gellar. Instead of recognizing the talent of the team of stunt professional ‘vampires,’ the martial arts skills of Buffy stunt double Sophia Crawford, and the rare access that Pruitt provides to the action production process, some commenters just want to see the star, whom they incorrectly assume does her own stunts.
The Matrix – Previz Fight
The next installment in this playlist is a collection of previsualizations or “previz” videos from The Matrix (Wachowski siblings 1999). If you have seen the films, the choreography, camera placement, and editing of these clips should be very familiar to you. It was not customary for action coordinators working in Hollywood to design production templates with this level of detail because they seldom had control over camera placement or the editing process. In Hong Kong, action designer Yuen Woo Ping would have been regarded as an authority on set and encouraged to share his input with a film’s director and second unit team. These previz arrangements have since become commonplace elements of action design for stunt teams working in transnational media industries.
Power Rangers Pink and Yellow Ranger Previz
Here, action designer Aaron Toney shares his previz work for the martial arts-heavy Power Rangers film, which he co-coordinated. While many viewers might discount this film as being unworthy of any sustained academic analysis, that could not be farther from the truth in terms of the transnational histories of media labor linked to its production and the film’s complex Hong Kong-influenced fight arrangements.
Daredevil Season 2 Episode 3 – Hallway/Stairwell fight scene – PreViz
Two techniques that have dominated contemporary action design set pieces are fights staged in hallways and the use of the long take to emphasize a higher number of “fight beats” (coordinated hits and misses). These sequences tend to conclude with images of the lead character in a moment of complete exhaustion. This video gives you a chance to examine the similarity of the polished end product to the previz created by the stunt team. I hope that watching these scenes side-by-side encourages you to consider the skill and effort of the stunt performers over the narrative impulse toward awe that such superhero sequences are designed to provoke.
Renae Moneymaker Stunt Reel 2020
Prior to the advent of the previz, stunt industry professionals marketed their work based on both word of mouth and a video collection of their previous film and TV performances called a “stunt reel.” I have selected Renae Moneymaker’s stunt reel for your perusal because she (and her sister Heidi Moneymaker) are two of the most highly-regarded and regularly-employed members of the Hollywood stunt community. They are also members of the most well-known stunt collective in Hollywood, 87Eleven. Renae Moneymaker was a college gymnast and regularly doubles Jennifer Lawrence and, more recently, Margot Robbie.
The film stunt that went wrong! – Olivia Jackson
People are naturally curious about dangers of stuntwork. I have intentionally chosen not to include videos of “stunts gone wrong” because I don’t want to play into the tendency to sensationalize the traumas suffered by members of the stunt community. At the same time, I want you to know their stories and witness their pain. When stunt professionals are badly injured or killed on set, the international stunt community comes together as a “stunt family” to raise funds and offer support. The studios and media makers involved in major incidents often hide behind insurance companies and try to deny liability by blaming the stuntworker for their own injuries. One of the worst modern examples of such a case is that of stuntwoman Olivia Jackson, who was horribly injured on the set of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Paul W.S. Anderson 2016) while performing a motorcycle stunt, doubling the lead actor. This video allows Jackson to tell her story and have her voice heard.
Stuntworkers are hypervisible as spectacle but too often invisible as laborers. I hope this playlist has helped to redirect your attention to their work. Please feel encouraged to look up the work of Chrissy Weathersby Ball, Jeff Pruitt, Sophia Crawford, Yuen Woo Ping, Aaron Toney, Renae Moneymaker, Heidi Moneymaker, 87Eleven, and to follow the case of Olivia Jackson. Stuntworkers deserve our attention and have been trying to get the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts to recognize their work with awards. We all need to follow their lead and #StandUpForStunts
Lauren Steimer is an Associate Professor of Film & Media Studies and Media Arts at the University of South Carolina. Her book, Experts in Action: Transnational Hong Kong-style Stunt Work and Performance, will be published in February 2021 by Duke University Press.