Stunt meisters practice safe ‘illusions’

It is perhaps a sign of the times that Ken Bates, who bungees 300 feet from a Chinook helicopter (doubling Sylvester Stallone) in Warner Bros.’ upcoming “Demolition Man” and plummeted off Yosemite’s El Capitan (as William Shatner) in Paramount’s “Star Trek V,” now refers to himself as a “film illusionist” rather than a stuntman.

Descenders, decelerators, accelerators and elaborate riggings that can now be erased from film by computer processing have made stunt work safer, but more expensive and elaborate.

Stuntwoman Donna Keegan, the Screen Actors Guild’s national stunts and safety chairwoman, notes, “The technical changes make for much better stunts, much more spectacular. I went off a 320-foot cliff in a high fall that I would never normally do, if there wasn’t a machine called the descender. I doubled Jamie Lee Curtis in ‘Mother’s Boys’ (a CBS feature). I just ride it.

“But the technology hasn’t changed the training, because you still have to have the skills and the body awareness. You still have to have the intestinal fortitude to be hung out 300 feet and look down and go, ‘Yeah, uh-huh, I’ll do this.’ ”

A case in point is Bates’ bungee jump. “Demolition Man” stunt coordinator Charles Picerni details, “Of course, it wasn’t a bungee. In the actual stunt we used a decelerator. You have a 95% fall with a decelerator and a 45% to 50% fall with a bungee. But then you have a recoil danger back into the helicopter blades.

“We’ve done the decelerator many times from a building where the unit is stationery, but it’s never been done before from a helicopter. You have problems with the variables of the altitude — the altimeter is not quite accurate.

“And we had to get an exact position for my man to jump out of the helicopter. He gets 10 feet from the ground, releases himself, and runs. It’s all in one shot” The guy that I used was Kenny Bates, and we work it out together. I coordinate it. And he does the fall.

In Columbia’s “The Last Action Hero” one of the more spectacular gags is when Arnold Schwarzenegger and two cops are literally blown off a porch as a house blows up. It was not a process shot. Joel Kramer was the stunt coordinator.

“I used what’s called an air ram. It’s an air propelling device that can literally launch somebody 16 to 20 feet in the air and out 20 feet. I had three of those set up on the porch, and Tommy Fisher then rigged the whole house with prima cord and gas bombs to blow up. I had two stunt guys doubling the cops and myself doubling Arnold.”

In contemporary westerns, cowboys still hit the hard ground. “In any kind of horse or bull work, there’s no way to fake it,” insists Mike McGaughy. He is stunt bull coordinator on New Line’s up-coming “Lane Frost,” the biopic of the world champion rodeo bull rider. “I had the best clowns in the ring to protect the bull riders.

“The clowns are bull fighters really. They’re world-class athletes in their own right. The clown suits are for the audience. But a rider hung up and broke his leg. When 2,000 pounds steps on you, something’s got to give. There’s no way to predict that. There’s another brain in there.”

Despite our space-age technology, certain dangers haven’t changed since that very first movie, “The Great Train Robbery.”

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