EVERY MEMBER OF AN ACTION MOVIE CREW shares the same ultimate goal: the collective gasp of astonishment and awe from the audience in a packed movie theater. From stunt doubles to set medics, storyboard artists to cinematographers, these highly trained experts from a dizzying array of specialties join forces in an intense, coordinated – and often insanely risky – collaboration dedicated to making the most thrilling, stunning, gasp-inducing movie magic possible.
It’s a notoriously dangerous business.
While the technology has changed dramatically over the years, the “go for it” mentality behind blockbuster action movies has remained the same. The iconic chariot race scene in the 1959 movie Ben Hur involved years of planning, months of shooting, hundreds of storyboards, thousands of extras and millions of dollars. Legendary stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt coordinated the stunt teams and trained the drivers, including the movie’s star, Charlton Heston. The actor drove his own team of stallions at breakneck speed inside a monumental arena that had taken a thousand workers a year to build.
The chariot race, an incredibly complex scene to shoot, required film crews to stay just a few feet ahead of the rampaging horses. Disaster was barely averted when the first camera car proved unequal to the task; shooting was halted until a car with considerably more horsepower could be outfitted for the perilous work.
Nor were the stationary camera crews on this epic movie exempt from danger. During filming, a chariot careened off course around a curve, taking out two cameras in the process.
Another scene involved a chariot flipping over a wreck in its path. The stunt driver, Canutt’s own son, didn’t hear his father yelling “Too fast! Too fast!” as he sailed over the wreckage – and then out of his chariot and into the path of the horses. Amazingly, Joe Canutt suffered only a cut on his chin – and his wild stunt went down in movie history.
Still crazy after all these years.
More than 55 years later, the “heirs apparent” to Ben Hur’s epic movie-making achievement took to the screen in Mad Max: Fury Road. Director George Miller was determined to maintain the authenticity and integrity of the action sequences by using real live “practical effects” – with minimal use of computer generated imagery (CGI). He assembled a crew of daredevils and “old-school” action aficionados; the ensuing mayhem in the Namibian desert consisted of real explosions, real crashes, real feats of physical prowess – and real danger.
The movie, many years in the planning, was fully “imagined” in nearly 1,500 painstakingly detailed storyboards. Miller then asked his special effects and production teams to brainstorm how to make those storyboards come alive.
From building the fantastically apocalyptic vehicles that drive much of the action, to coordinating the explosively disruptive pyrotechnics, Miller’s teams rose to the challenge. Guy Norris, the movie’s supervising stunt coordinator, oversaw a stunt crew that logged an astonishing 15,000 person-days over the course of the shoot. Inspired by Cirque du Soleil, he found gymnasts capable of balancing on top of flexible 25-foot poles careening at full speed next to a tanker truck covered in spikes. He choreographed groups of trick motorcycle riders as they threw bombs in mid-air – while weaving in and out of each other’s paths. And he supervised the high-endurance stunt riggers, whose work was crucial to the safety of the entire crew.
New technology. Same dedication.
In the years since the filming of Ben Hur, new technologies have changed some aspects of the game. With sophisticated communication devices and audio cues, it’s unlikely that Joe Canutt today would miss his father’s warnings about his out-of-control chariot. New rigs allow actors to perform stunts that would have been impossible just a decade ago. Digital editing tools make it easy to erase all evidence of safety harnesses and wires once the dust has settled.
But it remains true even in this era of increasingly sophisticated CGI that many of the most memorable action movie sequences involve real people performing real death-defying feats.
And it’s not just the actors and stunt crew who put it all on the line. It’s the camera operators in the thick of the action. It’s the riggers who clamber over precarious equipment checking and double-checking safety harnesses. It’s the explosives experts who handle massive charges calibrated to generate earth-shattering blasts on demand. They – and the many other behind-the-scenes support teams who do whatever it takes to set the stage, get the shot and save the day – have collaborated in astounding ways to bring us countless unforgettable moments of astonishment and awe.
At Legistics, collaboration is at the core of what we do. Find out more about how our support teams can collaborate with you to make great things happen.