Guild finally honors action film, TV ensembles

As the Screen Actors Guild readies its first-ever awards to stuntpersons, some have found irony in recognizing a community at the exact moment when CGI advances seem destined to render that community irrelevant — or at best secondary — to creating thrilling action on film.

If you express such views to stunt performers, get ready to be brained by a (breakaway) chair and hoisted up on wires in front of a bluescreen. They’ll tell you nothing could be further from the truth. According to Jane Austin, president of the Stuntwomen’s Assn., “CGI has opened up a ton of work for us. We have more work than ever, and we’re able to do bigger and better things.” Stuntmen’s Assn. topliner Steve Kelso concurs. “It’s made our industry so much safer, and made for better movies.”

In every way, asserts stunt vet Conrad Palmisano (“Rush Hour 3″), “things are looking rosy.”

Increased exposure contributes to the community’s optimism, with Austin seen as the prime mover behind the SAG board’s decision to name Best Stunt Ensembles in features and TV. “We appreciate her efforts,” Palmisano says. “We take the backseat a lot, so it’s good to get a little acknowledgment.”

Since 2001, the annual Taurus World Stunt Awards have bestowed such kudos as “Best Fire Stunt” and “Best Work With a Vehicle,” but the profession still lacked a showcase for the world at large. And lobbying for a stuntwork Oscar has gotten little headway. As a SAG national board member, Austin was uniquely placed to carry the argument to her peers, and months of meetings and negotiations followed.

“There are so many huge blockbuster action films with big stars, but with a lot of stunt performers, too,” she reports. “I tried to get the point across that there were all these SAG members who’d never get recognition unless there was a category.”

The argument failed by one vote in 2006, but a return to the drawing board led to success this past spring. “We’re careful about adding more categories,” admits awards producer Kathy Connell, “but Jane really grabbed hold and spearheaded this.

“SAG created the acting award, and it seemed a natural fit to award the stunt team. Even if it’s one person falling off a building, there’s still a whole team behind him or her to see it’s done safely. This exemplifies what the union’s already about. It seemed to everyone that this award would be embraced by the industry.”

Outside the spotlight

Industry embrace is seen as crucial given the stunt performer’s unsung and anonymous status, partly due to standing in for the star. “Why do you think we’re always hiding our faces?” Austin asks wryly. Palmisano reports that when his peers tried to get into the Players Directory, SAG members told them, “‘Go to your own union.’ They didn’t even know there is no stuntpersons union. We’re all members of SAG.”

Kelso has seen a lot of change since he began riding a dirtbike at 14 in “The Thing With Two Heads” (1972) and he’s a believer in the new technology. “Married to great practical action, CGI is a fantastic tool. It gives you great new ways to move and hold people, move and hold cars and motorcycles, and come in after the fact and take it all back out.

“Someone’ll say, ‘How are you gonna get Will Ferrell to go 180 mph? We can’t tow him.’ And if you know what’s available you can go, ‘No; we’ll shoot some ‘plate shots’ at that speed, do some matte shots; he’s gonna sit in a car in front of a greenscreen and never drive at all.’ Process shots used to look very phony, and CGI has been great for those.”

Unquestionably, technology has the potential to bypass practical work. Of SAG Ensemble nominee “300,” Kelso says: “They didn’t put 1,000 people marching across the plain. They took 100 guys or whatever and multiplied them, and it looked really good. So sure, we’re losing a little work with some of the ND (nondescript, meaning ‘you’re one of a crowd’) soldier work, horse work or huge scenes of cars or crowds. But the stuff we’re gaining, getting stuff to look better and be safer, far outweighs that.”

Take nominee “The Bourne Ultimatum,” whose vehicle work Austin raves about as “the art of the chase, the ballet of it.” To film a high-speed impact between vehicles live, Palmisano explains, would require two stuntpersons: a double for Matt Damon and an ND player for the villain.

But with CGI, “first you have to create a stunt car hitting a car being towed, for the plate shot. Then onstage with the bluescreen, you’ve got a car parked with Damon’s double inside and a couple of stunt riggers to pull and jerk it on hydraulics, and then you can insert the plate shot.” In this way, a “gag” involving two stuntpersons live, could employ as many as five in the computer-assisted version.

The human element

Beyond the potential for increased employment, CGI means increased opportunities for audience thrills, though the community offers a caution. “When I watch something and my brain’s telling me, ‘That could never possibly happen,’ there’s a disconnect,” says Kelso. “As good as the work can be, CG can have vehicles or people doing things that make the right side of the brain say ‘no way that could be,’ and it takes me out of the thing.”

Palmisano agrees maintaining the human element is the key to audience excitement. “People react because they put themselves into the stunt,” he says. “If they know it’s CGI, a cartoon, it loses some of the magic. If they could digitally re-create John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, would it really be ‘Quiet Man II’? I don’t think so. It’d be a quieter man.”

This Sunday, the stunt ensemble honors will be announced on the red carpet and not during the televised show. If Austin wishes for more hoopla, she diplomatically insists, “I’m just delighted they opened the door for us.”

Will the future bring greater prominence for these categories, and maybe that long-coveted Oscar? Either way, the stunt community is patient. If any Hollywood group knows the importance of proceeding cautiously and planning for unforeseen eventualities, they do. For now, they’re happy to send the message that a great stunt is the work of a capable, professional team dedicated to 100% safety and 100% astonishment.

“There’s more to it than getting yourself lit on fire and jumping off a building,” Austin insists. “That’s the easy part.”

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